As Published in Metalsmith, January, 2017
The massive Globe Dye Works complex in Northeastern Philadelphia smells of freshly ground coffee. Visitors are greeted by a gigantic antique scale and countless spools of thread in every imaginable hue, arranged just so. The building hums with activity as a network of small-batch entrepreneurs plan special event menus, frame artwork, and—evidently—roast coffee beans to perfection.
Two of these creative souls, the artist Stacey Lee Webber and her husband, sculptor Joe Leroux, along with a charming cat and surprisingly outgoing turtle, live here in a sunny apartment adjacent to their massive workspace, where Leroux’s large, playful sculptures and Webber’s delicate metalwork offer a delightful contrast in scale and spirit. Up front, a plastic deer peers from the array of materials and supplies from which Leroux’s works in progress for a major art fair are taking shape, and some past projects involving geodesic domes hang from the ceiling. At the other end of the space, Webber and her assistant are at work crafting jewelry and small sculptures from U.S. coins, small screws, and other pieces of vernacular metal. The finished products are anything but ordinary: a floral wreath comprised of different colored screws adorns one wall, and tiny silhouettes of Abraham Lincoln shine from a bracelet in progress on the bench.
Webber draws inspiration from the history and culture of manufacturing in America, and the Globe Dye Works, with its seemingly endless array of gorgeous antique machines, is an ideal place for her and Leroux to work and live. Established in 1865 in the now-gritty neighborhood of Frankford, Globe was a major manufacturer of bleaches and dyes during Philadelphia's industrial heyday, producing skeins of wool and spools of thread for use in clothing and upholstery until 2005. The rebirth of the Globe Dye Works building as a space for artists and creative small business owners is a quintessential urban tale of adaptive reuse, but it’s also particularly emblematic of the ways in which Philadelphia’s economy has had to pivot in an effort to emerge from its post-industrial malaise. Though not a Philadelphia native (she’s from Indiana), Webber’s artist’s statement notes: “Through technique and design my work manipulates materials and employs forms that evoke pride in the American working class. My pieces are celebrations of American families and the blue-collar work ethic that binds the heart of the United States.”
Since graduate school, Webber has been fascinated by both the tools of her trade, jewelry and metalsmithing, and the tools of “the trades” in general, and has used her work to explore shifting ideas about the value of labor. Working towards her MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with professors Lisa Gralnick and Kim Kridler, Webber experimented with metal filigree techniques of the kind found in the developing world, where metal is expensive but labor is cheap. Filigree pieces tend to appear gaudy to a discerning eye, but their fabrication can be exquisite and inspired. In a sense, the workmanship itself is the precious item, not the metal. This project got Webber thinking about one of the most common “valuables” in the world: coins. In 2008, she created a lifesized claw hammer using pennies. From there, she embarked on a series called “Craftsmen,” in which she created tools as complex as circular saws, shovels, and tape measures using pre-1982 pennies, which are nearly 100 percent copper, and pre-1964 quarters and dimes, which are 90 percent silver. These haunting pieces offer multiple perspectives on value of craftsmanship simultaneously. Is the hard work of hammering, sawing, and sanding worth mere pennies today? What of Webber’s own formidable craftsmanship, evident in the carefully soldered and pierced coins? And what of that of the coins themselves, each one a tiny sculpture?
If the commentary on skilled labor is not immediately evident to everyone who encounters Webber’s sculptures, people tend to understand the jewelry almost immediately. Her work can be found in the gift shops of institutions including the Museum of Arts and Design, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, and the Fuller Craft Museum. Jewelry is the realm of the precious, and her elegant and witty use of coins elicits fascination and a lot of questions. Many people want to know whether altering U.S. currency is in fact legal, and indeed it is; it is illegal to deface currency for the purpose of counterfeiting, but no one would get very far attempting to buy a cup of coffee with one of Webber’s Abe M.I.A. Necklace—part of the “Abe Collection”—in which a cascade of shiny pierced pennies are linked to one another through the negative space where Abraham Lincoln’s silhouette used to be. Webber’s inventiveness with the humble penny also extends to the coin’s historic association with luck. For her “Hex Signs” series, of which several examples are on display in the studio, she fashioned small wall pieces inspired by the hexagonal designs of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art. Lincoln profiles perch delicately on pieces of copper wire, forming radial designs reminiscent of honeycombs and snowflakes.
In her atmospheric studio and in the substance of her work, Webber is steeped in history, yet the results of her creative endeavors are original and refreshing. In this busy workspace where quarters and pennies gleam from every work surface, the preciousness is in the ideas.