Cultural Outreach Creates Community
Lawrence’s industrial and immigrant history are two deeply American elements that have come together over time to create a vibrant cultural undercurrent — one that is being nurtured today with the help of organizations such as the Essex Art Center and the Lawrence History Center. ( Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine. )
Founded in 1993 and located inside a former mill on Island Street, the Essex Art Center is a 10,000-square-foot space where adults and children living in Lawrence and the Merrimack Valley can study art, hone their crafts, display their work and enjoy exhibitions by local and visiting artists.
Executive Director John Budzyna has taken a special interest in showcasing the work of the culturally diverse artists who come together in Lawrence. It’s one of the ways the center is working to inspire artistic expression and cultural connections in the community at-large.
“Last fall we featured a Cuban exhibit with local artists and Cuban artists,” Budzyna says. “It was a cultural exchange, and it gave people the chance to get in touch with their homelands and share a piece of their homes with their children.” The event was so successful that another Latin-inspired gallery show is scheduled for this fall with a focus on Guatemala.
The Essex Art Center also provides opportunities for the youths of Lawrence to explore their talents through classes, field trips and young artist exhibits. The center also offers scholarships and transportation for budding artists at Lawrence High School, enabling them to participate in its after-school program, where students with diverse backgrounds and skill levels from across the Merrimack Valley come together in a classroom, Budzyna says.
“It’s become an opportunity for growth for all students, because it opens a dialogue about diversity,” Budzyna says. “These students work side by side, and they begin to recognize that they are all just humans who love art. Art is the common language, and it breaks all the barriers.”
Across the canal at the Lawrence History Center, residents are invited to connect with the city’s modern culture by learning about its rich and sometimes difficult past. Located in the former Essex Company building, the center occupies an actual part of the city’s history, which helps visitors to become immersed in the story.
The Essex Company, according to the center, “was chartered in 1845 explicitly to build a dam and canals on the Merrimack River for the purpose of providing waterpower for textile mills. Implicitly, the directors planned to sell land on either side of the river for mills, homes for workers and managers, stores, churches, schools and local government. It was also created to build mills and machinery on contract.”
Mike Hearn, director of library services at Northern Essex Community College and author of “The History of the Essex Company,” says the story of Lawrence can be told at least as much through its pictorial archives as through its written documents.
“So much of the center’s Essex Company collection is visual,” Hearn says. “There are incredible renderings of the dam, as well as sketches and drawings of the architecture.”
These visual treasures showcase the amount of detail that went into planning the city of Lawrence, which was unmatched in other industrial cities that followed.
Ten years ago, while assisting the center in the development of the Essex Company collection, Hearn’s interest in the city’s history grew and eventually resulted in his book. When it comes, however, to Lawrence residents’ renewed interest in the history of the city, Hearn credits Susan Grabski, the center’s executive director.
“I’ve seen a lot of outreach going on with Susan,” Hearn says. “It’s very easy when you are in charge of the collections to focus on what’s inside the walls, but a key role of the center — and something Susan has done — is to look outward and generate enough support to establish the center in the community.”
Grabski says her goal is to educate longtime residents, students and new immigrants. The newcomers who are just settling in and don’t yet have a sense of place pose a unique challenge. They can find comfort in Lawrence’s history.
“We try and acquaint them with the city, and engage them by telling them about the immigrant population that has come before and the challenges they faced,” Grabski says. ”Many faced the same issues, like finding their way in a new place and experiencing discrimination.”
The Lawrence History Center, which was founded in 1978 as the Immigrant City Archives, also provides custom in-school education programs that are crafted to blend with things that students are studying in class. For younger students, Grabski enjoys showing photos from the center’s collection of 20,000 images. College students and post-graduate students seek out the center to enhance their studies, as well.
This summer, the Lawrence History Center is partnering with UMass Lowell and Andover Bread Loaf, a literacy and education enrichment organization that is an outreach program of Phillips Academy, to host 30 middle school students from the area in a specialized program that will teach them how to research their city and turn that research into expository writing and presentations. The program will be taught by five veteran Andover Bread Loaf instructors, many of whom hail from Lawrence.
Outreach is a priority for both the Essex Art Center and the Lawrence History Center. Through it, they encourage the people of Lawrence to look inward and discover their own role in the continuing story of their city.