The Billboard Creative had the pleasure of sitting down with Levine to discuss her art practice, how it evolved, and what’s to come. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Written by Devin McMahon

Cara Levine is an artist based in Los Angeles, California. The daughter of two civil servants — her father was a Los Angeles Congressman, and her mother a Judge — Levine was born with a sense of responsibility for her community in her DNA. But where her parents saw recourse within the system for social justice, Levine was far more disillusioned. Through sculpture, video, and socially engaged practices, Levine leverages what she calls “collective creative action” —  which is intrinsic to much of her art practice but most notably captured in This Is Not A Gun, a multi-part, socially engaged artwork whose purpose is to open space for healing and cultivate an increased awareness around racial profiling, police brutality, and societal trauma in America. The project began in 2016 when Levine encountered a list of ubiquitous objects that were “mistaken” as guns by police officers in shootings of unarmed, majority-Black people: a sandwich, bible, hairbrush, wrench, and wallet to name a few. This Is Not a Gun engages with the public through community-driven workshops hosted by artists, activists, healers, and mindfulness collaborators, and was developed into an eponymous book in 2020.
Cara, thank you for chatting with us. Let’s start from the beginning: how did you get interested in art and art making? 

For many artists like myself, artmaking doesn’t feel like something you’re interested in, as opposed to something you have to do. I know it’s cliché to put it that way, but it feels like a vital form of communication for me. Where communication through language fails, I’ve always been able to find an outlet through creative expression. Being able to nurture that outlet and creative expression just made it more and more intriguing. So, what got me interested [in art and artmaking] was a desire to communicate things that I couldn’t otherwise communicate by any other means.

I’d love to hear more about your trajectory as an artist. Can you give me the 101 on Cara Levine? 

I grew up in Los Angeles, but after high school, I took some time before going to college — studying art at the University of Michigan, and then California College of Arts for graduate school — and moved to a tiny town in Spain where I worked as a very formal apprentice for an artist, while also teaching English. I left Los Angeles for about 16 years, entering so many different communities in multiple countries and cities, trying to learn who I was in this bigger picture. I only made it back to Los Angeles in November 2017. Now, part of who I am outside of my personal art practice is teaching at Otis College of Art and Design. I teach Foundations and Fine Arts. I am also an advocate for artists with developmental disabilities; though I am not working directly with an art center right now, I am always working with and amongst the community.

Human rights, advocacy, and politics are significant themes in your work. As you mentioned,  you work in the disability arts community, and in 2016, you kicked off This Is Not a Gun, a project confronting racism and police violence head-on. I’d love to hear more about these projects and their catalysts. 

