By An Uong
Salem, MA – The Salem Harbor power plant towers over the rest of the cobblestoned town.
It is hard to imagine what kind of machinery lie within the dauntingly large group of buildings, let alone all of the people it takes to run such a system. On the other side of the North River is the Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, where, though students study art in all kinds of environments, carrying out the artistic process at a power plant is a first for the college.
Montserrat Professors Ethan Berry, Rebecca Bourgault and Dawn Paul developed the idea with Footprint Power, who recently became the plant’s new owner. These teachers, along with 29 Montserrat students and the plant employees, produced the exhibit “Across the Bridge: Art and Power.” The project is documentary by nature in its exploration of the employees’ histories and daily lives. Students spent their time interviewing the plant’s workers to discover the stories that exist behind normally closed gates.
Outside of the world experience that these students have gained, the public has been given the opportunity to learn about the individuals who have worked at the plant for upwards of 40 years. The plant is in the final stages of shutting down and is to be replaced by a natural gas facility.
Montserrat President Stephen Immerman has appreciated the relationship established between the college and Footprint. “As visual storytellers, the students documented, recognized, and honored the workers,” he said.
In the plant’s turbine room, amidst the seemingly tangles pipes and ladders, a maze of walls was erected to house the students’ art. The works in the show span across the genres of photography, video, drawing, painting, poetry, sculpture and installation as the wide range of media addresses the intricacies of the plant and its employees. Acting as vessels for the stories that were told to them, Montserrat students have relayed what they’ve learned by generating art to be shared with others.
Documenting the community through art challenged Montserrat students to leave their realms of familiarity. “Everybody had to step out of their comfort zone to find these wonderful narratives waiting to be told,” professor Berry said.
For Kayleigh Bird Hawes, the project led to the expansion of her artistic reach. “My work is usually very personal,” she said, “so it was interesting to make work for others.” At the completion of the course, she had made eight artist books, some of which are accordion-structured. They are collectively titled “Reflections.” They hold the stories and memories that she has gathered from those she interviewed at the plant. The books’ form reflects the interwoven lives they represent, by displaying the stories in a zigzagged manner.
Among the diverse pieces, Sarah Graziano’s installation, “Remnants,” creates an environment of artifacts. The carefully organized piece sits in a corner of the gallery. It has battered coats hanging from one wall, and a shelf of manuals and jars of coal on the other. A pedestal holds more stacked jars of coal accompanied by old manual pages, on the backs of which are stories collected from employees. The piece encourages audience involvement by asking individuals to pick and keep few stories from a pile.
Through this process, viewers carry the bits and pieces outside of the plant, into other environments where these histories can be retold.
On the more hand-drawn end of the show is Anthony Corrado’s “Turn Around 1-4,” a character study of four employees in watercolor. Each of the four panels provides a view of workers standing in different positions: front, left, right, back. The playful quality of the illustrations turns workers into possible main characters of an animation. Though the piece is 2-Dimensional, it gives us a literal 360-degree view of the people who work at the plant.
The logistically complicated project at first seemed hard to achieve, but at its culmination, students, workers, and community members were left with rare experiences and meaningful relationships. “Across the Bridge” is not simply a documentary body of work. It is a portrait of the plant and the people within it.
(“Across the Bridge: Art and Power” continues through July 2 at the Salem Harbor power plant, 24 Fort Avenue, Salem, Mass. The exhibition will be on display Tuesday and Wednesday from 1-5 p.m., Thursdays, from 3-7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 2-6 p.m. For more information, call (800) 836-0487.)
View a slideshow of the students’ work, photos by Bethany Acheson: