Too often a look at the national landscape tells stories of loss. Plant closings, job loss, and empty storefronts have sapped the vitality from towns all over the United States. This has been especially keenly felt in New England. Once home to thriving textile, shoe, furniture, and fishing industries, today it may be described by statistics on foreclosures and addiction. When we visit we find towns that are only shells of themselves. But we also find wonderful stories of people who bring fresh air and a new sense of community to their hometowns. Tracie Pouliot of Gardner, Massachusetts is just such a person.
The daughter of a furniture maker, Tracie is an artist whose medium is printmaking. She holds a BFA from Pratt Institute in New York and a Master’s degree in Community Art from the Maryland Institute of Art. In between her years in school, she spent two years with Americorps working on a community farm. But that’s only part of her story. Tracie is also the founder and driving force behind the Chair City Community Workshop, a fantastic place brimming with energy, creativity, and community pride in downtown Gardner.
Gardner is a small city in central Massachusetts. Founded in the 18th century in an area with abundant timber and water power, it rose to prominence in furniture manufacturing. Heywood Wakefield, Nichols & Stone, Conant Ball, and Temple Stuart are just a few of the dozens of furniture companies whose home was Gardner. The city was best known for the manufacture of chairs, at its peak producing over 4 million each year and filling schools, libraries, and restaurants all over the US. Gardner became known as the Chair City, and in 1905 celebrated this title by building the largest chair in the world.
For 25 years Tracie’s father worked for Nichols & Stone, the company that went the longest way putting the Chair in Chair City. Tracie recalls her father taking her and her sister to the factory as children. She sums up the importance of these visits when she explains, ‘The smell of sawdust is significant for me.’ During summers while she was in college, Tracie returned to Gardner and worked at Nichols & Stone as a floater. ‘At the time I was jealous of friends who had neat internships in cool cities, but it turned out that working in the factory actually influenced my artistic practices and interests as much as art school did.’
Nichols & Stone was the last of Gardner’s big furniture factories; it closed in 2008. Tracie had first-hand knowledge of how such a closing affected its many employees. ‘… it was really clear to me my community must be struggling in many ways with the loss of Nichols & Stone. I didn’t want people’s stories to go untold and I wanted to understand how a factory with such a great reputation and quality product with many employees who actually loved working there could close, and how an entire industry that built a city could just seemingly disappear.’
In 2009 Tracie started talking with the former employees of Nichols & Stone. ‘My first interview for this project was with my dad, Mike Pouliot.’ At the time she was living in North Carolina and holding down a full-time job. She traveled back and forth to Gardner to interview.
‘Eventually I was able to save money, quit my job, and focus on my art.’ Tracie began to listen to the interviews she had recorded and wondered how to share them. She began to see her own medium of printmaking in the context of telling the stories of the workers in Gardner’s furniture industry.
Tracie says an early interview with a former Nichols & Stone employee showed her what this project would become. ‘She worked there straight out of high school and was just a few years shy of retiring when they closed. So you can imagine all the life events she shared with her coworkers over the years. She had best friends, mentors, people who helped her grow up in the factory. They would decorate their work stations, bring in food to share, celebrate weddings, babies, and holidays together. She also loved the work, and was good at it. Her story so clearly explained the loss that happened when an entire industry moves. It was financial, but is was also about her identity, her social circle, her creativity, and her pride. These are all the things that make us feel like ourselves, and all of a sudden those things were swept out from under her.’
Tracie goes on to explain, ‘…the audio alone from the interviews with furniture workers is really compelling—there is definitely something special about hearing someone’s voice when they are talking from the heart… [but] this is a city of people who make things, and inspect the craftsmanship of things, and touch things to find out more about them. Whatever I did with these interviews had to be well-made and had to be an object people could interact with. So books seemed natural since I was dealing with words.’
Then, as Tracie, explains, the real work began. She did a fundraiser to raise money for a traditional letterpress and industrial paper cutter, found space downtown, and wrote grants to get money to pay for bookmaking materials.
Today the downtown storefront is the Chair City Community Workshop, which houses the letterpress and other equipment and materials needed to make a handcrafted book. The Workshop is also a gathering place where people can learn how to use the letterpress, volunteer their time making woodcuts, binding books by hand, and participate in events and social gatherings. ‘The Workshop is organized so that anyone could come in off the street and help out. I try to have a few tasks available for each shift for a range of abilities. Folks can stay a few minutes or a few hours. ‘
The Workshop has now produced the Chair City Oral History Series, collected from 12 Nichols & Stone employees. Each interview is recorded in a handmade book, printed in an edition of 400. With the completion of each book, the Workshop hosts a book release party, often attended by the furniture maker about whom the book was written.
The Workshop has received funding from the Pollination Project, Mass Humanities, and Massachusetts Cultural Council. It also receives support from individual contributions, in-kind donations, and ‘tons of volunteer time.’ Tracie speaks publicly and charges a fee, but as she explains, ‘for the most part it’s time we are not compensated for but have all decided is worth spending on doing this.’
It is an absolute delight to walk into this humming center of activity, where individual citizens, school groups, and civic organizations volunteer their time printing, binding, making woodcuts, and getting to know each other. We are in awe of the commitment to craft, history, and hometown shown by this American Woman. Thank you, Tracie!