Making art from industry: Pittsfield celebrates its past


PITTSFIELD -- A week before the A.H. Rice Silk Mill officially closed in 2006, Evan J. Soldinger walked into the gallery at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts. At a reception for an art show, he spoke to Jeff Winslow, longtime owner of Wild Sage antiques on North Street, who told him the mill's owner, Jim Miller, might let any artist in the room to come to the mill in its last week of operation.

Soldinger had lived in Pittsfield since 1975 and had never seen the inside of the mill, which made fine thread and sold braid for uniforms worldwide -- so he went with his camera.

A quiet group of six or 10 people were still at work dismantling machinery to send to Miller's mill in South Carolina, Soldinger said.

Winslow had asked the visiting artists to treat them gently.

"He said ‘They'll be losing their jobs in a week, so please be respectful,'" Soldinger recalled.

The mill would close, he said, in part because of the high cost of heating the draughty brick buildings. It had run for 128 years.

Rows of knitting machines stood still, as though their operators had just taken a break. Patches of oil darkened the floor. Walking through the mill, Soldinger could see that the original building had been added onto, one building connected to another with a haphazard look. One large section stood completely open, he said. In another, about 20 silk thread machines still carried spools and, in the next aisle, bins held parts, gears or empty spools. The aisles had space enough for fork-lift trucks to pass through.

Large pieces of machinery and parts lay around, and artists could quietly ask permission to take any the mill staff no longer needed.

Winslow, who fostered the local art community in many ways until he died suddenly last spring, had hoped to see artist studio space in these buildings when the machinery left them, Soldinger said.

Now several of Soldinger's photographs from the Silk Mill will appear at the Lichtenstein, coming full circle this Friday with the opening of "BAA Redux: Industrial Manifest" during the First Fridays Artswalk, another arts effort Winslow encouraged.

The Litchtenstein's newest art show continues a summer-long theme of Arts + Industry across the city, celebrating Pittsfield's history. The theme launched with "Our Industrial Heritage 2.0," a photography exhibit at the Lichtenstein, and an exhibit at the Whitney Center for the Arts in June -- and August's Third Thursday street fair will center around it.

Arrowhead, Herman Melville's historic house, has also planned exhibits and events all summer. Michael Melle straw sculptures of mill workers report for their shifts beside Melville's barn. Inside his outbuildings, two shows will give a sense of the workers' lives -- "Made in Berkshire: Papermaking at Eaton, Crane and Pike," photographs from the paper company in the old Clock Tower building, and an exhibit of decorated metal lunch boxes.

Through July, Arrowhead has revived the "Maid of the Mills," a play by director of communications Peter Bergman, based on the lives of immigrant women who came to work in the Berkshire woolen mills in the 1870s. Bergman found stories of their mistreatment by mill owners and even women overseers, he said, and the play follows the formation of a ladies' garment workers union.

At the Lichtenstein, "BAA Redux: Industrial Manifest" will gather 30 works by regional artists in a juried show sponsored by the Berkshire Art Association and curated by Berkshire artist Carol Diehl; artist-printmaker Melanie Mowinski, associate professor of art at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts; and John R. Stomberg, director of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.

The works they have chosen range from metal sculpture by Joe Wheaton of Becket to paintings, prints, photographs and installations. BAA President Mary Rentz described a large and colorful ceramics sculpture of gears and a rack and pinion.

"Industrial Manifest" will mark the first time in nearly 30 years it has held a regional show, Rentz said. BAA has acted as an art exhibition group since the 1950s and, by the 1980s, the BAA had a regional juried show regularly on display at the Berkshire Museum.

In the late ‘80s, the museum decided not to host shows put on by other organizations or artwork outside its collection, Rentz said, and the BAA discontinued its exhibitions for a while in favor of other interests -- including a fellowship show at the Lichtenstein and the former Pittsfield Art Show.

In the years since its last regional show, the BAA has collaborated with Artscape and Downtown, Inc. to bring art, the public and artists into contact with each other, Rentz said. The BAA has sponsored First Friday Artwalks and encouraged the effort. And the group looks forward now to bringing the regional show tradition back again.

When artists asked Rentz what the BAA wanted for "Arts + Industry," she said they wanted the artists to think about it.

Some have concentrated on industrial design, some on production, systems and processes, some on waste products, some on what manufacturing and industry do, constructively or destructively. In contrast to the show at the Lichtenstein in June, or the shows at Arrowhead, this one does not focus on people. These artists have tended to focus on materials.

Soldinger used silver gelatin plates and developed his film in a darkroom, he said, because photographers would have used that technology when the A.H. Rice Silk Mill first opened.

His dismantled metal parts cast circular shadows.

If you go ...

What: ‘BAA Redus: Industrial Manifest' juried exhibit
by Berkshire Arts Association

When: Opens 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1, during Artswalk

Awards presented 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2

Where: Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, 28 Renne Ave., Pittsfield

Admission: Free


What: Arts + Industry exhibits and events -- ‘Made in Berkshire' photography exhibit, Michael Melle straw sculptures

Where: Arrowhead,
780 Holmes Road, Pittsfield

When: Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Columbus Day

Admission: Tours $13 for adults, $8 for children



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