NARRATOR: The factory you see in this painting seems ominous. Look at the four dark cylinders in the center. These are smokestacks, and the thin lines that fill the air around them are support cables. If you think of them only as geometric shapes, they might be beautiful. But as an image of industrialization, they’re gloomy and menacing. They suggest that all is not well in the brave new world of technology. Clouds of toxic fumes that drift up from the bottom of the painting and across the sky.
The artist, Elsie Driggs, saw this factory, a Pittsburgh steel mill, on a train trip she took as a child. When she went back in 1927 to make a painting, the owners of the mill refused to let her in. They were afraid she was a labor agitator. Anyway, they said, a factory was no place for a woman. Driggs later recalled, “By the time they decided I was harmless, I didn’t care if I went in there anymore. But walking up toward my boarding house one night, I found my view. The forms were so close. And I stared at it and told myself, ‘This shouldn’t be beautiful. But it is.’”