Wealthy collectors and famous international artists are descending on the Miami Beach convention center this week for the Art Basel show; but a young, largely unknown artist from Woodland Hills is kicking up some dust of his own nearby, in the city's Wynwood Art District.
Charles Gitnick, 11, is showing and selling his "3-D gun art" this week at the satellite art event, the Red Dot Art Fair. Gitnick's Jackson Pollock-inspired abstracts, which feature embedded plastic guns camouflaged by brightly colored paint, have sold over the past few years in L.A. and New York for anywhere from $100 to $2,500 apiece.
But the sixth-grader says it's not the money that's important to him, but the message -- that gun violence is terrifying to him and he wishes guns would remain in art galleries alone rather than on the streets.
He's been approached this week by gallerists in Miami, New York and Los Angeles to develop upcoming shows, he says. The boy spoke by phone from Miami.
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What inspired your gun art -- and where did your fear, initially, come from?
I kept hearing about all these terrible things happening – like shootings or terrorist attacks, things like that. I thought I could express my feelings about guns through my art. The first piece that I made, since violence goes into newspapers, was: I wrapped a gun in a day's worth of newspaper clippings about violence. Then I had an art show in my house for family and friends – showing abstracts and palm tree art and the one gun piece. The most popular piece was the gun piece – they really liked the message I was trying to put out. A friend of my dad's bought it for $100. I thought I'd do more – it's a lot more fun than just painting.
How did you get started as an artist in the first place?
I've been doing art since I was 5 – I used to do abstracts and landscapes of palm trees and oceanscapes. I'd take markers and blank paper and scribble randomness, I was really fascinated with colors, how the blue and yellow markers would mix together and make green. My parents noticed I'd do it every day for hours and hours, and they took me to art classes when I was around 7. I didn't enjoy them because they'd tell me what to do. So I stopped and started doing my own thing.
I became addicted to it, I did art every single day. My brother really enjoys basketball and I'd be bored when I went to the games and bring a notepad and markers and keep scribbling and scribbling.
Last December's Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut affected you – and your art – deeply. Can you elaborate on that?
I stopped making art for 18 days because of it because I was afraid people would think I was promoting guns and not like my art. My dad talked to me about it and told me when those bad things happen it's not a time for artists to back down; that's when everyone is talking about it, it's the best time to get the message out. So I started making art again.
We rented a house in Venice a few years ago and we were walking on the boardwalk and I sold some gun art on the boardwalk -- we got a permit. That was the first time I sold to the public. This summer we sold every weekend in July. We made $1,100 in one day, the most I've ever made in a day. I'm saving for a car.
Who buys your art -- what's your "collector base?"
It's usually younger people because the older people don't really understand it. The moment they see a gun, they think bad about it. The younger people seem to enjoy it more. But here in Miami, some older people are buying. So I could be wrong about that.
Lots of people comment about it even if they don't buy – they say "that's so cool," "keep doing it," "your message is great.' Stuff like that.
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Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jackson Pollock are your big influences. When did you first discover them?
I studied multiple different artists starting about three years ago when I was around 8. I'd watch movies and read books and watch slide shows – my dad has a projector – so I've studied them a lot and now I can identify them. My dad really encouraged me. He gave me a few artists to start with and I looked up their work and ended up loving them. But Jackson Pollock is my favorite artist ever.
What do your friends think of your art?
They know about it but they don't talk about it that much. It's kind of an awkward conversation because most kids don't talk about gun violence in the world. But they know about my art from Instagram and places like that.
What else do you do for fun when you're not painting and traveling to art shows?
I like playing football and skateboarding. I'm starting in a league soon – now usually I just play two touch football at school.
When you sell your work, you always display a sign with your message. What does it say?
I'll read it to you: "My feelings about guns are that they are scary and dangerous. When I make one of my pieces, I create a background and then I camouflage the gun to make it almost invisible. The gun is still there but it's hard to see it or you don't see it for what it really is. Hopefully my art will get people talking about guns, gun safety and gun violence. I wish guns were only in an art gallery. Charles Gitnick, June 2012 (Age 10)"