“When do you feel safe?” That was the bold question posed to MC students by Stephanie Mercedes, artist-in-residence for the College’s Rockville and Germantown Campus Art Department this fall. Those students, from crafts and metalsmithing classes, were about to begin a collaborative project that melted bullet casings and turned them into bells.
Aptly titled Run, Hide, Fight, Mercedes unveiled her exhibition at the Sarah Silberman Gallery in late October with bells that collectively represent 23 years of school shootings—from 1994 to 2017—in the United States. The number of casings used for each bell correlates to the number of fatalities for the given year.
A self-taught, Washington D.C.-based artist, Mercedes uses weapons confiscated and deactivated by the D.C. police.
“The first piece in this body of work I made is called The Ring of Freedom, and it was a reaction to the Orlando Pulse club shooting,” said Mercedes, who melts the metal and transforms it into musical installations and instruments such as books, harp strings, and pencils. “That was the first time I melted down a rifle, to make liberty bells.” The intention of her work is to take the materiality of violence and turn it into what she sees as its nonviolent opposite: art.
Mercedes says it was important to her, and to the people she worked with at MC, that students were willing to voice their opinions about the difficult topic. In addition to the bells, the exhibit featured short videos and written notes of students completing the sentence, “I feel safe when…”
“Safety can mean something different for different students, but I think that’s part of the world that we live in. I think it’s important to begin that conversation,” she said.
Tai Dolan and Alyssa Meiselman, both enrolled in the Practicum Jewelry and Metals class, said the question posed is significant.
“When [Mercedes] was explaining the concept, it made me really emotional because it’s such a real thing that other students and I think about when we’re on campus,” Dolan said. “It meant a lot to be able to work on something that was so real.”
Meiselman, who plans to pursue a career in metalworking, found the process of melting down metal to be cathartic.
Bullets were made to shoot people, but through this process of casting and transforming them into bells … they are made for music, and they bring people joy
“It’s turning that anguish, that hatred, and that despair, into something so much more positive,” she says. “The bells resonate with people in many different ways and make them more approachable.”
For Dolan, the key difference is the intent: “Bullets were made to shoot people, but through this process of casting and transforming them into bells, the intention is 180 degrees different. They are made for music, and they bring people joy.”
Before focusing on gun violence in the United States, Mercedes focused her work on the Argentine dictatorship and the traumas of the Dirty War, a campaign of political repression and state terrorism that lasted from 1976 to 1983.
“It might be a slightly different context, but I think formally, and intention-wise, it’s not that different,” she says. “Both are about taking back mourning and turning it into an act of agency… it’s how we can transcend [violence] and turn it into an act of joy.”