Art Notes: Smithsonian Exhibit at AVA Gallery Recalls Factory Era
Eugene Dauphinais works at the Carter factory in an undated photo provided by AVA Gallery and Art Center.
The AVA building is shown in an undated photograph, although the Mustang parked in front gives a hint about the era when it was taken.
Eugene Dauphinais, taken by Jack Rowell, is part of the current AVA exhibit.
Thelma Picard Follensbee met her husband Wayne in school and later while they both worked at H.W. Carter and Sons. They married in 1941. Wayne Follensbee spent 42 years at Carter, pressing garments, maintaining the building’s heating system and finally working as a receiving clerk.(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
At 94, Thelma Picard Follensbee of Lebanon still sews clothes like these jackets made from heavy fabric samples. She also creates applique pictures and has begun working with a computer-operated embroidery machine. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
Thelma Picard Follensbee sits at a sewing machine that was once used at the H.W. Carter and Sons factory in Lebanon, where she worked for 49 years. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
Despite the steam, working in the pressing room was one of the most comfortable jobs at H.W. Carter and Sons in Lebanon.
Eugene Dauphinais had four big fans at his back in the summer to blow the steam away from him, and the steam pipes kept him warm in the winter, when the rest of the uninsulated building was chilly. He’d bring a hot dog or hamburger his wife had cooked at home and an hour or so before lunch he’d put it on the steam pipe, wrapped in foil, to heat it up.
For nearly four decades, Dauphinais worked in the Carter factory, which made denim and woolen clothing at 11 Bank St., until it closed in 1985.
“I must have liked it,” he said of the Carter factory. “If it was still here, I’d probably still be working.” Dauphinais, who turns 82 next month, went to work as a janitor at Dartmouth College after the factory closed, and for the past 20 years has painted houses in the summer.
The building now belongs to AVA Gallery and Art Center, which is paying tribute to Dauphinais and his era. AVA is exhibiting “The Way We Worked,” an exhibition created by the National Archives and Records Administration and the Smithsonian Institution and augmented by vintage photographs of the Carter factory and recent portraits taken by Braintree, Vt., photographer Jack Rowell.
Walking through the renovated AVA, it can be hard to bring the building’s old life to mind. The open, airy spaces were once a cramped warren of machines, with more than 100 employees cutting fabric, sewing, pressing, folding and bundling H.W. Carter and Sons workwear.
Dauphinais and other workers were paid by the piece; the more they cut, sewed or pressed, the more they earned. Dauphinais kept up a rate of 10 dozen an hour. He was always happy to deal with smaller sizes, he said, because they were easier to make quickly.
At Saturday’s opening reception, Dauphinais walked among the vintage photographs and clothing on display like a man in his element. “He is like a rock star!” Bente Torjusen, AVA’s longtime executive director said this week.
Dauphinais brought a collection of old slides to AVA last summer and the nonprofit art organization’s staffers “were just blown away,” Torjusen said. The photographs, which Rowell digitized and printed for “The Way We Worked,” show the old factory back in the 1960s and ’70s, including pictures of Dauphinais and his younger brother Andre at work.
As the exhibition and interviews with Dauphinais and co-worker Thelma Follensbee make clear, work had a different meaning during America’s era of industrial might.
Follensbee started work at Carter in 1934, at age 16 and stayed until 1983. “I learned to make aprons,” she said. She actually started spending time in the factory at age 9, with her mother, aunt and grandmother. Workers received coupons for every bundle of six or 12 pieces they completed, and the number of coupons determined the amount of the paycheck. Follensbee said she would paste the coupons onto her mother’s pad of paper “because she couldn’t read and write.”
“When I first came we made 50 cents an hour,” Follensbee said. “It doesn’t seem real, does it?”
No, it doesn’t seem real. It’s hard to believe that era existed. Work has a different meaning now.
Follensbee, 94, said she worked at Carter because “it was a job.”
“I put in a lot of years here and I don’t regret it,” she said. “It was a job and we did it and that was it. Now, if they don’t like a job, they can go out and find something else.”
At the same time, the job provided her with a skill. Follensbee still sews her own coats and handbags on one of the four sewing machines she keeps at home. On Saturday, she wore a coat she’d sewn from wool fabric made in the Bridgewater Mill.
