Manufacturing the Arts in Erie

By Rebecca Sutton
Students building a metal horse sculpture

Students work on a metal horse as part of Fruits of Labor, a scultpure made through Erie Arts and Culture's Art and Industry Project. Photo courtesy of Erie Arts and Culture

Amanda Sissem, executive director of Erie Arts and Culture, described Erie, Pennsylvania, as a community “built on producers.” A major manufacturing hub in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Erie prospered through the production of boilers, engines, and other machinery. But Sissem noted that it was also home to producers of dance, visual art, theater, and craft. The area boasts a strong cultural sector, with organizations such as the Erie Playhouse, Erie Philharmonic, and Erie Art Museum. Often, it was the city’s manufacturing titans who provided funding for these cultural institutions, while those who worked on the factory floors were their regular patrons. “It’s all interconnected,” said Sissem.

So in recent decades, as manufacturing has slowed and Erie’s economy has diversified, it follows that the arts sector has also diversified and evolved with the community. The county, said Sissem, is still in transition, which has left a ripe opportunity for local residents and organizations to play a role in shaping Erie’s changing identity. The arts, naturally, have played a leading role.

Most recently, Erie Arts and Culture launched the Art and Industry Project, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The project has brought together manufacturers, teaching artists, and high school students from Erie County Technical School to create three large-scale pieces of public art. Each piece, said Sissem, will “help tell our history, but also help the community and visitors think together on what the future looks like.”

After meeting with local manufacturers and learning about what they produce and how, students and artists work together on designs that reflect and celebrate Erie County’s industrial heritage. During conversations with manufactures, “They were reinforcing to students that they needed to be able to think together and not only be experts in their own focus areas,” said Sissem. “They need to be able to brainstorm together in order to improve the quality of the products being produced.”

A mural being erected on the side of a building

The erection of the mural Setting the Stage for Erie’s Future. Photo courtesy of Erie Arts and Culture

The project offered an incredible real world application of this lesson, as students with backgrounds in architecture, construction, visual technology, or transportation were now pooling their abilities and learning new skills through the art-making process. “It was kind of an aha! moment in the project,” said Sissem. “We wanted to make sure that creativity is introduced into the process of whatever [students] are learning, and that they understand what the expectations are in both soft and hard skills by the employers they’re preparing to work for.”

The first piece, a two-story mural titled Setting the Stage for Erie’s Future, has already been installed on a wall of a warehouse owned by Erie Playhouse. The mural shows a couple dancing against a background of gears and smokestacks, and speaks to the relationship between the arts and manufacturing. The second piece, a metal sculpture called Fruits of Labor, shows a horse made of machine parts pulling a globe, a nod to the region’s change in focus from agriculture to industry and the global impact of each. The third piece is currently still in development.

Thanks to their size and outdoor locations, the pieces are not only a highly visible way to generate community pride, but serve as a reminder of the role the arts play in Erie. “It helps the community and our partners in other sectors understand the value of what we can bring to the table, the talent that we have in this community, and how we’re an asset to what we’re trying to achieve together,” said Sissem.

She hopes with this momentum, and the relationships formed through the Art and Industry Project, that the project will be able to extend beyond the initial three pieces. “We think we’ve found something that is bringing people together in really meaningful ways,” said Sissem. “There are a lot of other chapters within the story that we still have to tell.  We’re just getting started.”