While aimlessly scrolling on Facebook, I came across a news story about an art center named Sculpture Space in Utica, New York, that was completely vandalized by children ranging in age from 8-11 on Saturday, August 27, 2022. I couldn’t—and still can’t—fully wrap my mind around the blending of these three words. Children. Vandalized. Art.
There are many reasons why this story captured my attention. As an educator, I’m interested in what is happening in the minds of young people; I’ve devoted most of my career to exploring issues of violence and trauma in relationships; and I was raised by an artist mother and have been spending the past 23 months since her death gingerly handling thousands of works of art that she did, carefully organizing and storing it and thoughtfully sharing and selling it.
When I was a little girl, my mother gave me a separate space and my own easel in the basement studio of our house so I could make art alongside her. The agreement was that we would create, with music blasting in the background, but that we wouldn’t talk much, if at all, and we would never, ever touch each other’s things. Swirling in the room was a powerful combination of solitude and connection. Imbued in those moments were early instructions about boundaries, privacy, respect, silence, spaces, and what was involved and what was at stake in forging a creative life.
Sculpture is precisely about that which is multidimensional and its relationship in space. Sculpture is about building something. Here were these children on a rampage, viciously tearing down everything in a physical space that didn’t belong to them and to which they had no right to access. I keep thinking about how they inhabited space that night.
I’m transported back to when I was 8 years old and my parents took me with them to the south of France, where we visited the Giacometti Courtyard at the Maeght Foundation. I can still remember my mother weeping. I had no idea what could possibly be wrong and was very worried. After she composed herself, she explained to me that she was overcome by the magnitude of the sheer beauty in our midst. That was my first lesson in understanding that art is worth crying over.
And here I am today crying for the sculptors in Utica whose creative home was destroyed.
Raised in an upper-middle-class suburb of Cleveland, I very likely grew up with more class privilege—and more social and cultural capital—than the children who committed what feels like art murder to me. I can imagine being raised with far fewer resources, yet given the priority that my parents placed in the arts, I am certain that destroying art would not have been able to inhabit my consciousness. We live in a cultural moment in which the arts have been under attack and under-resourced. As a professor, I see this with the denigration of the liberal arts on college campuses. When the visual and cultural arts are regarded as highfalutin luxuries rather than necessities of a civilization, these are the horrors that ensue.
The arts are what make us imagine and think of possibilities. I’m reminded of a wonderful quotation that my mom repeatedly shared and reminded me of from environmentalist Rachel Carson: “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
I finished reading news stories about the destruction of Sculpture Space and immediately looked them up on Instagram, where I found myself devastated by the photos of the wreckage that made the place appear more like a war zone. Without skipping a beat, I messaged them and offered help. Instantly, reflexively, I offered to donate four of my mother’s paintings so they could auction them and make money from the sales to support their rebuilding efforts.
Moments later, I realized why I became so swept up in this story and wanted to do something action-oriented and practical to try to help. Though my mother was a painter and printmaker, she always remarked that it was sculpture that moved and inspired her to create. It’s likely why so much of her work looks boldly architectural. Besides Giacometti, she adored sculptors such as Louise Nevelson, Richard Serra, Chakaia Booker, Andy Goldsworthy, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore.
As I reflect on the connections between my mother’s sculptural sensibility and what happened at Sculpture Space, this list becomes eerie and stunning in terms of the temporal nature of the artwork by Goldsworthy and Christo and Jeanne-Claude, or the reliance on discarded and recycled objects in works by Nevelson and Booker. My mother and I were always drawn to renovated spaces, reclaimed wood, old barns, churches, and warehouses transformed into something else. We shared a passion for whatever something was before and what it could still become. The story, then, of Sculpture Space carries with it that same quality—the art it housed, and the potential for a new, unleashed creativity to rebuild. Artists know better than anyone what’s involved and what’s at stake in the process of making and remaking, building and rebuilding.
