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Bang, bang, art, art — Sean Russell guns up a new exhibit

Brent Holmes
Sean Russell's latest sculptures were made by shooting bullets into a block of clay, firing it in a kiln and giving it a metallic glaze.

Artist Sean Russell’s exhibit South of Town opens Monday, July 20, in the rotunda of the Clark County Government Center. Opening reception: 6-8 p.m., Friday, July 24, with an artist’s talk at 6:30. The show takes its inspiration from a junk-strewn location just outside of the city where people go to shoot firearms.


How did this project come about?

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I moved to Las Vegas from Wausau, Wisconsin, in 2002 to attend graduate school for painting at UNLV. About a year into the three-year Master of Fine Arts program, I purchased a Taurus Model 608 .357 magnum revolver. I didn’t purchase it for safety, although now that I look back on where I lived at that time maybe I should have. Much of my artwork during graduate school was about the patriotic fervor in the wake of 9/11, and owning the largest revolver I could find seemed to partially fit into my understanding of the topic. Go America! Drink Budweiser! These Colors Don’t Run! That kind of stuff. And a gun just felt like something you had to have out here in the Wild West.

A few of the other graduate students, and my major professor, had firearms, so we formed a little gun club. Another graduate student knew of a place out in the desert where people shot, so we would go out on weekends and shoot beer cans, wine bottles and targets. The UNLV art department would bring in visiting artists and artists-in-residence and we would, much to their delight, take them out shooting as well. What I learned is that many people do not have very much experience with firearms, are not comfortable with them and don’t know much about them.

Throughout graduate school and for a while after our gun club would go out to this location in the desert and set up targets and recreationally shoot. This was pre-Obama, and we weren’t doing this as some sort of open-carry protest or constitutional rights sort of thing.

As time passed I noticed more and more people doing the same. People drive out there, back their truck up to a random hillside and go about their business. No one talks to each other, everyone just sets up and does their thing. With more people came more strange and interesting targets and various other things people would set up to shoot. Washing machines, stoves, those large cube-like TVs no one has anymore, pumpkins, campaign posters, tires, appliances, spray-paint cans, stuffed animals, real animals — it’s like an explosion at a garage sale.

As an artist you look for these events in life to be inspired by, so for years I had wanted to do some project involving this place and the situation.

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What's the process for turning that kind of sense of place into art? How difficult is that?

This was the tough part, and why it took years to accomplish. I figured photo documentation would be kinda boring, and I wasn’t really a photographer. Landscape paintings weren’t my thing, either. Back in graduate school we were bringing these blocks of clay out and shooting them, but at the time it never materialized into “art,” it was just sort of a neat thing to explode.

A few years ago I decided I wanted to change that, and actually make art from the shot-clay forms, or make the shot forms into art. Using clay as a medium just fit — clay is basically “earth,” and after your bullet goes through its target it impacts the earth. Everyone shooting out in the desert is for the most part shooting the landscape. With the help of some people in the CSN art program, we brought out a bunch of 25-pound bags of wet clay, and arbitrarily shot them. There really wasn’t a plan, or any sort of target besides the clay — I wanted to emulate the seeming randomness of the way people shoot out in the desert: We’ll put the pumpkin over here, and prop this tire up on a rock here, kinda line these wine bottles up on this Corona Light box, and, okay, blast away.

For the most part there was very little aiming or predictability to the whole experience. We used a variety of weaponry – my .357, a .45 caliber pistol, my AR-15 assault rifle, and my colleague’s .22. I can’t tell you which piece was hit by what caliber. Some were hit by multiple shots. Some shots missed and flung rocks and broken glass from the ground up into the pieces. The blocks that weren’t completely blown into little blobs of wet clay were moved to the back of my truck.

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I glazed most of them with glaze called Palladium, which looks generally like metal. The metallic finish on the pieces replicates the process, and connotes the tiny lead ball that initially caused this mess. Or maybe I was subconsciously inspired by the T-1000 in Terminator 2.

What I enjoyed about this project was that there was no editing process besides survivability. The artwork displayed in the exhibit is simply what was salvageable. None of them are the most or least aesthetically pleasing representation of a process. Often when one makes artwork there’s a back-and-forth with the image or three-dimensional form. If I dislike an area of a painting I can change it, erase part of a drawing or manipulate a sculptural form. None here; the blocks are simply what happened. With this project, what people will see is the pure power of a firearm transformed into the negative space of a block of clay. I am merely the catalyst that pulled the trigger.


What did you come away from this project thinking about the way humans impact the landscape?

I don’t know if I learned anything new about how humans impact the landscape. The majority of Nevada is BLM-controlled, and this shooting location is on BLM land. People enjoy purchasing, collecting, admiring and shooting firearms, and doing so is legal on BLM land. Given this, it’s sort of inevitable that there would be spots around this city where people would drag unwanted crap out into the desert and blow it up.

One of my colleagues [Chris Tsouras] did a photo series years ago about the ring of trash that surrounds Vegas. As the city grows some developer will bulldoze right over the landscape, build 400 houses and the trash ring will expand. Same thing with these free-range shooting locations around the city — someone will buy the land, put a hotel there and the people who want to shoot washing machines in the desert will go five miles further down the road. It’s inevitable. 

(Editor's note: Scott Dickensheets no longer works for Nevada Public Radio)