BUFFALO, N.Y. — Childhood has unfortunately become a blood-stained concept in America, as gun violence has forced active shooter drills and war-like survival tactics into educational settings. This difficult, yet evergreen, topic is one that Buffalo artist and teacher Rich Tomasello tackles in his exhibit, "Run. Hide. Fight," in which he explores the effects of gun culture on children.
“A kid should be a kid, grow up, have fun, play with toys, hold onto that innocence as long as you can because we all know, as you get older, the innocence gets beaten out of you,” Tomasello said. “Life’s hard enough as it is, and it shouldn’t be hard for a kid.”
Rich brings contrasting themes together, creating a dystopia where childlike objects are merged with weapons, spikes and all-seeing cameras. Many of the objects tower over the viewer: an anthropomorphic tripod, a firearm on a pedestal and a big wheel with handles out of reach. Everything is magnified for a reason.
“The larger these pieces get, to me, they become more oppressive and also, at the same time, more iconic and really more alive,” he said. “This is ... the video camera’s six feet tall, the gas mask is six or seven feet tall, so you’re taking something recognizable and just something as simple and as basic as manipulating the scale, I think gives it a real power and it makes the video camera, to me, become more terrifying.”
As both an educator and a father, Rich has witnessed the shift in school safety trainings turn from standard safety procedures, like knowing what chemicals are in the classroom and handling blood-borne pathogens, to preparing for much darker scenarios.
“Now the training is, 'how do you use a tourniquet?' ” he said. “How do you stuff a gunshot wound with gauze? Are you going to run, are you going to hide, or are you going to fight if there’s an active shooter in your building, school, public space, office, classroom, et cetera; and that bothers me.”
Fueled by passion as opposed to politics, Rich uses his talents to show the theoretical and actual dangers that lie in the world outside. While 2021 is on course for becoming the deadliest year for gun violence in the last two decades, this isn’t a new theme the artist is exploring in his work, as this isn’t a new problem within the nation.
“I was making art like this for years now, not because of what’s happening now,” Tomasello said. “And it just not getting any better and that’s really disheartening. I think that’s just … it’s as sad as it gets. You’re taking a human life in an instant so easily with a lot of guns that don’t need to be out there.”
While the plaster and foam pieces are carefully crafted to a chilling perfection, aesthetic isn’t the takeaway; conversation is. Rich hopes viewers of his work, especially children, understand how art can be used as a catalyst for change.
“There’s nothing wrong with something being beautiful for the sake of beauty, but maybe that’s not what I’m drawn to personally, as a person who appreciates art,” he said. “I like when there’s a message there, or something really personal or universal that people can wrap their heads around; that’s a good thing.”