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Playful take on trades

Exhibition illustrates contradictions facing female workers

Artist and electrician Susan Eisenberg, with ''Stella'' on the ladder, said the exhibition in the Adams Gallery at Suffolk University grew out of her own experiences and that of other women in the construction trades. Artist and electrician Susan Eisenberg, with ''Stella'' on the ladder, said the exhibition in the Adams Gallery at Suffolk University grew out of her own experiences and that of other women in the construction trades. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / March 1, 2009
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Power tools that resemble piñatas hang from the ceiling; wires are transformed into ribbons; work gloves become sculptures. The unlikely combination of objects are all part of "On Equal Terms: Women in Construction 30 Years & Still Organizing," in the Adams Gallery at Suffolk University through March 17.

"I think the underlying idea is to show the complexity and contradictions of women in the trades," said artist Susan Eisenberg. "There are rough elements to being a woman working in construction, but there are also gentle, playful aspects that need to be acknowledged."

Eisenberg, who is a published poet with a master of fine arts degree in creative writing as well as a master electrician's license, said the exhibit grew out of her own experiences and that of other women in the construction trades. After 15 years as an electrician, she decided to create an oral history, "We'll Call You if We Need You: Experiences of Women Working in Construction," which was published in 1998 by Cornell University Press. But Eisenberg said the physical aspect of the work was missing from the stories. As a visiting scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, she was encouraged to expand her idea of an installation piece, and "On Equal Terms" debuted there with the help of a "Liberty and Justice for All" grant from Mass. Humanities, the state-based affiliate of the National Endowment for the Arts.

"I decided to do an installation because the physicality of the coffee break station, the bathroom shack, the size and weight of the ladders on a site was an important aspect of the work," she said. "I remember the first time I went up into the ceiling on a job at the airport and it felt like an entirely different world."

The rickety bathroom shack is filled with some of the unpleasant graffiti the workers faced. Gallery visitors can don headphones there to listen to the women Eisenberg interviewed for her book talking about the obstacles they had to overcome. There are also framed texts from the Department of Labor and from young women studying at area vocational-technical high schools about whether they felt encouraged to pursue a career in the trades. ("They're pretty evenly divided," Eisenberg said.)

Eisenberg got her electrician's license in 1978, at a time when the Labor Department published a timetable for affirmative action in the trades. By 2000, the department anticipated, 25 percent of the workforce would be female. Instead, 2007 figures indicate only 2.7 percent of construction workers are women. In Boston, a Transportation Equity Study found that in 2006 only 1 percent of construction workers were women.

The question was, said Eisenberg, are the numbers so low because women weren't interested or capable, or was something else going on? When she began talking to other female workers, she was struck by the range of experiences, good, bad, and indifferent.

One aspect of the industry Eisenberg found appealing was the camaraderie among workers. "The trades involve enormous skill and training," she said. "I wanted to acknowledge the creativity, teamwork, and ingenuity that goes into getting a building built safely. Blueprints only go so far, and you have to make adjustments on the ground to make sure everything fits together properly. I don't think you really appreciate that until you're on a job site and you see it happen."

There's also an enormous sense of pride in seeing something that you built, she said. "I think kids in particular love the fact that their parent was part of something."

Among the objects on display are coloring books that feature construction workers and tools. One of the most whimsical pieces is a birthday cake decorated with a bridge made of Twizzlers and toy tools. Around the base of the cake is written "My kids know which bridges in town are mine."

At the center of the gallery, towering over everything and easily visible from the street outside is "Stella," the life-sized form of a female construction worker, whose face is a composite of tradeswomen's faces.

"She's strong," said Eisenberg, "and maybe a little intimidating, but she's got diamonds on her hard hat. I like that those contradictions exist together."

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.

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