The coal pile at Salem Harbor Power Station has steadily dwindled since the final 50,000-ton load arrived on a vessel from Colombia six months ago.
The blinking red lights on its soaring emission stacks, an icon for mariners and airplane pilots on the North Shore, will go dark after the 63-year-old coal-and-oil fired power plant closes on May 31.
Its big, noisy machines, such as the original General Electric turbine, will fall silent after the plant is torn down and replaced by a new $1 billion gas-fired plant.
For workers with decades on the job, life without the old coal plant seems hard to imagine.
“We’ve all walked through that gate for years and years,” said stockroom manager Beth Tobin, 52, who has worked at the plant for 28 years. “It’s kind of weird to think that you’re not going to be doing that anymore.”
But through the eyes of students at Montserrat College of Art, Salem Harbor station and its 105 workers will not fade quietly into the landscape.
The Beverly college and Footprint Power, the plant’s New Jersey-based owner, have teamed up to create “Across The Bridge,” an art course and exhibition that will celebrate the power plant workers.
Armed with video cameras and sketch pads, and outfitted in hard hats and yellow safety vests printed with “artist” on the back, Montserrat students are getting a rare look inside a 1950s-era industrial facility.
“I love the lights,” Chelsea Stewart, 22, a senior painting major from a small village near Albany, N.Y., said over the roar of the pulverizer. “It’s so dark, but there’s this glow. It can look orange, yellow, or blue. I like colors.”
“I had no idea about a power plant or what it did,” said Kerry McDermott, 22, of Burlington, a photography and art education major. “It’s opened my eyes about all these people who have worked here for so long, and now they have to start new lives, which is obviously so painful.”
Since January, about 30 students have visited the plant once a week to interview workers for a video archive. The workers’ stories will then be turned into painting, sculpture, and other art forms that will be displayed at the plant in July.
“There is a lot of history in this plant,” said Peter Furniss, chief executive of Footprint, seated in an office overlooking the scenic Salem harbor. “We have about 105 people working here, who have a combined tenure at the facility that is probably 500 years. They have a wealth of stories. I wanted to find a way to preserve those stories and honor their service.”
Furniss proposed the idea of the art project to Montserrat president Stephen Immerman, with whom he serves on the board of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce.
“I saw it as a real opportunity to enhance the quality of our students’ experience in a real-world setting,” Immerman said.
“Across the Bridge,” a name that reflects the only way to travel from Beverly to Salem by land, aims to inspire students through the lives and jobs of the power plant workers.
“Their practice is different than usual,” said Rebecca Bourgault, an assistant professor and chairwoman of the art education program at Montserrat. “They are working with a very specific subject matter that is very new to them. It requires new approaches and a lot of discipline.”
At first, plant workers were skeptical. Most have spent their entire working lives dressed in soiled workboots and hard hats. They’ve bulldozed raw coal, crawled through narrow spaces to fix machines, dragged hoses, and climbed to the top of its nearly 600-foot emission stacks.
Most of the workers will be laid off in June. Footprint will keep a handful to wind down operations this summer, Furniss said. Workers will be paid severance packages and have been offered help with retraining for new jobs, he added. The new plant is scheduled to open in 2016.
“We did heavy, hard work here,” said Priscilla Canney, 62, a stockroom clerk who spent most of her 28 years at the plant in mechanical maintenance. “Some of the tools we had to work with were just huge.”
They never imagined their working lives would inspire art.
“We’re power plant workers, not art students,” said Tobin, the plant’s coordinator for the project. “I’m not sure people, at first, really knew what to expect. What kind of art would they make here?”
The relationship evolved slowly. Students made videos to introduce themselves to workers. They visited the plant with three professors. Workers gradually warmed to the idea of sharing their stories of work and friendship.
“We’re a close group here, and we know better than others what it’s been like to work here,” said Ed Dattoli, a mechanical maintenance supervisor who has also worked 28 years at the plant.
“The whole place as we know it is going to be gone,” said Dattoli, driving in a truck near a coal pile. “At least we’ll have this [artwork] to remember it.”
Miledy Santana, a chemist at the plant, said working with aspiring artists has helped ease the pain of the plant’s looming demise.
“The students I’ve worked with are very, very friendly,” said Santana, who lives in Methuen. “They’re fascinated with what we do here. Now they know my story.”
Santana will be featured in a video documentary about women workers that McDermott plans to create.
“I’ve always been really interested in documentaries and this is a good chance to make one,” McDermott said. “The women here are such a minority. I’ve gotten some really interesting stories about how they’ve dealt with working in such a masculine environment.”
Stewart plans to create a large, abstract portrait, drawn in charcoal and pastel colors.
“I’m thinking of mixing everything that I see,” she said. “The walls, the floors, the lights. I’d like it to be half about the building, half about the people.”