Materials Used/Technical Information (size, manufacturer, etc.):
The 50th Anniversary Sit-Down Strike Memorial consisted of four tile murals, each approximately 12 feet wide by 8 feet high, set in concrete frames on concrete "aprons" along the Flint River, near the entrance to the Carriage Town Historic District. The murals were designed and painted on 12" x 12" x 1" bisque tiles by the artist, Johan Sellenraad.6 The tiles were made and bisque-fired by ceramic artist J.T. Abernathy of Ann Arbor, Michigan. After they were painted with under-glazes, they were clear-coated and fired at the Pewabic Pottery in Detroit and shipped to Flint, where they were installed by a local tile setter.10
Sellenraad wrote that he "...did research and hired a recommended local architect to do up the specs based on my design. I made a model and life-size paintings which I carted around the Union halls for approval. I worked with Pewabic Pottery which had done really nice architectural tile work in Detroit in the 1920s that still looks good (similar freeze & thaw weather as Flint). [J.T. Abernathy, a ceramic artist] in Ann Arbor was sub contracted to make the tiles, most of which were fantastic, 1" x 1' x 1'. We did kiln tests and [...Pewabic] found a building across Jefferson [Avenue] where I could do each mural on the bisque fired tile[s,…] after which they were carefully moved across the street to the large kilns. By Labor Day we had three out [of] four murals in place. There was an unveiling with...speeches by the Governor, Mayor and Union leaders including Victor Reuther, and a parade."7
Johan’s sister, Marieke Allen, recalled that “People we’ve met seem to really study it, to relate to it. And the UAW was so excited over it. They considered Johan a hero for having come through so well. ...The monument is styled like an open book, capable of being read on both sides. [One panel features…] a view of the sit-down strike from the inside looking out, one from the outside looking in, and [the other two depict…] 1950s and 1980s era assembly plants.”
Marieke also remembered the difficult but rewarding process of making the murals. “By spring of 1987, Pewabic...had leased an old firehouse building across [...Jefferson] and told Sellenraad to set up shop there. …[Pewabic staff] member Diane Kulisek, who had been working on the People Mover project, developed the special colors...Sellenraad needed. [One problem was that] Johan...is a painter and used to knowing what color he wanted and just reaching for it. Now, he had to stop and wait to see how the test tiles matched up. ...The work began after the testing was completed in June. [...A small group then] worked seven days a week under tremendous pressure to finish enough tiles for at least two panels to be erected in time for the Labor Day  dedication.”
“The calligraphy [on the tiles] was painstaking[--another problem]. Instead of the one stroke it normally takes, I [Marieke] had to go over each letter three or four times after doing the layout in pencil. There were 88 tiles of text and then the headlines, timelines and donor names to finish. Then everything had to be fired.
“The tiles were so big they cracked all the time during the firing. ...we had to slow the firing because of the cracking, but that meant that production was slowed. Soon we began to have the technique down to where each firing would take five days. ...It worked, but even then the tiles would shrink from their planned 11 ¼ inches. ...We had three panels up by Labor Day and put the fourth up later.”9
In 2008 another memorial--another “first of its kind”--was unveiled in San Francisco. It is similar to the Sit-Down Strike Memorial in that it commemorated an event that is still vilified by some in this country--the fight by Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade against the fascist onslaught in Spain in 1936-1939; those who fought were never honored by this country; and it has a similar “look” to it as the Flint Memorial. It uses translucent onyx “tiles” to show “The faces of some of the 3,000 or so men and women who broke American isolationism to volunteer in the 1936-39 Spanish war… . ...Americans who risked their lives for the values at stake were never recognized in their home country. ...The only acknowledgment most brigade members received after their return to the United States were the 1950s investigations for participation in leftist organizations… ."11 It shows the people, their deeds and their words just as did the first Sit-Down Strike Memorial.
Does Installation Still Exist?
If Not, What Happened?
The tile setters failed to include weepholes near the bottoms of the murals. Water seeped into the concrete, behind the tiles. Sellenraad describes what happened: “[...The Sit-Down Memorial] was [in] an outside location and unfortunately the concrete let in water behind the tiles forcing the glaze to disintegrate."6 “The site is across the Flint River from the U. of MI, Flint. It was a favorite site with the Union, [but] for tiles it had lots of moisture..., weather extremes from arctic cold and sudden frosts and summer heat." The first year there was no problem, but the second year “water came through the concrete and built up between the tiles… . The tile installers...forgot to put in weepholes in the lower corners of the silicone caulk. I was called in from NYC...when the glaze started flaking. Opening the corners by punching holes with a screwdriver released buckets of water. [But,] it was the beginning of the end. ...Now it is gone, replaced by a bronze statue.”7 Within five years the murals were destroyed.
Additional Information, Websites, Citations:
1Genora Johnson Dollinger, “Where Did the Labor Movement Go Wrong? Lessons from the Flint Sit-Down in 1937”, The Searchlight, February 10, 1987; http://www.sjvgreens.org/archive04/sitdown_lessons.shtml
6Email from Johan Sellenraad to Michael Padwee dated 13 Feb. 2013, titled “Clark St subway murals”
7Email from Johan Sellenraad to Michael Padwee dated 17 Feb 2013, titled “Flint Mon AB87 UAW & City of Flint commission for ‘Sit=Down Strike Monument’”
8Ronald Lee Fleming*, “The Changing Place of Interpretation in American Public Space”, p. 2; http://places.designobserver.com/media/pdf/The_Changing_P_643.pdf.
*Mr. Fleming, the founder and president of the Townscape Institute, “Created the design parameters [...for] a ceramic tile monument on the riverfront depicting significant scenes from a major labor victory. [...Fleming] developed the concept of combining literary quotations, cast cement auto seats, and cast bronze auto hinges as part of a holistic design and animation strategy for the site adjacent to the Carrigetown Historic District which serves as amphitheater and entry marker to the historic district.”; http://www.townscape.org/RLFCV.pdf.
9Peggy O’Connor Andrzejczyk, “Pointer of Interest: Marieke Sellenraad Allen”, Grosse Pointe News, Vol. 49, No. 22, June 2, 1988, pp. 1A, 11A
10Sandy Koukoulas, Public Relations representative of the Pewabic Pottery and Hanne Fuglsang Nielsen, Pewabic archivist, said their records indicate that Sellenraad painted 12" x 12" tiles made and bisque-fired by ceramic artist J.T. Abernathy in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then brought the tiles to Pewabic to be clear-coated and fired. The tiles were not produced by Pewabic, just fired in their kilns. The installation of the murals by Michigan tile setters turned out to be faulty, and the tiles disintegrated after about five years. (Emails from Sandy Koukoulas and Hanne Fuglsang Nielsen to Michael Padwee dated 15 Feb. 2013)
I would also like to thank Mr. Paul Gifford, Senior Associate Librarian, Genesee Historical Collections Center, Frances Willson Thompson Library, University of Michigan-Flint for searching for photos of the murals in their Labor History Project archives.
To access a downloadable article about this memorial, go to: https://tileresearcharticles.omeka.net/items/show/33. Scroll down the page to "Files" and click on the pdf file.
Submitted by and Year:
Submitted by Michael Padwee with the help of the artist, Johan Sellenraad, and Sandy Koukoulas and Hanne Fuglsand Nielsen of the Pewabic Pottery. Submitted in February 2013.
Mural #1 (Photos courtesy of Pewabic Pottery unless otherwise noted)
Detail, LR corner of Mural #1
Note the brass hinges on the apron under Mural #2
and the Flint River and small waterfall in the background.
(Photo courtesy of Johan Sellenraad)