Words that cut (like) a mother

This is a story about my most recent work of art, in tribute to the tribe of folks who helped me with this work.

In the fall of 2021, I was thinking about what type of work I wanted to submit for the show Mythologies of Motherhood at the Susquehanna Art Museum. I had a few ideas about how a work might give voice to some of the hurtful things said to women about motherhood. I posted something to Facebook in December, asking women to share their stories. Lots of people commented and others sent me private messages.

I created a word document with all of these phrases and started to think about how to share the stories. I knew that I wanted scissors to be a visual play on the idea of cutting remarks made to these moms.

My initial idea was to make small books that were shaped like scissors and opened like a paper fan, with one hurtful phrase printed on the arc of paper, folded like an accordion when you separated the front and back cover of the book. One night Sam and I stood at the island in our kitchen trying to figure out the engineering on scrap paper.

Things were spinning in my head but I wasn’t sure it would work and knew I needed to prototype something. A few days later, Henry Gepfer stopped by my classroom and we exchanged engineering dilemmas for pieces we were both working on. He asked me if I had considered just engraving the words on the scissors. I had not. Pure genius, that guy.

I started looking for scissors I could buy. I didn’t find anything I thought would work, but I did have a vintage scissor rack that I thought would make a really cool display.

I asked our department superhero/studio technician Zach Mellman-Casey whether we could engrave scissors. We threw some ideas around and he suggested we could actually create scissors by cutting them out of metal sheets on the Wazer in the fabrication lab. Then, we could laser engrave them. Mind you, I have never done any of these processes before but Zach said this so matter of factly that I believed this would be a pretty straightforward process I would complete well before the show deadline.

Line (pronounced Lee-na!) Bruntse suggested I use stainless steel since the work would be handled (I still considered this a type of artist book that viewers would interact with). Seemed reasonable. The idea was solid: I was going to buy sheets of stainless steel, we were going to cut them on the Wazer, and then laser engrave the hurtful phrases onto the scissors, which would be displayed in that rack.

I galavanted to Sahd Metal Recycling one cold day and bought a 40lb. sheet of stainless steel. The man who weighed it asked me what I was doing and raised an eyebrow when I assured him I did not need help carrying it to my car. What actually carried the steel to my car and maneuvered it into my Prius? My confidence this was all going to work out swimmingly, that’s what.

I love the metal piles at Sahd’s. ❤

I got that steel to work and carried it up three flights of stairs so Zach could tell me it was way too thick to cut on the Wazer.

Narrator: this would not be Leslie’s first rookie mistake.

Superhero Zach lifted my spirits by showing me how to create a file that we could use for cutting out scissors and he made a prototype of the scissors using the metal from an old file cabinet. Seeing it nourished my hope enough for me keep going rather than give up.

I need the right material, and in order to not make the same expensive mistake again, I asked Line to chaperone me to the scrap yard in exchange for a post-scrap yard trip to the local brewery. She said yes. Whew. We bought some stainless steel sheets with a reasonable gauge and she taught me about how to attach the scissors using rivets.

When we got the stainless steel sheets back to the office, Line told me we could cut the steel sheets down to the size of the Wazer bed using the shear. I had no idea what a shear was. But then that didn’t work, so we used a nibbler. She complimented my nibbling (not the official term)! While I was cutting all the sheets of steel, Zach was cleaning out a cabinet and found a pair of leather gloves, which he asked if I wanted. I figured that was a good idea…way less blood that way and people might believe I knew what I was doing if I dressed the part.

Zach got everything set up for the Wazer and pushed the button that was supposed to make the magic happen and…the Wazer wasn’t working correctly. We waited on a replacement part for about a week. At this point, it was mid February and I was feeling pretty stressed. I don’t usually make art for deadlines and let me tell you…there is a reason for that. I sent a bad prototype to the curator with some written info. about the concept still hoping I (read: we, but mostly Zach) could pull it off in time.

While we waited for the replacement part to come in, Zach had done some research and realized the laser in the engraver wasn’t strong enough to engrave stainless steel, and that the mirrored steel would cause all sorts of problems with the laser. (Does anyone need some well-nibbled stainless steel sheets?)

In a third attempt to buy material, I might have teared up in the hardware section of Lowe’s. I was there to buy steel (from a display that was completely disorganized) and pop rivets. The two men who tried to help me were not impressed when I pulled out the prototype scissors engraved with realities of motherhood trying to explain the project in hopes of buying the right type of rivet the first time.

