Altoona Distinguished Professor creates jewelry, celebrates Women's Suffrage

 "The Best Medicine/A Bitter Pill"

Rebecca Strzelec created "The Best Medicine/A Bitter Pill" for the virtual AMEND exhibition.

Credit: Rebecca Strzelec

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, a hard-fought-for passage that guarantees and protects women’s constitutional right to vote.

Rebecca Strzelec is one of 100 she/they artists across the nation using her art to make a statement about past, present, and future voting equity through the online exhibit AMEND.

Strzelec, distinguished professor of visual arts at Penn State Altoona, was invited to participate in the project by its creators, Kerianne Quick and Jess Tolbert, who gave only one direction to the artists — design a piece of jewelry using the “I Voted” sticker as a starting point. Interpreting that any way they wanted, jewelry artists and metalsmiths from all career levels created pieces that demonstrate a wide range of subject matter and concern.

Wanting to highlight her voting record and document her candidate choices, Strzelec decided on presidential elections as her subject matter. She considered why she chose which candidates, including their platforms and policies. A major factor stood out to her. “One of the polarizing issues between our two parties is the ability for those with female reproductive organs to manage their bodies as they see fit. I will always vote for the person who allows me a better chance to make that choice for myself and my daughter until she can do so herself.”

Once she knew she wanted to focus on reproductive rights and her presidential selections, Strzelec began her design. She settled on a pill pack form based on her nearly 30 years of taking birth control.

“Each month, I unwrap that pill pack and apply a sticker adjusting the days of the week so that I remember to take one pill each morning. My piece is a pseudo-pharmaceutical, a prop really.”

Strzelec used Rhino, a 3D modeling application, to model the pills. She then printed them in a very feminine pink using a 3D printer on campus. The pills are stamped with the initials of each candidate Strzelec voted for and safely encased, just like the real thing, in vacuum-formed thermoplastic backed with pharmaceutical pressure seal foil, a material Strzelec never expected to use in her work.

Once Strzelec sealed the pack, she modeled a rigid tray for the whole thing to slip into, a clock-like form labeled around the perimeter with the years of presidential elections matched with the pill/candidate she voted for. Dosage directions in the center mimic those found on a pack of birth control pills, though she tweaked them to read, “Take pink pill once every four years on the first Tuesday after Nov. 1.”

She finished the piece with a pink rubber cord and magnetic closure.

Strzelec says the piece represents her values and the importance she places on personal choice, but it also illustrates things society doesn’t talk about widely. “That list of things is very long—sex, infertility, mental health, money, on and on. We don’t talk about these things because they make people uncomfortable. But that discomfort creates a gap in awareness and education.

If I can make a sarcastic/humorous /larger-than-life piece about those things and it allows for some of these quiet subjects to be more present in public discourse, even just a little, then I am helping fill some of those gaps.”

—Rebecca Strzelec , distinguished professor of visual arts at Penn State Altoona

That the anniversary of the 19th amendment coincides with a presidential election and a contentious political climate adds even more significance to AMEND. The project could have been just an online exhibition aimed at education and awareness, but its creators opted to do more.

All pieces in the show are for sale, with several artists making editions of their work. A portion of each sale goes to Black Voters Matter, an organization dedicated to increasing power in marginalized, predominantly Black communities. It aims to increase voter registration and turnout, advocate for policies to expand voting rights and access, develop infrastructure where little, or none, exists, and fund activities related to specific elections. Strzelec says that based on the country’s current administrative lack of support for Black lives, launching a project that supports Black voters means everything.

She also says that the show's work is diverse and represents 100 different stories of what voting means to artists. “These are she/they artists who are often provided with fewer opportunities and less pay in just about everything we do. To me, AMEND is the megaphone that many of us need right now when, no matter how loud we shout, we don't feel heard or see change. To be linked to all of these artists right now creates another community to lean on and find strength in. I’m honored to be included.”

This exhibition highlights the continued fight for true universal suffrage by promoting and supporting initiatives that combat voter suppression and advocate expanding voting rights—to amend what is wrong in the system.

To amend is to make minor changes in (a text) in order to make it fairer, more accurate, or more up-to-date.

To amend is to modify (formally), to make better, to improve.

In other words, to amend, is to put right.