SALEM — After Salem Harbor Station closes in May, its huge structures will come down and most of its workers will move on.
To make sure their stories don’t disappear along with the 500-foot smokestack, 28 students at Montserrat College of Art have been conducting interviews with plant employees that will become part of an archive. These stories will also serve as the inspiration for student paintings, sculptures and videos that celebrate the workers’ careers, and will be exhibited at the plant this July.
“The general theme they’re beginning to see is how the workers treat each other like a family,” said Elizabeth Cohen, who teaches at Montserrat and is helping coordinate the project. “Some have worked there for 20, 30 years. They’re constantly caring for the plant as if it was a family member, and the plant has cared for them.”
The Montserrat class is being sponsored by Footprint Power of New Jersey, which acquired the coal and oil-burning plant in 2012, and plans to replace it with one that burns natural gas.
The idea for the project developed in a conversation between Peter Furniss, CEO of Footprint, and Stephen Immerman, president of Montserrat College.
“It provides a constructive output for my staff,” Furniss said. “Many are good storytellers, and they have their own kind of artistic sensibilities around their work.
“I think there’s a lot of grieving going on on the part of my staff, with the loss of the plant, loss of jobs and loss of family they’ve built there over many decades. I know it’s helpful for them.”
Students started visiting the plant in late January, touring its control rooms, turbines and shops, and they recorded brief videos that introduced them to the workers.
“We wanted them to meet each other, but because of all the security and scheduling it was really cumbersome. We couldn’t get a big group together,” said Ethan Berry of Beverly, one of three faculty members working with the students. “These people are busy running a plant.”