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Draper Demolition Artist Talk – Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts

I’m grateful to David DeMelim of the Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts for the opportunity to exhibit my work on the demolition of the Draper Factory in Hopedale, Massachusetts in January of this year. Of course that was during a Covid surge and while the exhibition was open, special events were not. No opening festivities and no artist talk. Depressing but understandable. However, David and his colleague David Wells did arrange a delightful zoom meeting (yes, such a thing is possible) for a closing talk and we had about 30 or so in attendance, including descendants of the Draper Family. David Wells edited the talk which you can see below. However, this is not your typical Vimeo, five minute short, so you may find you don’t want to watch the whole thing. Here’s the schedule:

2:50 – Introduction

2:50 – 25:00 – Background on the project including a slide show of mills from the Blackstone Valley and some history of the industrial revolution.

25:00 – 40:00 – A slide show of the works hung in the exhibition, along with commentary on the project and its impact.

40:00 – 54:00 – Questions from the audience.

54:00 – 59:00 – A video documenting the actual demolition. Witnessing the progression of a demolition over the course of the year is a compelling experience. This will hopefully give you a sense of what it was like.

My thanks again to David and members of the audience.

Draper Factory Demolition – Upcoming Exhibition

I’m very grateful to David DeMelim and the Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts for hosting an exhibition of my work from the demolition of the Draper Corporation factory building. I’ve been following this massive undertaking for the last 18 months. It has been a very compelling and complex project and it’s nice to be able to share it with others. The exhibition takes place at the Rhode Island Center in Providence beginning January 20th through February 11th. There will hopefully be an opening on the evening of January 20th, but who can tell given the surge we’re now facing. You can read the details and logistics here. Please stop in. I’ll offer some background along with images from the exhibition below.

In the summer of 2020 we were (and still are of course) consumed by the pandemic. My interest in photographing the Blackstone Valley of Massachusetts and Rhode Island was confronted with severe limitations. Creative inspiration was hard to find. I had been spending considerable time photographing the mills of the Valley, the engines of the industrial revolution in the U.S. really, for all that they symbolized. I wasn’t sure where to go with that project.

One of my favorite places was the Draper Corporation mill building in the quiet town of Hopedale, Massachusetts. Once upon a time, it was not so quiet. One million square feet of factory space there was devoted to the production of automated cotton looms. The Draper Corporation was once the largest producers of such looms in the world. It dominated that market for over 100 years. Over three thousand people worked at the headquarters plant there.

The Corporation ceased operations for all intents and purposes by the 1970s. The building has stood empty, at least officially, since then. (A friend of mine who works in the building rehabilitation business once told me that “abandoned buildings aren’t.” A word to the wise for those who choose to go in. I do not.). Nevertheless, the building stood, looming large in what is really this quiet, small New England town. As with many mill towns, life was dominated by the mill and the founding family/owners of the mills. The Draper family was actually quite benevolent historically. The mid-twentieth century brought conflict, but for most of the company’s history the relationships between corporation and employees was generally a good one. The Town of Hopedale was actually founded in the mid 1800’s as a utopian community, with strong religious and socialist values. That vision for the town lasted but a decade, but the impact of those values lived on.

There is mill housing in Hopedale as one would expect, but it’s the nicest mill housing I’ve ever seen. They established a community center and a variety of related institutions to support the populace. They developed a substantial and lovely park, including Hopedale Pond which was created by damming the Mill River which ran directly under into the mill and powered it for a time. In the middle of this rather lovely town is this……

One million square feet of empty and decaying mill building. It was without purpose. You could look up through the windows see holes in the roof. It didn’t take much of a leap of faith to imagine that the building was loaded with asbestos and other hazmat offerings. Perhaps worse yet, what if it were to burn? Massive old mills create massive and very dangerous fires. A police officer told me that if it burned they would have to evacuate much of the town. In spite of all this, the quiet grandeur of the building, on such a quiet street encouraged a senses of reflection, of the buildings history and purpose.

Old mill buildings such as at the Draper Factory seem to be waiting patiently for the next phase, whatever it might be. To a surprising degree, many have been repurposed, frequently into housing, occasionally into office/business space. Most however are not on the scale of the Draper factory. The buildings current owner had evidently tried to figure out a next phase of life for the building without success. With the support of a business development organization in the area, they managed to find funding to demolish the building.

I didn’t know this was happening. After hearing a rumor, Chris and I drove down and began to witness what was the beginning of a long process of very slowly and carefully dismantling the building(s) on the site. The collection of images culled from my visits only tells part of the story of the demolition. A demolition of this magnitude is an “awe” inspiring thing to watch. It is big, very big. It is also very loud. The process is very destructive of course. The cranes which are the primary tool for bringing down large structures seem to be working in mechanized concert (they actually are). They seem to have a life of their own. People watch in fascination. I did manage to capture video footage of the demolition itself which I’m editing into something that might be useful to watch, to share the experience.

These images are more related to my reflections on the meaning of the demolition. Imagine it is 100 years from now. You are in Silicon Valley, watching the demolition of the headquarters of Apple Computer (or any of the big tech firms), a company that dominated its market and played a role in shaping the world. It’s time had passed and it was no longer relevant. The building was coming down. What would that mean? You could analyze the situation from a business perspective. The Draper Family and subsequent owner/managers were faced with intense competition and the need to continuously innovate. Their competition was increasingly global. Cotton was no longer the dominant raw material that it once was. Maybe the managers of the company just couldn’t keep up. Perhaps the building’s demise simply meant that the managers made mistakes and ran out of the ability to innovate their way out of those mistakes.

Another take is possible, one that draws on history. This was a company that helped make the industrial revolution a reality. It was one of the facilitators of a massive expansion, a boom, in the textile industry that reshaped much of the world, particularly the U.S. A growing market, new technology and cheap raw materials set the stage for “cotton mill fever,” as it has been called. There was much money to be made, now. Everyone who could jumped into the textile business in the early 1800’s. Little attention was paid to the long term implications of such boom for society or for the environment, or even for business. Economic booms consume everything in their paths.

The textile industry in New England worked largely with three different raw materials, cotton, wool and flax. Cotton was first as spinning and then weaving cotton in mechanized devices was easier than the other two. Cotton of course was grown by enslaved people in the southern U.S. (in part on plantations in which northern industrialists held interests). The textile boom fueled a massive expansion of slavery and was one of the factors that led to the U.S. Civil War. The massive expansion of mill operations relied on water for power and for the disposal of unwanted by byproducts including many many toxins. The Blackstone River and its tributaries, once considered the hardest working river in the U.S. became one of the most polluted rivers in the U.S., one that inspired the Clean Water Act. The textile boom did create wealth for some, but not for all. The end of the textile boom in the Blackstone Valley and New England more broadly left thousands of workers who needed to start over. Some of the towns and cities of the region clearly show the impact of the social upheaval that followed, in particular the economic impact. Everything comes to an end at some point.

We have been conditioned to think about an economic boom as something to welcome. After all, what’s the alternative? People need jobs. Society needs innovation. Some of the main actors in the the textile boom such as Slater and Lowell actually were very concerned about “cotton mill fever.” They had both witnessed mill life in Britain with its social and environmental degradation. They could foresee that unchecked or unmanaged growth would be bad for nearly everyone and, bad for business. Yet, even with that awareness they were full participants in the expansion that followed. There are plenty of booms going on today; in Silicone Valley of course, and in the oil patches around the world and right here in New England in the expansion of the biotech industry and the massive growth in lab space. What do we make of all this?

Time to wake up and share some images. The process begins here, emptying the building, of everything. FYI, this is when remediation from hazmats such as Asbestos takes place.

Then the demolition.

The smokestack is now gone. The land is being cleaned, a task taking many months. Each brick, deemed usable, was chiseled free of mortar by hand, believe it or not, then stacked and sold. The Mill River that ran underneath the building itself is now visible, though not in this image. It still takes a right turn, along a channel made by the original builders. It isn’t clear where it goes next.

Dodge and Burn Exhibition at ArtsWorcester

I want to thank the folks at ArtsWorcester for choosing my image of the Winsor Dam at Quabbin Reservoir for includsion in their upcoming exhibition, “Dodge and Burn.” The rather fascinating title actually describes nicely what the exhibition is all about: contrast. Film photographers printing in the darkroom engage in a variety of activities ranging from the choice of paper (some photographic paper is more contrasty than others) to the rather amazing dance of hands in which they block out some of the light coming from an enlarger from hitting the paper, thereby lightening parts of the image. Those who know photoshop will recognize the dodge and burn tools that came over from the darkroom into the digital world. It is actually one of my favorite sets of tools for creating contrast between light and dark areas of an image. Don’t let all this photography talk mislead you however, entries for this exhibition were drawn from all kinds of 2D art so it should be interesting.

The juror was Beth Kantrowitz I want to offer her my thanks as well. The opening will take place on Friday, January 21, 2022 from 6 – 9 PM at the ArtsWorcester Gallery. (God and omicron willing…..)

Medfield State Hospital

There seem to be two kinds of time management problems during the pandemic (at least, probably more). Some folks, think parents working at home, have zero time. They are multi-tasking every step of the way. Then there are those who, once their work is done, have time. Lots of it. And of course, no place to go that’s safe other than hikes. Hiking is a Godsend, to be sure. But you can’t hike all the time. I like to go for drives and Chris is willing to put up with them. So we drive.

We happened to be exploring around the Charles River Valley in Massachusetts and drove through the town of Medfield. We turned down Hospital Road because Chris used to work at Medfield State Hospital. It was her first job after nursing school. Driving by the Hospital grounds, we were stunned to find that not only was it still standing, but we could go onto the campus and walk around. The town and the state had turned it into a park, quite an interesting one.

The 19th century saw the rise of the “great institution.”  Massive structures were built for work (mills and factories), education (colleges) and the treatment or containment of those who were, or were thought to be mentally ill.  By the 20th century nearly five percent of the population of Massachusetts, as one example was housed in a state run mental health institution.  While some desperately needed care some ended up in those institutions because of family and or social/economic disadvantage.  Some received genuine care, some were warehoused.  

Medfield State Hospital was founded in 1892 and at its height could hold 2200 patients.  It was considered one of the best of the state hospitals.  People received treatment there, for the most part. On the Hospital grounds, one can see evidence of what was once a large, self-sufficient working farm.  Very ironically, the cemetery there was created to inter patients who died in the great pandemic of 1918.  The Cemetery is located at some distance from the campus itself, but is clearly marked and visible from the road. It is touchingly well maintained.

The Hospital closed in 1988.  Over the years, most psychiatric care moved to the community and away from the institutions.  These massive hospitals (there were about ten in the state) fell into ruin. They have largely either been fenced in, demolished or repurposed.  Medfield State was actually converted into a park by the state and the town.  It’s possible to go there, walk around (you can’t go inside and probably wouldn’t want to), walk your dog, and think. It’s hard not to think about being there, at times like these.

All images copyright 2020 and 2021 by James Hunt.  Click on the images for a larger view.

Season’s Greetings

2020, what can one say that hasn’t already been said? Nothing that could be shared on a family site, that’s for sure. Like nearly everyone else on the planet, my life was turned upside down in March of this year. My day job, which I love very much, is that of a professor, really a teacher. I am fortunate enough to have the chance to work with some truly terrific students. In March, they rallied in spite of everything that was going on, and we, the faculty, tried to keep up with them. Actually, most of us tried to help them which was tough because we were caught in the same fire storm.

When you are trying to teach or learn (or probably do anything), everything on line is more difficult than it is face to face. Everything takes more time. Everything takes more energy. You are much less sure of whether or not you are being understood and whether or not you are understanding your students. There is almost no time for “chatting” which turns out to be one of the most important activities in which humans engage. Chatting is where we really find out the truth, what is going on, how someone else is doing, and how you’re doing. You can’t schedule an accidental chat on line.

I have had 110 students in the fall, 85 or so more this spring. Luckily, the spring folks are people who I got to know in the fall. We did a sprint in the fall semester, August 24 till the day before the Thanksgiving (U.S.) break. No vacation days, no holidays, just keep at it. But we got some good work done and we got to know one another. Now we are in the middle of a two month break before we go into another sprint. I have to say, I miss them, most of the time….

But I’m OK, the family is OK, no one who was close to us got the virus….and hopefully we’ll keep it that way. We were blessed with a new granddaughter in January, before the roof caved in. We can all whine with the best of em, but we really are very fortunate. There but for the grace of God go I. Some of my students (my students are all online and all over the world) did get covid. They have all survived. It’s terribly real and terribly frightening. Don’t believe for a second that some young people as well as their families don’t become terribly ill. They do. In the U.S. we screwed this up royally. It didn’t have to be as bad as it has become. Help, as everyone knows, is on the way. Everyone in my world is anxious to take the vaccine and get on with life (though we all know that it won’t be that simple or that quick).

So the photographic work had to take a bit of a back seat. I do have two large projects underway and hopefully the galleries will be opening by the fall. I will be returning to blog writing from here on out, as I love it, and I don’t like the limitations and craziness of Facebook, etc. The two projects I do have underway have some serious angst attached, not surprisingly, so they didn’t seem right for the season.

Fortunately, I had an alternative. If you’ve read this blog for a while you may recall these images. They are from a series titled, “The Color in the Grass.” These are very high key images of fall grasses taken at the Broadmore Audubon location in Natick, Massachusetts. On a lark, I entered them in a juried exhibition pool at Photoplace Gallery in Vermont, the exhibition being appropriated titled “Botanicals.” Amazingly, one of them made the cut.

Those of you who like botanical/flower imagery should take a look at the exhibition, which is posted on line. You can find it here. The imagery in the show is amazing. I can’t for the life of me figure out why my image was chosen, but nevertheless, I appreciate the honor! Here are some additional images from the set, a seasons greetings to you all. Here’s to a much better 2021!

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