‘What Game Would You Play With This Toy?’ Shocking Designs From Nathaniel Lewis Comment on a Culture of Violence

Nathaniel Lewis And Gun Culture

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post ran in 2023. We’re publishing this update in honor of our April 2024 exhibition, In My Backyard, which includes work from Nathaniel Lewis.

One sunny afternoon Nathaniel Lewis collected his camera, his two-year-old son, and a pint-sized AR-15, then headed into the family’s front yard. A disturbing idea was bouncing around his brain.

“‘Automatic Fun’ (above) was an idea that occurred to me fully formed,” the artist and educator says, referring to the colorful print that resulted from his provocative photo shoot. “I knew I would be photographing my son in the front yard with an AR-15 built for a toddler. The thought that for some reason we are OK with a nine-year-old playing army men, but a two-year-old with a gun was troubling, really got me thinking, ‘What’s the difference?’”

Fun Toy AR 15 Gun
‘Automatic Fun’
Toy Hand Grenade

A former toy designer for big-name companies, Nathaniel spent years devising toys that were meant to “model acceptable adult behaviors and ideals.” Consider Hasbro’s Operation, where kids can practice developing their steady surgeon’s hand, or the classic Easy-Bake Oven, which primes mostly young girls for a life in the kitchen. “We want our children to be surgeons, lawyers or teachers, so we buy them doctor kits and farmers market playsets to reinforce social norms,” says Nathaniel.

While he no longer designs toys for a living, Nathaniel is still plagued by questions surrounding children, socialization, and the ideologies we carelessly pass from generation to generation. “What game would you play with this toy?” he asked himself when creating Little Terrors, a colorful, “kid-friendly” body of work that touches on American gun culture, government surveillance, and immigration. The series includes toy drones, stacking grenades, plastic guns, and moving images that threaten to detonate with just the pull of a pin.

“I don’t claim to understand the entirety of where gun violence in America comes from, but it is always sitting in the back of my head,” Nathaniel admits. “Every lock-down drill at my school or automated call from my child’s kindergarten in the middle of the day we play pretend. Pretend the worst thing is happening. And I am very good at playing pretend. Like a child’s imagination gone awry, I can’t help but imagine the worst.” Growing up as an American in Saudi Arabia, Nathaniel lived under the threat of terrorism and constant surveillance, a reality that’s only recently become the norm in the States. Now living in Phoenix, he ponders how we can explain socially acceptable levels of suspicion and bloodshed to wide-eyed children who are ignorant to the complexities of the modern world. “While these are obviously toys you would never sell to children, the toys I make are evocative of the violence and fear that seems to be inextricably bound to our culture,” Nathaniel says. “I think it is important for adults to examine contemporary issues through the eyes of a child.”

Scroll through to see Nathaniel’s work, then head to our April 2024 exhibition, In My Backyard, to see his submission, “Automatic Fun.”

“I think it is important for adults to examine contemporary issues through the eyes of a child.” — Nathaniel Lewis

Former toy designer Nathaniel Lewis explores American gun culture, government surveillance, and immigration with his provocative series ‘Little Terrors.’
‘Lone Wolf’
Toy Lock
‘Lock Animation’
Sun and Rainbow
Toy Plane
‘Playdator Drone’
Nathaniel Lewis Toy Gun
‘Re: Volver’
Toy Bomb
‘Homeland Security’

Nathaniel Lewis: Website | Instagram

All photos published with permission of the artist(s).

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artists as educators, children's toys, contemporary art, educational art, gun culture, gun violence, toy design, toy making

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