Wednesday, November 16, 2011

PRESS RELEASE: The Mill Children at the Bennington Museum

The Mill Children – Child Labor Explored through Art at the Bennington Museum

What was it like to be a child worker in the Eclipse Cotton Mill in North Adams in 1911? This is the question that will be explored in The Mill Children, on view November 19 through December 31 in the Regional Artists Gallery of the Bennington Museum. The exhibit is a distillation of an exhibit previously held at the Brill Gallery at the Eclipse Mill in North Adams. It features responses by Realist Painter William Oberst and Abstract Painter Dawn Nelson to the photos taken in August 1911 by Lewis Wickes Hine at the Eclipse Mill for his child labor project.

Composer/Musician Matt Hopkins created original music for the original exhibition which will also accompany this exhibit. The art and music talk to the moods inside this Mill 100 years ago. “It's a centennial of sorts.” states Jamie Franklin, curator of collections at the Bennington Museum. “This exhibit is uniquely different than those previously installed.” In addition to the images from the Eclipse Mill, photos from the Bennington Museum collection reflecting mill housing on Benmont Ave. (formerly Mill St.) taken by Hine, as well as an image of the interior of the Bradford Mill taken around the same time by Frederick Burt are included in the exhibition. These provide local visitors with a sense of the conditions of the local mills at that time. On December 10, an Educational Presentation at 1:30 pm is scheduled to be given by artists and guests. This is followed with the Artists’ Reception at 3:00 pm.

History of the Mill Children at the Eclipse Mill
“From the mid 1800’s to the early 1900’s as American society was morphing from a rural agriculturally based one to a more industrial urban one, it was the poor parents and their children that were among the mix of workers in most of the large mills. Many of the workers in North Adams during this period came from the farms in French Canada. Children as young as 6 years old were a part of the mix in this country’s Woolen Mills, Cotton Mills, Canneries, Tobacco Plants, Coal Mines, Glass Works, etc. The Child Workers in front of the Eclipse Mill in 1911 were a part of the 2 million under 16 years of age children that were a part of the American work force – many working at least 12 hours a day in rough conditions with lots of injuries and lack of schooling. Most had to work to keep their families from starving. Records show that a typical family got paid about $30 a week: $12 for the father, $9 for the mother, $5 for the girls and $4 for the boys.”
– Text from Brill Gallery Productions, Ralph Brill, Director. Studio 109, Brill’s Gallery, has taken over the space that was the Boiler Room of the Eclipse Mill in North Adams.

A Bit about Lewis Wickes Hine
In 1908 the National Child Labor (NCL) Committee retained Lewis Wickes Hine to photograph child labor practices in the various mills, factories, canneries, etc. around the country. Between 1908 and 1917 he crisscrossed the country taking approximately 5,000 photographs, mainly of young workers, which were used to bring the ills of child labor into the public consciousness. Over time, many of Hine's most powerful images became American icons, including his photograph originally known by the caption scrawled on the reverse of the photograph as, "Addie Laird, 12 years. Spinner in North Pormal [i.e., Pownal] Cotton Mill. Vt."

In the summer of 2002, noted author Elizabeth Winthrop saw this image of Addie Laird at the Bennington Museum. Winthrop was struck by the beautiful little girl, and the haunting photograph inspired her to write a fictional account of Addie's life, "Counting on Grace." After finishing her novel, Winthrop felt impelled to track down the identity of the real Addie. The child’s identity was uncovered, in part, by researching archival materials and enlarged reproductions of Hine’s photographs from North Pownal that are included in the Bennington Museum collection. A vintage photograph of mill housing in Bennington by Hine, taken in May 1909, and a first edition of the book "The Bitter Cry of the Children" by John Spargo, the founding Director of the Bennington Museum, an ardent social advocate, and a friend of Hine are among the other items relating to this powerful subject. It is the images captured by Hine that are the basis for the painted responses by Oberst and Nelson.

The Responding Artists
William Oberst holds an MFA in painting from Stony Brook University and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Claremont Graduate University. He taught painting and drawing at Stony Brook for more than a decade and is the recipient of many awards, including the university’s Distinguished Faculty Service Award in 2002. He maintains a studio-residence in downtown North Adams, Massachusetts.

Dawn Nelson was born outside of Chicago in 1951 and grew up in the mid-west. Nelson received a B.F.A. from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL, and attended graduate school at Lesley College in Cambridge, MA, where she received a degree in Expressive Therapies. After college she moved to Boston, and for 10 years worked in human services, both as an Art Therapist and as a program administrator. Following this, Nelson worked for 25 years as an Art Teacher mostly at the middle school level. She has also taught graduate level summer courses to Art Teachers at Northeastern University. In the fall of 2009, Nelson extended her reach by getting a studio at the Eclipse Mill in North Adams, MA.

-Mill Girl, Oil on Canvas, 2011, © William Oberst, All Rights Reserved.
-Row of mill houses belonging to Holden, Leonard Co., woolen mill, Bennington, VT.
May, 1909, Photo by Lewis W. Hine
-The Mill Children Exhibition Print, © Brill Gallery Productions. All Rights Reserved
-Grungy Vibrating Cathedral, Oil on Loose Canvas, 2011, © Dawn Nelson. All Rights Reserved.