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Melting guns and bullet casings, this artist turns weapons into bells

<em>Name Against the Same </em>is part of Stephanie Mercedes' A Sky of Shattered Glass Reflected by the Sun<em> </em>exhibition at Culture House in Washington, D.C.
Stephanie Mercedes
Name Against the Same is part of Stephanie Mercedes' A Sky of Shattered Glass Reflected by the Sun exhibition at Culture House in Washington, D.C.

Inside an art gallery in southwest Washington, D.C., artist Stephanie Mercedes is surrounded by bells, many of them cast from bullet casings and parts of old guns.

"I melt down weapons and transform them into musical installations and musical instruments," she explains.

Bells captivate Mercedes as a medium, she says, because they carry spiritual significance across cultures. Their sound purifies space. At a time when mass shootings regularly rock the country, bells are also tools of mourning. The death knells of her instruments first memorialized the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. It was that tragedy that inspired this project.

"Because I'm gay, I'm Latina, and I easily could have been there," she says. But Mercedes points out that most of us could be anywhere a mass shooting happens — a grocery store, a concert hall, a workplace, a school. Part of her work involves recording the sounds of weapons melting in her furnace and composing the audio into soundscapes for her shows, including the one where we talked, called A Sky of Shattered Glass Reflected by the Shining Sun at Culture House.

"Guns are normally a combination of galvanized steel and aluminum," she says. "So I have to cut those down and melt them at different temperatures or through different casting processes."

<em>Sonic Fracture</em>
/ Stephanie Mercedes
/
Stephanie Mercedes
Sonic Fracture

"As casters, we wear these big leather aprons, because molten metal is very dangerous for your body. But there's something very meditative about that process because, in that moment, you're holding this strange, transformed, liquid metal, and you only have a few seconds to pour it into a shape it truly wants to become. "

Many of Mercedes' bells are not beautiful. Some look like the weapons they used to be. Others are small, twisted bells that look like primitive relics, from a ruined civilization. Primitive relics, the artist says, are something she hopes all guns will one day be.

Edited by: Ciera Crawford
Audio story produced by:
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento
Audio story edited by:
Ciera Crawford
Visual Production by:
Beth Novey

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.