I Could Never Do This! Thoughts Watching MRT’s “I and You” Take Shape

As part of MRT’s Cohort Club, I get to observe new shows from first read-through through every step of the process. It’s an amazing opportunity, one I’m really enjoying. Sitting in on a rehearsal of the upcoming “I and You” on Sunday, I was struck by how incredible it is that anyone is capable of doing the difficult work of making theater.

I was watching them rehearse and block a difficult scene. I and You is a story about two teenagers getting to know each other as they work on a school project about Walt Whitman. The show covers a lot of ground, but central to the story is that special teenage kind of conversation, as two people who are still in the process of defining themselves test each others’ limits, sharing deeply in the way few adults easily do.

Actors Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White, as photographed by the talented and fun human Meghan Moore.

Actors Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White, as photographed by the talented and fun human Meghan Moore.

In the scene I was watching them rehearse, actress Kayla Ferguson takes the lead during an emotional, physical sequence. She had to time her lines and actions with the music playing in the background at that moment, while taking a quick emotional turn when the scene changes tone rapidly. As I watched, she and her co-star Reggie D. White ran the scene again and again trying to get the timing precisely right. Five minutes of physical, emotional acting, only to immediately have to take feedback on everything from tone of voice to overall performance. Not one person in a hundred could handle what she had to do. Memorizing, getting delicate physicality right, doing emotional calisthenics and making yourself vulnerable in front of total strangers, only to immediately be told that a minor detail needs adjusting. I don’t even like it when someone looks over my shoulder while I type! How amazing to be so vulnerable and yet so open to feedback. I think of acting as the ability to realistically recreate emotions, but it’s so much more.

It’s also fascinating to watch Director Sean Daniels shaping the show. Two weeks into rehearsals, the show was blocked, and it basically looked how it will on stage. The actors run through the scenes until they hit a roadblock or until the director stops to fix something. Sometimes 10 minutes go by with no comment. Other times they do a sequence over and over, tinkering until it works. Some notes are big. I heard Sean ask the actor “What do you think he means when he says that line?” and offer feedback about what the character’s thinking and why a scene progresses the way it does. Other notes are minor physical adjustments: “Can you angle this way when you say that line?” “Can you do this in one movement, rather than two?” It’s easy to see the delicate balancing act a director faces between shaping the show to be technically elegant and meet their vision; and letting the actors experiment and use their own creativity.

A play can seem like such a magical thing. But the effortless, immersive chemistry we see on stage is the product of hard, sweaty, repetitive work. The good play is carefully chiseled from beneath the raw stone. It’s such an education to see the artists at work, I’m very grateful for the experience.
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Why I’m Part of Lowell Votes

Last Thursday, Lowell Votes held a “Spaghettin’ Out the Vote” Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser. Seventy or eighty Lowellians came for spaghetti, salad, and dessert and to talk about voting in Lowell. For those who aren’t in the know, Lowell Votes is a non-partisan, grassroots coalition of activists and nonprofits that are seeking to increase the number of people who vote in Lowell. I had the pleasure of speaking before State Representative Rady Mom, the first Cambodian-American to be elected to a state-level office in the United States.

A couple people asked for me to post my remarks. This is a version slightly edited for readability.

People at Dom Polski

Mingling before the dinner (Isaac Chanin)


Thank you all for coming. I’m Chris Hayes, a steering committee member and downtown resident. We want to thank Centralville Neighborhood Action Group for co-sponsoring this event and the Dom Polski Club for hosting. We also want to thank our community partners, Coalition for a Better Acre, Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell, and UTEC, for all their support. Finally, I want to thank maybe the most important folks—those who brought the food! Suppa’s pizza donated pizzas  and Steering committee members Felicia Sullivan and Alyssa Faulkner and field coordinator Mary Tauras cooked this amazing meal. Unfortunately, Alyssa couldn’t be here tonight because of a death in the family and our thoughts go out to them. But we want to thank you all!

I wanted to kick off this event by speaking about how I became involved in this group. Aurora Erickson and I had just moved to Lowell about two years ago, right as a local election was heating up. We tried to get informed, but it was tough, even for two people who were used to politics, had access to the internet, and had a lot of time (because frankly we didn’t have much of a social life). We could tell a lot of people were working very hard, putting on candidate forums, making websites, and the City Election office was making sure everyone was registered and knew their polling place. But it seemed like even more needed to be done.

