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Artist makes art from fiber on Blackstone

September 6, 2011

PAWTUCKET — It was spinning and weaving that first put Pawtucket on the map as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. That's why artist Donald Gerola chose a high-tech and larger-than-life version of “textile” production as his latest public arts project in the city where he makes his home.
Internationally acclaimed for his monumental wind sculptures and other artworks, Gerola has set his creative sights on the banks of the Blackstone River near the historic Slater Mill Museum. In a project that is expected to take several months to complete, he plans to weave colorful, industrial-strength fiber cords in geometric designs that will span the river. When completed, it will remain as a permanent part of the urban landscape and has the potential to gain Pawtucket an important place in the public art arena.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Gerola has been living in Pawtucket and working in his Mineral Spring Avenue studio for the past six years. Among the pieces he creates are steel sculptures in “pure organic and constructed-mechanical shapes that defy aesthetic correctness,” as described on his website. His sculptures and other works have been exhibited in such noteworthy places as the Smithsonian's “Anne Marie Gardens,” the Springfield Museum's National Memorial Site of Dr. Seuss, the National Seashore in Hyannis, Mass., and the New York and Washington, DC International Art Expos. One of his monumental wind sculptures graces the bank of the Blackstone River, across from Slater Mill.
Gerola, who has done smaller fiber art pieces, said, “This will be the first river in a U.S. city to be woven by an artist.” He compares the spirit of the project to that of the artist Cristo, who famously “wraps” public places and landmarks, including a controversial plan involving the Colorado River. Yet, he said he feels that Cristo's use of fabric is often invasive and that putting fabric over a river “is a violation of nature.”
By contrast, Gerola's project will be an open and airy weave of cords suspended above the river, so as not to interrupt the water's flow. The installation is also designed to work with natural lighting, and he promises a shimmering light show for at least three hours each day when reflective filaments in the cords catch the sun. “No matter what the season, it will always look beautiful from about 4 to 7 p.m., ” Gerola stated.
Gerola said his project will be a “celebration” of the importance of Slater Mill's technological innovation to modern day industry as well as serving to tie together the two sides of the river. As part of the preparation work, he has been clearing out trees, overgrown brush and litter to open up the riverbanks and make the area more park-like for visitors to enjoy.
Gerola declined to provide the cost of the project, saying it is being privately funded. He did, however, receive a commission from the Pawtucket Arts Festival Executive Committee. He added that the installation should also serve to show that even in tough economic times, artists can, and should, find ways to make their ideas become reality.
The cords are primarily being supplied by two Pawtucket-based manufacturing companies, Neocorp and Providence Braid. The cords will be constructed of a combination of high-tech materials that can withstand stretching and the natural elements.
Andrew Jencks, owner and president of Neocorp, also sits on the board of the Slater Mill Museum. He said that when he first heard of Gerola's project, there had been some discussion about using cord made in Mexico. Jencks said he thought, 'Wait a minute. Why not use material produced right here?' and said his company, Providence Braid and several other local manufacturers expressed a willingness to supply material for the project.
Gerola estimates the weaving, which he likened to “a giant doily,” will crisscross the river and measure about 170-feet by 350-feet when fully completed. He is currently doing a “test weave” with the colored cords. However, in the final installation, the cords will be held in place by steel cables attached to railings, walls, trees, and iron pins at various heights.
Gerola, who began work on the massive undertaking over the Labor Day weekend, said he is being aided by his “lady and muse,” Claire Lacoste, who is also an artist and textiles professor. He will be joined by a team of volunteers who will help with various aspects of the project.
Laying the groundwork has involved the use of a professional archer, who used a bow and arrow to shoot the cords across the river, where they were attached to trees and other stationery objects. Once the main cords are in place, a series of weaving “neddles” will be erected, and after that, Gerola, working from the riverbanks, will “hand weave” the cords to make the desired patterns.
As a tribute to Slater Mill, an antique braider machine that has been in the museum's archives for 100 years, will be put into service to produce a length of braided cord that will be worked into the final design. Gerola envisioned this cord coming out of an upper level window of Slater Mill and attaching to the rest of the installation.
Gerola said that Mayor Donald Grebien has been supportive of his project from the outset, since meeting with him about it several months ago. He said he has also received assistance and support from the city's Planning Director Michael Davolio, Economic and Cultural Affairs Officer Herb Weiss, and the city's Public Works Department.
Grebien said of the project, “I think what Don (Gerola) is doing will shine a bright light on our efforts to revive the downtown while maintaining respect for our wonderful history as well as Pawtucket's role not only with the industries that put our city on the map well over a century ago but also our support of the creative economy of today.”
The mayor added that he was “very pleased that Mr. Gerola chose our city to exhibit a new work that blends the arts and physics, history and technology in a truly innovative way.”
Susan Whitney, executive director of the Slater Mill Museum, said that when she was approached about the idea by the Mayor's Office and members of the Pawtucket Arts Festival Committee, she thought that “it made a lot of sense to do something like this where textiles started.” She added, “It takes the textile component and the artistic endeavor and weaves the two together.”
Gerola's work on the riverbank has attracted some attention already, as passers-by have stopped to inquire about the colored cords strung across the river near the Main Street bridge. “Young people love it. And older ladies, especially, seem to be attracted to it. I think this represents things that women want to do in the way of sewing and weaving ventures,” he said. “It's a high-tech installation that celebrates the heritage of weaving fiber that started in the United States....that started here in Pawtucket,” Gerola added.


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