With 14 empty school desks, Atlanta artist Joseph Guay gave March for Our Lives protesters another way to speak out

Guay, known for his political artwork, created the installation as a tribute to the 14 students killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida
March for Our Lives Atlanta Joseph Guay
Artist Joseph Guay holds a sign in front of his installation that reads, “In memory of the 14 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who will never get to sit in a classroom again.”

Photograph by Nina Sandefur

As hundreds of thousands marched nationwide Saturday in protest against gun violence and calling for tougher firearm regulation, Joseph Guay milled about the perimeter of Georgia’s statehouse.

An Atlanta artist known for politically provocative art installations, such as the “Border Wall” he installed on the Westside last year, Guay, 45, crafted a piece titled “Missed Attendants” for the local March for Our Lives demonstration downtown: Fourteen empty classroom desks—each representing one of the 14 students killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—were coated in black chalkboard paint and lined up on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive in front of the Gold Dome.

Guay said he wanted to build something to carry the national conversation about gun violence. “I got online and started looking at school desks and thought, ‘Maybe an empty desk; that feels really heavy,’” he said. “You can’t argue with [an empty desk]. You can’t fill it with anything else but a kid.”

A post shared by JOSEPH GUAY (@joseph_guay) on

A post shared by JOSEPH GUAY (@joseph_guay) on

Although a back injury he sustained six months ago had been keeping Guay from producing a lot of new artwork, the recent outcry spurred by the Parkland tragedy pushed him to fight through the pain. “It was the first piece I have made since October,” he said. “I really shouldn’t have lifted these to paint them or carried them to place at the march, but I couldn’t sit back while kids protested.”

He purchased used desks in bulk from a church in Dallas, Georgia, about an hour outside of Atlanta. After hauling them to his workshop, he sat and stared at them, pondering what to make. “When you look at the desks—solid black, nothing on them—there’s really a sense of absence, a heaviness,” he explained. Guay opted to cover them with blackboard paint. “I wanted to create a way where my work could become someone else’s work,” he said.

During Saturday’s march, Guay paced around his creation, encouraging people to use the white chalk he’d brought to inscribe their feelings about recent shootings and to note how they’d like to tackle the issues surrounding such atrocities. “It’s just sad,” said an Atlanta police officer, fighting back tears as he watched a crowd envelop the desks.

As some 30,000 protesters strode up M.L.K. Drive, parents, teachers, and students of all ages marked the desks with comments calling for gun reform and demanding safe schooling for all. They voiced pleas for bans on assault weapons, cries to raise the eligible age for gun buyers, and demanded efforts to curb shooting violence in schools and elsewhere.

March for Our Lives Atlanta Joseph Guay
March for Our Lives participants interact with Guay’s installation.

Photograph by Nina Sandefur

Kindergarteners crawled on hands and knees to decorate the desks with messages that were equal parts adorable and sobering. “Guns are not fun,” said one, scribbling. #Enough and #NeverAgain—sometimes misspelled, sometimes scrawled in elementary-school chicken scratch—peppered the desks.

Guay said he’s mortified that students today are so daunted by the threat of in-class violence. “When I was at school, the biggest stress you had to worry about was lunch money, or maybe being punched in the eye,” he said. “How many of these attacks have to occur before we say, ‘Now we’ve reached our limit?’”

Sue Filipovits, a protester and the mother of a 5-year-old girl, said she’s watched the conversation about school shootings amplify substantially since the Columbine High School shooting brought the issue to her attention nearly two decades ago. Her daughter is in Pre-K, “and they’re doing safety drills in school now. When [my daughter] came home one day and told me she had to hide in the closet, it really hit home in a way that it hadn’t before,” she said.

“I don’t want her growing up in this environment where she’s afraid, and I have to be afraid and wonder when I send her to school in the morning if she’s going to come home in the afternoon,” Filipovits said. Her daughter drew a catfish on one of the desks; she’s not yet old enough to understand the gravity of the protest she was a part of.

Nor was Thomas Yun’s son, although the 6-year-old scampered around the desks, marking them up with the other protesters. “It’s really sad that he’s going to have to be scared to go to school because kids are being killed,” Yun said.

March for Our Lives Atlanta Joseph Guay
Guay watches as protestors write messages on the desks.

Photograph by Sean Keenan

Georgia State University junior Tatiyana Ives shared a similar sentiment when she wrote “Enough is enough” on a desk. “People shouldn’t have access to [assault] rifles, and we shouldn’t have to be scared to go to school,” she said.

Some activists, however, couldn’t bring themselves to etch a mark on a desk. “I didn’t sign it because it’s too hard for me,” said Danile Koenig, a mother and a kindergarten teacher at Cedar Hill Elementary School in Lawrenceville. “I have children and I have students,” she said. “I can’t fathom them growing up in a world like this. We have to change. That change comes from us [marching].”

Koenig’s school, like other institutions, has been preparing for a potential assault on its student body, although she said she grapples with what she can share about such drills with her young students. “What are we going to call these lockdowns to a kindergartener? We can’t call it an active shooter drill,” she said, noting that five- and six-year-olds won’t understand the worry.

Nevertheless many protesters said now is the time to raise voices and crack down on gun control. “At some point, someone has to make a difference,” said Sativa Patel, a freshman at Atlanta International School. “There’s definitely a lot of sadness going on at our school [after the Parkland shooting],” she said.

“It’s our right as students to feel safe; we shouldn’t have to go to school fearing we might not come home, and our parents shouldn’t have to send us to school fearing we won’t come home one day,” Patel continued. “All these lives lost, their parents never got to say goodbye to them, and this march is honoring them.”

March for Our Lives Atlanta Joseph Guay
Protestors wrote messages of hope and messages calling for action on the desks.

Photograph by Sean Keenan

Guay said he wants his installation to carry its weight further than the March for Our Lives. He recently learned his project will soon be relocated to Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights (where Saturday’s march kicked off) as part of an exhibit about youth gun violence. As for his project’s impact on Saturday’s march, he said he was overwhelmed by the massive engagement.

“The thing I love is that, as an artist, you have this little thought in your head of what you think [an installation] can do,” he said. “I’ve thought about the kids drawing and the people drawing and interacting with the process, and you see little kids who are happy that they got to have their voices heard. It was beautiful.”

“It’s hard to argue with a piece of artwork,” Guay said. “Regardless of where you stand, art can force you to see things in a different way, which sometimes can change an opinion.”