A day for workers of the world: Hosmer Gallery finds connections between in-person and online exhibits

  • A May Day poster from France calls for urgent action — a race — for social progress, international solidarity and disarmament.  Courtesy Forbes Library

  • One of the thousands of May Day posters that the exhibit’s curator, Stephen Lewis, has in his personal collection. This one is from Pakistan. Image courtesy Forbes Library

  • A May Day poster from Scotland invokes the old ceremony of dancing around a maypole on May 1 to welcome summer. Here the dancers are calling for better conditions for workers. Image courtesy Forbes Library

  • A May Day poster from Turkey, where workers who marched in Instanbul on May 1, 2015, were attacked by police. Courtesy Forbes Library

  • “Mask Up,” a photo by Jesse Merrick that’s part of Hosmer Gallery’s virtual exhibit, “In This Together.” Image courtesy Forbes Library

  • “Precarious 2,” by Martha Brouwer, which looks at the threats posed to animals by climate change. It’s part of “In This Together,” a virtual exhibit at Hosmer Gallery. Courtesy Forbes Library

  • “Untilted 2,” a paper collage and print by Kevin Sullivan that looks at the excesses of consumer society and the threat of climate change in “In This Together,” a virtual exhibit at Hosmer Gallery. Image courtesy Forbes Library

  •  “Vision 1,” pen, ink, and watercolor by Melissa Joyce Medina, which is part of “In This Together.” The artist says this work was inspired by a dream in which vines grew out of her arm, making her “a part of nature.”  Image courtesy Forbes Library

Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2021 12:25:18 PM

The Hosmer Gallery at Forbes Library has been an important venue over the years for the local arts community, hosting an array of solo and group exhibits as well as special events such as the Northampton Arts Council’s Biennial, a juried art exhibit, and an annual showcase of artwork by Northampton High School students.

The pandemic shut down the gallery beginning in March 2020, limiting Hosmer to some virtual exhibits during the past year. But the gallery has just reopened — and it’s also hosting a new online exhibit that dovetails thematically with the in-person show.

“May Day: An International Poster Exhibit” offers a colorful and historical look at how International Workers’ Day — also known as Labor Day in many countries — has been celebrated around the world since 1889, when workers associations in different nations and a union of French socialists chose May 1 to recognize the rights and struggles of labor and call for an eight-hour workday.

The 64 posters in the exhibit come from a wide range of countries — the U.S., Demark, Australia, Great Britain, Turkey, Bangladesh, France, Brazil, Ireland, Canada and others — and date back as far as the early 1970s, though most are from the 1990s and 2000s. They’re part of a vast collection of posters that the exhibit curator, Stephen Lewis, a former union treasurer who lives in the Boston area, has in his home.

Hosmer Gallery has also just opened a virtual exhibit, “In This Together,” in which artists use a mix of paintings, photography, videos and poetry to explore the connections between climate change, human health and social justice issues. And though the two exhibitions were not timed to run together, they nevertheless share some common ground, says Faith Kaufman, the organizer of both shows.

“I think both exhibits are connected to the issue of fighting for justice, whether it’s workers rights or economic and racial inequities,” said Kaufman, who oversees the arts and music departments at Forbes Library and is an information services co-coordinator.

And, Kaufman notes, one can also look at unbridled economic growth and consumerism and see how both have played a role in climate change, resource depletion, and harsh working conditions for many people around the world.

Though an exhibit of May Day posters might better be timed for, well, May, Kaufman says it was unclear until fairly recently when Hosmer Gallery could reopen. When July was set as that date, the gallery needed material that could be quickly mounted, Kaufman said, and she turned to Lewis, who she’d previously been in touch with, noting that he makes posters from his collection available to libraries and other venues around the state.

The exhibit is, as she notes, “part graphic art, part history, part culture and part political message.” Lewis includes some history of May Day, including the increasingly violent clashes in the 1880s between U.S. workers on one side and police, security companies and industrialists on the other, that led to the adoption of Labor Day as a national holiday in 1894 — although the federal government established it as the first Monday in September.

The posters offer a variety of images, from graphic art to photos, and some pay homage to the original concept of May Day, dating back thousands of years, as a celebration of religious figures and of summer, with activities including dancing around a maypole. A 2011 poster from Scotland, for instance, shows flower-bedecked girls dancing as they hold vertical streamers that offer phrases such as “A Living Wage,” “Paid Maternity Leave,” “Workplace Safety,” and more.

A 2010 poster from Greece presents a stark silhouette of some kind of industrial facility at its top, while images of flag-waving workers are shown at the bottom. In between, in Greek, are the words “Socialization of the monopolies. Power to the People.” Helpfully, Lewis has provided translations in English of many key phrases from the posters in different languages.

There are also reminders of the violence workers continue to face. Alongside a May Day poster from Turkey, Lewis has mounted a copy of a New York Times article from May 2, 2015, about how riot police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protestors in Istanbul who marched the previous day in defiance of a government ban against May Day demonstrations in the city.

‘In This Together’

Kaufman says she conceived of the virtual exhibit earlier this year, when it was still not clear when Hosmer Gallery could reopen, or even when the state would loosen COVID-19 restrictions in general. The idea of asking artists to design new work reflecting on climate change, human health and social justice issues, she said, came from the sense “that these were issues that had been so much on our minds and in the news.”

“We had to consider all of that while we were in isolation,” Kaufman said. “How would we address them together?” And a virtual exhibit, she said, still seems relevant now because, even as life returns to some kind of normalcy, “we’re not going back to the way things were. We’ve all changed in some way.”

The exhibit features work from 41 artists from western Massachusetts, primarily from this region, who collectively made 93 contributions. There are reminders of the isolation and alienation the pandemic spurred, such as the photograph “Mask Up” by Jesse Merrick, who depicts what looks to be a mannequin wearing a face mask in a storefront window; the mask seems to accentuate the mannequin’s already vacant stare.

Painter Martha Brouwer tackles climate change with a series of four acrylic works titled “Precarious” that look at the high-wire balancing act, so to speak, that humans have created for so many animals; she juxtaposes four creatures against man-made objects, with the portraits set amid an abstract jungle backdrop.

A polar bear, for instance, stands shakily on a couple of big rings in one painting, while a rhinoceros crosses a flimsy bridge of rope and tiny wood planks in another. In a third painting, an elephant teeters on the edge of a pool’s diving board. There’s a bit of absurdist humor to all four pieces, but the overall message is much bleaker.

Arch MacInnes, meawhile, contemplates the dual affects of climate change and pandemic in three prints. One of these, “Moonfall,” shows a human figure plummeting in front of a hazy white and blue backdrop. “We have sown the whirlwind, which has already wreaked havoc across our nation,” he writes in accompanying text. “We are standing on the edge of the abyss and wondering what’s next.”

Words are a big part of “In This Together.” The exhibit includes a wide range of poems, which Forbes’ writer in residence, Art Middleton, reviewed. Some are more hopeful than others: “The Angel Oak Speaks,” by Tina Meyer, tells the story of a huge, sprawling tree in North Carolina around which, according to local folklore, ghosts of former enslaved people appear as angels.

Meyer imagines the ancient tree, perhaps 500 years old, dreaming of a better time for the planet and for human interaction: “I dream that this Earth change will create / a time when the humans can hear my voice, / and learn the wisdom of trees. / When they learn to nurture one another as one family /and to honor the Earth…. when greed, survival of the fittest, / and persecution of the weak and the different / is but a memory ...”

“May Day” will be on view at Hosmer Gallery through Aug. 26, and “In This Together” though Sept. 5. The latter can be viewed at Forbeslibrary.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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