April 06, 2017
Ceileigh Nerney

Senior Caileigh Nerney says the Washington, D.C., location was one of the main reasons she chose to attend Catholic University. She never imagined that four years later the city would provide a dramatic backdrop to her senior thesis, “91 of US.”

On a Saturday last month, Nerney, a studio art major, set up 91 empty chairs draped in different-colored T-shirts on the National Mall. With a clear view of the United States Capitol in one direction and the Washington Monument in the other, Nerney was getting ready to present her social practice art project — a form of living, interactive art that seeks to raise awareness and engage people — to visitors from across the country and around the world.

Her own awareness was raised last summer when she heard on a podcast that on average 91 people a day are killed with guns — that’s two to three times more than the deadliest mass shootings in the U.S.

“What do the different colors mean?” asked a gentleman from Texas who was visiting the nation’s capital with his family on spring break.

Nerney explained that the 57 red shirts represent deaths by suicide with a firearm, the 32 blue shirts represent gun-related homicide, and the yellow shirts represent the two people who die per day from firearm accidents.

Drawn to her display, set up along the Mall’s pathway so that visitors walked through it and not around it, many people stopped throughout the four-hour exhibit. They picked up the postcards and looked at the infographic posters Nerney designed and printed in the University’s digital art lab, and they stopped to ask questions of Nerney and her entourage of family and classmates.

Nerney had enlisted community groups to set up tables where they were addressing issues of gun violence prevention, gang violence prevention, domestic violence prevention, safe gun storage, and mental health awareness and support.

The interaction was just what Nerney was hoping for.

“I want people to see these 91 empty seats and consider the lives lost on a daily basis,” she said. “My project is meant to be fact-based and non-partisan. I think too often we think of this issue in terms of what side of the gun control debate we are on. But there is so much more we can do to save lives. I hope I have people thinking about and talking about the issue, and beyond that, I hope that even just a few take some type of action.”

Nerney had worked on the project since September, including fundraising, creating the 91 of US art elements and hashtag, working with the National Park Service and U.S. Park Police to secure permission for her exhibit, and engaging communities on social media.

“We are so proud of Caleigh for having a vision and working so hard to realize it,” said Nora Heimann, professor and chair of the Department of Art, who was at the exhibit to support her student.

“Just look at the visual statement she has created. The lively colors and sobering meaning of her project catches your eye from all across the Mall. She has achieved what artists have sought to accomplish throughout the centuries —  that is the ability to create a resonant visual image that captures a complex idea and touches the most urgent concerns and deepest yearnings of the human heart.”

Nerney looked across the bustling Mall. Within a stone’s throw was the brand new National Museum of African American History. On the edge of the Mall tourists were lined up for food trucks. “This is so quintessentially America,” said Nerney. “Sadly, the gun violence rate has become uniquely American as well. It’s time for us to own that and try to find solutions.”