Tag Archives: Lowell Public Art Collection

‘The Worker’ by Brian Herrmann

“The Worker” by Brian Herrmann

At the forefront of Lowell’s historical gateway downtown resides a sculpture titled “The Worker.” This work, constructed in 1985 by Elliot and Ivan Schwartz, depicts an Irish canal worker widening the canal ways of Lowell.  This work, along with several others, was placed into the city in order to embody Lowell’s history and culture through its own urban experience.  The historical context behind this work, combined with specific qualities of the location, allows this sculpture to portray the significance of immigrant groups to the development of Lowell and the modern world today.

Hugh Cummisky, the man portrayed in the sculpture, was an Irish immigrant laborer who led a group of thirty workers from Charlestown into Lowell in order to widen the Pawtucket Canal, as well as construct several textile mills and worker housing.[1]  It was these men who laid the groundwork for the city of Lowell to become the first American industrialized city.  “Without that critical foundation of the canal workers, the mills’ power looms and machinery could not have worked and begun the fascinating history of industrialization in America.”[2]  These men were also the initial immigrant group to inhabit city. This laid grounds for several other immigrant groups to settle into Lowell throughout the city’s existence. The numerous immigrant communities of Lowell, who are all intended to be represented in “The Worker,” are just as crucial to the development of modern Lowell as the Irish who built it, creating new economic and cultural opportunities for the city and contributing to the revitalization of Lowell from financial decimation[3].

One of the key aspects to understanding the importance behind the sculpture is the work’s location. While the sculpture depicts Cummiskey widening the canal walls, the work is not centralized around a main waterway downtown. Although a small canal resides near the sculpture, the work’s location creates a space which allows the viewer to focus more on the urban architecture of the city.  A site surrounded by buildings allows an observer of this work to actually visualize what the Irish workers accomplished through their labors in the canals.  The work’s location emphasizes the contributions of immigrant groups in Lowell’s history and present, crediting these diverse communities for their labors by allowing the viewer to witness the modern city that arose from the efforts of these groups during the city’s development as well as its redevelopment.

Although there are numerous entrances into the city, the intersection of these streets is considered being the “historical gateway” into downtown Lowell.[4]  The sculpture resides directly across the street from the National Park Visitors Center, which once housed one of the primary textile mills of the city[5].  For those who travel this route entering the city, “The Worker” is the primary visible work of public art, which is fitting considering the historical context of the work.

[1] Forrant, Robert, and Christoph Strobel. “The Early Irish.” Ethnicity In Lowell. 53-55. National Parks Service. Web. 19 Apr. 2012. <http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/lowe/ethnicity.pdf>.

[2] Wykstra, Spencer. “Historical Marker “The Worker”.” Spencerwykstra.wordpress.com. Web. 18 Apr. 2012. <http://spencerwykstra.wordpress.com/2011/07/06/historical-marker-the-worker/>.

[3] Fix, Michael, Dan Perez-Lopez, Katherine Lotspeich, and Jason Ost. “A Profile of the Foreign-Born in Lowell, Massachusetts.” Urban.org. Oct. 2003. Web. 6 May 2012. <http://www.urban.org/uploadedpdf/410918_Lowell_MA.pdf>.

[4] National Park Service. Creative Signifier for the Lowell National Historical Park. National Parks Service. Web. 5 May 2012. <http://www.massart.edu/Documents/www.massart.edu/about_massart/urban_arts_institute/Lowell%20Visitor%20Center%20RFQ(1).pdf>.

[5] “Lowell MA.gov.” National Historical Park. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 June 2012.




‘Human Construction’ by Carlos Dorrien (commentary)

Real Public Art

by Paul Shoesmith

The public art installation Human Construction by Carlos Dorrien sits in the heart of downtown Lowell on the Pawtucket Canal. It stands on the foundations of the former Martin’s clothing store/Strand Theatre and World Furniture buildings, perpendicularly placed off to the left and right of the Central Street bridge.

The many times I have walked through or driven by these pieces of granite in the last ten years, I never truly realized that they were even there until we walked through Lowell on the “public art” tour with my college class at UMass Lowell. The installation is so intertwined with the city, its downtown, and the backdrop of the mills that it blends into the cityscape, often escaping notice. Either it doesn’t work as a public art piece, since I never really noticed it, or works so well as public art and is so well situated in its urban context that you perhaps believe it to be the ruins of an old fallen building. This simple symbol of strength and durability mirrors the mills and certainly the city itself.

