By Marla Miller
Now more than ever public attention is drawn to the ways in which public art creates space to talk about a wide range of subjects, past, present and future. Earlier this year in Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts—an industrial village within the larger community of Montague—artist Nina Rossi embraced a fleeting moment in the history of Spinner Park to offer a thoughtful, provocative, and even joyful intervention around a local monument that both celebrates and elides histories of women’s work. Though most recently she has embraced multi-media work with a range of materials, including found objects, Rossi here turns to photography, in artwork that invites us to contemplate both idealized and real images of working women, and presents a rich case study of the possibilities when artists work in public history spaces.
Since the mid 1980s, “The Spinner”—a nineteenth-century classical figure holding a drop spindle—has stood near the corner of Avenue A and 4th Street to celebrate the women who once worked in the nearby Griswold Cotton Mill. The town is working this year to update the park, making it safer, more functional, and ADA-compliant. The 700-pound, cast iron Spinner will remain in the newly refurbished park, but is off its base as it is being restored during the construction. The work left the figure’s pedestal in place, but unoccupied. Rossi—never, in her words a “huge fan of the romantic, sentimental version of a mill worker symbolized by the Greek/Roman spinning goddess”—took advantage of the sculpture’s temporary absence to replace it with a succession of local women. Each mounted the empty pedestal holding tools of her trade today, moments Rossi captured in photographs.
Rossi’s intervention is an important one. Monuments with female figures are far more often allegorical than representational. One study of some “5,575 outdoor sculpture portraits of historical figures identified by the Smithsonian” found that, after subtracting examples of abstract, allegorical, or anonymous figures, fewer than 200 statues (that is, not even 4%) remain that depict identifiable women. Recent attention to the installation of statues of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park (the first women to join nearly two dozen men), or to the highly anticipated monument to Ida B. Wells, planned for the Chicago neighborhood where she lived and worked, shows the high degree of interest in the ways women’s history is marked on the landscape.
The daughter of UMass sociologists Peter H. and Alice S. Rossi—the latter “a founder of the National Organization of Women and specializing in family, sexuality, gender and feminism”—Rossi believes that her work “has that kind of sociological vision. This is where my perspective comes from.” “The drop spindle daintily held by a draped classical figure,” Rossi observes, seems “very unrealistic for what must have been a dirty and mechanical and noisy job tending thundering looms inside the Griswold mill.” “Other women in town worked in the paper mills, mostly in the rag room, slicing up rags by running them up on fixed knives,” she continues, and “I doubt they looked much like this perky nymph, or would have identified with her. But I have always loved the fact that the park and statue was a homage to female workers. So I thought an updated, modern version using living local models would be fun.” And the timing was perfect: not only was the pedestal vacant—and its surrounding azaleas in full bloom—but in the wake of the lock-down associated with the pandemic, “we were coming out of weeks of huddling at home. The idea of doing a public art project where I could interact, however briefly, with people again was very appealing after weeks of solitude and lack of inspiration.”
Rossi began by inviting women whom she knew personally, but word quickly spread, and by the project’s conclusion some forty women embraced the chance to strike a pedestal pose. Rossi has made her photos available as a series on her website. And so we meet musician and poet Nina Gross, copyeditor and grantwriter Trouble Mandeson, town clerk Deb Bourbeau, and chef Ashley Arthur. Clothing and textile makers are still well represented, by corset-maker Jackie Lucchesi and UMass Amherst public history student, weaver Peggy Hart. Artists and musicians hold brushes and instruments; activist Edite Cunha carries the all-important clipboard. Amy Donovan, who works for the Franklin County Solid Waste District, chose a bucket and shovel.
The Spinner statue, purchased in the 1980s, was cast by Alabama’s Robinson Iron Works (who also contributed the lamp posts lining the street) after a sculpture created by 19th-century French artist Louis-Léon Cugnot (1835-1894). Cugnot was well known for his allegorical figures. According to one source, this form, rendered in the Art Nouveau style, was not intended to depict the work of spinning per se, but rather represented Clotho, the “Greek goddess of destiny,” “measuring the thread of human life.” But the statue gained new meaning when installed in a town built upon the labor of female textile workers.
At the same time that Cugnot’s figure was first cast in France, in 1875, a world away the vision for the Turner’s Falls cotton mill took shape. The Griswold Cotton Mills was founded by Joseph Griswold in the nearby town of Colrain in the 1830s. By 1879, the company had moved to a new, larger factory in Turner’s Falls—a planned industrial community founded only a decade before on the banks of the Connecticut River. The 1880 U.S. census counted just over thirty women and girls employed by the cotton mill, the majority of them either Canadian or born to Canadian parents. Mothers and daughters worked alongside one another, as did sisters—sometimes whole families working together in the cotton mill. The 1884 Sanborn map noted that the “carding & spinning rooms” where most of these employees worked “run night and day.” Weaving took place on the ground floor, with the carding and cloth rooms above; the third floor was devoted to spinning, spooling, and warping, and the 4th allocated for storage. By 1891, some 500 mill hands ran 700 looms and 30,000 spindles, producing light weight fabrics and fancy goods. A large boarding house and tenements housed workers from the Griswold mills.
