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June 10, 2013

Mural captures state’s unique industrial history

CONTRIBUTED Photo For Michael Borders, capturing the state’s industrial history in an accurate piece of art has been a 25-year project.

Q&A talks about Connecticut’s manufacturing history with Michael Borders, creator of the CT Industry Mural.

Q: You’ve been working on the Connecticut Industry Mural for 25 years. What is it and why has it taken so long?

A: The Connecticut Industry Mural Is a (touring) 10-foot by 40-foot painting on canvas of:

1. The people who impacted Connecticut’s industrial history,

2. The land, where industrial history took place,

3. The machinery of manufacture and

4. The products of manufacture in Connecticut and the way they (the four elements) interfaced over roughly 350 years. Everything is positioned chronologically. It is a reflection of Connecticut’s Industrial experience from 1634 through contemporary times, a documentary mural. Discovering that history and reflecting it in a stimulating, historically accurate and aesthetically pleasing way was the requirement. I wanted it to resonate across a wide range of intellects and not require any actual background information about Connecticut’s history but to impress those who are well informed about Connecticut’s historical background.

A carefully thought through study, plan and articulation was mandatory since there was/is no formal historical survey on this subject as is the case with Connecticut history and Albert VanDusen’s text, copyright 1960. This took, as it turned out, about 25 years … Something like writing a book but with a picture. A single picture. A snapshot of Connecticut’s industrial history. A single, symphonic visual composition resulted; a powerhouse of a visual image with comparable subtle nuances and feeling. Very detailed and synchronized really; eight composition/ stories, one for each county. It is displayable separately but also collectively, the story of the whole state, Connecticut’s industrial system.

Q: What made you take on this as a topic? What was your inspiration for this mural?

A: This subject was the product of a set of experiences between 1975 and 1977 that allowed me to understand some things about Connecticut that are at once a part of what is universal and yet unique and special. Connecticut’s marketplace and in turn Connecticut’s presence in the marketplaces of the world are what have defined Connecticut’s character; starting with what are called “cottage industries” and evolving into factory villages and creativity that has changed the world. From 1975 to 1977, I visited about 24 countries from Mexico to India. I saw open markets, large and small and none of those were as dynamic and sophisticated as what we have here.

Q: Who funded your work and how much did it end up costing? Where is the mural located?

A: Between 1978 and about 1982, I raised about $8,800 which paid for my research, travelling around the state to libraries, historical societies, chambers of commerce and meetings with local historians, aerial photographs and mill visitations to (mostly) restored mills and a large number of lengthy conversations with scholars and experts in related fields like geology and textile technology. I also used some of that $8,800 to help pay for frame fabrication. Since its debut in 2003 at the University of Hartford, the mural has been exhibited in the Hall of Governors at the State Supreme Court building in Hartford and at the University of Connecticut about two years ago. The next possible exhibition could be this fall.

Q: This mural is obviously done from a historical perspective. Yet, Connecticut industry has changed a lot in the 25 years you have spent working on the project. Does the mural take a contemporary look at industry too? For example, are computers and software part of this mural?

A: Computers and software do make their appearance in the mural along with chemical production and high tech instrument production. They are positioned in the uppermost background since all elements are positioned chronologically from front to back and bottom to top on the picture plane. Older historical elements, then, are at the lower front of the picture plane and larger in scale, higher in contrast, contemporary elements at the top, rear and lower in contrast. In the aggregate, most of the elements are the established manifestations of older historical elements. These, of course, are mostly in the middle ground; not so important today but basic to Connecticut’s industrial advancement. Important historical impact determines the size, position, and treatment of the elements. The assembly suggests the presence of a design sensibility that typifies creativity as well as recognizing the relative historical importance of these devices. These pictorial elements are all parts of a much larger design. The historical elements here are unique and independent but there is an interdependence that makes it all part of a larger system.

Q: What most surprised you about Connecticut’s industry from a historical perspective when researching the mural and creating it?

A: It was how integral the role of the Connecticut natural environment was in the defining of early Connecticut Industry. The topography combined with precipitation to make ponds, lakes, rivers and streams which powered water wheels which magnified the power to make things. The industrial heartland in Connecticut tended to be in the hills of eastern and western Connecticut then. Production was where the water was. The evolution of the steam engine greatly changed that demographic and saw Connecticut industry move down into the river valleys. These included Norwich, Waterbury and the shoreline towns. The presence of steam driven devices is quite present in this mural for that reason. This includes railroads.

Q: What is your background and how did you become involved in this project?

A: As an undergraduate at Fisk University, I was exposed to teachers like Aaron Douglas and David Driskell who were quite serious about the role of artist as reflector of human experience. That perspective was expanded upon as a graduate student with Lois Jones and James Porter at Howard University. Art history and the humanities are included in the subjects I’ve taught. Titian, Gericault, Boccaccio, Gaulli, Ingres, Bierstadt, Eakins and many more are my influences. Back in the early 70’s While in Nashville, I was commissioned to do several murals and smaller scale paintings for country music managers and song writers. By 1974, “The Genesis of the Capital City” was painted on Trumbull Street in downtown Hartford. Its scale was large and it allowed many of my influences to come to bear and in the process had a great influence on the method, cause and effect of my concepts. My experiences in Mexico, West Africa, East Africa, Asia, The Middle East, and Europe between 1976 and 1977 broadened my understanding of the world and my place in it. Quite a few important ideas came out of this period. The Connecticut Industry Mural was one of these.

Q: You’ve written a book that explains the project in detail. What’s the next step in the mural project? Is it part of something bigger?

A: The 178-page catalogue was written to further document the Connecticut Industry Mural. It explains the mural in detail: the idea, the organization of the idea, the contents of the idea and the way the idea is articulated. The catalogue also features a pull out, color scale model of the mural that allows the reader to view the finished mural while reading about its various parts. The catalogue features a full bibliography that effectively traces my research process and a comprehensive list of all of the 350-odd people rendered on the picture plane. I want people all over the state to see this mural. It was designed to be transported from viewing place to viewing place. It is a portable mural, viewed as a flat, 10-foot by 40-foot image or configured as an octagon, self-supporting. with a (roughly) 20-foot by 20-foot footprint, 12 feet 6 inches tall, can be set up taken down in two hours and doesn’t need to use existing wall space or electricity. Libraries, auditoriums, large foyers, schools, colleges, open areas where people gather. (They all can host) an image that reflects an appreciation of the history, the artistic ideas, the culture of Connecticut.

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