It’s why destroying art is so inhumane. It’s barbaric really. I keep coming back to why these kids did that, why they were on such a campaign of destruction. This cannot be minimized to a group of boys being mischievous and getting into things they shouldn’t. There was a relentless quality to their mission; after vandalizing Sculpture Space, they continued their violent expedition to destroy vehicles in a nearby lot. One might think it was something out of an intense video game, except that this was real, in a real, lived community.
As someone who has committed so much of my life and work to anti-violence, trauma, healing, and social justice work, I kept thinking not just about how and why these kids could do this but also what would even be an appropriate punishment especially given their ages. In communicating with Sculpture Space director Tom Montan, I was wowed that in the midst of his heartbreak and sad loss, his belief and fervent wish is that these kids’ lives cannot be thrown away; he shared with me his hope for restorative justice efforts. I started to wonder if the kids were held accountable—and the people who raised them also—might it be possible to make beauty out of all this chaos and ugliness? Might it even be possible for any one of these kids to grow up to become an artist?
My mind has spun again and again around what could possibly motivate children to break into a building all by themselves on a Saturday night in the summer for the sole purpose of damaging it, annihilating it. Shouldn’t kids be eating ice cream, swimming, and climbing trees in the summer, not breaking windows to get into an art studio? I wondered what sort of damage had been done to these children? What kind of trauma had they endured? To be that hell-bent on being that violent means that one has dehumanized another, and in this case, also their artwork, to such a degree that nothing else matters except the laser focus on destruction.
I’m reminded of the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who told the tragic story of a sea pirate who raped a young girl; consequently, she jumped in the ocean to drown herself. He explains that one cannot simply, exclusively take the side of the girl. He says it’s tempting but far too easy to just want to shoot the pirate. He insists that if we were born in the village of the pirate and raised under similar conditions, we, too, would likely become sea pirates.
Perhaps rather than watch my mother weep in a sculpture garden or peer out from my corner of the basement to see her as we each painted, I too could have been one of those children committing these atrocities on a Saturday night. So, I try to sit with this reality, the cleavages born of profound social class chasms and the feelings of marginalization and desperation. I hold that compassion at the same time I hold on to red-hot anger.
My anger is not really directed just at the children or even the families that raised them. My rage is at a society with so little regard for the arts, so little, in fact, that this story barely made headlines. It wasn’t a mass shooting as we’ve gotten accustomed to hearing about all too often. But I believe it was a mass murder of a different sort—a killing of art, art space, and the role of art in the community, for art serves as a community builder.
Art is often made alone yet supported in community. When I first began work on my memoir, I went to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, to take writing workshops and to reside and work around like-minded writers and artists, hungering for a dedicated space and resources to think and create. The same can be said about other artist residencies. Virginia Woolf was right: We need a room of our own to make our art.
What happened in Utica is a reminder of what happens when learning about the arts and what is sacred about the arts is rendered invisible. What if art was made much more accessible and also free, enabling adults and children to venture into museums and other places where art is located yet harder to access and expensive to view? Again, I keep thinking about my mother. She and I were both born and raised in Cleveland where the Cleveland Museum of Art has always maintained free admission, a rare and wonderful gift and opportunity. When my mother moved to Cape Cod when I was living in Boston, she wound up boycotting the Museum of Fine Arts because adult admission is $27 plus their special exhibit fee of another $27. That museum is nestled among some deeply impoverished Boston neighborhoods, and my mother was outraged that the museum was so prohibitive for people and especially for those residing closest to it.
I’m assuming that those children in Utica haven’t had the opportunity to spend long, leisurely hours looking at, and talking about, art with an adult deeply invested in the many and varied ways of looking, seeing, and knowing. I imagine that had that happened, they wouldn’t have been able to do what they did. At least one of them would have known it was wrong and would have tried to put a halt to the peer pressure to keep destroying. At least one of them would have seen the humanity in and of the art and the lovemaking that is part of artmaking.
Art is worth crying over. It’s worth rebuilding over. It’s worth reaching out over. It’s worth organizing and mobilizing over. Art, after all, is what makes us human.
Nhat, Hanh, Thich. (2022). Call Me By My True Names. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
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