On Sunday April 28, 1996, 35 people were killed by one gunman, Martin Bryant, at Port Arthur, Tasmania. In June 96, two months after the shootings, I conducted research in two high schools in Tasmania – one in the north of the state and one in the south, near Hobart which is one hour’s drive from Port Arthur. The research consisted of a questionnaire given to half of Years 7 and 10 in both high schools (124 students). The other half of both years drew pictures showing what they thought of that Sunday (160 students).
This paper seeks to explore youth’s response to the violence they saw and experienced at Port Arthur. For some this violence was experienced vicariously and indirectly through the lens of the television camera or the words on radio and in newspapers. For some the violence was more personal and direct through the loss of friends, neighbours, and security of place and mind.
Initially, I approached their drawings and descriptions through the lens of grief and bereavement. My primary question was “What could I learn about adolescents’ grief reactions to the violent deaths at Port Arthur?” However, as I read in the areas of theology and youth ministry, my mind continually wandered to the pictures and I began to notice theological hints of the students’ understanding of what it means to be human and their sense of evil. I pondered their drawings and descriptions from a theological perspective and was amazed at the richness of their thoughts on human nature, evil and the presence of God in traumatic times.
Paul Tillich suggests “painting is a mute revealer and yet often speaks more perceptively to the interpreting mind than concept bearing words. For it impresses us with the irrefutable power of immediate intuition.”2 These students would not consider themselves artists, but their naïve impressions present an immediate intuition, which is sometimes not as evident in the written responses to the questionnaire.
I will be exploring these pictures from a number of perspectives – through the comments made by the students in describing their drawings, and through my own response to the pictures. This response has been enriched by a number of theological lenses that form an eclectic prism rather than a singular vision. I hope the multi-focal approach will give a depth to the interpretation of youth’s pictorial response to violence. There is a possible ironic dimension to these pictures with many layers of meaning not always intended by the artist. Sometimes, their drawings seem far richer than their simple verbal expressions imply.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Christine Gapes has served on the faculties of United Theological College, Australian Catholic University, Charles Sturt University, NSW; and Trinity Theological College, Qld. She has presented papers at academic conferences around the world. She has been a major planner of and speaker at national youth conventions in Australia and other places. Her research interests over the last twenty years have focused on adolescent bereavement and the theology of youth ministry.