East City Art Profiles—Stephanie Mercedes on Gun Violence

By Miguel Resendiz on August 20, 2019

In the past few weeks, numerous mass shootings have made headlines stirring yet another public outcry for an end to gun violence in America. At the time of this writing, there have been approximately 262 mass shootings in 2019, a number higher than the number of days in the year, 231.[1]

The District of Columbia has its own gun-related problems: 84 of 105 homicides this year were the result of shootings.[2] In mid-July, illegally-obtained guns killed seven people within one week.[3]

Aside from becoming more involved in activism and politics, what is one to do with this constant trauma and shock? How does one begin to deal with this grief?

Many artists in the area are of course tackling and commenting on the issue of gun violence, but one artist in particular is thinking about the healing process in a socially engaged way. Stephanie Mercedes moved to DC from New York when she was awarded two simultaneous fellowships at Halcyon Arts Lab and VisArts from 2017 – 2018. Since then, she has been busy exhibiting and performing art in the region.

Stephanie Mercedes, Ring of Freedom, 2016-2018. Courtesy of the artist.

One of the artist’s bodies of work is a series titled Ring of Freedom. Named after the NRA’s “premiere donor recognition program,” it specifically engages the effects of gun violence.[4] The impetus for the series was the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida. The inaugural work for the series was shown at Gallery 102 (at The George Washington University) in July 2018, and consists of 49 silver liberty bells, one for each victim, hanging from the ceiling in a spiral array. Liberty bells were chosen as the representative form because they are a symbol frequently used by the NRA. Light, delicate and pleasant sounding, the work is an approachable memorial to the victims. Ironically, however, and perhaps more chillingly, the bells were made from a melted Sig Sauer MCX Rifle and the bell chimes from melted bullet casings.

Stephanie Mercedes and Naoko Wowsugi perform 108+1 for the By the People Festival on June 22, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

In June—Gun Violence Awareness Month—Mercedes performed 108+1 in collaboration with artist Naoko Wowsugi as part of By the People Festival. 109 was the approximate number of daily deaths due to firearms in 2017.[5] In some Buddhist practices, a gong or bell is struck 108 times at the end of the year. The number has specific meaning in Buddhism, but generally, this ritual is one about self-reflection and helps to cleanse any impurities from people as they head into the new year.[6] While listening to the soothing reverberations and bangs of the gong, the audience was led into a guided meditation and asked to contemplate the high number of deaths while, perhaps, atoning for the sins of society at large. The gong was made from melted guns.

This latter is an important aspect of Mercedes’ underlying intention. Choosing to transfigure these weapons—most of which were confiscated and decommissioned by the DC Police Department—into elegant musical instruments, sculptures, or performances may provide viewers and victims with a way to process this seemingly ceaseless mourning.[7] Weapons have been transmuted into bells, harp strings, memorial plaques, a book, and a gong, with more projects in the works. She has had victims of shootings express to her that just seeing guns can be traumatic for them. Yet, seeing the metal melted down and transformed in this manner can help them to endure so much loss and grief.[8] It is also a priority for the artist to help the local community heal: she has organized public meltdowns, and has worked with some of the city’s youth programs and local organizers such as Wear Orange, Moms Demand Action, Our Generation’s Missing Piece, Coalition of Concerned Mothers, and the Washington National Cathedral. Art lovers, those who are politically engaged, and other residents in the DMV should make it a point to visit one of her numerous installations, exhibits, or performances, if only to find temporary solace.

The artist melts a Sig Sauer MCX rifle, the same weapon used in the Pulse nightclub shooting, for Ring of Freedom, in 2016. Courtesy of the artist

Banner image: Stephanie Mercedes’ book sculpture made from bullet casings to commemorate the life of Charnice Milton, a DC-based journalist and victim of gun violence. Installed at the Charnice Milton Community Bookstore at Bus Boys and Poets in Anacostia. Courtesy of the artist.

Spiraling is an installation and part of the group show “Play – Protection – Peril” on view at the H Space, 1932 9th Street NW, #C102 (Enter from 9 1/2 Street), Washington, DC 20001, through August 25th

Mercedes will be a guest artist for the REACH Opening Festival at the Kennedy Center on September 7th

The artist will host a public meltdown at the National United Methodist Church in early September

Ring of Freedom will be on view and the artist will be a performer for the National United Methodist Church’s “Silence the Violence” Concert on September 21st

A book made from bullet casings is installed indefinitely at the memorial Charnice Milton Community Bookstore at Bus Boys and Poets in Anacostia

Bullets to Bells is on view at the reception desk at Hillyer, 9 Hillyer Ct NW, Washington, DC 20008

The artist can be contacted at ornamental.activisim.contact [at] gmail [dot] com

[1] Gun Violence Archive, homepage, gunviolencearchive.org, accessed August 19, 2019.

[2] The Washington Post, “Tracking D.C.-Area Homicides,” Interactive Charts and Mapping Data, washingtonpost.com/graphics/local/homicides, accessed August 19, 2019.

[3]  Mike Murillo, “7 Shooting Deaths in DC in Less than a Week,” July 22, 2019, wtop.com/dc/2019/07/seven-shooting-deaths-in-dc-in-less-than-a-week-all-involve-illegal-guns, accessed August, 15, 2019.

[4] National Rifle Association of America, Ring of Freedom membership webpage, nraringoffreedom.com, accessed August 15, 2019.

[5] According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 39,773 people died from firearms in 2017. This number was then divided by the number of days in the year to arrive at 109 deaths per day and was used by several media outlets cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/injury.html, accessed August 15, 2019.

[6] Buddhist Bell, Blog Entry, Asian Art Museum, education.asianart.org/explore-resources/artwork/buddhist-bell, accessed August 15, 2019

[7] In conversation with the artist, July 27, 2019.

[8] Ibid.