I began working with artists with developmental disabilities while I was in grad school at an art center in the Bay Area called NIAD, Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development. I was interested in working in that community because I, myself, have lived with a chronic injury that had rendered me partially disabled at different periods of my life. It opened up a lens for me of what it might be like to live with less access to the built environment. When I was there [at NIAD], I fell in love with the community. The artists are making brilliant work and are deeply invested in their practices, and as an artist myself, it was a real privilege to enter their creative stream and to help nudge them along in their technical skills. I was a potter for a long time, so I taught ceramics at Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland. That became a professional path for me. Depending on where I was living, I was working within this community as a job. It was a really fortunate place to work. While I was part of that community, I organized a few exhibitions, independent of my job for these artists — Indigo Mind in 2014 and Self-Taught Artist Fair in 2017.
 This Is Not a Gun came out of my own practice, which is informed by my relationship with this community, and my commitment to equity for all beings. This Is Not a Gun emerged through my own personal feeling of devastation, and grief, and fear around the crisis of systemic racism in the United States — the crisis of predominantly Black men being killed by police for no reason but their race. Black Lives Matter was founded in 2014, and at that time, there were many news-worthy deaths at the hands of the police. In Oakland, my community was up in arms. The streets were filled with protestors, they were stopping the freeways — it was remarkable. Then, back in my studio, I was just alone with my own grief. And then I saw on social media a list that was being passed around from Harper’s Magazine. The list — and I have it right here — was titled, “Trigger Warning: A List of Objects That Were Mistaken as Guns in Shootings of Civilians by the Police Since 2001.” The list is everyday objects: a wrench, a cordless drill, a water hose nozzle, a cane, and broomstick, and so on. Every object is totally ordinary. The purpose of this list is to give you a sense of shock, and to think to yourself, “I can’t believe that you could ever mistake a pill bottle for a gun, or an e-cigarette, or a cellphone.” Of course, stripped of the American cultural context of systemic racism, these seem like freak accidents. But within this context, these shootings take on a different tone - one fueled by ignorance, fear, and racism.   — [these police] must think their lives are in danger and shoot. Of course, that’s a generalization, but we know that there are too many people who have been shot or died unnecessarily at the hands of police.
This list really stopped me in my tracks. As a maker, I believe in the stories carried by objects.  Everything that we hold has a past, a history, a story. These objects had all this resonance of being stand-ins for the people that were holding them. I felt like, maybe, if I could pause, and make these objects individually, maybe during that process of making, I’d be able to understand how at some point, someone mistook this as a gun. If it takes me 30 hours to carve a Bible, maybe at some point in those 30 hours, I’d see when it looked like a gun. But you know that is not going to happen. At no point — from a block of wood to a Bible — does it ever look like a gun.  For me, beginning to work really slowly and deliberately through the list was the first step, and while I did that, I learned the stories and names of the victims. And then, I came to realize that processing my own grief is one thing, but this is a very big, communal grief. This is a grief held by all Americans. So, I wanted to hold a different kind of space. I started to partner with artists and activists, and always across race, to make objects and hold conversations about racial equity, police violence, cultural trauma, white privilege, and the like. These conversations became almost like a sewing circle. People would be working, making these objects, and learning the stories behind these shootings. On one hand it’s enjoyable, because it’s communal and you’re making something, but on the other hand it’s deeply painful. You’re trying to unpack an experience that we’re all conscripted into — this experience of systemic racism in the United States.
Just yesterday, I read about the LAPD shooting a man who was holding a car part, and his last words were, “This is not a gun.” This project feels endlessly and unfortunately relevant. How do you see it evolving over time?

In 2020, we accomplished a really big goal of mine — publishing a book called This Is Not a Gun. That book was about a year in the making, and I was able to invite 40 artists, activists, and healers, most of whom were already part of the project, to each write about one of the 40 objects that police have mistaken for guns. That book felt like a culmination because the project had grown publicly and I had so many collaborators whose contributions to the project were largely unknown unless you were at our events. This was a way I could tap people I had been working with who had so much insight and so much expertise in the space — like Amir Whitaker, who is a lawyer for the ACLU, or Kemi Adeyemi, an academic who studies Black bodies and their relationship to violence and movement. These people are experts, and I have the privilege of working with them, and now their voices can be heard in the book.  
As far as the workshops go, we created a toolkit that is available for download for any community that wants to do this workshop on their own. The exchange that I set up is that I have asked to have the clay objects that are created in those workshops to be part of our archive. Our archive will continue to grow, and I currently have about 300 objects in the archive. I invite other communities to do this work together, on their own. I’ve had youth leaders — specifically with Students Demand Action — to lead workshops on their own, virtually, in the pandemic. I would like this toolkit to be used as a template so that more communities can have these difficult conversations, and the archive can continue to grow. In the Spring of 2023, I will be able to exhibit the whole body of work at a museum. It will be the first time that the whole, cohesive project will be exhibited. That will bring more conversation about the project and the issue.

