Woman turns shell casings she was sent by mistake into art: 'Gun violence is something we all need to look at'

Rachel Grumman Bender
Beauty and Style Editor
Artist Maureen Cain painted thousands of shell casings in bright colors and placed them a sites of gun violence across the U.S. (Photo: Maureen Cain)

Artist Maureen Cain never expected a box filled with 1,000 rounds of ammunition would be mistakenly delivered to her home in Seattle, but there it was on her doorstep. “My first thought was, ‘I’m going to use these to make art,” Cain tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I’m an artist, and I tend to see things as potential art supplies.”

She quickly realized that working with live ammunition would not be safe, so Cain called the local sheriff, who picked up the box of bullets. “She said she'd use them for target practice,” Cain says.

But the seed to create art out of bullets had already been planted. So Cain went to local shooting ranges and asked for empty shell casings. She collected 1,200 of them and painted them in different bright colors.

Cain and her daughter, Erin, who had recently returned from the Peace Corps, were initially planning a mother-daughter road trip from Seattle to Tucson, Arizona. Instead, they decided to expand the road trip to multiple states and place the colorful shell casings at sites where there had been gun violence.

“As an artist, my job here is to reflect back to the world what I see,” she says. “I see gun violence — lots of different kinds of gun violence — and it’s everywhere.”

Cain placed shell casings in the shape of Texas near the El Paso Walmart where 22 people were shot and killed on August 4. (Photo: Maureen Cain)

While Cain says that people often associate gun violence with mass shootings, she points out that “there are so many types of gun violence — there’s police brutality, gang violence, suicide, and violence against women.” In fact, guns are the leading method of suicide.

During their two-week road trip, there were “at least 17 mass shootings” and “about 1,500 Americans were killed by gun violence,” Cain wrote on her website. (According to Everytown for Gun Safety, 100 Americans are killed every day by guns). “That's about one death per mile of our drive,” Cain wrote.

At each stop along their journey, the mother and daughter would place shell casings based on the number of people who had been killed at sites of gun violence and take photographs. Then they’d take everything down and drive to the next location. In the car, Cain says, “We were real quiet. We thought it would get easier, but every single one was hard. It was really sad.”

Shell casings at the Safeway in Tucson, Arizona, where six people were killed and 13 others were wounded in an assassination attempt on U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords in 2011. (Photo: Maureen Cain)

She adds: “This project has been emotionally difficult.”

Doing a temporary art installation in her hometown of Tucson — where six people were killed and 13 others were wounded, including U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, in an assassination attempt at Safeway in 2011 — was particularly hard. “That was the most emotional one for me,” she shares. “It was pretty tough.”

Including Arizona, Cain and her daughter traveled to eight states during their road trip: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Nevada (where the largest mass shooting in U.S. history took place in Las Vegas), New Mexico, and Texas (where 22 people were killed and dozens were wounded in El Paso). “Every single town we went to something had happened,” Cain says, referring to gun violence.

Shell casings in Las Vegas, where the largest mass shooting in U.S. history took place. (Photo: Maureen Cain)

Although the road trip has ended, Cain is just getting started. “We plan to collect and paint 35,000 shell casings to represent the number of gun deaths in the U.S. annually,” she says. She’s also expanded the project — calling it the United States of Ammunition — and plans to visit all 50 states.

“I want people to see what’s happening and make up their own minds,” Cain says. “Everyone who sees this comes to the same conclusion — there’s way too much gun violence.”

Cain says she has received a lot of comments from people saying that the images of the brightly-hued shell casings are “both beautiful and disturbing.” “Several people have said that the bright colors of the bullet casings draw their attention, which makes them look at and think about something that we usually try to look away from,” she says. “It is my hope that people look at the images this way because we cannot solve a problem that we don't see.”

She adds: “It's easier to look away, but gun violence is something that we all need to look at.”

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