After the December 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn., where 20 Sandy Hook Elementary School students and six adults were killed in a gunman’s rampage, Beverly resident Greg Bokor felt compelled to act.
He wanted to help, whether it was by preventing more violence or consoling and supporting the families of the victims. Last April, he said, everything became “crystal clear.”
The longtime graphic designer and artist is aiming to spark a national conversation about gun violence by exhibiting an art installation entitled “Erase” through ArtPrize, a 19-day, international art contest in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich.
The piece is a 20-by-8-foot pencil drawing of an AR-15 assault rifle, one of the weapons used in Newtown and in another mass shooting last year, when 12 were killed and 58 wounded at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
Observers at the exhibit will be invited to help erase the gun using 2,000 pink erasers stamped with the names and ages of one of 83 victims killed in recent mass shootings, including Columbine High School (Colorado) in 1999; Virgina Tech in 2007; Aurora, and Newtown.
“I see all these parents from Newtown making it their life mission to honor what has happened in their family and cope,’’ Bokor said. “With my background in advertising and marketing and ideas, I needed to just make something, to do something, to keep the conversation going.”
Gun control in Massachusetts has been a topic of discussion this summer as The Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security prepares to propose legislation. The committee held hearings across the state, ending with last Friday’s session at the State House, which drew hundreds of people, including two parents from Newtown who lost young children in the attack at the elementary school.
ArtPrize will include about 1,500 entries from across the United States and from 47 other countries. It is expected to attract some 400,000 people.
Businesses and institutions in Grand Rapids — including hospitals, convention halls, and sandwich shops — will provide space for the event, which kicked off on Wednesday.
Bokor, 50, who said he won’t let his drawing out of his sight, took a two-day train ride to Grand Rapids on Sept. 7 to set up for the competition. He will be exhibiting his piece in the Fountain Street Church, which has a mission to focus on cause-related artwork.
Winners of the competition will be announced on Oct. 4. ArtPrize distributes $560,000 in cash prizes; $360,000 awarded by public vote and $200,000 awarded by juried experts.
But Bokor isn’t in it for the money. He’s in it to spark a conversation.
“The idea is more than just a one-time art piece. It’s an opportunity to get people to talk about gun violence and get people involved,” he said.
And in light of the shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday that left 13 people dead, including the 34-year-old gunman, Bokor said the issue is more relevant than ever.
“It’s a memorial,” Bokor said of his project. “It’s a participatory memorial art installation, and this event calls for a memorial because people were killed. Maybe people will come out for that matter more than just for the chance to erase an artist’s drawing. Perhaps people will feel ignited about the drawing.”
Bokor has spent about $6,000 so far on the art installation, which will cost $8,600 all told for erasers, stamps, pencils, other supplies, and travel to and from Michigan.
He has raised about 20 percent of the funds through a Kickstarter page, an online platform used to raise money for causes and projects.
He is also getting help from his daughter, Quinn, 19, who is spearheading the project’s social media efforts through Facebook and other outlets.
As a sophomore at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago , Quinn is able to help Bokor not only with promoting the movement, but with the artistic component as well.
She recalled one night last summer when she helped her father shade an area of the drawing. She wanted to see what it was like for him to work in an unfinished, dimly lit basement for about three hours a day, seven days a week.
Quinn said seeing her father “passionately drawing about something so controversial” inspired her. “It’s a fantastic idea to look at gun control through art,” she said. “It’s a new way of looking at a controversial topic like this.’’
Nicholas Rock, assistant professor of graphic design at Boston University, said that “design is seeping into different cultures and becoming part of politics and bringing real issues to life for people.”
Rock was in the Army Reserve for eight years, and served in Iraq for one year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As a result of his experiences overseas, Rock said he is more attuned to political and social issues, and he believes that visual communication creates a whole new level of awareness on certain topics.
“These projects transcend the idea of communicating messages,” he said. “When you read about something in the newspaper, that’s going to reach some people, but the moment they have to interact with something they become part of it, and the issue becomes part of them.”
Bokor’s efforts to spark a conversation on gun control already have proven successful, as he has received propositions from national organizations for more drawings, but on smaller scales.
The founder of Living Rooms Across America, a nationwide tour that utilizes music as a catalyst for engaging in conversations about issues such as gun violence, has asked Bokor to get involved with its current tour, which kicked off on Sept. 14.
The tour will work with local advocates and community groups in five cities across the country to facilitate conversations among small groups of people on how to reduce gun violence in the United States. The sessions are usually held in people’s homes, and start and end with music.
Bokor also hopes to work with art schools in Chicago and Detroit to continue conversations on the issue.
After about three months of outlining, coating, shading, and highlighting his drawing, Bokor said he’s happy to be done, and is looking forward to the upcoming competition.
“As an art piece it’s not finished until it’s erased, but whatever happens to it, it’ll have it’s own meaning,” Bokor said.
“It will be hard to erase it until it’s completely gone, but I think that’s a metaphor in itself that no matter how hard you try, it’s not a subject or a problem that’s easily fixed.”Terri Ogan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.