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A reporter sketches his ‘Toxic Youth’ working in a New Hampshire factory

An illustration by Dana Jennings in one of his sketchbooks of memories of working with his father at Kingston Steel Drum in New Hampshire, a factory that cleaned 55-gallon industrial steel containers, at his home in Montclair, N.J. Jennings and his father continue to battle a host of illnesses decades after working at the factory, which became one of the EPA’s Superfund hazardous-waste sites. “At the factory, it seemed like we worked under a black sun,” Jennings said of the sketch.
An illustration by Dana Jennings in one of his sketchbooks of memories of working with his father at Kingston Steel Drum in New Hampshire, a factory that cleaned 55-gallon industrial steel containers, at his home in Montclair, N.J. Jennings and his father continue to battle a host of illnesses decades after working at the factory, which became one of the EPA’s Superfund hazardous-waste sites. “At the factory, it seemed like we worked under a black sun,” Jennings said of the sketch.Bryan Anselm/The New York Times

In 2017, Dana Jennings started drawing. Maybe he had to.

Jennings, 63, a senior staff editor at The New York Times, has spent his life as a journalist. But he decided to make a drawing a day, and out came a raft of edgy, graphic, frenetic sketches about the job he took when he was 16 at Kingston Steel Drum in his hometown of Kingston, N.H. Today, it’s a Superfund hazardous waste site.

“I never got over the place,” he said over the phone from his home in New Jersey.

His drawings are now featured in “Toxic Youth,” an online exhibition organized by the University of New Hampshire Museum of Art.

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The drawings don’t follow a narrative, but they’re propulsive. The virtual flip books burst with images of smokestacks with teeth, oddball and ravaged characters, and simmering lagoons. Occasional self-portraits show eyes peering from dense, pitted clouds. Jennings’s style is blunt and economically direct. His drawings bristle.

From Dana Jennings's "Toxic Youth."
From Dana Jennings's "Toxic Youth."Dana Jennings

Kristina Durocher, the museum’s director, saw them in a New York Times essay Jennings wrote last June.

“Aren’t they raw and powerful?” she said. She wanted to see more. When she spoke with the artist, he told her he was a UNH alumnus. He had even held a campus job in the museum.

“We’ve had a great response to [the exhibition],” she said. “It’s so personal. And every drawing just leaps off the page.”

It also strikes a nerve in New Hampshire, for those who worked at or lived near the factory and others. The issue of contaminated groundwater has not gone away. Durocher said she was drawn to Jennings’ sketchbooks in part because her mother, who lives near Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in Merrimack, recently discovered her well is contaminated with PFAS chemicals. Saint-Gobain has a deadline of this month to meet state emissions controls.

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Kingston Steel Drum cleaned industrial drums of residue ranging from baby shampoo and peanut butter to insecticide and motor oil. Mobil and Dow Chemical were clients. Wastewater was pumped into a nearby manmade pond called a leaching pit.

“Really, it was worse than disgusting,” Jennings said.

An image from Dana Jennings's "Toxic Youth."
An image from Dana Jennings's "Toxic Youth."Dana Jennings

His father, also named Dana, had a job bombarding the drums with pellets of steel shot, wearing only goggles as protection. His mother used a magnet to pull slivers of steel from his father’s face after work each day.

Jennings’s own nightmarish task was scrubbing a smokestack that vented fumes from the paint booth, where drums were freshly coated after cleaning.

“The fumes and residue would rise and collect on the inside of the stack,” he said. “If it wasn’t cleaned, they would catch on fire. So I’d climb on the roof and stick two-thirds of my body in the stack. It was really Dickensian.”

The federal government shuttered Kingston Steel Drum in 1983. At the time, Jennings was a young reporter working for the Manchester Union Leader. He wrote his first front-page story about the closure.

“There are photos of me from that day. The EPA let me onto the site,” Jennings said. “We wore impermeable Tyvek suits, goggles, and respirators. When I worked there, all I wore was a T-shirt and jeans, and steel-toed boots.”

The EPA still monitors the site.

Jennings and his father have evidently paid a price for their days at Kingston Steel Drum. In 1982, Jennings was hospitalized for six weeks with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease. He was given nearly 30 pints of blood and he came close to dying. Ultimately, his colon was removed.

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“Even then, I thought, did something at Kingston Steel Drum screw up my immune system?” he said. In the years since, he has successfully battled an aggressive form of prostate cancer, and he now lives with another autoimmune disorder that causes weeping wounds on his abdomen and enduring fatigue.

His father, meanwhile, has metastatic colon cancer and emphysema.

“It’s always circumstantial to point to environmental and industrial matters as causing illness,” Jennings said. “But Dad and I are pretty convinced that Kingston Steel Drum is partly to blame.”

From Dana Jennings's "Toxic Youth."
From Dana Jennings's "Toxic Youth."Dana Jennings

His drawings recall the punk sensibility of Underground Comix, which he grew up reading. Jennings, who has written books — fiction, nonfiction, and a children’s book — wonders if “Toxic Youth” has the potential to be a graphic novel.

It does.

He continues to draw every day, and the images of Kingston Steel Drum keep filling his pages. Drawing has given him an outlet that writing never did.

“It’s been freeing to speak this other language,” he said. “Art teachers tell young artists they need to draw from life. I’ve been drawing from my inner life.”

TOXIC YOUTH

At University of New Hampshire Museum of Art, online through April 2. https://mypages.unh.edu/toxic-ghosts

Artist Dana Jennings will take part in an online discussion, “The Art and Business of a Writer’s Life,” on Feb. 24. https://mypages.unh.edu/toxic-ghosts/event/art-and-business-writers-life?delta=0

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Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.