Gerry Nutter, audience

Gerry Nutter introducing Lowell Votes on behalf of CNAG. (Photo by Dick Howe Jr)

So last year, during the state election, we sat at a table outside in front of our mill apartment and registered people. We had no idea what we were doing; we just knew that we needed to make sure everyone filled out the “are you a citizen” question that everyone seems to miss. But we still did pretty well, and registered a couple dozen people. However, I remember one person in particular: a Spanish-speaking man who spoke briefly with us. He spoke a bit of English, and it was nice, but he turned us down and sat near us to wait for his ride. His ride came, they talked in Spanish for a moment, and then, she came up to us and asked for a registration form. She told us he thought he needed to pay money to register to vote.

We knew we needed help. After the elections, we decided to get together with anyone we knew that did this sort of work. We had coffee and cake and talked about what resources are out there… then we decided to meet again. And those friends brought friends, who brought people they knew, and then we all invited a lot of people we didn’t know but knew did good work, and we ended up having nearly fifty people in a room talking about increasing the number of people who vote in Lowell and providing education to everyone about what the City does and who the candidates are.

We all agreed, to do it right, we needed to be nonpartisan, non-issue, and non-candidate. Even though I’m sure I disagreed deeply on many issues with many people in that room, I knew we at least agreed that we wanted more people to vote, whether they’re from the Acre, Centralville, Belvidere, the Upper Highlands, or anywhere in-between.

Lowell map of 2013 voters

2013 Voters as percentage of voting age population per ward/precinct

Because the numbers are staggering: More than 80,000 people are old enough to vote in Lowell, but less than 60,000 are registered. A little more than half of those, 33,000 voted in the 2012 presidential election. But that dropped in the 2013 local election – only 11,500 voted. That’s not much more than one in eight people old enough to vote going out and doing so.

Why is that a problem? To answer that, we started reading studies. People who vote actually report feeling more in control of their lives and healthier as a result. Kids who went to juvenile, didn’t go back to jail as often if they started voting. Communities that formed strong ties through civic engagement and voting were quicker to recover from the recession. But even more importantly, I think we cannot be a healthy society if only one in eight people vote. The hard-working women and men in our City Council and School Committee make decisions for all of us, and I don’t feel right if my neighbor doesn’t have a say in that.

Some may ask “Isn’t it her choice not to vote?” There are a hundred reasons why she might not feel empowered. She’s too busy with two jobs and two kids to go to a candidate forum. He speaks another language, and isn’t in a social group that talks about voting much. Her family doesn’t vote, and she’s never been asked by anyone to even think about it. He can’t get a ride and doesn’t know about absentee ballots. She moves around a lot, so candidates never find her to ask for her vote when they’re campaigning.

Chris Hayes in front of audience

Me delivering remarks (Photo by Isaac Chanin)

In addition, we hear about voting constantly when a new president is going to be elected, but a local election may pass us by without us ever noticing it if we aren’t on Facebook, or listen to the local radio, or read the local paper, or talk to the right people. And so it might be a choice not to vote, but for a lot of people, the deck is stacked against that choice.

So Lowell Votes is tabling at local events, at the Farm Market, at National Night Out, and at neighborhood festivals. We’re putting up a website, asking people what issues are important to them, then sending out a survey to the candidates. We’re letting people know about the services the Election Office offers and that neighborhood groups offer. We’re organizing canvassing days where volunteers go door-to-door in all the neighborhoods and ask that question: Would you vote in the upcoming election?

We know studies show that asking someone is the most effective way to get them to vote. And that’s why I think what we’re doing is important. We’re going to the new residents who don’t have a friend in Lowell yet; we’re going to the man who speaks only a little English and doesn’t know voting is free; we’re going to the woman who doesn’t even know we have a local paper but cares about whether we make a choice to fix a street, fix a school, plant a tree, or lower taxes. And we’re saying to them: your voice matters to us – we want to hear it.

Rady Mom in front of Audience

State Rep. Rady Mom delivering remarks (Isaac Chanin)

I’m not speaking for all of Lowell Votes tonight, because I know each one of us comes with a different concern in our heart. Some of us are most concerned about making civic education more accessible, others may be most concerned about the language barriers, others might hope future generations are inspired to run for City Council or US Representative or even President. However, we’re a coalition that agrees that we need to help more people to vote in Lowell, with a special emphasis on those who face barriers; and that the best way to do that is through a lot of hard work and one-on-one conversations.

