'Mill Children' exhibit offers lessons in using art to spur reform

Tuesday September 13, 2011

NORTH ADAMS -- Dozens of Berkshire County educators are hoping their students can learn some new lessons by exploring the lives of the children who worked in a North Adams mill 100 years ago.

"The majority of these people were French-Canadian, coming from Quebec, which was struggling with a recession in the late-1800s to early-1900s," said Ralph Brill.

The architect and artist maintains Brill Gallery in the Eclipse Mill, where a great number of families, young children included, worked preparing cotton for textiles a century ago.

"They were very eager for jobs because their families were starving," he said of the families. "They came to the area, which is why many last names in North Adams today are French."

Over the past year, he worked with realist painter William Oberst, abstract painter Dawn Nelson, musician Matt Hopkins, historian Joe Manning, educator Anne French and filmmaker Steven Borns to curate the gallery's current exhibit, "The Mill Children," which is on display through Sept. 25.

A reception of music of that era, performed by local students, will be held on Sept. 22. Brill hopes the exhibit will later be continued in the Berkshires and also function as a touring display.

The entire exhibit was inspired by nine photographs of child mill workers taken outside of the Eclipse Mill by Lewis Wickes Hine in August 1911. The Wisconsin-born educator became known for his role as an American sociologist who used his photography to promote social reform. In particular, his iconic photographs became instrumental raising awareness of the hardships of child labor, and ultimately reforming child labor laws.

"Though at the time in Massachusetts, the standard age for a child to begin work was 14 years old, but a lot of mill owners didn't respect that," Brill said. "There were children working in mills across the country as young as age 6."

On Friday, about 40 local teachers, from Lee to Cummington to North Adams, gathered at the mill gallery to learn more about the exhibit and the history of its child workers.

Anne French, service-learning coordinator at Drury High School, also introduced them to a new 23-page guide to help teachers educate their students, Grades 3 through 12, about the contents of the exhibit.

Already, some classes in the county will be taking field trips to the exhibit and working on projects related to the history of child

"I hope the students are able to see and understand the role children played in the industrialization of this country," French said. "One hundred years ago, only certain kids got to go to school, usually boys, and many would drop out by age 11 or 12."

She said the guide helps instructors navigate through history, such as how labor laws affected public education.

"Another teaching point includes the role of art and how it reflects on what's going on in the world, how it's impacted social reform, and how kids can use their own art to make a difference," French said.

If you go

What: A free, public reception and presentation of traditional French-Canadian songs performed by local students relevant to the history of the Eclipse Mill and the current Brill Gallery exhibit, "The Mill Children."

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22

Where: Brill Gallery at Eclipse Mill, 243 Union St., North Adams.

Information: www.brillgallery109.com. To download a free copy of the teachers guide, visit the above gallery website or https://drury.napsk12.org


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