“The weight of it is amazing,” Torjusen said, holding the coat on a hanger. The handbag Follensbee carried, which featured a star design, also was homemade.
The past tense of “The Way We Worked” suggests a sort of “those were the days” nostalgia, and talking to Follensbee and Dauphinais only reinforces the sense of a definitive break between then and now. For example, the exhibition points out that Levi Strauss and a business partner patented riveted denim “waist overalls” in 1873 and that in 1955 “denim jeans become symbols of youth culture.” The symbolism of blue denim was a counterweight to the equally symbolic gray flannel suit.
(Here’s another symbol: I Googled “H.W. Carter and Sons” and found that the brand has been revived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. You can buy a classic denim work jacket, made from cloth woven on a vintage loom in North Carolina, for $325.)
For the most part, the interpretive panels from the Smithsonian are a straightforward examination at how work became central to American identity. There isn’t so much as a winking acknowledgment of the current unemployment rate, or the recession that caused it. “Take a moment to rethink where, how, with whom, and why we work,” the exhibition gently suggests.
That’s an unsettling proposition, and not just because so many people who would rather be working aren’t able to find jobs. There’s a greater unease that isn’t discussed. People understand that as factories have closed and jobs have gone away, ordinary work at decent wages has grown scarce. This isn’t a new observation, but it still makes people restless. The assurances of our political and business leaders — many of them cut from the same Ivy League cloth, pardon the pun — that the economy will improve and jobs will return, aren’t entirely convincing. Perhaps the economy that replaced American industry isn’t easy to explain, but that doesn’t mean no one should try.
The Smithsonian portion of the exhibition makes a few strides in that direction. It notes that in the 1940s, less than a third of American workers were in managerial, clerical or sales jobs. As of 2009, more than 70 percent held office jobs.
It also offers a few nuggets that sound both true, and hopelessly out of date, such as this from Theodore Roosevelt: “The best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Do people still believe that, and if so, how does that square with the full-bore pursuit of money that seems so prevalent in the business world?
Stephanie and Gordon Jackson, who also attended the opening reception Saturday, held an answer. Their grandfather, Harry Jackson, became a partner in H.W. Carter and Sons, then full owner, before handing it down to their father, Frank Jackson, and his brother Stanley.
“I think this is fantastic,” Stephanie Jackson said of AVA’s use of the former factory. “I can’t imagine a better choice, given what’s happened with manufacturing over the years.” AVA respects the building’s history and reaches out to the community, she said.
Carter was “a community business,” she said. The company once turned down a major standing order from Federated Department Stores, because it would have changed the character of the business, she said. Imagine something like that happening today.
Or imagine this: When he was 14 and 15, Gordon Jackson worked summers in the cutting room, laying out fabric. His father required it and drove him to and from the factory. Child labor was illegal, he noted, unless the young worker was related to the owners.
AVA is the third and final New Hampshire stop for “The Way We Worked,” and it’s the perfect location. Where better than a former factory that’s now an art center to contemplate the nature of work?
“The word ‘manufacture’ means making by hands, and what do we do, you know?” Torjusen said.
“The Way We Worked” is on view through Jan. 27, and AVA has planned several programs for next month. All of the programs begin at 4 p.m., except where otherwise noted, and are free and open to the public.
∎ On Jan. 4, from 5 to 7 p.m., AVA holds an opening reception for “The Way We Work,” which will feature work in progress by artists with studios in AVA’s Carter-Kelsey Building. The show includes a gallery talk at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 17 by the exhibiting artists.
∎ On Jan. 6, Jere Daniell, a Dartmouth College emeritus professor of history, will give a talk called “The New England Milltown.” Daniell grew up in the western Maine milltown of Millinocket and has a particular interest in the early industrialization of New England.
∎ On Jan. 10, at 6 p.m., novelist Ernest Hebert will talk about his father’s work at a Keene textile mill and read a passage from his recent novel, Never Back Down. Hebert worked at the International Narrow Fabric Co., mill when he was 16.
∎ On Jan. 13, AVA will screen Connecting the Threads: Overalls to Art — H.W. Carter and Sons Factory, a 35-minute documentary featuring interviews with former Carter workers, including Thelma Follensbee and Eugene Dauphinais.
∎ On Jan. 20, Jennifer Pustz, museum historian at Historic New England, will give a lecture titled “Voices from the Back Stairs: Domestic Servants in 19th and 20th Century New England.”