This is a powerful, strong piece of art, and with anything strong, it has evoked equally strong opinions. It does not answer all the questions of those who seek to define public art. Yes, it meets certain criteria; it is site specific and serves as an homage to the past, present and future of the community and its people. Where it fails is in its full availability to the public and because of that, it loses meaning and that interactive quality that I believe public art should have. It’s on a pier in a canal that is privately owned. It is a wonderful piece of stone with a great story and is rich with meaning. It makes a strong and abstract statement for people who are passing by to consider. . .

But doesn’t most plop art?

As with any judgmental blog entry about something that could cause some adversity, I think it is important to not only to explain myself, but to offer an answer to this dilemma. Since the air rights are owned by the city of Lowell, and not some money hungry energy company, like the canal, why not attach a walking bridge across the Pawtucket Canal on both sides allowing access to the installation from the sides that are owned by the city. There must be a way to truly include this in the realm of the wonderful Public Art collection into which the city has invested so much. Otherwise it will continue to be ignored and remain an impersonal artifact of a once great program, having the true public of Lowell wishing that the real public art of this site, The Strand Theatre, would be brought back from the dead.

Photo by Paul Shoesmith

‘Pawtucket Prism’ by Michio Ihara

What Lies Underneath: The Story of Pawtucket Prism

By Nicolas White

Do not let remissive habits of the public art world fool you; Pawtucket Prism may seem like a godless specimen of plop art, but the story behind its present state of disrepair perfectly mirrors the beleaguered history of Lowell. Lowell is known worldwide for its textile mills’ stake in the American industrial revolution. In time, the textile industry moved south, leaving the city to fester and starve throughout the 20th century. Lowell was famously bolstered in the 1970’s by the establishment of Lowell National Historical Park. At roughly this same time, computer industry magnate An Wang selected Lowell as the home for his burgeoning company, Wang Laboratories.

Wang Labs seemed poised to resuscitate Lowell economically, and it was with this in mind that then-U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas encouraged Wang and local developer Arthur Robbins to build two facilities at the confluence of the Pawtucket Canal and Concord River. Wang Labs constructed the multistory Wang Training Center, a complex to be used in training new employees brought in from around the world, while Robbins set up a Hilton-branded hotel, to be used in part as the temporary living quarters for Wang’s students.

By 1986 Tsongas saw potential for a work of public art beside the hotel, on a small plaza which overlooked the river confluence, and lobbied the hotel’s benefactors to help fund the project. Tsongas ordained that the sculpture go through a public process managed by the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, a sister organization to Lowell National Historical Park.

Being that the Commission operated under federal jurisdiction, it was at all times pressured to remain relevant to the city of Lowell. It selected an allegorical theme to tie the prospective work in with Lowell’s history and issued a call to artists. Artists from far and near submitted designs; the commission narrowed the field to three artists and requested models, from which it would select one winner. Consequently, Pawtucket Prism conveys a theme of water power.

Unfortunately, the Commission had not anticipated that most artists would respond to a theme of water with ideas for working water fountains; all three finalists required costly and complicated water systems for their proposed sculptures. Not helping matters was the distribution of money; the hotel owners’ contributions went directly to artist Michio Ihara for his artwork, while the plaza construction and maintenance costs were covered exclusively by public money.

Wang Labs soon fell prey to managerial hubris and technological stagnation, which had similarly doomed Lowell’s textile mills a century earlier; the training center was put up for sale half a decade after it was constructed, while the hotel was auctioned in foreclosure in 1990. Left in an under-traveled area and saddled with high maintenance costs, the decision-makers quietly left Pawtucket Prism to cease pumping water. Its aesthetic may seem out of place, but Pawtucket Prism shares a story – if not necessarily a fate – with the city that bore it: “demolition by neglect.”*

* This very apt phrase describing Pawtucket Prism’s history is that of Rosemary Noon, who provided many generous insights that have informed my analysis of this work.

‘agapetime’ by Dimitri Hadzi (commentary)

We Built This City

by Alex Duran

Placed next to the canals that powered the city, paid for by the leaders who bettered it, and honoring the people who helped create and continue to transform it, agápetimé is a symbolically intricate contribution to the Lowell Public Art Collection. In 1988, Paul and Niki Tsongas commissioned artist Dimitri Hadzi to design a work honoring their parents. The meaning of the resulting sculpture, however, extends beyond any one family. This work pays homage to all those whose contributions, though not always recognized, built this city from the ground up.

