MSU Museum exhibit features women in construction

Feb 2, 2012

On Sunday (2/5), the Michigan State University Museum opens an exhibit inspired by women who work in construction and the skilled trades.

"On Equal Terms" features mixed media pieces by Susan Eisenberg, a resident artist at Brandeis University.

Eisenberg talked about the exhibit with WKAR's Scott Pohl, starting with a reading from her poem Hanging In, Solo (So What's It Like To Be the Only Female on the Job?).

SUSAN EISENBERG: On the sunshine rainbow days, womanhood clothes me in a fuchsia velour jumpsuit and crowns me with a diamond hardhat. I flare my peacock feathers and fly through the day's work. Trombones sizzle as my drill glides through cement walls, through steel beams. Bundles of pipe rise through the air at the tilt of my thumb. Everything I do is perfect. The female of the species advances 10 spaces and takes an extra turn.

SCOTT POHL: Beautiful. I want to explore with you not just your motivation for this sort of art work, but your work history. Tell me a little bit about your work history in the trades.

EISENBERG: Well, I started as an apprentice electrician in 1978 in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Boston, which is when federal government guidelines opened construction jobs to women through executive orders by Jimmy Carter. Those guidelines should have led to women being about 25% of the workforce by now, and they're still 2.5%, so I've been trying to move the decimal point there.

POHL: The piece that the MSU Museum is highlighting in their materials promoting this show is a woman's bejeweled hard hat. Can you tell me about the inspiration behind that piece?

EISENBERG: Yeah. That's on a character I call Stella. She's a lifesize woman on a ladder, wearing the one-piece Carhartt suit that I used to wear working outdoors in the winters in Boston. The diamond hard hat, which is an image in a poem, Hanging In, Solo that I wrote when I was an apprentice, reflects that exuberance and celebration of the trade, and the joy people have in their work.

She's wearing a Carhartt suit that has on it all these tags of ways she's been labeled, and she has the diamond hard hat, and she's working alone on a ladder, but she's got a partner somewhere because she's pulling in a communication cable that must have somebody on the other end pulling it in with her.

POHL: A teamwork theme.

EISENBERG: Yeah. It's a figure that's sort of an everywoman, and carries all of the contradictions, and her face is a mask that's a composite of all different tradeswoman faces.

POHL: Tell me about the cake.

EISENBERG: I find that people, for women particularly, a real exhilaration about using tools and competence with tools. So you have this little Minnie Mouse driving over a bridge that's full of delightful things. I wanted to celebrate the fun and silliness in some ways, and the joy that people have, and I think a lot of construction sites are a lot of fun when people are working together and the job is getting done. There's a real camaraderie that you don't get in a lot of jobs.

POHL: I want to ask you about the replication of a worksite outhouse that's part of the exhibit. To me, it would seem to a good way of learning more about what the workplace is like, even more than being on the ladder and working with the tools. It's what the atmosphere at work must be like for women in the skilled trades. Is that part of what's behind that?

EISENBERG: Yeah. I constructed it so that somebody could come in there and experience that vulnerability that you can feel if you're an only woman on a job site where you're not welcome. Certainly there are job sites where you're comfortable and you're friends with people and you're respected, but where you're not and where you feel unwelcome or in a little bit of danger, I think the bathroom has always represented that.

So, there's kind of hostile graffiti. You can't quite reach the door and have it locked. There's often been issues of how high the walls are on bathrooms, to just give people a little bit of that experience. And I like that you can hear the voices of tradeswomen telling their stories while you're inside there.

"On Equal Terms" opens at the MSU Museum with a reception at 3 p-m Sunday.

Eisenberg will also give the "Our Daily Work, Our Daily Lives" lecture in the Museum's auditorium, Monday at 12:15 p-m.