Using Art to Start a Conversation on Gun Violence

While studying at PAFA, artist Melissa Joseph (MFA '18) has focused her work on violence and the difficult task of healing.

“I’ve tried different ways of approaching the issue of promoting productive dialogues around some of the things that are facing us, whether it’s gun violence specifically or the infrastructures that are promoting violence,” said the second year MFA student.


She was introduced to stone carving at PAFA and has made memorials out of stone and cement honoring victims of gun violence in Philadelphia. She says the weight of the objects stand as a testament to the dead.

Joseph’s work also includes icon paintings based on a traditional Byzantine style and her recent project, Expunge, which was on view in the Broad Street Studio.

The project was inspired by family experiences and what Joseph was seeing in the news and the world around her.

“My sister-in-law is a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital and she was telling me that the number one thing she cuts off of gunshot victims are white tee shirts,” she said. “I thought about how many gunshot victims my sister-in-law treats every day and I started looking into statistics around Philadelphia.”

Philadelphia reports an average of 320 shooting deaths each year, down from the number of deaths five to ten years ago, but still a number that affected Joseph.

After visiting gun ranges and collecting targets and shell casings, Joseph screen-printed targets on 320 white tee shirts to symbolize each of the victims.

Her initial idea for the project was to give the shirts away in the community to foster conversations about gun violence. But a visiting critic in class, Sondra Perry, changed her direction.

She said, "'Maybe you need to rethink that because the last thing Philadelphia needs is more black and brown bodies wearing gunshots.’ I didn’t even think about it that way but it’s 100 percent true.”

She reframed her project and invited the public to wash the screen-printed shirts, share their experiences and have a conversation.

“I thought about how we could do a symbolic washing/cleansing,” Joseph said. “It’s a way of thinking about healing, a way of moving on and meditating on the lives of the people that we’re losing because each one of these (shirts) symbolizes a person.”

For three days, Joseph invited anyone to join her in PAFA’s Broad Street Studio to wash and talk. A simple idea, but she knew the gravity of what she was asking.

“Somebody came up to me and said they lost a nephew last year and they were going to share the invitation with the mother of the nephew but they didn’t know if it would be too difficult,” she said.

Joseph wants to create a safe space for people to discuss topics that might make them uncomfortable She’s already seen some of the open dialogue that can come from talking about a project like Expunge.

“I was telling an Uber driver about the project and he pulled his hood down and showed me a big scar on his head. He said, ‘I’ve been shot five times and I’m glad you’re doing this project. I would love to come and participate but one thing I wish you could bring attention to is that survivors are given very little support. They are often blamed like it’s their fault that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.’”

Looking ahead, Joseph hopes to share the work of survivors like the Uber driver she met. She is planning a show with her sister-in-law of gunshot survivors’ artwork. She‘d like to expand the exhibition into a rotating show highlighting the work of survivors of other afflictions to highlight the different life experiences.

“I do feel it’s my vocation to provide a safe space for people to talk about these things.”

—LeAnne Matlach (