Feel like a child deafened in the mills

Thursday September 8, 2011

NORTH ADAMS -- Dawn Nelson's abstract oil on canvas "Young Mill Spirit" stands as a sentry on a wall of the Eclipse Mill Gallery. Trapped behind a wall of windows and surrounded by a melancholy prism of blue, gray and purple, the fading image of a child serves as a haunting reminder of the childhoods lost at the former cotton mill that now houses the gallery.

"He's a child who really got ‘massacred' by the system. So much of the child was lost in the mill," Nelson said.

She was referring to the young boy in a 1911 photograph taken by famed child labor photographer Lewis Hine at the Eclipse Mill. Hine's photograph inspired the painting.

"This kid who was so brilliant and alive faded into a kind of oblivion," she said.

Nelson has eight works hanging in the gallery as part of its current exhibit, "The Mill Children," which aims to take visitors on a journey into the life of an 11-year-old child worker at the Eclipse Mill in 1911. The exhibit opened on the 100th anniversary of the day Hine took the historic photographs outside of the former North Adams cotton mill, and it will run through Sept. 25.

Hine's photographs inspired the multimedia exhibit, which gathers the work of painters Nelson and William Oberst, musician Matt Hopkins and filmmaker Steven Borns, with additional collaboration from historian Joe Manning, North Adams educator Anne French and exhibit curator Ralph Brill, director of the Brill Gallery.

"This is when it started making sense to me," said Nelson, standing in front of a piece of artwork she called "Grungy Vibrating Cathedral."

The oil painting hangs on one of the building's original brick walls, and it has roots in a Hine photograph taken at a Fall River mill in the eastern part of the state. The canvas has been cut and re-stitched into an uneven pattern of vibrant colors, and the magnitude of the piece, like many in the exhibit, can elicit a chilling physical reaction from any observer.

"You had aisles that went on for city blocks. The children worked 12 to 13 hour days. Every half-hour an overseer walked through the aisle, so there was almost no adult supervision, and they were working on these large machines." Nelson said. "The work they had to do was long, and at times it was fast and hard.

Yet surprisingly, Nelson added, there was also a lot of lag-time, allowing opportunities for the child workers to play.

"These kids not only were working, but they had a lot of fun, too," she said.

The enlivened colors of the piece may depict youth and fun, but the style in which Nelson painted the scene portrays the children's energy and the constant movement within the workspace caused not only by the children's fast-paced work (and play), but also by the bone-rattling vibrations of the machines.

"The safety conditions were inadequate and very dangerous," Nelson said. "Children were losing fingers and limbs, and some lost their hearing."

A few minutes in the gallery will reveal the effect the machines had on a young worker's eardrums. As visitors meander through the exhibit along original wide-planked floors scarred by the ghosts of former workers and large machinery, a constant humming resonates within the ear canal. It is uncomfortable and threatens to leave people running for the doors. But to stay is to experience the mill 100 years ago through the eyes and ears of the young children who were forced to work there to help support their struggling families.

"When we interviewed families (with connections to the former mill), that's the biggest thing they remembered -- the noise," Brill said. "Everyone we spoke to said they didn't know how their parents survived the noise of the machines and the constant banging."

The soundtrack for the exhibit is Hopkins' work, and from patron reactions thus far, it is having the effect Brill hoped for.

"People have asked us to turn it off," Brill said. "The music vibrates and rings in the ears, but it is mild compared to the sounds of the real mill."

Brill is also counting on footage from an old Adams Mill to enhance that experience, along with images from William Oberst's gouache and oil-paintings of a young female worker, real cotton samples and spindles, film vignettes documenting the artists' thought processes as they worked on the exhibit created by filmmaker Steven Borns, and a curriculum for local school children created by North Adams school's service-learning coordinator Anne French.

"We want visitors to feel what it was like to be an 11-year-old child 100 years ago," Brill said.

Regardless of their connection to the mill or North Adams, visitors to the Eclipse Mill Gallery this month will surely feel that and more. They will leave the old mill touched by an experience that may leave them forever changed.

"People can say they like the art or they don't," Brill said, "but in the end after seeing and experiencing the whole thing the idea is to have them say, ‘Now I get it.' "

If you go ...

What: ‘The Mill Children,' a multimedia exhibit inspired by the 100th anniversary of child labor photographer Lewis Hine's 1911 photographs at the former Eclipse Mill in North Adams.

Where: Eclipse Mill Gallery, 24 Union St., North Adams

When: Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., through Sept. 25

Events: Today and Sept. 22, local school children from the North Adams Public School District will share songs and presentations
at the gallery.

Information: (413) 664-4353, www.brillgallery109.com


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