Words by Evan Harms
There is a little corner of the Rust Belt that has always intrigued me, as the junction between the fields of Ohio, the post-industrial valleys of Pennsylvania and the relative wilderness of West Virginia meet. That little sliver of the latter splinters the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania, right along the banks of the sludgy, yet verdant, Ohio River.
On the very tip of that little splinter lies East Liverpool, Ohio, – a city that was the feature of a gallery by Nickolaus Pfeil at Kent State and the topic of this week’s No Coasts.
A multimedia blend of works incorporates ceramics, woodwork and video into an exhibit “addressing some of the social issues that [Pfeil] grew up in, which include poverty, addiction and loss of the labor industries.”
Pfeil makes a point of highlighting East Liverpool’s once-great pottery industry in his work – almost all components of this particular body of work involve some sort of ceramic component.
According to Pfeil’s artist statement, “the pottery capital of the United States for a brief period” has been reduced to private collections and three pottery factories in an economic downward spiral starting with the Great Depression.
Pfeil’s exploration of the mass-production of pottery is readily apparent in the identical jugs that can be found throughout his jugs, with or without painted cobalt shapes and lines representing the people of East Liverpool and their struggles to maintain their relevancy as the world continues on.
It’s a trope of Rust Belt culture we’ve come to accept, the sloth-like small town that once pumped out jobs and products to take pride in being afflicted by opioids and anti-labor policies. East Liverpool is an interesting case study in this, though it’s not the endgame.
Though these cities along the meandering Ohio River, and dotted along river valleys throughout the Midwest, might not have the industries they once did, they have stories.
Important stories, like the ones Pfeil tells, a collection of memories from the postindustrial Midwest: “I witnessed the coal barges down the river towards the power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania.”
No, you can’t feed the starving children of near-Appalachia with memories and stories of better times. These stories give us a collective identity and allow us to reassess policy, but at the end of the day, individuals are responsible for making an impact – whether that be through storytelling, art, music, political expression or philanthropic work. Pfeil’s exploration of these themes is certainly worthy of merit.