One Hundred Years of Michigan Work in Art: 1850 to 1950
The Michigan landscape is riven with work: from the Keweenaw, where stamp sands still trace arsenic whorls along a Superior shore and poor-rock foundations lurk in the second-growth like pitfall-traps; to the ghost farms of Crawford County, where gone-work haunts the cutover in relict lilac; to the rich bottomland of Wa-we-a-tun-ong, smothered under senile parking lots. The work of this northern borderland was a series of painful extractions—first fur, then fish, then lumber, then minerals, and now even water. When the work was gone, Michigan was left with work’s debris. But work also left the state with a considerable cultural fortune: an oeuvre of literature, music, and visual art that both brutally exposed and tenderly mythologized Michigan’s relationship with its work and workers.
Shape and Scope of Michigan Work
Throughout Michigan’s history, artists have shaped the meaning and beauty they found in work—their own and the work of others—into art. The work was shaped by their state’s topography, weather, and geography. Michigan is surrounded by and shot through with water that had to be navigated, drained, bridged, pumped, and shoveled before any work could proceed. The region’s four seasons, two of them wet and one frozen, dictated when work was done. Located in the northern middle of the U.S., Michigan functioned as both an inter- and intra-national borderland: its lakes and rivers—the “dustless road”—were the cheapest route to move goods and people across a growing country.
For the purposes of this ten-part essay, the scope of Michigan work has been limited to industries traditionally associated with the state—logging, mining, manufacturing, and shipping—during a hundred year span. It must be acknowledged, however, that limiting the scope to these iconic industries narrows it to a “labor for wages” model, thus largely excluding work done by native people and, to a significant degree, women. To ensure a more inclusive and accurate picture of Michigan at work, future research should employ the broader definition of labor as “sustained effort toward a goal,” and incorporate traditional subsistence work and domestic work, as well as the artwork associated with each.[i]
The Michigan Worker
Lumberman. Lakerman. Fisherman. In the public-facing art from 1850 to 1950, the iconic Michigan worker is almost exclusively male and overwhelmingly white. This, though in this same time frame, all people of color, women, and even children worked directly (or indirectly) in every industry for which the state is best known. As Victoria Brehm writes in the Encyclopedia of American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes: “[although] the historical record offers tantalizing glimpses of black shipping operations, no literature of [black] lives on the Lakes has been discovered.” She cautions that the literature available for study is, at best, “a fragmented record that seldom includes natives and other people of color.”[ii]
The Michigan Worker Afloat
The iron and wheat of the West connect to the foundries and bakeries of the East by way of the Great Lakes, whose perils for sailors are myriad. In winter, freshwater spray can freeze quickly on vessels and cover them under tons of ice. In any season, a lee shore is never far over the horizon: limited sea room means that ships on the Lakes can’t run from bad weather as “salties” can. In the age of sail and before accurate weather forecasting, the work of getting cargo from one end of the Great Lakes to the other was nothing short of heroic. It’s not surprising, then, that Michigan sailors were often portrayed as heroic in the state’s popular literature, art, and music.
Part 2 of this series will continue exploring the art of “The Michigan Worker Afloat” in fiction and fine art.
[i] The artistry inherent in Anishinaabe tools (basketry, bead- and quillwork, hand tools) and in Michigan domestic textiles (quilts, clothing, rugs, etc.) has much to say about the connection between work and art. They deserve more space than I could give them here.
[ii] Victoria Brehm, “Great Lakes Literature,” in Encyclopedia of American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes, ed. Jill B. Gidmark (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 2001), 170.