SOUTH CHICAGO — Romelo Golden was a gang-banger — and proud of it.
He bragged about using his .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol on a Facebook video.
“We put that bitch to work yesterday,” the 17-year-old said on camera while puffing on a joint.
On June 13, Golden was shot dead on a South Chicago street corner. Police called the shooting gang-related. Kids on the block said their friend got shot because he flirted with the wrong girl at a club.
Sarah Ward, who runs South Chicago Art Center down the street from the murder scene, wasn’t surprised when her former student’s murder didn’t get much ink in the papers. She knows dead gang-bangers aren’t exactly sympathetic victims.
Still, Ward just can’t get over how a kid getting shot — and she has known a lot of kids who’ve been shot — can seem so insignificant to people living in safer parts of town.
“People say, 'That’s just how those people are.' Well, I don’t believe that,” Ward said. “I don’t think that’s how anyone would be unless they are driven to a place of just giving up.”
And to get people to listen, the 44-year-old art teacher and former juvenile probation officer got herself some guns.
Not real guns, mind you. Ward commissioned neighborhood kids and artist pals to create beautiful hand-painted carvings, colorful drawings, stained-glass sun catchers and even bronzed necklace pendants — each in the shape of a Glock 9mm semi-automatic pistol.
And last month, Ward collected 343 of them — one for each Chicago Public School kid shot last year — and put them on display at a Pilsen art gallery on Halsted Street.
“Most people who go to see art shows are more affluent and that’s what this show was about,” Ward said. “It’s not about glorifying guns. It’s about engaging people in the realities of these kids lives in a subtle way without hitting them over the head and upsetting them.”
'Faith’ in dying
For Ward, all the work to complete the project — especially her visits to Washington and Bowen high schools — was upsetting enough.
When she showed a class at Bowen a few guns — hand painted carvings, fragile pieces of jewelry and intricately beaded sculptures made by professional artists — teenage boys rushed to grab them.
“They were excited, jumping around and pointing them at each other,” Ward said. “They were putting them down their pants. I had to tell them to stop.”
Kids at the back of class refusing to pay attention fiddled with cell phones and talked only to each other.
“It was like the movie ‘Warriors.’ They might as well have been rolling dice and smoking cigarettes,” Ward said. “It was weird. Sad.”
The rest of class worked on their guns. They understood that this project told the story of kids like them who live in parts of town where gunshots ring out as regularly as church bells and 25 bucks will buy you a “neener” — that’s street slang for a 9mm pistol.
“The kids get it,” Ward said. “This isn’t about them. It’s about the people who don’t know how many kids are getting shot.
A girl sitting at table alone wrote the word “Faith” on an already-carved pistol.
Ward asked her, “Do you mean fate? Faith is your belief in something.’”
The girl’s reply hit Ward like a punch in the gut.
“I mean 'Faith,'” the girl said. “In this neighborhood we all believe we’re going to get killed.”
‘Died for nothing’
At the Pilsen gallery, the guns hung from the window, mounted on the wall, dangled from the ceiling and piled on the floor held other messages.
A cardboard cutout read, “Use this for zombies, not kids.”
A pistol made by a teacher had a note tucked in the barrel that read, “I asked my students to raise their hands if someone who they knew had died from gun violence. They all raised their hands.”
One carving of a revolver carried this story, “My friend lil brother was shot going to school! Week later he was shot!!! Both of them died for nothing!!!”
At a show last month, all the sculptures were sold. Some went for more than $120 in a silent auction. In total, the show raised more than $13,000.
“It was like the mayor’s gun buy back program,” Ward said. “Every single cent goes to fund programs that get kids off the street and that could prevent one of the shootings those guns represent.”
That’s the message Ward wanted people from posh parts of town and folks with money out in the suburbs to hear.
When you read a few lines in the paper about “another dead gang-banger in the hood,” know there’s more to the story than the name of the victim and search for a shooter.
Ward said she started thinking about the gun project after Golden got killed, but he wasn’t her inspiration.
She did it for Trishawn Coleman, a teenage girl from the neighborhood who held Golden in her arms as the boy slowly bled to death.
And she did it for people who will never visit South Chicago.
“This was a chance for ‘Regular Joe’ in Chicago to give 25 bucks to help keep a kid safe,” Ward said. “That’s enough to give a kid a few days at the art center during those crucial hours after school when everybody knows these kids are at risk."