By CARL GREEN
Belleville – Most of us have seen it at one time or another – that famous photo of 11 ironworkers sitting high on a beam above New York City, casually eating lunch or smoking without the least bit of safety apparatus.
It’s called “Lunch Atop Rockefeller Center” and it has now become the subject of an equally astonishing piece of sculpture, by the same name, that depicts each of the 11 men in bronze, sitting on a beam in the same poses as in the photograph.
That sculpture is now a prized possession of the Belleville Labor and Industry Museum, available for all to see and telling the photo’s eloquent visual story of working people in a new way.
BASED ON VINTAGE PHOTO
California artist Lou Michaels created the piece as part of a series of works based on vintage photos of people doing things high up on beams, such as hitting a golf ball or taking a nap, in the days when such daredevil photos were commonly used to publicize projects under construction.
But it started with the “Lunch…” photo, which illustrates not only how the workers lacked safety harnesses, but also how well they adapted to those dangerous conditions and how dedicated they were to their jobs.
Confirmed names of men in the photo now include Joe Curtis, Joseph Eckner and Matty O’Shaughnessy.
Museum Board President Bill Thurston said he has always appreciated seeing the workers in the photo.
“I look at that, and I see the labor connection to the building, and what those guys had to go through to build it,” said Thurston, who is also president of the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council.
“I don’t know if they were in a union at the time, but to me, they represent all the working people who have had to make the best of bad situations,” Thurston said.
The photo was long attributed to Lewis W. Hine, an important labor photographer who used his pictures to show dangerous working conditions, but it was actually taken by Charles Clyde Ebbetts, photo director for Rockefeller Center in the 1930s.
HOW THE MUSEUM GOT THE SCULPTURE
Michaels said he was drawn to the photo because of its message and familiarity.
The sculpture at the museum is one of a limited edition of 250 copies he is making available. “That’s a small run for a piece like this,” he said.
Michaels brought the sculpture to last year’s Art on the Square festival, where festival Director Patty Gregory and art sponsor Dede Farquhar, director of the Sculpture in the City organization in Belleville, saw it and were impressed.
“She and I both felt it was a perfect match for the Labor and Industry Museum,” Farquhar said.
They came up with the needed funding from local donors, and Michaels said he gave them a “really great price” on the work. “I was really happy that I could contribute,” he said.
The museum is located on the north side of downtown Belleville at 123 N. Church Street. Its collection includes items from many of the city’s industries.
WHEN TO GO
The museum’s public hours are from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, or call (618) 222-9430.
Museum Open House Day will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 7, for all of the city’s museums and the Old Belleville Street Fair, on nearby Garfield Street, with tours, demonstrations, music and other offerings.
Another such day is planned for Oct. 25, when the Labor & Industry Museum’s annex is to be dedicated, along with new displays including “Made in the USA,” “Women’s Work in the 19th Century,” and “Belleville: Southern Illinois’ Leading Publisher.”
The events are part of the city’s yearlong bicentennial celebration.