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Hometown Story: Youngstown Steel Kitchens, 2012

The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio

Hometown Stories: Youngstown Steel Kitchens was my first exploration of Rust Belt communities. I constructed a prosthetic memory by integrating my narrative with an attempt to understand the social history of the region, events of deindustrialization, and these legacies in the Industrial Midwest. At the opening, I spoke with community members. They told me about working for Mullins Manufacturing who fabricated Youngstown Steel Kitchens and how their lives and the city changed when they closed in 1973. These conversations caused me to reflect on how to frame the questions that I hoped my work would address. Listening to their anecdotes eventually led me to incorporate on-camera interviews with community members as part of my exhibitions.

Exhibition Essay

Hometown Story: Youngstown Steel Kitchens, 2012 Exhibition Documentation from Jennifer Vanderpool on Vimeo.

When the curator invited me to exhibit at the museum, I did not realize how this opportunity would impact the trajectory of my practice. This invitation forced me to confront myself and consider my family's working-class story and the deindustrialized city where I grew up. I examined the plight of workers in Los Angeles and Bogotá. Yet, I did not know the details of my immigrant grandparents' lives, except that they moved from Appalachia in 1965 for my grandfather to work at the General Motors plant. Nor did I know the stories of workers in my hometown of Youngstown.

Hometown Story: Youngstown Steel Kitchens, 2012 Historic Advertisements from Jennifer Vanderpool on Vimeo.

My knowledge of Youngstown was limited to childhood memories of sitting in the backseat of my parent's car. I remember looking out the window at the lovely homes from a forgotten era along 5th Avenue, and the lurching remains of Youngstown Sheet and Tube. I began to research the industrial history of the city. I discovered Bruce Springsteen’s ode to the mill workers. The visual image portrayed in his lyrics reminded me of that childhood memory of the rusted mill. While there were plenty of stories about Youngstown to investigate, I was still looking for a topic that would further my understanding of the city and address gender equality themes. I eventually discovered Mullins Manufacturing, which designed and fabricated Modern kitchens. The portrayal of women in company advertisements fascinated me. These images reminded me of the stories my grandmother told about her youth during the Fifties. I pictured women wearing swing dresses topped with twin set cardigan sweaters and these feminine ladies' ongoing struggle for gender equality.

Hometown Story: Youngstown Steel Kitchens, 2012 Projection from Jennifer Vanderpool on Vimeo.

"The Mullinaires," 1953, The Mullins Manufacturing Company from Jennifer Vanderpool on Vimeo.

"The Last Word in Automatic Dishwashing," 1950, The Mullins Manufacturing Company from Jennifer Vanderpool on Vimeo.