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Magee Carpet Company, "The Mill, second floor, 2017", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

Haas Gallery of Art, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

    400 East 2nd Street, Bloomsburg, Pa.

20 May through 14 September 2021

     Reception: Tuesday, September 14th, 1-3 p.m.

For the video of the artist's gallery talk at the reception, click here.

Each of the images in the exhibition appears below, along with the text and caption information as on the wall of the gallery.

The Mill

Magee Carpet Company, Dallin Aerial Survey photo, Hagley Museum Collection, 1936, "The Mill & The Loom"

Magee Carpet Company, Dallin Aerial Survey photo, 1936, Hagley Museum Collection

THE TEXTILE INDUSTRY arose in Bloomsburg in the middle of the 19th century.  For a few generations, the town had silk mills and fabric mills, and by the 1950s the Magee Carpet Company’s fully-integrated factory south and west of Railroad and West 5th Streets employed between two and three thousand people in one of the largest such facilities in the world: Raw wool arrived by the railroad-car-load, and those employees cleaned, carded, spun, dyed, and wove it, in the end producing the highest-quality carpeting for both domestic and commercial use.  The company had its own designers on staff as well, and they worked with customers to create a fantastic range of patterns and colors – among them staid solids, a bowling-alley theme in black and white and orange, and multitudes of floral patterns, each in at least a dozen colors.

 

The 1970s brought changes.  The Magee family had already diversified their business interests under the Magee Industrial Enterprises banner, including by operating the Hotel Magee on Main Street in Bloom and more than a dozen Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips restaurants in the region as the franchisee.  In the mill, the production of carpeting for houses and theaters and stores gave way to the manufacture of flooring for automobiles and trucks.

 

The Magee family maintained control of the company until the late 1990s, when they took on a partner in the Swiss firm then known as Rieter Automotive Systems.  For many years, the mill’s output went solely to General Motors; this worked just fine while GM retained its status as the world’s biggest carmaker, but as foreign competition eroded GM’s market share, this hurt Magee-Rieter.  In 2005, the Magee family sold its remaining shares of the company, and in 2011 Rieter spun off its automotive business to create Autoneum, still Swiss-owned and now with about 13,000 employees worldwide and fifty-five manufacturing facilities in North and South America, Asia, and Europe.  Autoneum North America has plants in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Ontario, and Mexico, and its customers include almost all of the world’s automakers, from Acura and Audi to Volvo and VW and all of the U.S. Big Three (GM, Ford, and Chrysler, the last-named now officially Fiat Chrysler and a part of the oddly-named Dutch firm Stellantis).

 

Always vulnerable to flooding, the mill took on substantial water in the hurricanes of 1936 (which happened before we named such storms) and 1972 (Agnes), although neither of them topped the flood of 1904; the 2011 flood following Tropical Storm Lee broke all records, measured at 32.75 feet on the gauge at the Bloomsburg Airport (compared to an estimated 32.70 for 1904, 31.20 for Agnes, and 27.80 in 1936).  Six feet of water inundated the first floor of the old buildings in the Lee flood; the first floor of most of the newest buildings sit higher, but not six feet higher, and Autoneum had to invest $60 million in the cleanup effort – but the fact that they did so speaks to the reliance that Autoneum has on the mostly unionized Bloomsburg workforce and the high quality of their production.  The level of employment at the mill has fluctuated in recent years, as demand has ebbed and flowed and as productivity and efficiency have increased; the number working at the mill now, about 650 in three shifts, has fallen from 750 a few years ago.

 

The photo above, made by Dallin Aerial Surveys in May of 1936 (a month and a half after that year’s flood) and now owned by the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, shows the mill before its major post-war expansion.  At that time, company houses lined Magee Avenue running south from 5th Street west of the mill, and the mill property itself occupied about fifteen acres, eight of them under roof.  The oldest buildings on the site date to 1889, and all of the pre-World War II buildings share the classic mill “look”: red-brick facades including acres of windows from the days before fluorescent lighting.  The mill complex today extends across more than fifty acres; the primarily single-story manufacturing buildings erected since World War II cover fifteen of those acres under roof.  Typical of their era, they have yellow-brick and steel siding unadorned by even windows.  The old red-brick buildings all remain standing, housing offices and storage and, as you see in this exhibition, hundreds of thousands of square feet of beautiful and heartbreakingly empty space.

