Art

A 19th-Century Paper Mill Transformed into a Space for Art

piece with visitors copy
Installation view of Sarah Lindley’s “Exposure Pathways” in the former Plainwell Paper Mill (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

PLAINWELL, Mich. — Sculptor Sarah Lindley is interested in places where people live and work, from the domestic interior to the natural environment. Lately, Lindley has turned to making maps to address those too-often-toxic encounters between nature and culture. In her current installation at the historic Plainwell Paper Mill Company in southwestern Michigan, she traces the watershed of the Kalamazoo River.

A site-specific piece suspended by nearly invisible threads, “Exposure Pathways” is constructed from thousands of square tubes of cut, folded, and glued cardstock that Lindley salvaged from the mill. The sculpture measures 15×32 feet in length and width, and is suspended nearly 5 feet off the ground. The tubes correspond to water trails; the paper armature below secures the patterns above and evokes a sense of subterranean strata. Visitors can stand on a nearby platform and envision how this angular abstraction plots the river and all of its tributaries as they flow towards Lake Michigan.

Readers may know Kalamazoo River as the site of the largest inland oil spill in US history. This occurred in 2010, when a broken pipe in Enbridge Line 6B dumped more than one million gallons of tar sands oil into its waters. Prior to that calamity, however, during the early 20th century — when there were more paper mills in the area than anywhere else in the world — the mills were already polluted with PCBs and other effluents.

Plainwell Paper, which closed in late 2000, was the only mill in the region whose original architecture remained intact. Dominating the small city’s downtown, it effectively demanded rehabilitation. Now, although most of the mill’s infrastructure has been demolished, its 19th-century core is being adapted for reuse. Plainwell City Hall recently moved into one part of the building, and the fire-door entrance to Lindley’s installation serves as a backdrop for local council meetings.

Walking through that door is akin to stepping back in time. As a recent visitor, I moved from the cheerful, repurposed space into a dolorous wing of the building that remains as it did when abandoned.

view from below
Detail of Sarah Lindley’s “Exposure Pathways”

A dark corridor leads to the hovering skeletal mass that is Lindley’s sculptural installation. Walking towards it, I passed debris-filled storage cages. Detailed photographs of the desolate mill, by Steve Nelson, hang on the wire mesh enclosures. Nelson’s images are so precisely illuminated that the shadow-and-light-filled spaces they depict appear to hover within the larger areas of light and darkness behind them.

In subtle contrast, the only light on Lindley’s work comes from two small skylights and from distant windows. On the cloudy day of my visit, distinctions between the sculpture and surrounding space were wondrously blurred: the intricate articulation of one seemed to emerge from the dark complexity of the other.

Relying as it does on a fluctuating light source, Lindley’s piece enjoys a gentle, dynamic relationship with its environment, in contrast to the exquisitely static placement of Nelson’s spotlighted images.

Installation view of Steve Nelson's "After Operations"
Installation view of Steve Nelson’s “After Operations”

Both Lindley and Nelson’s installations coincide with a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, placed in the City Council chamber. Called The Way We Worked, it includes a segment on the region’s historic paper industry. With its documentary photographs and artifacts, the Smithsonian display introduces the human element in a very concrete, literal way. Its prosaic treatment, along with the poetry of Lindley and Nelson’s art, memorializes the skill and strength associated with a manufacturing base that no longer exists.

Sarah Lindley’s “Exposure Pathways,” Steve Nelson’s “After Operations,” and The Way We Worked continue at Plainwell City Hall (211 North Main Street, Plainwell, Michigan) through July 19, after which Lindley’s and Nelson’s works may be visited by appointment. 

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