We know we won’t reach our goals overnight, or even in this election. This is why we’re hoping to stay in for the long haul, to get people talking, inspire them to start doing research on their own, listen to the radio or read the paper, and talk with their friends about how we can continue shaping our community together. Thank you so much for coming tonight and helping us do that. I’d like to introduce our new field coordinator Mary Tauras now, to talk more about our canvassing efforts and how you can be involved.

Following photos by Isaac Chanin:





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MRT’s The Lion is a Roaring Success

I wanted to do a short post that recommends MRT’s new show “The Lion”. I was able to see the show in previews on Wednesday and it’s unlike anything I’ve seen on stage before. It’s an autobiographical one-man show and a musical at the same time, which is pretty amazing. Ben Scheuer sings and plays through his life story with the help of a series of guitars, telling his story of his relationship with his father and his relationship with music. By turns raucous, joyful, sillly, and sad, it’s a surprising and memorable show. Its heart is an impressively raw and physically demanding performance from Scheuer, even more so when you consider how challenging it must be to work through the emotions of your own life on stage night after night. Highly recommended.

I got to see the show a few days early because this year I’m a part of a new program Merrimack Repertory Theater is doing called “The Cohort Club”. It’s an idea MRT’s new Artistic Director Sean Daniels brought with him from Rochester, and it involves opening their doors to a set of community members to let them see how a show takes shape. You can read more about the program here if you’re interested, and you can expect to read more about MRT on our blog as their season unfolds.

If you’re still thinking about The Lion, you can hear the first song of the show here, read what The Sun and Howl have to say about it, or read Boston Globe’s review here, but beware that they do reveal more than I do of the story you can expect to hear Scheuer tell. The New York Times also reviewed the show when it was off Broadway last year (calling Scheuer “cuter than a dozen kitty videos”!). But if you’re thinking about it, just go. It’s something special.

The Lion is Playing from now until September 20th, you can get tickets here. On September 2nd, tickets are only $10 if you live in Lowell.

Coming Soon to a Neighborhood Near You: DIY Lowell Projects in Action

Chris and I are excited to update our blog readers on how our DIY Lowell project has been taking shape. DIY Lowell is our attempt to contribute something to the Lowell community, and it’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of fun.

For those out of the loop, the way DIY Lowell works is, we ask people to submit ideas for small scale projects in public space. Small scale means under $1,000 dollars and finishable this year. Then we put the ideas up for a vote, with the top three ideas getting discussed at our Community Ideas Summit. There, action groups from to take the ideas forward, deciding on parameters, raising money, and consulting with relevant organizations. With a little luck, at the end of the year we have fun things happening that weren’t there before.

Since we last wrote about this project, a ton has happened. We ended up getting more than 50 ideas submitted, both online and through tabling. We visited neighborhood groups and community festivals, spoke on a panel at the Community Psychology conference, we were on the radio and in the paper. We got ideas from kids, seniors, teens, park rangers, and community leaders. You can check out all the ideas here, there are some that seem like “why the heck hasn’t anybody done that yet?” and others that make you think :”I would never have come up with that in a million years but I love it”.

Next, we put the ideas up for a vote. To vote, folks had to commit to either coming to the summit or helping out with a project as it goes forward. Obviously, it’s only ticking a box, and we can’t hold anyone to that. But it’s our hope that that ask means that the projects that got picked were the ones people were actually willing to spend their precious time and energy on. The vote was surprisingly close, with lots of ideas battling it out for the number three spot up to the last minute. Every single idea got at least one vote.

Francey Slater speaks to the group.

Francey Slater kicks us off by reminding us of how much can be accomplished by people dedicated to growing their community.

Finally, it was time for our big summit, and I have to admit, this was the most nerve wracking part of it all. Would anybody actually show up? Would they come ready to think flexibly, and would they be able to come to a consensus about how to move forward? We’d invited everyone to a party: would anybody come?

Honestly? It was more successful than I had imagined. Being in the stunning St. Jean Baptiste space, surrounded by a mix of friends, local leaders, and folks we’ve never met before, the energy in the room was was electrifying. With help from kickoff speaker Francey Slater of Mill City Grows, facilitators Todd Fry, Geoff Foster (also our amazing closing speaker), Nancy Coan, and Mary Taurus, groups of strangers came together, talked about their ideas, and formed concrete plans of attack on how to move forward.

