By Will Broaddus
---- — 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.”
Those workers who chose to participate in the project — about 22 of the plant’s more than 100 employees — in turn recorded videos in which they talked about their work. These provided a starting point for interviews, which the students started to conduct last Friday.
They continued yesterday as Berry led a group of nine students to the plant, where they donned hard hats, safety glasses and fluorescent vests identifying them as artists.
One group visited the electrical shop to speak with Dumond Thebaud, who started out shoveling coal but is currently an electrician and has held several other jobs in more than 30 years at the plant.
Another student visited Miledy Santana in the plant’s chemistry lab, and a third group interviewed Ed Daddoli, who works in mechanical maintenance.
As the students become more familiar with the workers, they will formulate proposals for artworks they want to create for the exhibit.
“The students are being asked to interpret,” Berry said. “One student’s interviewing just the women, to hear their stories. Another person is taking pictures of the people working and using them as outlines to make sculptures. Another one is making costumes and having some of the workers reenact episodes that happened.
“So they are going to be interpreting, and there’s going to be flat artwork — drawing, photographs — and sculptures. There’s going to be a mural that’s going to involve the community, all kinds of different things.”
Student Melissa Tremblay wants to paint pictures of each worker’s boots, which will serve as “a symbol of their lives,” and was partly inspired by a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, Cohen said.
Kaitlyn Assmann, from Syracuse, N.Y., has asked workers to describe the first moment they saw the plant, and will use their responses in the soundtrack for an animated film.
Berry said the class is a valuable opportunity for students to get outside their studios and learn to articulate their ideas in the real world.
At the same time, the archive they and the workers are creating, along with the artistic visions it is inspiring, are recording a world that is passing away.
“I call them end-of-an-era projects,’” Berry said. “I think Peter’s idea was, ‘We can’t let this pass without acknowledging the workers in some way.’”