Five previously empty guard houses on the grounds of historic Olympia and Granby Mills now house site – specific installations. Nestled inside a stand of trees at the terminus of Whaley Street is an architectural structure blending seamlessly with nature. If you look up at the top of an old industrial shed on Catawba Street, you will discover an illuminated robot-like figure ascending the building while hoisting a large ball. These and other sculptures comprise 701 Center for Contemporary Art Mill District Public Art Trail (MDPAT) and they populate Whaley, Olympia and Granby neighborhoods – collectively known as Columbia, South Carolina’s Mill District. These public artworks are part of an overall concerted effort to reimagine the Mill District as a vibrant part of the city. The project is a pathway that is a journey and each sculpture is also a distinctive destination preserving history and memory and amplifying previously marginalized voices.
The MDPAT was conceived as a project in 2017 by 701 Center for Contemporary Art board and staff to connect the three neighborhoods through a creative endeavor. During the four year period, the selection of sites and artists has resulted in the creation of 11 works of art on the burgeoning art trail. The sculptures and installations celebrate mill workers, the textile industry, the work of the hand and the mill village’s three neighborhoods. This new collection of public art compliments the historic aspects of the Mill District, including existing public art and mill architecture, while giving a nod to the area’s redevelopment as a destination and attraction for new residents, businesses and tourists.
The inaugural works on the trail were created by 11 South Carolina artists – collaborators David Cianni (Aiken) and Anna Redwine (Columbia), Diana Farfán (Greenville), Susan Lenz (Columbia), Robert Lyon (Columbia), Doug McAbee (Greenwood), Philip Moody (Rock Hill), Carey Morton (Charleston), Jordan Sheridan (Columbia), Brittany Watkins (Columbia), and Fletcher Williams (Charleston). Independently and collectively, these artists provide compelling narratives about the history of mill culture including working conditions, long hours, child labor, child care, and safety and health issues.
One unique aspect of the project is the placement of some works within residential areas. Sited on the median at the end of the 200 block of Williams Street in Granby Village is A Tribute to Hands – a totem-like cypress sculpture by Robert Lyon. In Lyon’s work, the hand in its abstracted form figures prominently as a celebration of the tireless mill workers. It also acknowledges the hand’s quintessential role in making art.
Homestead by Fletcher Williams is situated on Whaley Street within a residential area of the neighborhood but the sculpture is only a stone’s throw away from nearby Granby. A uniquely architectonic form, it recalls aspects of the rural South’s agrarian history with its reference to a barn. The artist’s use of reclaimed materials – old tin, rebar, picket fences – adds integrity and character to the structure that is, for some, reminiscent of a by-gone era.
In more public spaces in the Mill District are works by Carey Morton and Doug McAbee. Like Williams, Morton’s sculpture references the land but his use of garden and farm tools connects it more specifically to the process of cultivation. Partly animated in its appearance, Morton creates a rhythm and movement through the random connectivity of the tools. Its title – So it Goes… – befits the sculpture’s unwieldy nature with all its twists and turns. The work is sited in close proximity to the Granby Park Community Garden near the entrance of the park.
In Y’all don’t forget your roots and The One About Home, Doug McAbee introduces elements of fantasy and whimsy in both his sculpture and mural found at Pacific Park on Wayne Street. The 20 foot mural combines both drawing and painting to dynamic effects with imaginary creatures inhabiting a world that takes on the appearance of coloring book pages.
David Cianni’s Mill Robot, created in collaboration with Anna Redwine, foreshadows technological advances in textile factories with the advent of robotics and automation. Loosely inspired by the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, the robot’s demeanor contradicts that tragic figure’s fate. Playfully and effortlessly, the Mill Robot scales the wall successfully hoisting the ball to its anticipated position on top of the building. Redwine, who created 701 CCA’s iconic logo of a ball of thread, reimagined the metal sphere as a ball of thread by hand winding 33 yards of red rope lights.
The installations inside and outside the five Olympia and Granby guard houses celebrate the mill and millworkers. In Phil Moody’s photo-based installation, the artist combines reproductions of 1902 stereo photographs of the Olympia Cotton Mill with text from an interview of local mill resident Carol Gettings whose father worked as a loom fixer in the Olympia Mill. Moody’s takeover of both the interior and exterior creates an immersive experience that at once feels historic and contemporary.
Susan Lenz’ Lola’s World is an environment that brings together many aspects of working in a mill and practicing handiwork including all the accouterments – spindles, threads, quilt, pin cushion, needle, scissor, and other items. The hundreds of wooden spindles suspended from the ceiling are in communion with thousands of intertwined threads blanketing the floor. An image of Lola Derrick Byars presiding over her domain is dressed in her finest clothing which gives a sense of the fashion of the day for women mill workers.
