Spring 2014 Outbound residency
at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum
Late Spring 2014
No more shall I hear the whistle blow To call me up so soon; No more shall I hear the whistle blow To call me from my home.
-The Factory Girl / an American ballad
Chicago’s traditional late spring swelter was just a distant memory in the face of rolling fields and budding greens spattered with popping pinks and radiant yellows of a spring ascending. The 174 miles of pavement I’d covered that morning seem like yesterday as I headed into my home for the next two weeks, Two Rivers, Wisconsin. While I can spend days singing the praises of weeks spent walking day and night, sunsets and sunrises by the riverside (or lakeside—take your pick), smoked Lake Michigan whitefish, local festivals, and solitude; I’m not. I grew up in a small manufacturing town punctuated by railroads and rivers. In a lot of ways Two Rivers was just like my home and the many villages and townships just like it scattered across the country.
There are many facets of our cultural history that are or are at risk of falling to the wayside of our memories. Coming from Chicago, the metropolitan center of America’s heartland, we maybe forget that all the routes into our great city had to come from somewhere. Our slaughterhouses would not have been so great, had their not been the land to raise the cattle and railroads to ship them, and there’d be no reason to raise so many cattle, had there not been a growing city to demand them. Hamilton is a beautiful example of the reciprocity of the part and whole; the exchange of raw goods and services that built both our cities and their surrounding countryside. However, it is also a reminder of the fragility of cultural history that falls to the wayside.
My art practice is driven by a research practice that examines the history of industry in rural America. An investigation into the manufacturing of wood cuts and engravings used by agricultural companies led me to the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum. Manufacturing is as much a part of rural culture and its vitality as the more commonly thought of source of rural livelihood, agriculture. To get historical footing, I spent the early part of my residency reading about the history of Two Rivers at the library in the evening, while I curated the various cuts and engravings produced at the Hamilton Manufacturing Company during the day.
Not surprisingly, this seemingly sleepy port town didn’t used to be so quiet. I thought about this as I walked from one side of the museum to the other, passing Jim as he ran the pantograph machine [click link to hear]. We romanticize these things now; the rhythmic clattering and buzzing of a sole press in a pressroom for example. But think of hundreds of these machines running under a single roof hours on end. I found myself with fleeting reminders of late nights spent in the packinghouse I used to work at, and the intensity of the machines as they all ran and the ineffectiveness of the ear plugs. As I took morning runs over and passed over the quiet ports on the West Twin River, I thought of a Two Rivers with a tannery, two sawmills, a lumberyard, a wooden chair factory, an aluminum goods manufacturing plant, and a busy port and depot. Then I thought of the bustle of a Chicago at the turn of the century, and all those ships and railcars moving north and south, stopping in Milwaukee along the way, keeping this town alive for so many years.
During a work break one afternoon I spoke with one of the many volunteers Hamilton has, Hamilton historian, chief tour guide, former Hamilton employee and a life long resident of Two Rivers, Bob Mueller. He spoke with me about working at the factory, what his job used to be, and how employee/company relations changed over the years with the different owners. It was a conversation I really relished, reminding me of conversations with my own father, and really putting into perspective a lot of why these experiences are so important.
The TRANSIT residency with the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin offers a unique opportunity. Not just the ability to work with an amazing collection of type and cuts or alongside incredible curators and artists alike. It offers an opportunity to examine a history from its epicenter: engaging with historical materials, talking with current curators and artists engaging with and breathing new life into the materials, speaking and engaging with a community whose life at one time depended on it and who are now offered their own unique opportunity to understand and experience the breadth of their history.
Hamilton is a testament to the history of Two Rivers, and many small towns in our country. More importantly, Hamilton is a testament to the critical role artists play in keeping these places – their past and future – relevant, and in turn, alive. Where would this museum be had the arts community not taken interest? And then think of all the other sectors of fallen industry in this country, and the towns and communities that are going with them, that aren’tgetting or just haven’t had this kind of attention? It is our responsibility as artists, as researchers, to keep these places from going unnoticed, to engage with these communities that were once our own. We need to keep those factory doors open for new possibilities, much like Hamilton has.