It took a long time but my ‘Labour Monument’ in Philadelphia was finished and dedicated on Oct 1st. 2010. It is the outcome of a collaboration with a group of ‘blue collar’ residents of housing originally built by the Hog Island shipyard during the first world war. How I became involved is a long story, but I come from a shipbuilding town in Ireland – my father was a shipyard worker. I was originally interested in the ‘stuff’, the products and artefacts that were made in Philadelphia at the height of its manufacturing power. However the community I was working with wanted me to look at the people who had made that ‘stuff’, the people who had struggled for their rights and sometimes for basic human dignity and a living wage.
At first I was unsure about going down that path, but looking more closely at this agenda I realised that I knew quite a lot about American labour history through the vernacular music that I have listened to since my teens. Artists like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Hedy West all sang about work, strikes, lock-outs and mining disasters.
Starting with the motif of denim workwear and the embossed copper or brass buttons that fasten it, I created 7 large scale bronze ‘work buttons’ each commemorating a person or event that represents a milestone in American Labour history. People like the nuclear industry whistle blower Karen Silkwood, and Eugene Debs who ran for the presidency on a Labour ticket from his prison cell. Events like the abolition of child labour, and the sanitation workers strike that led to the ‘I am a Man’ protest and labour rights for black workers.
The ‘buttons’ are about a metre in diameter and are positioned in a surface finished with a denim blue aggregate.