Magee Carpet Company, "The Mill, third floor, 2017", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

The Mill, third floor

2017

30" x 40"

Magee Carpet Company, "The Mill, second floor, 2017", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

The Mill, second floor, 2017, 50" x 90"

Magee Carpet Company, "The Mill, courtyard window, 2017", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

The Mill, courtyard window

2017

50" x 30"

The Mill, third floor

2017

40" x 30"

Magee Carpet Company, "The Mill, third floor, 2017", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo
Magee Carpet Company, "The Mill, third floor doorway, 2017", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

The Mill, third floor doorway

2017

30" x 40"

The Mill, second floor

2017

40" x 30"

Magee Carpet Company, "The Mill, second floor, 2017", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo
Magee Carpet Company, "The Mill, second floor, 2017", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

The Mill, second floor

2017

30" x 40"

Magee Carpet Company, "The Mill, machine parts, 2017", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

The Mill, machine parts

2017

20" x 16"

Magee Carpet Company, "The Mill, sewing machine, 2017", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

The Mill, sewing machine

2017

20" x 16"

The Loom

Lansdowne Steel & Iron Company loom, Bloomsburg Carpet Company, 2021, "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

Lansdowne Steel & Iron Company loom, Bloomsburg Carpet Company, 2021

AS THE MAGEE COMPANY moved away from carpeting in the early 1970s, a group of mill employees saw the highly-skilled workforce and the highly-specialized equipment as assets worth preserving, and in 1976 they formed Bloomsburg Carpet Industries and moved their expertise, their machinery, and their employees to a new location on Route 11 east of town.  In the third decade of the 21st century, the company continues to produce some of the highest-quality wool and nylon carpeting anywhere.  According to their Web site, “The Bloomsburg Carpet mill was founded in 1976 by Raymond P. Habib along with twelve experienced employees dedicated to maintaining the craft of sustainable residential and commercial carpet weaving.  Bloomsburg Carpet continues to grow and expand but their commitment to quality, luxurious, sustainable carpets remains strong as ever.  Bloomsburg Carpet Industries is proud to be notably recognized as the only carpet mill in the world to offer these weave types in one carpet mill: Wilton Carpet, Axminster Carpet and Velvet Carpet.”  Bloomsburg Carpet uses a million and a half pounds of wool a year from all around the world, and it counts some third-generation carpet weavers among its employees.

 

The Wilton loom in these photographs dates to about 1950; its data plate attests to a patent granted on the 31st of January, 1949.  Built by the Lansdowne Steel & Iron Company (LANSCO) in Morton, Pa. (between Lansdowne and Swarthmore, nine miles west-southwest of Philadelphia City Hall), the loom served the Magee Carpet Company until the mid 1970s, and then it moved four and three-quarters miles up Route 11 to the new Bloomsburg Carpet Industries; it operated there until its retirement in April 2021 a little more than a month after Oren made these photos of it.  LANSCO went out of business in 1993.

Any loom, mechanical or operated by hand, holds the lengthwise warp threads under tension while interweaving the weft threads crosswise.  The original vertical looms in antiquity used a hanging weight on the end of each warp thread to provide the tension.  By the tenth century, horizontal treadle looms appeared; these allowed for longer warp threads and the possibility of more intricate designs – and the weaver could sit down while working.

 

Wilton carpet has a reputation as very versatile, with great durability and an almost infinite variety of possible patterns.  Because of the structure of the weave, Wilton carpets can have “all cut”, “all loop”, or a combination of the two textures, in a variety of densities.  The Bloomsburg Carpet Web site describes Wilton carpets as “pile carpets whereby the pile is formed by inserting wires in the pile warps of the carpet.  After extraction of the wires, the pile is looped (in case straight wires have been used) or cut (in case cutting wires are used).  Because the yarn is buried on the back and only lifted when a specific color is needed, it gives the Wilton product more body, resilience, and great quality. . . . Because of their plushness, sound-dampening ability and beauty, Wilton and velvet weave carpets have graced the US House of Representatives since 1902.”

 

Invented by Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1804, the Jacquard mechanism uses punched cards to control the loom as it weaves in a predetermined pattern; the rows of holes on each card correspond to rows of the design.  (In the photo in this exhibition of the punchcards, look for the very small variation from one card to the next, indicating that just a few warp threads change from buried to lifted or vice versa from one row to the next.)  One can draw a direct line from the first Jacquard loom to the first punchcard computers, and two centuries later the technology has come full circle: Modern Jacquard looms use software to control their mechanisms rather than punchcards.