Coming out of the summit, groups have formed around the three winning ideas: Downtown History Trail, Planting Fruit Trees, and Bus Stop Libraries. At the summit, we also had a wild card group, which chose two of the runner up ideas to take forward: Lowell-themed Bike Racks and Stargazing on Christian Hill. Don’t those all sound great?

Expect to see these ideas taking form in the next 6 months. If any of them sound like something you want to be involved in, it’s not too late! Just let us know and we’ll direct you to your new team. These ideas will also need community and financial support, so watch this space or our facebook page for opportunities to lend a hand.

Photo credit: Gabby Davis

The Bus Stop Libraries Group gets to work.

Finally, a huge thank you to everyone that’s helped us along the way. Donations, meeting with us as we developed our concept, coming to advisory committee meetings, helping out at our fundraiser, so many people have helped make this idea the success that its been so far. It’s been invigorating, humbling, and empowering. We can’t wait to see what happens next!

Large group of people poses with banner, photographed from above.

What a great group! It was so much fun. Photo by Gabby Davis.

Map of Doors Open Lowell

Opening Lowell’s Doors

Once a year, Lowell shows what it calls it’s “other side.” Not its dark side or its far side, but its inside.

Anywhere with this banner is open to the public during this special weekend!

Anywhere with this banner is open to the public during this special weekend!

The event is Doors Open Lowell, a time when buildings across the City open their doors to visitors to view architecture and furnishings. It’s going on now!

It was kicked off with the Community Excellence Awards yesterday. Last year we posted about the Call to Nominations but missed the event. This year, we somehow missed the nomination but attended the event!

Paul Marion speaking at Community Excellence Awards

Paul Marion speaking at Community Excellence Awards

The Community Excellence awards honor organizations and individuals who make contributions to Lowell’s historic and cultural preservation and celebration. This year’s Preservation Award honored the Whistler House Museum of Art for their preservation efforts, most recently a restoration of their kitchen. They hope to continue to transform the museum into a multiuse space, truly a “house” museum. Upper-story apartments are rented out to artists.

In addition, Patricia Fontaine won an Cultural Award for her collaboration with Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust to develop a student program for Hawk Valley Farm and with UMass Lowell for a Story Corps Project and Lowell: A City of Refugees, a Community of Citizens project. She explained that she realized that many Cambodian students were losing their heritage, as their families did not want to talk about life in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the refugee camps. She started teaching Cambodian history and it evolved into a project in which students interviewed their parents. The interviews are now in the National Archives.

We overheard this was the best-attended ceremony in years. The room was packed!

We overheard this was the best-attended ceremony in years. The room was packed!

Roger Brunelle also got a Cultural Award for his work with Lowell Celebrates Kerouac. One of our first posts on Learning Lowell was about one of Mr. Brunelle’s tours, and we loved it. For his part, Mr. Brunelle said something on the order of, “I don’t deserve this award, because I was having so much fun. But thanks anyway!”

Finally, perhaps the most exciting award was the Student Excellence award. Perhaps two dozen Lowell High students went on stage along with advisors to accept the award for a collaborative project between the International Institute of Lowell and the First Parish Church of Groton that let multicultural students share dance, food, art, and stories. The students spoke eloquently about how each generation strives to make things better for the next, and that they would carry on that heritage.

The main event started Friday night, with many downtown locations opening their doors. We were able to visit quite a number of places!

Gaslight building, interior

Gas Light building, interior

Architect Jay Mason explained how the current home of Gallagher and Cavanaugh started as the Gas Light Company’s offices, then became a bank, then went through many other uses including the Revolving Museum before an extensive renovation into its current form. One participant recalled going to the Revolving Museum, while another remembered the gas tanks in Lowell.

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

We were able to visit the largest of the lodge rooms in the Lowell Masonic Temple. After a light show that utilizes equipment from the 1930s to simulate a setting and rising sun, we were treated to a Q&A about the not-quite-as-secret-anymore society. It’s amazing to hear that more than a thousand Masons use the lodge, although not all of them come to every meeting.

Bowling trophy

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

Even the first floor of the Masonic Temple is a treat, with a number of nooks and crannies with modern and vintage mixed and matched.