The Spinner best represents the real women of the town’s cotton mills in that she is depicted as a young woman: In 1880, the median age of women employed as weavers, spinners, spoolers, and warp tenders and web drawers in the cotton mill was twenty, though several workers were as young as twelve and thirteen, and a handful were in their thirties, or had reached forty. But the dangerous work performed by women in these mills certainly looked very different from the spinner of the sculptor’s mythological imagination. Cleaning and preparing fibers, swapping in fresh bobbins, warping and weaving cloth—in contrast to the quiet, contemplative image of the Spinner, this was all difficult and dangerous work, performed around heavy machinery, in deafening environments. Among other risks, the fiber-laden air made cotton workers vulnerable to a range or respiratory illnesses, while the common practice—before the introduction of self-threading shuttles–of sucking thread to bring it through a shuttle contributed to the spread of tuberculosis.
Women in another western Massachusetts mill. (Photo: “A Chicopee Cotton Mill – spinning room – 3 men, 12 women on the production floor,” Chicopee Archives Online, accessed August 6, 2020, https://www.chicopeepubliclibrary.org/archives/items/show/5380)
As textile companies moved their operations from New England to the southern states, plants like Griswold’s could no longer compete. Between 1922 and 1933, some 93 Massachusetts cotton mills closed, including Griswold’s. Most closed before 1928, throwing 40% of the Commonwealth’s textile employees out of work. By the time the Griswold property was sold to the Kendall Company in 1932, the firm had switched its focus to manufacturing hospital dressings, medical gauze, and related products,. World War II boosted revenues, but soon competition from southern mills caught up, and the company closed it in 1952, forcing some 135 employees to look elsewhere for work .
The post-war decades were difficult for Turner’s Falls economy, as mills closed one by one and jobs vanished. With the assistance of the Massachusetts state government, in the mid-1980s the town launched a revitalization effort that included plans to create a park on an abandoned lot on the main street. Town leaders decided to celebrate the women who had once worked in its textile industry by installing the Cugnot figure in what became “Spinner Park.” A plaque placed at the figure’s 1985 dedication reads “May the charm, grace and elegance of this statue be a lasting symbol of women at work”—language that may seem incongruous with the actual labor of millwork, but the statue’s installation ceremony also brought, and honored, several women who had worked in the Kendall mill, as well as the Esleek and Strathmore paper mills. In their presence, the abstract, allegorical Clotho took on another valence, as the representative of these real, working women.
Thirty-five years have passed since the Spinner’s installation. Today, as the park undergoes renovation, Suzanne LoManto, executive director of RiverCulture (the town’s cultural programming department), notes that “the intention of the Spinner statue has always been to honor Montague’s industrial past, and especially to acknowledge the women who worked in the mills.” As part of work, local sculptor Jack Nelson will refresh and restore the Spinner before it is reinstalled—creating the opportunity embraced by artist Nina Rossi to recognize, and celebrate, the diverse ways in which women work in the contemporary community.
Nina Rossi’s photographs now appear on the wall enclosing the construction site, allowing visitors to imagine contemporary women atop Clotho’s pedestal. (Photo: Nina Rossi, 2020)
In summer 2020, Rossi’s photos became part of the physical presence at the site, printed on weatherproof polymer paper with a landscape fabric backing and mounted on the construction fence, along the Fourth Street side of the site. While Clotho is absent, these photos remind viewers of the working worlds of women today. Meanwhile, Rossi is continuing to contemplate the additional possibilities offered by the moment, such as installing a time capsule inside the refurbished statue, containing these photos alongside perhaps “some survey or written statements from the people who posed,” or other ways to document women’s working lives in 2020. Whatever comes next, Rossi muses, “40 real women being represented inside a statue that is supposed to stand in for dozens or hundreds of 19th-century women” could be “a cool contrast of technology and vision.”
 All quotations from Nina Rossi are drawn from responses to an email interview, June 26, 2020.
 “MHC Reconaissance Survey Town Report: Montague,” (1982), pp. 3, 10. For another story related to larger conversations about local history and memory, see this account of an effort to rename Turner’s Falls, in light of a growing effort to disassociate the community from William Turner’s 1676 attack on a Nipmuc encampment during King Philip’s war: Cori Urban, “Turner’s Falls May Be Renamed Because of Association with Native American massacre,” MassLive July 16, 2020.
 Interestingly, the work was not as strictly segregated by gender as we might assume: weavers in the census records are identified both as male and female, and the same is true of spinners (at least per the Federal Census of 1900), who could also be male or female, usually in their early teens
 Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism (NY: Penguin, 2015), 394.
 North Adams Transcript, 26 February 1952.
 Tim Hilchey, “Montague Honors its Working Women,” [Greenfield Recorder], May 13, 1985.