People may not remember the names of the owners of the mills. They may not even know Lowell’s namesake or who founded it. But they do know the legacy left by its settlers. They know Jack Kerouac, a descendant of French Canadians. They know Paul and Niki Tsongas, descendants of Greek, Irish, and French families. Many have heard stories of the sweat, labor, and low pay of the immigrant families that allowed for the expansion and profitability of Lowell’s mills. They often forget the Southern slaves, as essential as local workers to Lowell’s success, who labored over the cotton that was used to make fabric in the mills. Now, hopefully, they remember who built this city every time they walk by this sculpture outside Middlesex Community College at the Lower Locks canal complex.

The title “agápetimé” is derived from two Greek words: “agápe” means love and “timé” means honor, an important virtue in ancient Greek culture. Though this artwork seems to present a wholly new and abstract sculpture from every viewing angle, it also evokes a human narrative that confirms its title. Two taller figures reaching ten feet in height face one another, one with an “arm” that reaches like an affectionate hand toward its companion. The smaller figure is placed between the two but sits closer to one, like a child to its mother. This work epitomizes, in content and name, honor to the family.

agápetimé‘s eclectic style is suggestive of a universal symbolism, representative of all Lowell’s immigrant families. Hadzi himself was the New York-born son of Greek immigrants and an artist with a passionate interest in world cultures. He studied in Greece and Rome for twenty-five years and found inspiration in the cultures of ancient civilizations the world over, including Asia, Africa, and South and Central America. The forms stand on their granite pedestal like the ruins of an ancient city. The overhanging “arm” of the tall figure almost creates a post-and-lintel structure. The figure in the middle resembles the broken stump of a Roman column. The suggestions of carving and etching recall a sculptural style that is distinctly African. These factors, taken together, support a broad symbolic interpretation of this sculpture.

Lowell’s immigrants have played a profound role in shaping the city. Due to conflict with Yankees, immigrants were scarcely allowed rooms in the boardinghouses and had to carve out their own spaces in Lowell. The Irish, French Canadians, and Greeks still form the base of Lowell’s ethnic identity and have made lasting contributions to the city’s political, economic, and cultural growth. By the time the sculpture was commissioned in 1988, Lowell had become the second largest refuge for Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge, who today contribute tremendously to its cultural diversity. I like to think all of Lowell’s immigrant families can find meaning in Dimitri Hadzi’s homage to the Tsongas family and that others will remember the importance of these families to both the history and future of the city.


‘Human Construction’ by Carlos Dorrien (commentary)

Human Construction Adds a Detour to the City of Lowell

by Collette M. Marquis

Carlos Dorrien’s sculpture Human Construction sits on concrete piers on either side of the Pawtucket Canal Bridge on Central Street in downtown Lowell. Installed in 1989, it is composed of a series of granite post-and-lintel stones, the largest of which is fifteen feet high and which come to a combined weight of roughly 112 tons. The price tag was $100,000. But why was Human Construction placed there and what does it mean to the city of Lowell?

From its earliest years Lowell was an industrial pioneer. The mills gave it life by producing jobs and creating a melting pot of diverse cultures. As time moved on so did technology, and Lowell’s canals and mills became obsolete. The once prosperous industrial city succumbed to decay and abandonment. By the time of the recession of the 1980s, the mills had become vacant and run down, jobs were scarce, and the crime rate was on the rise. Who and what would bring back some of Lowell’s historical luster? Senator Paul Tsongas, seeing much of the city in ruins, initiated the Public Art campaign to revitalize the city’s history and bring pride back to its citizens.

The Senator, noticing that the historically important Pawtucket Canal was hidden from Central Street by two large commercial buildings, supported their removal so the viewing public would be able to see the canal and the mills in all their grandeur. Motley and Kimball’s Rialto building (World/Love Furniture) and the Martin’s men’s clothing store building, each set on a concrete platform over the canal, had faced one another across Central Street for decades. To complete the transformation of this site following removal of these structures, an invitation was sent out for artists to submit proposals for a site-specific work of public art to rest on the two remaining piers in the canal and represent the historical mill city.