That is very, very exciting — congratulations. Throughout this project, what have you found to be the unique powers and unique constraints of art to advocate for social and systems change? That’s an important question. Art is essential. Art connects people at a real, human scale to what’s happening in the world. Art connects people through a non-verbal, emotional and physical communication. The somatic response to art that is political is a very important response. Part of why we work with clay is because everyone has access to it — all you need is a pair of hands to use it. It’s made of earth, dirt, and water, it’s very accessible and it’s very relatable. That in and of itself creates an impact. On a structural level, there’s potential of art to create great change — I think of the AIDs Quilt as an iconic project that has so exceeded the dreams of the artists who created it, and creates a visual representation of the level of crisis and trauma with so much poignancy. That artwork, to me, is one of the best examples of how art can be political, beautiful, poetic, and actually make a difference on a large scale.  With This Is Not a Gun, one of the most impactful experiences we’ve had was in 2018 or 2019, I was partnering with Ekaette Ekong a dear friend of mine and we were invited to the ACLU’s lobby day in Sacramento, the California State Capitol, as they lobbied California SB 392, which was a law that passed that would restrict police use of force in California. We had This Is Not a Gun events all day, with 60 or so young people from Northern California public high schools at each event. These are teenagers working with us on this, and sharing their experiences as they make these objects. We had those workshops all day, and on the Mall, we installed giant posters of objects that police had mistaken as guns. It felt really impactful, and it felt like the work was meeting the policy. In that moment, the work was talking to the people it needed to talk to. I felt like I could let go of the reins of the project, and it could speak for itself — and I think when art is working, it can do that.
That’s really powerful. Cara, you have a much larger body of work outside of This Is Not a Gun. What are you working on now?  

Thanks for asking. I am working on a number of different projects. I have a group show coming up in L.A. at Wonzimer Gallery, October 7th, and I have a solo exhibition coming up in a museum in San Francisco in February. A lot of the work I’m doing is now is centered around a “political” work I made last summer, 2021, called DIG: A Hole to Put Your Grief In. That project was a work that I made as a methodology to collect people around the grief we were all feeling in the pandemic, and to hold space for it, and create ritual around it, and again to use our bodies to have a cathartic experience where we could express our grief through our bodies. For DIG, I spent eight days digging a hole in a mountain landscape in Malibu, California, on a piece of land that had been burned in the Woolsey Fire. The land was owned by an organization called the Shalom Institute and they invited me to use their landscape for this hole. Every day that I dug, I invited the public to dig with me — anyone that felt that digging a hole in the earth would be cathartic for them. The eight days were modeled after the practice of  ‘shiva’ , a Jewish mourning cycle that lasts a Saturday to a Saturday. Those eight days were punctuated by multiple other events where I invited other artists, healers, and spiritual leaders to use the hole as a site for ritual around grief. The hole would get charged up, and charged up, and charged up throughout the week and finally, at the closing event we poured wildflower seeds and water in the hole, and refilled all the dirt with about 100 people.  We named the names of our dead that had brought us there, together. It was a beautiful way to come together after what had been nearly two years of grieving alone through a kind of loss that had been incalculable throughout this pandemic. How do we quantify it? How do we come together? What kind of rituals can we create? So what I’m working on now is reworking that project in an interior space with new collaborators, in a new space, and allowing people to bring their grief to the space over a longer period of time. 

I look forward to seeing what that becomes. Thank you so much for your time today, Cara. It was a pleasure meeting you, and chatting with you!
Cara Levine is an artist based in Los Angeles, CA. She earned a BFA from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI (2007) and an MFA from California College of the Arts in San Francisco, CA (2012). Using sculpture, video, and socially engaged practices, she explores the intersections of the physical, metaphysical, traumatic, and illusionary.  She is the founder of This Is Not A Gun, a multidisciplinary project aiming to create awareness and activism through collective creative action. Her work has been presented in one-person, group exhibitions, and participatory events in venues around the world such as the MOCA Geffen Warehouse, Los Angeles, CA (2020); Creative Time, New York, NY (2019); The Anchorage Museum, Anchorage, AK, (2019), Tenderloin Museum, San Francisco, CA (2017); Center for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv, Israel; Wattis Institute For Contemporary Art, San Francisco, CA (2012); and Kyoto Seika University, Kyoto, Japan (2006). Levine has participated in residency programs including Santa Fe Art Institute (2017); The Arctic Circle, International Territory of Svalbard (2017); Sedona Arts Colony, Sedona, AZ (2016); SIM Residency, Reykjavík, Iceland (2015); Anderson Ranch, Aspen, CO (2014); and Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, VT (2013). Levine is currently an associate adjunct professor in Fine Art and Foundations at Otis College of Art and Design and has worked in the disability arts community since 2011 in roles at various progressive art studios including the Exceptional Children’s Foundation, Inglewood, CA and Creative Growth, Oakland, CA. She organized the first annual Self-Taught Artists Fair with Public Annex in Portland, OR in 2017. From Artists Website
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