PAWTUCKET — From the Main Street bridge by day, the Blackstone River and historic Slater Mill can be viewed through a network of brightly colored cords that shimmer in the sunlight. At nighttime, the reflective filaments in the cords appear to send off a laser light show through the mist generated from the rushing water below.
On Christmas Eve, artist Donald Gerola put the finishing touches on his ambitious “Weaving the Blackstone” project. In a process that began in the fall, Gerola strung and crisscrossed industrial strength fiber cords into geometric patterns that span the river along the Slater Mill property.
Gerola said he was aided by two professional archers who used bows and arrows to shoot the initial cords across the river. After that, it was up to him to stretch, weave and fasten the cords, often working suspended above the river from a lift line. He said his girlfriend and “muse,” textiles professor Claire Lacoste Kapstein, lent some assistance, and the city helped out by providing some tree cutting and brush clearing services and by lending Department of Public Works manpower on electrical issues. However, the project is entirely Gerola's, and he said he thinks it turned out even bigger and better than he envisioned.
“This is the first time anyone has done something like this—woven a river--in the U.S.,” said Gerola. He said he was inspired by the public art projects done by the internationally acclaimed artist Christo, who uses fabric to “wrap” public spaces and landmarks. He is hoping that the publicity from the Blackstone River project leads to other similar river weaving commissions in major U.S. cities, and even in places abroad. “I'd love to weave the river Seine,” he added.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Gerola has been living in Pawtucket for the past six years where he creates steel sculptures and other artwork in his studio in the Lorraine Mills on Mineral Spring Avenue. His work has been exhibited in the Smithsonian's “Anne Marie Gardens,” the Springfield Museum, the National Seashore on Cape Cod, and in New York and Washington, DC International Art Expos. One of his wind sculptures sits on the bank of the Blackstone River, across from Slater Mill.
John Baxter, chairman of the Pawtucket Arts Festival, said the arts festival pledged $5,000 to Gerola for the project, and the balance of $17,000 was contributed by the Pawtucket-based Schofield Printing. He said the industrial cord used for the weaving—which amounts to about $3,000--was donated by another local company, Neocorp, whose owner and president, Andrew Jencks, is on the board of directors of the Old Slater Mill Association.
Baxter said the intent of the arts festival each year is to leave something behind, such as a sculpture or painting, that is representative of the arts in the city. While much bigger in scope and price than in years past, Gerola's installation is considered as the 2011 Pawtucket Arts Festival contribution, he said. He added that he thinks the weaving installation is “fantastic” and will bring exposure to Pawtucket that “is far, far more valuable than what was expended.”
Gerola said that while there might appear to be a certain simplicity to the design, it is actually highly engineered so the cables—some which stretch as far as 400 feet—withstand the elements. Among the linear cables are sections called “heddles,” which harken back to weaving devices used in the early textile industry. Part of the weaving is connected to an outdoor metal sculpture called “The Bobbin” that Gerola has also created and loaned to the Slater Mill Museum.
The placement of the cables in relation to natural lighting and the way the colors are used are also among the many elements that Gerola considered in his installation. He said the optimum time to view the weaving is late afternoon, just as the sun is going down. He also said the view at night “is totally different. It looks like laser beams.”
The weaving project, which took several months to install, wasn't without complications. There were numerous times that the heavy cables snapped and then had to be fished out of the churning water. A large crane had to be rented for some of the installation work done in high tree tops. Besides the inherent danger involved in hanging suspended over a cold and swift-moving river with a dam and waterfalls, stretching and securing the cables took its toll on Gerola's shoulders, back and neck.
On a larger level, Gerola said there were complications and frustrations that he experienced with the city as well. He complained that there were numerous delays in receiving help that had been promised by city officials in the way of tree cutting, brush clearing and in providing electrical power to lights that he installed. He also said he is overdue on a last installment of payment for the project and had also spent “a considerable amount” of his own money in completing the weaving. There were also several incidents of vandalism and theft of some of his tools.
Gerola said he knows there has been some scrutiny into the financing of the project, as well as some criticisms of it. He also has had several disputes with some city officials over various other aspects of the installation, even though he considers the contract for the work to be essentially between him and the Old Slater Mill Association. However, despite these negatives, he said he is “proud” of the installation and is glad he saw it through to completion. “My life is about doing beautiful installations,” he stated.
Douglas Hadden, director of constituent services and communications for Mayor Donald Grebien, said that when the mayor first met with Gerola last spring to discuss the project, he thought it would be “a nice way to showcase Pawtucket's industrial history and bring it forward to modern times.” He noted that some of the initial weaving was done in time for it to be seen by those attending the Pawtucket Arts Festival, and said the mayor and other city officials have been impressed by the way the installation has taken shape.
Hadden said the weaving installation serves to represent the city's past and present in a “unique and colorful way” and also at a time when Slater Mill is being considered as the site of a National Park. “I know art can be in the eye of the beholder, but this has brought renewed attention to Slater Mill and the ongoing manufacturing industry that exists in the city of Pawtucket,” Hadden stated.
Hadden said the administration has acknowledged some of Gerola's frustrations, but said the city provided labor assistance where and when it could. He added that no taxpayer money was used to fund the project. He also said that Gerola had been paid two out of three promised installments and will receive the last check when there is a final “sign-off” on the installation.
Irving Sheldon, president of the Old Slater Mill Association, said that the Slater Mill board and staff “couldn't be more delighted” in Gerola's project. “The theme of the piece is to seek a great continuance with the aim of the mill—to remember the history of the Blackstone Valley, honor it and get people more interested in their history,” said Sheldon. “We see this piece as taking a literal interpretation of the textile industry going over the river and tying it all together.”
Sheldon said he thinks the work is also important to the city because “it causes people to stop and think.” He said he is aware there have been some negative comments “and that's okay, too. But, I think a lot of people see it as a really neat thing.”
Some type of public reception for “Weaving the Blackstone” is in the works, and Baxter said there is another element that will cap off the project—a plan by Slater Mill to have an antique braiding machine spin another length of cord that will stretch from Slater Mill across the river and connect with Gerola's weaving.
Baxter added that he hopes “Weaving the Blackstone” will weather the winter months and remain intact at least until the 2012 Pawtucket Arts Festival. “I would encourage everyone in Pawtucket and the surrounding area to come on down and take a look at it. This is art telling the story from a historical perspective.”