Artists explain works displayed at Plainwell mill along with Smithsonian exhibit

Daniel Pepper Staff Writer

The former Plainwell Paper mill is doing it all for the two art exhibits installed in tandem with the Smithsonian traveling exhibit How We Worked.
The mill, closed in 2000 after a long history of papermaking, and its contents serve variously as subject, inspiration, material and art gallery for the works of Steve Nelson and Sarah Lindley.
At a gallery talk with the artists on Saturday, June 20, Plainwell city manager Erik Wilson thanked them.
“They’ve added a lot to this event and what it means to the community,” Wilson said.
Nelson explained his long interest in photographing old industrial spaces by way of his biography, growing up in Muskegon in the shadow of a sand hill that had been excavated.
“My work has been focused on post-industrial landscapes,” he said.
Watching the paper industry’s effects on the environment and then on the community when mills in Muskegon closed informed his work.
“I knew the industry and how that affected people,” Nelson said.
A professor at Hope College, Nelson was invited into the Plainwell mill project because he’d previously photographed things like abandoned mine buildings in the Upper Peninsula.
The element of the mill’s closure affecting people is more evident in Nelson’s set of photos of the Plainwell mill. One focuses on a desk, left in disarray when the mill closed, with work papers and crossword puzzle books strewn throughout the office
Nelson said, “In previous projects, I was photographing things that had been abandoned for over 80 years.
“...Here, there were a lot of personal effects left behind.”
Visually he found the mill’s rooftop ventilation units fascinating to photograph.
“I looked at them as having an angelic aspect or a guardian aspect,” Nelson said. “They’ve been standing there the whole time.”
He said he was glad his photos would serve the purpose of historical preservation—documenting the mill’s state before what the city hopes will be soon-to-come redevelopment—but that he’d approached his photographs as art first.
“A lot of this is about my imagination,” Nelson said. “I’m glad these will be documents and will be left to show what it looked like, but the pictures are really about my imagination.”
Using film, he arranged various artificial light sources along with what little sunlight was available shining in for his camera to capture, stationary on a tripod.
“I had to paint with light,” Nelson said. “I did six to eight flash exposures.”
Plainwell Arts Council treasurer Cathy Green explained how her organization, co-sponsoring the exhibit with the city and a number of local businesses, wanted an art component included.
“Artists work too; people don’t realize that,” Green said. “That’s one of the things we wanted to highlight, that some people around the world make their living from art and people can do it.
“We thought it would make a good addition.”
Green makes pottery and is the arts council’s liaison with the city for the project.
She said she loved Nel­son’s photographs.
“I think Steve’s photos are fabulous; as a past employee (of the mill), they leave me with an eerie feeling. So many people lost their jobs there.
“You have to move on. The city is doing a great thing reusing it, but it’s sad.”
Green and her husband both worked at the mill at different times.
“It was frozen in time,” she said. “People were told to get up and go. It was fast and furious and I think he captured that.”
Lindley’s sculpture—which is a model of the Kalamazoo River and its watershed made from paper —was also a great addition, she said.
“I just thought it was fascinating, and as an artist, I see how much work she put into that,” Green said. “It’s the mill, but it’s also the watershed and this environment we keep polluting.”
She said Lindley’s work was especially timely to see with the current cleanups on the river as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund site.
Lindley lives in Plainwell and is a ceramics professor at Kalamazoo College.
She said she’d worked a long time to come up with the idea of what she wanted to create for the site after being asked to do the project, crediting Nelson for helping her see the mill as she watched him photograph it.
“He informed my work a lot, even though my work is quite different,” Lindley said.
The mill itself was certainly an inspiration as she settled on creating a model of the Kalamazoo River and its watershed from folded paper tubes.
“There’s a room upstairs where there are still some sample products,” Lindley said. “This all came from there.”
The watershed model—named “Exposure Pathways” —is more obvious when viewed from the top and she placed it where a mirror on the ceiling helps show its shape off and a platform allows visitors to see it from a higher angle. Standing a few feet off the floor, Charlotte is at the right end of the sculpture and Saugatuck is at the left.
Lindley said she’d chosen the watershed partly not to be too on-the-nose.
“It seemed redundant to make another image of the mill inside the mill,” she said. “But the river is right there.”
The watershed model shows how things are connected, she said, as the river was an early pathway for people coming to the area and for pollution from paper mills, which still contaminates much of the river.
That theme about the environmental contamination of the river informs the sculpture’s third dimension.
“It’s deepest where we know there are the most problems,” Lindley said.
The glued paper sculpture, she said, is vulnerable to moisture and heat.
“I don’t know what will happen with it,” Lindley said. “It could be recycled in the end, which is a nice idea. But it reminds us things are more complex. The PCBs mainly got in the river because they were recycling paper.”
She said the sculpture was assembled in 15 sections and took her and her assistants —students and former students Hannah Knell, Brian Carey and Daedal Derks, along with Lindley’s son Isaac Viviano —an estimated 800 to 1,000 hours.
Wilson said he’d taken personnel from the EPA who were in town on a tour of the exhibit and showed them the sculpture.
“The EPA people, when they saw it they knew exactly what it was representing right away and started pointing to it and explaining where things were,” he said. “When I saw it, I didn’t see that, but they look at those maps all the time.”
Contact Dan Pepper at or at (269) 673-5534 or (269) 685-9571.


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