NORTH ADAMS -- The painted image of an 11-year-old girl standing next to a large machine in a cotton mill had such an emotional impact on city resident Lisa Bassi, she was motivated to spearhead a fundraising campaign that will permanently gift it to the North Adams Public Library.
The painting, "Mill Girl," was originally created by North Adams artist William Oberst as part of "The Mill Children Exhibition," a collaboration between local artists, historians and teachers organized by gallerist Ralph Brill in 2011. The exhibition, which debuted at the Eclipse Mill Gallery in 2011 and will be on display in Fall River during the summer, tells the story of what it was like to be an 11-year-old child worker in the Eclipse Mill Cotton Mill in 1911.
"When I first saw this painting, I felt more than anything the strength and resolution of this little girl," Bassi said Wednesday during a presentation of the painting at the library. "It's definitely an image of the Industrial Revolution, with its machinery that was big and powerful, but her spirit is equally big and powerful. I just felt that this part of our history belongs to children, and this image should be somewhere children could see it again and again. The images we see as children inform our lives. I thought what a wonderful gift to the children who come to this library to have that image of strength to carry with them as they go forward."
Discussions on how to make the library the permanent home of the painting began several months ago, according to Brill.
"[Library Director] Rick Moon and I began speaking about this, partially because of Lisa Bassi," he said. "She has raised some money towards the purchase already and has volunteered to lead a fund drive for it. We've already received four donations."
Bassi and a volunteer citizens group are looking to raise $16,000 for the purchase of the 40-inch-wide, 50-inch-tall painting. Brill and Oberst have agreed to pay for the painting's custom frame, which will take its inspiration from the wooden staircase leading up to the children's reading room on the second floor.
Oberst, who owns a studio on Holden Street, said the painting was inspired by the 1911 photographs of Lewis Hine, who documented the working conditions of mill children for the federal government, and the year-long research conducted by the team behind "The Mill Children Exhibition," which he was part of.
"I went to Lowell, where they have a lot of this machinery on display, to look at the machinery and didn't really understand it," he said. "I thought it all looked very menacing, very confusing and very alien. Then I thought about a little girl or boy in this place with these overseers patrolling, and it just seemed like the last place you'd want to spend your childhood. It's just an expression of my feelings of children and labor."
Historian Joe Manning, who has penned several books on the city's social history and who has identified many of the local mill children in Hine's photographs, called the painting "truly representative" of the type of images captured in 1911.
"I don't think we would know how to paint a picture of a child standing next to a piece of machinery like this if it wasn't for the photographs of Lewis Hine," he said. "These photos tell us how we looked about 100 years ago, the way our children looked and, vaguely, how our grandfathers and grandmothers looked. They remind us what made North Adams a leader in the textile industry. Without these people, [the mill owners] would not have succeeded. These children were their investment and unfortunately, they didn't invest much in the actual children. We need to invest in our history to remind us what North Adams is all about."
How to donate
Donations to the "Mill Girl Fund" can be made by credit card on the North Adams Public Library's website at www.naplibrary.com or by check at the library. Limited edition prints of "Mill Girl," in two sizes, will be given to those making donations of $500 or $5,000. Those donating $2,000 will receive a limited edition print of the poster from "The Mill Children Exhibition."
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, email email@example.com.