Chosen unanimously by a committee of twelve for this site, Human Construction by Carlos Dorrien is a universal symbol of building and construction. Born in Buenos Aires and currently residing in Barre, Vermont, the artist is often inspired by ancient history and specializes in public art installations. He described his piece for Lowell as a site-specific evocation of the historical canal city and its hard-working citizens, its “post and lintel stones” and “monumental size” representing “the endurance of Lowell’s people throughout history. The stones, like the city itself, symbolize strength and durability.”

According to Rosemary Noon, assistant director of the Lowell Plan economic development group, Dorrien “felt that the post and lintel construction represented the people of Lowell’s instinct for building. He admired Lowell’s mills, canals, and industrial history. He was impressed with the use of granite in so many of our buildings. If you look up the Pawtucket Canal, you can see that many of the windows have granite sills and lintels.” She also described the reaction of Tsongas, a reaction that echoes my own evolving relationship to this piece: “Paul Tsongas initially did not like the design, but he accepted the selection committee’s decision and eventually grew to like the piece very much.”

Senator Tsongas helped restore pride in the famous mill city. Out of the depths of the canals came the ruins of the mill workers of the past. The late Senator helped bring honor and cultural vitality back to Lowell at a time when the city was in desperate need of salvation. The city continues to thrive with its sculptures and annual celebrations, with Folk and Winter Festivals, that bring the community back together.

Photo: Collette Marquis

Special thanks to John Christ for his generous help in editing this essay.

Principal Sources: David K. Blackburn, Personal interview April 17, 2012; Rob French, “That’s a piece of art? It looks like a highway,” Lowell Sun. April 21, 1989; John H Harrington, “Human Construction,” Lowell Sun. April 19, 1989; Rosemary Noon, e-mail message to Assistant Director of the Lowell Plan, April 18, 2012; Roberta Otremba, Personal interview April 26, 2012.


Essays on Outdoor Sculpture in Lowell

This Spring, John Christ taught an art history course at UMass Lowell in which his students took a close look at the outdoor sculpture in the city that is considered part of the Lowell Public Art Collection. These artworks were assembled between 1982 and the mid-1990s in an effort directed first by the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission and later by the Lowell Office of Cultural Affairs. The objective was to bring new  monumental sculptures into the downtown historic district as a way to enrich the urban setting, draw people to locations along the canals, and offer a different level of commentary on Lowell history. Over the next two weeks, seven brief essays about the artworks by students in Prof. Christ’s class will appear on this blog. One student wrote about the memorial art in the Lowell Cemetery as an alternative take on public art. We thank John and his students for sharing their work.–PM


Public Art and the Reconstruction of Lowell

By John X. Christ, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Cultural Studies, UMass Lowell

As Lowell looks to its future, it continues to nurture the memory of its industrial and immigrant past. The development of its public art is no exception. These works inscribe historical narratives onto the city and build symbolic bridges between the past and present. Every time we reshape our environment, we make a choice that defines who we are and that imbues the places in which we live with new significance. Public art contributes to this process in important ways. It draws connections between civic space and collective experience. It teases out forgotten memories lurking in the fragments of urban form. It unearths stories long buried by developers. It opens whimsical spaces for play and reverie. Public art not only cultivates a richer aesthetic environment, but also weaves complex narratives about ourselves and our values into the city’s urban fabric.

The historical reflection summoned by Lowell’s public art is firmly entwined with the city’s economic development. Lowell has set itself apart in a competitive marketplace of “creative cities” and historical destinations. It follows that its public art not only fosters community self-understanding and local pride but also provides signposts for visitors, for whom these perplexing sculptures are tourist attractions, conversation pieces, and bearers of historical riddles.

The entries that follow were written by students in a recently concluded course on public art that I offered in UMass Lowell’s Department of Cultural Studies. Seven students chose to compose brief summaries of their findings that will hopefully open up space for further conversation. For if we respect the “public” in public art, we recognize that dialogue, even disagreement, is as critical to the success of these works as traditional aesthetic criteria. Before turning over the reins, a few individuals need to be acknowledged. As many readers no doubt know and as several of these essays describe, the late Senator Paul Tsongas played a crucial role in creating the Lowell Public Art Collection. As my students and I endeavored to better understand this collection, Rosemary Noon and Paul Marion both generously offered their time and expertise.

“The Worker” by Ivan and Elliot Schwartz, on the Mack Building Plaza, Shattuck and Market streets. Web photo by James Higgins for Lowell National Historical Park, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts.