I cannot imagine my life without the experience of the Cotton Factory artist residency. On all levels – personal, professional, academic, philosophical and physical (since I have now moved my work and my life here) – it continues to enrich, expand and amplify my world.
Residencies are transformative things, I’ve learned. In some ways, contradictory, since you come in to them with a clear, proposed plan for the work but also with an intention to engage with completely new surroundings and people which influences your practice, your insight, and thus, your work.
The Cotton Factory hosts a mid-length residency. In retrospect, I can see that three months of absolute focus on visual art practice is both a blessing and a challenge. For me, the first month included Christmas and music gigs, all in cities outside of Hamilton, and so I spent what studio time I had establishing momentum for January’s work.
This was satisfying; I was able to stretch my art muscles, and take two pieces that had floundered in my last studio to a new level.
In January I settled into my proposed plan, which was ambitious: ten collaborative portraits of folk from three cities (none of them Hamilton), a book that explored process and insights gained about art and portraiture, and an artist’s talk/performance.
I settled into Portraits, yes, except that my powerful response to Hamilton and the Cotton Factory community and space was impossible to ignore. It became imperative that I respond also to where I was, that I explore the rich history and culture of industrial Hamilton (which included both of my paternal grandparents, emigrants from Glasgow, Scotland), in my work.
Within the first two weeks of January – seven weeks after the beginning of my residency, I realized that my work in The Cotton Factory and in Hamilton needed to be extended. I signed a three-year lease on another studio down the hall.
Now I had two goals fighting for priority in the seven weeks left of my Arts Council residency:
1. Portraits Project, and
2. a conceptual series on paper which explored the human spaces of industrial Hamilton.
Gates and fences, ways through and in to working spaces. The imposition of an idea (human industry and progress based on profit/ ownership) on what was once a thriving natural environment. The growing sense I had, that the natural environment – the spirit of the land – was still there, patiently waiting for its chance to reclaim the space through natural growth – with or without human collaboration. Vines using barbed wire and chain link to climb on, trees still growing beside junkyards, grass breaking through pavement.
My impression – of impossibly overlapped stories from 100 years of european emigrant workers who had been imported from their original cultural homes and offered ‘a better life’ in the new world. Enticed from their homes by government-supported businesses, they populated that treaty-acquired, previously populated land, which soon became unrecognizable to itself. They came for wages and in exchange became the visible backbone of the Big Industrial Dream of constant, unsustainable growth – my ancestors, transplanted here, to feed the perpetually growing, industrial profit/ownership machine.
The same machine that slaves from the south had been picking cotton for for a century or more, in chains, without wages or anything remotely approaching autonomy. These people – not enticed, but forcibly removed from their villages and homes, then commodified and traded – were the true, but invisible backbone of the cotton industry. For more insight please see this excellent PBS series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross”, available to rent or own. Here is PBS’ news release announcing the series.
Oh, the damage done. How much wrongness and entitlement can we own, as white people, in the origins of this story?
The effects of all of this are all clear and visible now, in old industrial Hamilton. The shores of Lake Ontario, once forests populated by indigenous people, is now dominated by abandoned factories, populated by immigrant settlers and the descendants of slaves. How do we address this, as artists?
In three months, I could only begin, with fences, locks, chains and gates. Trains. What I knew of my grandparents.
[NOTE: I have received some pointed and negative feedback on my original blog post that I believe is warranted. I want to address my error, as pointed out by a reader, whom I have thanked for her input.
Here is the offending paragraph, as originally written:
Gates and fences, ways through and in to working spaces. The imposition of an idea (human industry) on what was once a thriving natural environment, and the growing sense I had, that the natural environment was still there, patiently waiting for its chance to reclaim the space in collaboration with humans. My impressions, that 100 years of emigrant workers had been just as harnessed and used as ‘natural resources’ by industrial design was part of the story – my ancestors, transplanted here, to feed the same machine that slaves from the south were picking cotton for, a century ago.
My point about the industrialists’ abuse of the natural landscape for use in the development of factories and suggesting that the immigrant workers were “just as harnessed and used” was awkward and without proper reference points, and this I believe is the beginning of my error. The land was acquired through Treaty between the government and the indigenous peoples (see treaties No. 3, ‘Between the Lakes Purchase and Collins Purchase’, and Brant Tract 3&3/4 here. See also the website Native Land, an ongoing indigenous- run project which maps indigenous territories and nations on several continents. Be sure to read their ‘about’ page). The immigrant workers were paid, in exchange for the ‘harness’ of daily work, and so benefitted from the possibility of a new and more prosperous life in Canada. This is not at all like slavery, and though it was not my intention to imply so, the effect on my reader stands, and I take responsibility.
My point should have been absolutely clear, that I feel that the Cotton Factory building is full of overlapping stories, none of which would exist in that place without the people who picked the cotton that arrived by train. The (white) emigrant workers – my european ancestors – were in fact beneficiaries of the work of enslaved people, through the wages they earned. The toil of slaves and that of white emigrant workers should not have appeared in the same paragraph, without clearly distinguishing the extreme differences between the conditions experienced by them. I have corrected my post to reflect my intended point, with gratitude to AMR for calling me on it. This note will remain embedded in the post as well, for clarity.
My work and my reading actively inquires into the generational, cultural, physical and environmental effects of colonialism and industrialization, white privilege and entitlement. I sincerely apologize for any offense taken as a result of my lack of clarity.
I wrote this poem in response,
Song for the Workers
If I stood on the street where you walked to work
If I asked what you thought what you remembered what
would you say?
Did it take, what did it take from you
Did you break, how did you remake yourself
again, and then again and then, and then
How many miles of pavement
through the long working years?
Did you ever wonder
over a hundred years wonder
where it would all lead us?
Out the grey porch door
down the long street
over the train tracks
through the opened gate
through the big door (with the others)
Up the long stairs (with the mothers)
across the wooden floors to the chair, to the treadle
I think of you now, when I push my gas pedal.
Ten million miles of thread,
fed carefully through your steady needle.
For Jeannie Brown,
and for Hamilton where she made herself fit,
like all the others, all the mothers,
the brothers, the daughters and sons.
In the name of God, waged.
In the church, when the bells.
Hamilton is a place of factories, trains and churches of every faith from every country out of which emigrant workers came. In some ways it is the most european city I have yet experienced in Canada, because of these hundreds of years of carefully maintained connections with ‘home’. I can find food from any part of the world in the grocery stores.
The City of Hamilton acknowledges that it is situated on the traditional territory of the Haudensaunee and Anishnaabeg. This territory is covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. (Note: Haudenosaunee – This name refers to the Iroquois Confederacy comprising of these Nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. Anishinaabeg/ Anishinaabek/ Anishnabek/ Anishnaabeg – this name covers Ojibway, Odawa, Algonquin, Potawatomi, Nipissing, Mississaugas, Saulteau, etc….all the Algonkian/Ojibwa Nations.
Because of the Hamilton Arts Council / Cotton Factory artists residency, and this rich, complex history into which my own ancestors’ stories are woven, I have moved my work and my life to Hamilton. Portraits will open in the fall of 2019, and I will publish and tour a performance of my Masters thesis book, Seven Swans, Seven Rooms shortly afterwards.
There is a rich fabric of artists, music and community here that grows into future collaborative work and artistic exploration well beyond the horizons I could imagine in the fall of 2018, when I applied for the residency.
I highly recommend that you – artist from any culture in search of a practice-deepening, perspective challenging, new friendship-building, pivotal experience – apply to the excellent Cotton Factory Artist Residency program. From wherever you are, in the world.
(Write to me if you’re from away, and I’ll help you figure out accommodations. firstname.lastname@example.org – put ‘CF Artist Residency – Help!’ in the subject line.)