Narrator: she didn’t buy the right type the first time.

Once I had my third supply of steel and Zach had worked his magic on replacing the defective parts of the Wazer, we were in business, but I was not going to make the show deadline. Alison Keener (who is curating the show) promised me she would take the work with her for the install and found me a few more days and I shamelessly paid her for her kindness in a bottle of Malbec.

Finally, Zach could successfully cut 14 pairs of steel scissors on the Wazer and I asked Line to help me figure out how to deburr (learned that word from Sam) them so that they were smooth to the touch. She handed me a tool she attached to a tank-like thing on the wall that made a hissing sound and recommended I wear earplugs and pull my hair back. I pulled out my fake-it-till-you-make-it leather gloves and deburred until my hand was cramping so bad I had to stop.

When you don’t have any idea what the tools are called, you text your metal head husband. (He text me back photos of the dog as encouragement).

The next morning I returned to the sculpture studio and there was no hissing. This is also known as “there is no pressure in the airhose.” Line, Becky McDonah (MU’s metalsmith), and Zach were in and out of the sculpture studio that morning and assured me that it wasn’t something I did, but I think they were distracted by my sexy leather gloves. Zach showed me how to use a buffing wheel to create a consistent finish on the scissors and Becky graciously agreed to let me use the machine and showed me how to turn it on. I still don’t know what that machine is named but it has a sign taped on it that says “Red Rouge” which is a sounds like a nightclub and is therefore likely not its actual name.

Thanks to Zach’s ongoing research, he grew concerned the engraving might not work well unless we added something to the surface of the metal. Two days later I left my house at 7 am to drive to Harrisburg to pick up a $17 bottle of dry moly lube at the closest supplier I could find.

I coated the scissors in the spray booth and Zach experimented with different settings on the laser engraver. I added a second coat of lube based on what we learned. A few hours and 12 oz. of isopropyl alcohol later…magic.

It was time to put the scissors together with rivets. Imagine how easy that would have been if the rivets would have fit in the holes that the wazer cut! Luckily Sam was willing and able to drill larger holes in each of the scissors and put in the first rivet. Somehow I didn’t realize the rivets I bought were white. It looked rather horrible, the scissors were scratched from the rivet gun, and I was pretty sure I was going to just throw everything in the trash.

Instead, Sam took the kids on an outing and I went back to the hardware store for different rivets. When the young man working in the hardware aisle asked me what he could help me with, I pulled the one of scissors we had attached with a rivet out of my purse and explained I needed different rivets. He asked, “Is this an art project for a class?” “Nope.” Notice how I wasn’t wearing my leather gloves and he assumed I was a student who didn’t know what I was doing?!?! How perceptive of him.

Narrator: there was almost a second incident of crying in the hardware aisle.

I got home and watched a YouTube video on how to remove a rivet. Sam and I worked to put the new steel rivets in. I wasn’t sure what to do with the backs of the scissors and the protruding rivet. Sam asked if we had a metal grinder at work to clean up the backs.

A late Friday night text to Line led to a Saturday morning back working in the sculpture studio. This time I had an extra assistant.

As we worked with the back of the rivets, I realized we engraved all of the scissors on the wrong side on the blade. Once they were attached, the scissors opened backwards. There are scratches some places there shouldn’t be, and the rivets – while a very adequate solution – aren’t perfect. But it was good enough, and it needed to be finished. Line told me that Becky was also working in the studio and suggested she might have some tips for photographing the work before I left. From Becky, I learned about diffused light and bouncers (why are there so many references to night clubs in the metals studio?) and managed to make this piece look like it deserves to be seen, even with my lackluster iPhone 10 camera.

In closing, here are three things I want you to know:

  1. When this work is on display, it will have only my name on it and that’s grossly unfortunate. Thanks to Sam, Zach, Line, Becky, and Henry, who played a huge role in the conceptualization and making of this work. Thanks to the moms who shared their hurt with me and allowed me to include it in part of the piece. Thanks to Alison and a squad of cheerleaders who thought this work was worth finishing and checked in on me in the dark days and in the hardware aisle.
  2. You can go see this work and all of its glorious imperfections at the Susquehanna Art Museum’s Show Mythologies of Motherhood, which opens March 10th and runs until June 26th. Admission is free on the 3rd Friday evening of every month from 5 – 8 PM as part of Third in the Burg.
  3. Being a learner is hard, y’all.