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Photographs and video by Thomas Crone
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The regional stereotypes of Granite City are long-held and, even to locals, based in a sort of truth. A mill town that once boomed with thousands of factory jobs, the area’s accurately reflected the American trend towards importing manufactured goods, with well-paying, blue- (and affiliated white-) collar jobs often lost in the process of progress. The economic losses of the last half-century of America’s industry are definitely viewable in the small-town downtown that contemporary Granite City’s inherited, featuring an assortment of classic old buildings without current use. But with all credit to Granite’s civic leadership, there’s been a longstanding fight to rebrand—and, based on this weekend, perhaps the proper term here would be “recast”—the town’s image for residents and visitors alike.
It’s happened in numerous ways.
Some of the projects are larger in scale, like the construction of a three-screen movie theatre directly in the heart of the downtown. Others have been smaller efforts, like the allowance of some city land to become Graffiti Alley, where young artists have been allowed to paint underneath a road overpass, without the worry of legal repercussions. The arts, in fact, have taken on an increasingly visible role in public life in Granite City, with Washington University sculpture students creating, then donating, a half-dozen pieces of large-scale public art to the town in just the last year. And there’s been much talk of reimagining Granite’s downtown as an artist’s colony.
Certainly, some cynics would look at a vision like that and wonder if it’s not an excuse for governmental money to be poured into a bottomless hole. And one could bite on a few of the arguments. Granite’s downtown has lost a lot of real estate, with some blocks existing in that tragic, one-building-left mode. But someone looking at the possibilities could envision a different reality. That building, all alone on the block? Well, because it had close neighbors, it doesn’t have windows on one side. It becomes a canvas, then, for what? A mural? A white-sided cinema screen? A space for a rotating billboard, featuring the artwork of students at nearby SIU-E? Something else entirely?
If there’s a dogged sense of reclaiming the town as a center for our region’s artistic future, you could’ve found most of those folks working under a bridge this past weekend, not so very far from downtown Granite, but in a part of town that, in its own curious way, is a perfect place to execute artistic work. The event was called “Pouring Iron: Art and Industry in Granite City,” and the name pretty well summed up the exact activity taking place, though there’s lots of theory behind it.
The press release for the event noted that a few different artistic imprints were at work.
“Six Mile Sculptureworks is a program of Alfresco Productions, a-not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating, simulating and perpetuating the arts in Granite City Ill.,” the release read. “Six Mile Sculptureworks has located in Granite City because of the unique relationship between Art and Industry within the community. Artists from around the country are coming to town to participate in the conference, [and] they will bring blast furnaces which operate on the same principals utilized in local industry. This is the second iron pour brought to you by Six Mile Sculptureworks and is an annual event that is growing with the community as the Sculptureworks grows.”
And that growth was taking place Saturday just underneath Route 3, on a patch of land owned by the sprawling America’s Central Port, a mixed-use industrial and warehouse campus crafted from the bones of an old military hub. ACP has a huge footprint of land and has everything from bus parking lots to the area’s largest mixed martial arts training facility. And, over the weekend, it was home of one of the weekend’s coolest creative spaces in town.
Noah Kirby, one of the founders and directors of Six Mile Sculptureworks, was found on Saturday a few feet above the ground, on a blast furnace set up for the weekend’s activities. Inside the work zone, he looked around and talked about the various activities taking place. And it was a multi-sensory one. As the furnaces burned, there was a definite smell to the place, even as the ears were engaged by the (over-)passing Route 3, as well as the constant chipping of art students, who were taking apart bits of recycled metals, reducing massive items into workable bits of scrap metal.
It seemed that from his perch above the action, he was seeing no only the day’s activities, but a larger movement taking place.
He pointed, for example, to Maia Palmer, who was leading some guests through a very specific paint-by-numbers activity; her work has created a half-dozen scenes of historical Granite City, which has become a participatory act with visitors to events like this. They fill in the gaps left by Palmer and the ultimate finished works will be displayed in town.
“The pieces are partly based on interviews,” she says. “We talked to people about their memories of Granite City. The downtown YMCA, for example, meant a lot to some people. They’d talk about things like the dances that took place there.”
And so, the places are now being reconsidered through Palmer’s survey of the town, which says she wants to take a “historical, but also a contemporary view of the town.” (See more in our video chat with her.)
Kirby also noted that Palmer’s the first artist to take residency in one of “the 50 brick houses that were built by the Commonwealth Steel Company, back in the 1920s. We hope to continue having artists-in-residence, right in the shadow of the steelworks. We want to continue that living history.” (You can also find more conversation with Kirby, in our accompanying video.)
In order to keep that momentum growing, Kirby points to a host of folks who helped co-sponsor the Pouring Iron event. While the okay of America’s Central Port is key in the securing of consistent space, there’s also a big assist coming from Granite City.
“Everything,” he says, “has been done with the support of Granite City.”
About which, we wonder what the barflies at Kenny’s would have to say about that...