Stacey Lee Webber is pounding the hell out of the screw on her anvil. We’re in a corner of her workspace at the converted Globe Dye Works factory in Port Richmond, where Webber shows off the moves of a blacksmith, forging something new out of base ore. But what she’s doing is the reverse of what a blacksmith does. She’s not making the screw, she’s unmaking it; flattening it out until its spirals become a teeth on a flat line of brass. She holds it up, now completely removed from its original function in any way, shape or form, with a distinct air of pride. Unmade, the screw is now something she can use.
Webber works in mass-produced items with low value, and then meticulously removes the very thing that gave item any value at all. Her screws can no longer hold pieces of wood together, flattened as they are and soldered into explosive brass blossoms. That cufflink where Abraham Lincoln’s profile is freed from the surrounding copper can no longer be used as legal tender. By taking away their traditional use, she transforms the low-priced to the priceless.
She started working with pennies at the start of the economic collapse; she was fascinated not just with the apparently transient value of our money, but also the increasingly devalued nature of manual labor. Her first pieces were life-size construction tools made of soldered-together pennies, sturdy silhouettes of work made fragile and hollow.
“I needed to make work about this whole dynamic of the economy that was kind of falling over at the time,” Webber says. “I come from a lineage of laborers, so I started looking at my own history and thinking about the value of my labor and time.”
Webber’s work has gotten a fair amount of notoriety—she’s had a piece collected in the Smithsonian’s Renwick gallery—and does a brisk business in jewelry, her modified coins as centerpieces of cufflinks and necklaces. Turning something literally worth one cent to a precious museum piece is a rare trick, something that’s not lost on either the artist or her customers.
“It’s usually blue-collar guys, a construction worker who’s made a lot of money,” she says, describing her typical customer. The kind of person who would appreciate something elevated from a humble origin.
All this transmogrification is done by hand, with tiny saws, large hammers and invisible lines of solder. In makes a skewed sort of sense that in order for Webber to turn a penny into the equivalent of jewel, she has to turn something spit out by a factory into a handcrafted item.
Looking at the jewelry and works of art in her workshop, I’m struck by just how arbitrary our value of objects is. A penny is worth one cent because it has “one cent” engraved on its face. Webber only uses pennies from before 1982; that was when they stopped being made of solid copper and, instead, began being minted of copper-covered zinc, because there’d come the point at which a penny’s worth of copper was now worth more than the monetary value stamped onto it. That change means a lot to Webber, because she can’t solder zinc. But to anyone else, it’s still a one-cent coin, no matter what the actual metal is worth.
So much of value is mutable. Webber shows me another project she’s working on now, a commissioned tray made of silver Mercury dimes. She’s cut the curves off the coins, leaving the head of the Roman god in a perfect square. These are soldered into mosaic tiles, which in turn will make up the tray. The value of the coins themselves is indistinct: the commissioner had inherited the dimes, and they had too much emotional value to sell, but not enough to keep intact.
Webber frequently gets commissions from people who have coin collections that they have no idea what do with. Some of these collections would be quite valuable—to someone who values coin collections. Without the passion or the knowledge of the collector, these collections become merely their raw materials. No longer symbols of wealth or history, they are only so many pieces of silver.
Even though Webber is thoroughly transforming the coins, she is, in essence, returning the material to its roots. Through age and scarcity, they achieved a precious, aesthetic value, kept in a box and hidden away. By turning them into something other than money, she’s giving them a practical value again—a utility.
Webber and her husband share a living space next to their workshop. After spending so much time around her work, I’m not surprised that she’s converted a factory floor into a unique space, full of handcrafted touches. She shows me her pet turtle, and pulls out a jar of its shed shell scales. They’re gorgeous shards of mottled color, and I can see the ache in her eyes of wanting to show off this cast-off beauty in a new form. “I think they’re so freaking cool, but I don’t want to touch them at the same time,” she says. “Anything I would do sounds cheesy.”