Essays on Outdoor Sculpture in Lowell

This Spring, John Christ taught an art history course at UMass Lowell in which his students took a close look at the outdoor sculpture in the city that is considered part of the Lowell Public Art Collection. These artworks were assembled between 1982 and the mid-1990s in an effort directed first by the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission and later by the Lowell Office of Cultural Affairs. The objective was to bring new  monumental sculptures into the downtown historic district as a way to enrich the urban setting, draw people to locations along the canals, and offer a different level of commentary on Lowell history. Over the next two weeks, seven brief essays about the artworks by students in Prof. Christ’s class will appear on this blog. One student wrote about the memorial art in the Lowell Cemetery as an alternative take on public art. We thank John and his students for sharing their work.–PM


Public Art and the Reconstruction of Lowell

By John X. Christ, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Cultural Studies, UMass Lowell

As Lowell looks to its future, it continues to nurture the memory of its industrial and immigrant past. The development of its public art is no exception. These works inscribe historical narratives onto the city and build symbolic bridges between the past and present. Every time we reshape our environment, we make a choice that defines who we are and that imbues the places in which we live with new significance. Public art contributes to this process in important ways. It draws connections between civic space and collective experience. It teases out forgotten memories lurking in the fragments of urban form. It unearths stories long buried by developers. It opens whimsical spaces for play and reverie. Public art not only cultivates a richer aesthetic environment, but also weaves complex narratives about ourselves and our values into the city’s urban fabric.

The historical reflection summoned by Lowell’s public art is firmly entwined with the city’s economic development. Lowell has set itself apart in a competitive marketplace of “creative cities” and historical destinations. It follows that its public art not only fosters community self-understanding and local pride but also provides signposts for visitors, for whom these perplexing sculptures are tourist attractions, conversation pieces, and bearers of historical riddles.

The entries that follow were written by students in a recently concluded course on public art that I offered in UMass Lowell’s Department of Cultural Studies. Seven students chose to compose brief summaries of their findings that will hopefully open up space for further conversation. For if we respect the “public” in public art, we recognize that dialogue, even disagreement, is as critical to the success of these works as traditional aesthetic criteria. Before turning over the reins, a few individuals need to be acknowledged. As many readers no doubt know and as several of these essays describe, the late Senator Paul Tsongas played a crucial role in creating the Lowell Public Art Collection. As my students and I endeavored to better understand this collection, Rosemary Noon and Paul Marion both generously offered their time and expertise.

“The Worker” by Ivan and Elliot Schwartz, on the Mack Building Plaza, Shattuck and Market streets. Web photo by James Higgins for Lowell National Historical Park, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts.


3 Responses to Essays on Outdoor Sculpture in Lowell

  1. Bryan Sullo says:

    Having just seen “The Worker” on our visit to Lowell this Saturday, I wondered, is it modeled on a specific, historic type of worker? For the life of me, I can’t figure out what he’s working at.

  2. PaulM says:

    Hi Bryan: It is meant to be a canal builder, referencing the early Irish workers who did much of the construction on the early canals in Lowell. The actual bronze figure was made from the same process as life-sized manikins in the “Waterpower” museum exhibit that once filled two floors of the adjacent Mack Building when it was the headquarters of Lowell Heritage State Park in the 1980s and ’90s. Essentially, the Schwartz brothers extended the museum exhibit to the fountain site on the plaza. This was done in the spirit of the growing public art collection. “The Worker” is the Lowell Heritage State Park’s contribution to the collection. There was a period some years ago when “The Worker” was the site of an annual observance of worker safety day. People would gather to listen to short speeches and the reading of a proclamation in recognition of efforts to improve safety conditions on the job.

  3. Bryan Sullo says:

    Thanks. I guess he’s moving one of the granite blocks into place. That makes sense now. Thanks for the history as well. That’s very interesting.