PAWTUCKET, R.I. — The Rhode Island city that was home to the nation's first successful textile mill is showcasing its fibers once again.
A sculptor in Pawtucket has stretched thousands of feet of synthetic fabric cords across the Blackstone River in a suspended display of color that is equal parts art and engineering.
The installation, in the shadow of the Slater Mill, draws on the city's history as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution and its modern-day incarnation as a sort of artists' colony. According to the city and artist Donald Gerola, who finished the work late last month, such a weaving has never been done.
"This is the first river that was ever woven in the United States," said Gerola. "This is history."
The "Weaving the Blackstone" project — reminiscent of the massive environmental "wrappings" done by the artist Christo — consists of nearly 30,000 feet of polyester, nylon and polypropylene cords stretched across the river. The brightly colored cables are suspended anywhere from 3 feet above the water to nearly three dozen; they cross in places, and at their longest, run 400 feet. In three spots, they are threaded through oversized heddles Gerola built to highlight the weaving theme. The heddle is the part of a loom through which all threads pass.
It took two archers with high-powered bows — normally used to hunt bear — to get the cords from one side of the river to the other. Later, vandals would cut them twice, forcing Gerola back to the drawing board. He says he spent countless hours with a machete and chain saw clearing brush and trees along the river to make the installation possible. He has a long list of gripes with the city and calls the project — for which he's being paid $22,000 — a "total financial loss." But it has mesmerized him.
"It just drew me in," said Gerola. He notes that the march of light across the cords throughout the day creates an ever-changing look, capped off at night when floodlights leave the cables looking like laser beams.
"I believe in Walt Disney: If you have a dream, make it come true," he said.
The project is at the center — literally — of a gritty, struggling city of more than 70,000 that has spent years trying to reinvent itself as a community of artists. It created an arts district more than a decade ago, with special state income tax exemptions for artists, and redeveloped many of its dormant mills into artist studios and living spaces. (Gerola's 3,500-square-foot studio is in one such building dating to 1868.) In 2008, the publication Art Calendar named Pawtucket to its list of 10 Great Towns for artists, saying the city "just might be God's Mecca for working artists."
Congress is also considering designating Slater Mill, the Blackstone River and several mill towns a national historic park.
John Baxter, chairman of the Pawtucket Arts Festival, said that, aside from its feat of engineering, the beauty of the installation is how it blends the city's industrial past with its artistic present. He hopes it will remain up at least through this year's festival in the fall.
While the arts festival provided $5,000 for the project, the rest of the financing came from a local printing company, Baxter said. No city money was used. Pawtucket's economic and cultural affairs officer, Herb Weiss, said he'd like to get representatives from the Smithsonian and the National Endowment for the Arts to attend the project's formal dedication.
Gerola, 62, studied physics at the University of Dayton, but realized his calling at age 24 as an artist. He started as a muralist in New York and, in 1978, opened his first studio, across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
He has worked extensively in steel, creating sculptures that tower as many as 40 feet, including centerpieces for international expos. His kinetic wind sculptures are on view on Cape Cod, including at the National Seashore, and elsewhere.
He describes himself as having been "endlessly fascinated" with weaving, which has figured in his works since the 1980s. The Blackstone project includes a 25-foot, 2,500-pound sculpture of a spool of thread — called The Bobbin — that required a crane to install.
"Don is such a creative mind, it's not even funny," said Donald Grebien, Pawtucket's mayor.
Despite the comparisons to Christo — whom the Gerola said the artist is not his inspiration. And he said he never truly appreciated Christo's work until he undertook the river weaving.
"I realized how difficult, how dangerous and expensive and how much muscle power it takes to get material over a river," he said. "It's easy on a piece of paper."
Christo — who decades ago stretched 150,000 square feet of fabric across Newport's waterfront in a piece called "Ocean Front" — is planning a project in Colorado called "Over the River" in which he'll suspend fabric panels across the Arkansas River. It's expected to cost $50 million.
Supporters of the Blackstone project note one historical twist. The cords Gerola used were manufactured by a local company owned by Andrew Jencks, a descendant of Pawtucket's founder, Joseph Jencks, an iron worker who came to Rhode Island in 1671 looking for a place to set up his works.
"It's really a pretty magical effect the way the lines play against the falling water over the dam," said Irving Sheldon, president of the Old Slater Mill Association. "We're hoping people will take notice of the city and of the river and of the museum."