Bloomsburg Carpet Company, "The Loom, creel, 2021", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

The Loom, creel

2021

40" x 30"

The Loom, warp yarn

2021

40" x 30"

Bloomsburg Carpet Company, "The Loom, warp yarn, 2021", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo
Bloomsburg Carpet Company, "The Loom, woven carpet, 2021", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

The Loom, woven carpet

2021

45" x 30"

The Loom, Jacquard pumchcards

2021

30" x 40"

Bloomsburg Carpet Company, "The Loom, Jacquard punchcards, 2021", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo
Bloomsburg Carpet Company, "The Loom, machinery, 2021", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

The Loom, machinery

2021

30" x 40"

Bloomsburg Carpet Company, "The Loom, 2021", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

The Loom, 2021, 50" x 50"

Bloomsburg Carpet Company, "The Loom, weft yarn, 2021", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

The Loom, weft yarn

2021

20" x 16"

Bloomsburg Carpet Company, "The Loom, back view, 2021", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

The Loom, back view

2021

13" x 20"

Artist Statement

FROM THE VERY FIRST TIME that I picked up a camera, at age six, I have tried to capture mechanical things and other human-made objects.  It all started with trains, primarily steam locomotives, and I grew up surrounded by photos of them – my father’s photos, made on the train-chasing trips that we took together, and the masters’ photos that appeared in the Trains Magazines that I pored over every month beginning long before I could read.  At the same age, I learned by heart every photo in David Plowden’s book Farewell to Steam; over time, I also absorbed Plowden’s other work, images of steel mills and barns and bridges and landscapes.  Later on, I discovered Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Andreas Feininger, and Jack Delano. All of these photojournalists and documentarians worked in a world that, born too late, I could never experience for myself, but their images of it made deep and lasting impressions on me, and I want to make my own images of similar subjects: technology and infrastructure and people interacting with them; the collision of humanity and the natural world; and, increasingly in my middle age, people for their own sake.  When making my own photos, I try to follow in the masters’ footsteps – but as a midget chasing after giants, it would of course require an impossible leap for me to get from any one of their footsteps to the next, so I take lots of little steps.

 

Having learned photography using only black & white film and paper, and with those masters’ photographs as my guiding stars, I still work naturally in black & white, and I tend to gravitate towards it.  Rarely, however, do I decide whether to process a digital image in black & white or color before looking at it on my computer screen; the photos here – from when I aimed the camera to when I ordered each print on-line – represent at least as much instinct as conscious thought.  This quote from Walker Evans resonates deeply with me: “Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts.”  I make images that feel right to me.

 

Although this exhibition’s photographs focus on buildings and machinery, they pay tribute to the generations of people whose labor built the Bloomsburg that we know today, and to the people who continue to carry on their ancestors’ crafts.  They all have my respect and gratitude.  Two people deserve special thanks: Without Drue Magee, I would likely never have moved into Bloomsburg (a long story, which I will happily tell you), and I would never have taken such an interest in the Magee Carpet Company and its legacy; Bloomsburg Carpet Industries’ Marty Bowman provided access to that company’s mill and the invitation to photograph the last Magee Jacquard loom before its retirement.  Additionally, Scott Roper of Bloomsburg University’s Department of Art & Art History invited me to bring these images to the Haas Gallery, and my friend Jeff Brouws earns full credit for the design and layout of the catalog.

Magee Carpet Company, "Self-portrait at The Mill, 2017", "The Mill & The Loom", Oren B. Helbok photo

Self-portrait at The Mill

2017

14" x 11"

Bio

BORN IN THE BRONX IN 1965, Oren B. Helbok missed the age of steam on our nation’s railroads, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to relive it where and when possible.  Although he ran away from a steam locomotive the first time he saw one, at age 2, he quickly turned around, and since 1972 he has photographed and ridden steam trains from approximately coast to coast.  Oren’s father, John, gave him his first camera, and his second one, and his third and fourth, through all of which he ran black & white film developed in “wet darkrooms” (including at least one bathroom, one bedroom, and a kitchen).  John taught Oren the technical aspects of developing and printing; Oren learned composition from his father and from the thousands of photographs he looked at in the many, many books and magazines about trains that he pored over starting before he could read. Oren’s mother, Miriam, also aided and abetted her son’s passion, including by taking rail trips with him across Canada and around Great Britain.

 

After having children starting in the late 1990s, Oren took a decade-plus-long break from “serious” photography (he took many thousands of snapshots of the kids during that time) before starting up again, with a borrowed digital camera, in 2009; he shortly bought one of his own and never looked back.  Now using his second and third DSLRs, Oren has made close to 100,000 digital images.  No longer working in a darkroom, Oren uses free, open-source GIMP editing software – “the poor man’s Photoshop” – and has others do his printing.

Since moving to central Pennsylvania in 1992, Oren has worked as a carpenter, furniture-maker, zoning officer, and independent school administrator; he now directs The Exchange, the non-profit community arts organization which he helped found in 2009 on Main Street in Bloomsburg.  In 2001, Oren and his wife, potter Sara Baker, joined a dozen other artists to open the Artspace Gallery cooperative, now on Center Street in Bloom, and he served as its first treasurer; Oren’s involvement as a member of Artspace lasted as long as he made furniture.  Among all of the non-profit boards and committees that he has worked with in Columbia and Montour Counties, the years of service now add up to more than his age.  Oren lives with his family on East 5th Street in Bloomsburg, within easy bicycling distance of almost everything.