A real highlight of the evening was Chuck Parrott’s tour of the Merrimack and Hamilton Canalways. He was a font of knowledge, and not one question stumped him, as he answered questions ranging from where the granite in the canal walls came from (probably quarries near Lowell like in Chelmsford and Westford) to how the National Park preserved the massive gates that can close off canals to drain them (the first three wooden beams were replaced, the rest were original to the nineteenth century) to what will be built in the Hamilton Canal District (apartments with some commercial buildings mostly to the scale of the Saco-Lowell Machine shops and Appleton Mills that once stood on the spots) to why some of the Appleton Mill’s walls look so drab (they replaced crumbled mill walls, and they did not want the new construction to overshadow the remaining mill architecture).

Chuck Parrott leading tour of Canalways

Chuck Parrott leading tour of Canalways

Chuck’s tour was so informative and engaging, I hope he won’t mind if I steal a few tidbits for my trains and trolleys tour in September, part of Lowell Walks. For example, do you know that the only canal wall the National Park System owns is the Dutton Street side of Merrimack Canal, because the Boston and Maine Railroad bought it to reinforce it to support nearby trains, then NPS bought the railway for the trolleys?

Chuck Parrott leading Lowell tour

The tour went well on into the evening

We just made it in time to see the interior of two condos: Trio and the Birke building. Although we didn’t take any snapshots of the interior of the apartments, they were amazing. Each was beautiful in its own way, and we enjoyed chatting with the hosts quite a bit. We did manage to take a photo of the Trio condo’s roof patio. We briefly considered kicking the owner out of his home and living there ourselves, but figured we would be caught! Besides, he was a charming host.

Lowell, MA at night

A nice end to the evening

Doors Open Lowell continues for one more day. See http://www.doorsopenlowell.org/ for more information!

In addition, the Mill City Skill Share is occurring at locations throughout downtown and the Acre, and Made in Lowell Marketplace is happening at Mill No. 5. You can’t deny that a lot happens in Lowell!

Doing DIY Lowell

You may have noticed that we haven’t posted too many articles lately. Part of the reason is that we’re involved in few community initiatives, including “DIY Lowell.” Now that the DIY Lowell website is up and running, we wanted to share our story.

D.I.Y. LowellDIY Lowell is an initiative to try to capture all the ideas for projects and events people have and help them make those ideas a reality. For example, someone may have an idea for a temporary art exhibit, share it on Facebook, and then forget about it. We want to help connect that person with an artist, with someone who knows how to get the permits, and with some funding.

We’re doing this by inviting everyone to share ideas on a forum and in dropboxes around town until June 15. On June 20 until the end of June, the ideas will be up for a vote by anyone who registers for a summit. Our goal is to narrow down the ideas to a small handful that summit attendees would be interested in working on. We have a few guidelines: ideas can’t be expected to cost more than $1,000, they should be completed by the end of the year, they have to relate to space open to the public, and they can’t be illegal.

On July 9, the summit will gather DIY Lowell participants and organizational partners to create action plans for the ideas. A number of very talented folks have volunteered to lead breakout groups about each winning idea, and many organizations have pledged to attend the summit to offer their suggestions on how to kick the ideas off. Citizen working groups formed at the summit will move the ideas forward.

What about after the summit? Well, most exciting, we’ve identified some funding, and we are moving forward with some other fundraising ideas soon. In addition, we’ll keep track of all the projects and offer a helping hand when necessary, connecting those citizen working groups with the help they need.

Why are we doing all this? It’s not just to put a few projects into action, but also to identify the common barriers our working groups face. We’re interested in bringing more voices into the community conversation and encouraging folks who might not have time for a huge commitment to take on a small piece of a small project.

The DIY Lowell Story

The genesis of DIY Lowell was actually in Buffalo, during the Congress for New Urbanism Annual Meeting. One of the most exciting conversations at the conference was about “tactical urbanism” and “lean urbanism.” The idea is that activists or planners can make short-term, sometimes temporary projects that actually change the urban form long-term. This includes anything from making a parking spot into a mini-park, putting pop-up stores and displays in empty storefronts, and guerilla gardening.

This inspired Aurora and I to come up with a few ideas of our own for Lowell. We thought some chalking or painting of the concrete jersey barriers across from our apartment would spruce up Bridge Street. We talked about a trail that would lead from the National Park Visitor Center to the Boott Cotton Mills Museum just like a small version of the Boston Freedom Trail. However, the more we talked, the more we realized that there could be something bigger than just a project or two.

