A Tale of Two Industries: Art and Steel, Part 1

Posted by Emily Engott, Nov 29, 2016 0 comments

Where the shores of Presque Isle kiss the glistening azure waters of Lake Erie, you will find the city once dubbed an “Industrial Titan.” Not far from the docks of Presque Isle Bay is a historic industrial corridor that traces Erie’s 12th Street. Once home to burgeoning manufacturing companies, the 12th Street gateway to the city still maintains trace elements of its industrial integrity.

In May of 1919, National Geographic magazine brandished Erie industry as being among the finest in the U.S., even likening it to that of Chicago. “Erie is host to some five hundred manufacturing establishments,” said John Oliver LaGorce in his article. “It has the largest horseshoe factory and the largest pipe-organ plant in the world, and makes more baby carriages, gas mantles, and clothes-wringers than any other city.”

Erie’s Waterfront circa 1800s. (Courtesy of History and Memorabilia, Erie, PA.)

Nearly a century has passed since Erie was last featured in an issue of National Geographic, but that does not mean the city has lost its luster of yore. In fact, it would seem that the Gem City has instead embarked on a renaissance of both art and industry. The industrial buildings that were once the epicenter of Erie’s gritty core are undergoing a complete makeover. They have been revitalized and transformed into distinctive microbreweries, upscale urban housing, and, most recently, ideal sites for public art installations.

Now the permanent residence to a mural entitled “Setting the Stage for Erie’s Future,” Erie will soon be emblazoned with two subsequent installations. All three works are part of Erie Arts & Culture’s “Art & Industry Project,” which leverages Erie’s industrially-rooted identity to celebrate the past and challenges residents of all generations to consider what the city can become.

The project spearheaded by local teaching artists Tom Ferraro and Ed Grout is threefold in nature. It is one part pipeline development, sharing trends and career opportunities within the manufacturing sector and reinforcing skills students need to excel. It is also a creative process, leading students through the design, fabrication, and installation of public art. Finally, Art & Industry is a lesson in the history of Erie’s people, helping to foster pride in industrial heritage that extends to the products created locally today.

“I can’t help but emphasize that this collaboration has been a win-win for both the art and manufacturing communities,” said Ferraro. “It has brought a lot of people together. It’s great for Erie.”

ECTS students painting “Setting the Stage for Erie’s Future.” (Courtesy Danielle Wilber)The future of Erie’s labor force is just one of the groups collaborating to wed Erie’s past with its future. Ferraro and Grout have enlisted the design skills of teachers and students at Erie County Technical School (ECTS) as well as the expertise of local manufacturers to complete a minimum of three pieces as a part of the project.

During the second week of June 2016, the first installment was mounted on the old Coyne Laundry Building at 1158 E. 12th St. “Setting the Stage for Erie’s Future,” as it was named, greets visitors entering the city from the east.

The building, currently home to The Erie Playhouse Rehearsal Hall and Scenic Shop, is an archetypal structure of the historic corridor. It stands two stories tall and occupies an L-shaped space of roughly 31,000 square feet.

In the spirit of theatre, the mural tells a visual tale of Erie’s rich history. The student-led design focuses on how industry fueled the development of the city and forges a connection with its arts sector. The painted dancing figures appear to swing into the viewer’s space, inviting the willing passerby to join them. The woman’s floral-printed skirt twirls gently in the bay breeze. You can practically hear the dapperly dressed man snapping along in time to the “hi-de-ho” of Cab Calloway. The starlit city of Erie seems to attend to the dancing couple. The pair is a treasure so alive, yet frozen in time.

Finished installation of “Setting the Stage for Erie’s Future.” (Courtesy The Big Picture, Erie, PA)

The Erie of yesterday and that of today intertwine in the background to form a unique juxtaposition with the dancers, proving to us that Erie industry in its heyday is not so far removed from what is now our reality.

The concept for the design was imagined by none other than the future of Erie’s labor force. Students at ECTS collaborated with Ferraro and Grout during a residency in the spring of 2015. The students in grades 10 through 12 were immersed in local history and the process of creating mural art.

In preparation for the design, the students visited an exhibit at the Erie Art Museum that featured industrial designer and architect Wilber Henry Adams. The Erie-born Adams went on to receive his education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before collaborating on major projects such as the design of Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.

Their design utilizes 40 polytab sheets placed side by side to form a 30-square-foot panoramic view of the city from Presque Isle Bay. Polytab is a parachute-like material that is mounted onto walls using an adhesive-sealant. The technology behind polytab was pioneered by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Philadelphia, the larger Pennsylvania metropolis roughly 300 miles southeast of Erie, is also using public art to engage its citizens and create a vibrant sense of place. 

ECTS students use a projector to sketch on polytab for “Setting the Stage for Erie’s Future.” (Courtesy Danielle Wilber)It wouldn’t take a leap of faith to say that the parachute fabric of the polytab was perhaps fated to become part of the building’s facelift. For roughly 60 years beginning with its establishment in Erie in 1952 until its closing in 2012, the old Coyne Laundry Building served the local community renting and laundering rugs, linens, and other assorted fabrics to schools, hotels, businesses, and the like.

“I think the project is going to have a great impact on the community,” said Ferraro. “It really raises awareness of our industrial heritage; where we’ve been and where we’re going as well. There’s a perception that industry is disappearing, but really it’s transforming.”

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