‘Industry, Not Servitude,’ by Ellen Rothenberg

My blogging colleague Dick posted the list of guided walks on Saturdays this summer. Rosemary and I are leading a walk that will take in the highlights of the Lowell Public Art Collection, one of them being Ellen Rothenberg’s multi-piece sculpture at Lucy Larcom Park. For this artwork, one design influence that emerged from Ellen’s research in Lowell was the monument styles at the Lowell Cemetery. Here’s a short essay that Rosemary and I wrote about the work in 1998. For more about the artist and the sculpture see Ellen’s website.—PM


Photograph by B. T. Martin of one element of Ellen Rothenberg’s Industry, Not Servitude, courtesy of Ellen Rothenberg’s website.


Industry, Not Servitude: Good Hard Words

     “Try Again,” “Stick to Your Text,” “Thy Sister’s Keeper Know Thou Art!” “Truth Loses Nothing . . . Upon Investigation” — these and other statements of belief and advice are cut into the stone and steel markers of Ellen Rothenberg’s sculpted work in Lucy Larcom Park along the Merrimack Canal. The visual and verbal information exists in a permanent granite “pause” ready to release its meaning to the next viewer moving through a narrow landscape in the middle of downtown. What we have are voices caught in granite and metal, and each one of us activates the sound upon encounter. This is an artwork with a voice, in a time, and of a place that can only be Lowell. The voices are pulled from the historic air, lifted from brittle documents. Voices stopped in full-throated command or cry or unsentimental statement. The words were not necessarily much heard, never mind heeded, in their time because they rose from marginal sources: women, poets and writers, workers, union organizers. Now, we fast-forward 150 years, and see the spoken and paper bound words all stony and strong—here today and still here tomorrow.

     The artist’s shapes and preserved language are part of the daily experience of the community, like doorways, sirens, street lamps, bench-talk. In Lowell’s small but lively downtown, the historic district is drawn to reveal a slice-of-nineteenth-century-life, from factory and church to boarding house and mill manager’s residence. Integrated into this living exhibit of the process and consequences of industrialization are many artworks that comment on the city’s heritage.

Only one other work employs language—a multi-piece granite and steel environment (the Jack Kerouac Commemorative by Woitena) that honors the writings of native-son writer Jack Kerouac. This sculptural work anchors a literary festival each fall. Other works in the Lowell Public Art Collection, now 15 years old, are linked to ritual and civic events, including the figurative canal-builder (The Worker by Schwartz) that serves as a backdrop for a regular public report on worker safety and a monumental bronze “mill-girl” grouping (Homage to Women by Kaufman), which has become a local icon like the Minute Man in Lexington, Massachusetts, and Gloucester’s Fisherman. Ellen Rothenberg’s sculpture train, with its long, linking form that closes the loop on the public art collection path, is well positioned to become part of Lowell’s ongoing social expression. It is better suited than some of the other artworks for use by historical-park guides or “interpreters” as they retell the Lowell story to visitors and students. The artwork’s deep content makes it an ideal locus for activity tied to the city’s annual women’s history conference as well as the Women’s Week celebration involving the community and participants from the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Industry, Not Servitude connects and extends two parts of the Lowell High School campus, a location that both benefits from the social and humane qualities of the sculpture and puts the artwork at risk of harsh use, given the realities of youthful behavior and territorial urges. The micro-community of the high-school population, nearby workers, and property owners are challenged with allowing the artwork to exist honorably in their midst. So far, the social give-and-take of daily Lowell has absorbed the various contemporary sculptures as enriching elements; with a few exceptions, people have responded positively in their rounds as residents, workers, students, and tourists. The local voices embedded by Ellen Rothenberg in stairs and curved benches make her work more familiar—and more likely to be embraced by the public.

The artist has returned some of Lowell’s past good words to the community. She also has named in public, outside, for the first time two important persons that Lowell residents should remember: author Lucy Larcom and labor activist and writer Sarah Bagley. Although the park is named for Larcom, there had been no sign or marker, and Bagley had vanished to parts unknown. This values-laden artwork has become part of the city’s dialogue, part of what we say about ourselves every day.

—Paul Marion and Rosemary Noon, 1998

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