Like Lenz, Diana Farfán’s installation is inspired by women mill workers. Medellin, Colombia in South America is famous for a number of things – coffee plantations, flower farms, orchids and butterflies. It is also well-known as a textile center. Farfán memorializes women from Medellin who relocated to Greenville, SC to work in the textile mills there. The centerpiece of Farfán’s installation is a large ceramic bust of a woman whose hair is created using unginned cotton. Embedded in the woman’s hair are carefully placed nests with infants. Titled Linthead, the installation also includes 110 cotton-filled nests with infants installed on the interior walls. Child care was a major issue for mill mothers and the practice of taking babies to the mill where they were placed in baskets was common and necessary. A first-hand account by Colombian textile workers about their experiences working in the mill can be heard through an audio in Spanish.
The combination of dramatic lighting and dynamic colors to beautiful effects is seen in installations by Jordan Sheridan and Brittany Watkins. Their works serve as bookends for the run of guard houses. The brilliance of the colors stand in contrast to the exterior reddish-brown brick walls of the guard house and the majestics mills in the background. Windows on three sides of the guard houses offer multiple viewpoints to explore the interior spaces.
In addition to lighting and color, textures, sound and shadows activate Jordan’s installation. Enmeshed – a colorful crocheted yarn installation – has a web-like appearance created by pulling and stretching the yarn. Enmeshed impregnates the interior space but also extends to the exterior. The work is aided by light to intensify its color and forced air movement is used to create dramatic shadows.
Light and color are also important elements in Brittany Watkins’ Hands Unseen. A predominance of seemingly disparate suspended items including a loom-like wheel, hands and other floating objects occupy an exuberant blue interior. Like Lyon, Watkins uses the hand as a metaphor for the hard work that labor entails. But the hands in this case may also suggest the dangerous aspects of working in the mills. Watkins’ use of the color blue with its calming effect functions as both an aesthetic device and as a psychological intervention.
The works on the Mill District Public Art Trail invite us to explore the art and highlight the unique character of the distinctive neighborhoods within the Mill District. Part of this journey is discovering art in unexpected and surprising spaces. It is also an indication of the ongoing transformation taking place in this historically important community.
The project is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation at Central Carolina Community Foundation, the City of Columbia and Richland County. Additional support provided by PMC Property Group.
I imagine the maternal experience as an enveloping, polymorphous mass that is ever stretching, fracturing, and shifting. This body of work documents and aestheticizes my personal experience of being a mother to my young son Samuel. Through painting and installation, I communicate the paradox of feeling both overwhelmed and spellbound as a mother and of reconnecting the fragmented pieces of my identity while the boundaries between Samuel and myself are often blurred. The crocheted installation is an extension of my painting practice with its own unique and deliberate mark making and form; its woven structure situates a viewer within my position and identity as the mother.
My project is derived from two sources, an interview with Carol Geddings who has lived on Heyward Street all her life, and whose father was a loom fixer in Olympia Cotton Mills in the 1960s, and a stereo photograph made inside the mill in 1907.
Over the past 30 years I have made work based on the history of South Carolina’s textile industry. Using text created from interviews, along with borrowed family photographs, and imagery from scanned artifacts, my aim has been to present a creative response to what I have come across when out with my camera. The project has been produced on inkjet printers normally used for the contemporary textile industry.
Within this piece of work you will find pages from a 1930 mathematics book written specifically for school students whose future work would be in the region’s cotton mills. The rhythmical lines have been created by drawing digitally, and are there to suggest the noise and frenetic activity of work inside a mill.
Inside the gatehouse I have constructed a stereo-viewer, so the visitor can see the 1907 picture in 3-dimensions. Originally made with a camera that had two lenses, the same view was seen from two slightly different angles. Combined, they provide a convincing picture with depth. This was the ‘virtual reality’ of 100 years ago.
In Greek mythology, each person’s fate was determined by the three Fates or weaving goddesses – Clotho who spun the thread, Lachesis who measured the length, and Atropos who cut the thread of life. Like the fate of an individual, a city‘s fate is determined by many situations. Greenville’s fate was spun in the spindles, shuttles, and looms of the cotton textile industry, which depended on the labor of thousands of women and men for more than a hundred years. Most workers came from rural Piedmont and Appalachian communities, creating strong new communities mill by mill. Often disparagingly called “lintheads” for the cotton fibers that clung to their hair and clothing, residents of these villages were fiercely loyal and proud of their individual mill identities, forming friendships that persisted long after the mills closed. In the late 1960s and early 70s, more than 30 families from Medellin, Colombia, then the most vital textile region in Latin America, arrived in Greenville, recruited by the mills for their expertise as machine operators and loom technicians. Not part of the existing social fabric, these families were separated from home for years, the women working tirelessly 12 hours a day, six days a week in social isolation compounded by language barriers and racism. These Latino women wove not only cotton, but also nests from which they raised their families and made new lives as the city flourished and prospered until the day when the thread was snipped, and the cotton textile industry died out.