People talking at Mill no 5 during Transform Mill City

Transform Mill City drew a variety of folks to Mill No. 5 before Coffee and Cotton was in business

We were really impressed with the number of Lowell folks who came and participated in the “Transform Mill City” initiative. This series of meetings hosted by a student from UMass Lowell allowed more than forty participants to each meeting to share ideas on giant sticky notes on walls or tables with questions such as “What events would you like to see in Lowell that aren’t here already?” Some popular ideas were a “Firewater” display on the canals and a series of art events or markets.

This wasn’t the only idea-generating initiative in Lowell. The City spearheaded Neighborland a couple of years ago, and it collected ideas via an online website and stickers on an empty downtown storefront. Ideas included an independent theater, free downtown wifi, an expanded Farmer’s Market, and even bocce courts.

What if, however, we combined the two ideas? In school, I ran an organization that accepted project proposals and offered technical support to villages and towns too small to have their own planning departments. There’s a lot of expertise in Lowell already, and we could connect that expertise to these great ideas that sometimes seem to fizzle away. It could be democratic, where the most popular ideas are the ones that get the most attention.

That’s when we started meeting with a lot of people. It’s amazing how many people you can meet with when you’re trying to talk to every group that could be interested in the effort. I started with Yovani Baez, the City of Lowell Neighborhood Planner. She suggested meeting with a few more people, and those folks suggested others, and it soon snowballed. I had to make an excel spreadsheet with the people I met, the people they suggested to talk to, and the ideas on how we could execute our plan.

All in all, Aurora or I emailed or talked to nearly 70 people in the City before we finalized our pitch, including people from the City of Lowell, E for All, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, Coalition for a Better Acre, Made in Lowell, COOL, Greater Lowell Community Foundation, Lowell Makes, all the neighborhood groups, a few churches, and a lot of other organizations and groups. During that time, we even took a tactical urbanism tour of the Acre with ACTION.

Each interview helped us form our idea. Just to think of a small handful of examples: Marianne Gries told us to make sure our website was smartphone-compatible for those without computers; Souvanna Pouv suggested doing interviews on LTC shows to market the idea; Geoff Foster reminded us to use examples in every neighborhood in Lowell; Sean Thibodeau recommending throwing an event on a weekday, not a weekend.

DIY Lowell mock-up webpage


We created a mock-up to get feedback from our advisory committee, and with help from the community, we made it into a real webpage

Do-it-Ourselves Lowell

Although we kicked off DIY Lowell, we could never have done any of it alone.

I have to credit Aurora with coming up with the name “Do-it-Yourself Lowell,” or DIY Lowell for short. Her idea was that the organization was all about people feeling like they could take ownership of their city through these small, achievable projects. These ideas aren’t that hard or expensive to put into practice, but most people don’t have the tools, time, or contacts to make their ideas a reality on their own. We hope DIY Lowell will really let people do-it-themselves together.

A lot of others offered invaluable help as well. We’re finding volunteers through the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange, CBA is providing assistance with fund management, a local blog is hosting our website, and we may even be able to hold the DIY Lowell summit in a really cool community space for free. We’re amazingly indebted to our Steering Committee who helped us through decisions such as when to do fundraising, what guidelines to put in place for projects, and how to set up our website.

With all this time invested, you may be wondering why we personally are doing all this work. In a word, it’s fun. We’ve met so many people and we’re hoping to add to what we see happening in Lowell already: a sense of excitement and possibility. It’s a lot better than watching reruns.


The Art of History, the History of Art: Visiting the Whistler House

James M Whistler Statue in Lowell MA

James McNeil Whistler denied he was from Lowell later in his life. Maybe he just didn’t like the snow.

We got an email recently from one of our favorite active Lowellians, Jack Moynihan, wondering: had we ever written about the Whistler House Museum? With the exception of an early post about a Parker Lecture, somehow no, we haven’t!

So, thanks to Jack, we paid a special visit to the Whistler House with our blogging goggles on. It was an especially good refresher for me, because I haven’t visited since I started working for the National Park, and visitors often want to know what you can see at the Whistler House. Short answer: art with a local connection. The collection focuses on art representational art, and it is strongest in the 1800s and early 1900s. Almost the entire collection has a Lowell or New England connection: the art could be by a local artist, or depicting local scenes and people, or collected by local people. Jack led us on a tour of the house, talking about the works and their history.