∎∎ On Jan. 26, from 4 to 7 p.m., AVA is throwing a “Denim Party” to kick off the nonprofit art organization’s 40th anniversary celebrations.
∎∎ On Jan. 27, Robert Welsch, former curator of the Lebanon Historical Society, will give a talk on “Mill Buildings in Lebanon.”
AVA is also exhibiting a “Holiday Salon” of works by Upper Valley artists.
Openings and Receptions
The winter exhibitions at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center include mixed media work by Lynda Knisley; photographs and digital paintings by Richard Wilson; photographs and poems by Jams Jones; paintings by members of the Vermont Watercolor Society; ink drawings and oil paintings by Kathleen Swift, and oil paintings by Betsy Derrick.
∎ Quechee Area Camera Club is exhibiting photographs at White River Junction’s Zollikofer Gallery, in the lobby of the Hotel Coolidge.
Two Rivers Printmaking Studio in White River Junction holds a group show for the holidays that features small matted works by the studio’s artist-members.
∎ BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt., is exhibiting small works by the impressive roster of artists it represents, including several Dartmouth studio art professors.
∎ “The Holly & the Ivy,” a holiday group exhibition, is on display at Windsor’s Nuance Gallery.
Randolph’s Chandler Gallery is hosting its Holiday Bazaar, a yearly exhibition of fine craft. The bazaar is open to the public Thursdays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., through tomorrow.
∎ Newport’s Library Arts Center holds its annual “Gallery of Gifts.” It features work by more than 80 of the area’s artists and artisans, and is open through Saturday.
∎ Woodstock’s Artistree Gallery hosts “Fine Works in Miniature,” a holiday show, through Saturday.
∎Scavenger Gallery in White River Junction is hosting an Artist’s Bazaar through Monday. Participating artists are Stacy Hopkins, Ria Blaas, Toby Bartles, David Powell, Robin Mix and Ara Cardew.
∎ Ledyard Gallery in Hanover’s Howe Library exhibits Bernard Trumpower’s photographs of Dartmouth’s Brout Orchids, through Wednesday. The orchids themselves, 1,000 plants donated by Dartmouth alum Alan P. Brout, can be seen by the public on the fourth floor of the Life Sciences Complex on the north campus, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.
∎ The Main Street Museum exhibits “Green Mountain Graveyards,” photographs by Scott Baer and Dan Barlow, through December.
White River Junction’s Main Street Museum hosts “Survival Soup,” which features the work of 20-something artists Travis Dunning and Matt Riley, who live in Stockbridge, Vt., and Seth Tracy, a Randolph native, along with White River Junction artist Drew Peberdy.
∎Works by illustrator and artist Charley Harper, best known for stylized wildlife prints, posters and book illustrations, are on display at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich through Feb. 3. The show, “Beguiled by the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper,” salutes his lifelong love of nature. Harper, who died in 2007, called his style “minimal realism.’’ An added element to this exhibit: students and instructors from the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction have done a series of one-page comics about the natural world, incorporating Harper’s techniques.
∎ Vermont Special Arts exhibits “Seeing With New Eyes” at Mt. Ascutney Hospital in Windsor, which features work done by participants in a recent photography program for people with disabilities.
∎ “Oil Paintings by Myra Hudson,” a solo show from the Royalton artist, is on view at the Tunbridge Public Library. It includes landscapes and figure paintings and is Hudson’s first solo show.
∎ “Light and Space,” an exhibition of large-scale prints by East Barnard artist Sabra Field, and work by fiber artist Karen Madden of Poughquag, N.Y., sculptor Pat Musick of Manchester, Vt., and Springfield, Vt., painter Dan O’Donnell, is on view in the Great Hall of the renovated Fellows Gear Shaper factory in Springfield, Vt.
∎ “The Past Meets with the Future,” paintings, drawings and mixed media by West Lebanon artist Fiorella Tasca Buck, is on view at West Lebanon’s Kilton Public Library.
∎ The Hood Museum of Art exhibits “Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art,” which offers a survey of Australian Aboriginal work since the 1960s, and “Stacey Steers: Night Hunter House,” a recent Hood acquisition by the Denver multimedia artist.
Art Notes appears in the “Valley News” on Thursday. Notices must arrive two weeks prior to the Thursday before an event. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.