Eight year old Lola Derrick Byars started working in Granby Mill shortly after her family relocated to Columbia in 1898. They came in search of steady pay, secure employment, and a better way of life than farming had provided. When Olympia Mill opened, Lola went to work there. By twelve, Lola was an experienced textile worker living in a nice Fifth Street house where plenty of home-cooked meals were served. The intimate scale of the guard house brings to life the focus and concentration Lola needed for her daily tasks, one of which was the constant replacement of textile spindles.
Hand’s Unseen is a conceptual installation and memorial to mill workers across the region. Throughout the sixteen days it took to make this work, my life consisted of routine and ritual as I employed a spiritual, conceptual process that was both laborious and meditative in nature. In addition to daily walks in the Olympia Cemetery, I began making trips to local second hand shops where I scavenged for familiar products of the textile industry such as used bed sheets, table cloths, and curtains. These items were then drenched in blue, hand dyed in a large pot atop the stove, like a low-country boil.
As the South Carolina heat whispered woes of women and children toiling at the face of a spinning loom, I became interested in its antique construction. The circular form is emblematic of a wheel that continues to turn despite long hours spent in harsh conditions for little pay. As it was by their hands, that a larger economy and path for the future was built, I sought, collected, painted, carved, sewed, and contemplated in honor of their struggles. During this time, I listened to the layers of dirt and many coats of paint, now chipping away, from this structure of over one hundred years. I have come to recognize the old mill and its guard houses as symbols of resilience for current day residents.
In his book, The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi, speaking of the relationship of hand and machine, said: “No machine can compare with man’s hands. Machinery gives speed, power, complete uniformity, and precision, but it cannot give creativity, adaptability, freedom, heterogeneity. These the machine is incapable of, hence the superiority of the hand, which no amount of rationalism can negate. Man prefers the creative and the free to the fixed and standardized.”` In A Tribute to Hands, I want to celebrate all of those who have toiled with their hands, especially those who worked in our mills. As an artist who taught ceramics, glassblowing, and sculpture for four decades at the university level and is currently actively teaching woodworking at various craft schools, I can honestly say that people are eager to work with their hands. As we slowly come out of pandemic isolation, people are hungry to express their creativity and to free themselves of the restrictions we have lived with for so long. In A Tribute to Hands, I want the viewer to sense the aesthetic relationships of art and craft, its pleasures, and its unique link to our quality of life. For me, working with my hands resides as much in the social and spiritual realm as in the material accomplishments it promotes.
Fletcher Williams III
Throughout rural South Carolina, I’ve discovered countless examples of master craftsmanship, agricultural expertise, and architectural beauty. Homestead is an assemblage of various iconic materials collected during my explorations. The overall form of Homestead is representative of a multi-use barn, located near the outskirts of Walterboro, SC. It is a grand and elegant matrix of rafters, timber columns, and rusty corrugated tin. At its height, it housed grain, hogs, cauldrons, farming tools, and served as an appliance repair shop for neighboring businesses. I’ve represented the exterior structure with an exposed rafter system, comprised of reclaimed picket-fence and rusted tin roofing salvaged from a Freedman’s Cottage. The center concave segment is comprised of haint-blue tongue-and-groove siding; the platform is comprised of inverted picket fence decorated with a series of rebar hooks identical to those used by black farmers in butchering livestock.
I have used the picket fence in many of my latest works. It is an opportunity to critique and subvert a distinctly American symbol and bolster the creative practices that have allowed black communities to thrive, independent of proprietary ideas of prosperity and liberty. The picket fence is relegated to its aesthetic value and used only to elevate a cultural treasure.
Doug’s wildly imaginative, humorous drawings have been exhibited across the country and are in private collections internationally. His work explores storytelling while entertaining ideas of duality, human connection, and finding joy in our complex world.
Doug learned to weld when he was just seven years old. His father taught him to work with steel and Doug has continued that tradition by convincing the material to conform into his anthropomorphic, humorous forms. His brightly colored steel sculptures have been exhibited indoors and outdoors nationwide.
Doug creates indoor and outdoor murals that feature his whimsical imagery in fantastical narratives. His murals may be stand-alone works of art or they may be a part of a larger gallery exhibit with color drawings and sculptures.