The Art

We believe art is both individual and communal: pieces speak differently to different people, but talking about art allows us to understand the artist, the subject, and each other better. In that spirit, we’re sharing both of our reactions, and would love to hear yours in the comments:

Aurora: My personal favorites are the pieces that connect to Lowell’s history. I’ve often enjoyed looking at the reproduction of this almost bucolic scene of Lowell in its early factory days at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, so its fun to see the real thing. There are several paintings that interpret Lowell and the surrounding countryside.

“Lowell in 1825” by Benjamin Mather

“Lowell in 1825” by Benjamin Mather

Chris: A true-to-scale reproduction of Whistler’s most famous painting in the “Francis Room” of the house feels heavy and dark like the portraits of “important men” throughout the museum. However, Jack revealed that the original painting wasn’t so dark. In 1906, when Whistler’s cousin made the copy, the original had deteriorated. A small photo of the original next to the copy shows how the original had since been restored to its intended, brighter look. The copy remains an artifact showing how millions of people saw the painting and moved me to reflect on the ephemeral and perceptional nature of what we consider “great.”

“Apres James McNeil Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black” 1906, Oil on canvas, by Edith Fairfax Davenport

“Apres James McNeil Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black” 1906, Oil on canvas, by Edith Fairfax Davenport

For those hoping to catch a glimpse of famous artwork, the Whistler House can provide. The detail of Whistler’s expressive etchings on display on the second floor dazzled us, and John Singer Sargent’s sketch showed his process for the stunning Boston Public Library mural.

The History

There’s always some overlap between an art museum and a history museum, but at Whistler House the Venn Diagram is almost just a circle. Once again, different elements spoke to us differently:

Portrait of “James B. Francis” by R.M. Staigg

Portrait of “James B. Francis” by R.M. Staigg

Aurora: Of course the house is the birthplace of James McNeil Whistler, an innovative artist most popularly famous for painting a dour portrait of his mother. But art history is bound up tightly with our city’s history, because Whistler the artist was the son of Whistler the engineer, an important figure in his own right. A master engineer of his historical moment, George Washington Whistler designed railroads, canals, and aqueducts, and trains. That’s not the end of the history connection, either. The building actually was home to several generations of notable engineers, including inventor Paul Moody and “Chief of Police of the Water” James B. Francis.

Chris: It’s notable that the house has been the home of the Lowell Art Association since 1908. The permanent collection represents what the art association found interesting, what it was given, what it strove to collect over the years since its start in 1878. Walking through the halls of the museum is like walking through the historic tastes of art enthusiasts and experts of generations of Lowellians.

The building itself has been restored and maintained by the Art Association and is beautiful in its own right.

Making Art and History


Dave Drinon in the Artist-in-Residence stuio

One especially neat thing the Whistler House does is feature an artist-in-residence. If you’ve spent any time at all in Lowell’s galleries, you’ve probably seen Dave Drinon’s work. He paints New England landscapes and cityscapes, and his work is often at the Brush Gallery, and he’s a Western Ave artist as well. I realized when I got home why his work looked so familiar: we have a magnet with one of his Lowell scenes on our fridge. He is helping organize a group of artists who will paint on the streets during the next Folk Festival.

Their changing exhibits are often worthwhile and interesting, and I especially recommend the current one. “Pursuing Justice Through Art: 2015” is the second annual exhibition dealing with genocide, culminating in a symposium happening Saturday the 18th starting at 1pm. If you haven’t been to the Whistler House before (or lately) this would be an excellent time to visit.  The exhibit is moving and thought-provoking, with some works that are disturbing, others deeply sad, and some that suggest healing and peace. It reminded me of the expression that art should “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”.

The Whistler House is also a participating in Downtown’s “First Thursdays” initiative, a collaboration of museums and businesses for special events, discounts, and later hours designed to grow the downtown scene. Chris and I have enjoyed this series, and the Whistler has been an active participant, hosting lectures and music.

We imagine a number of our readers have never ventured to the Whistler House, but there really does seem to be something for everyone! A visitor from another blog put it well: “After all, where else could you see Whistler’s father?” It’s open Wednesday through Saturday, 11 am to 4 pm, on Worthen Street in Lowell.

The number of Lowell institutions we’ve never written a post about should in theory be getting shorter, but there always seem to be new things to write about, and our stack of “we should write a post about this” ideas just seems to get longer.  If we’ve never written about your favorite Lowell stuff and you’re wondering why, the answer is that probably nobody has given us a gentle shove in that direction yet. Let us know!

Images from “Pursuing Justice through Art: 2015”

The works are from both local and out-of-town artists.