by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — Delia Bell Robinson has published her first book, “A Shirtwaist Story” — an inside-looking-out artistic interpretation of lives affected by a horrific inferno, which took place in one of Manhattan’s many ‘sweatshop’ garment factories in 1911. As the title suggests, this is just one of many such firsthand stories that could be told.
“I never intended to do a story about this fire,” Robinson recently told The Bridge. Yet, after a chance meeting with a stranger roughly 15 years ago, she did. When the stranger, a man named ‘Peter,’ became a friend, she began to capture the story of his childhood, and later his life, as she learned it.
“We became friends accidentally,” Robinson told The Bridge. “I met him at a First Night parade.” They went to get hot cocoa, and friendship blossomed. Because they both were artists, their paths crossed when their artwork appeared in group shows. As they conversed, Peter slowly revealed the story of his childhood. “Then I found out that he had this relationship to a past event that he doesn’t talk much about. His grandfather was one of the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. They made ladies blouses.”
She created pictures based on their conversations. Her pictures are done in several styles. Robinson explains, “The narrative pages are drawn as cartoons, and the information pages (no words and grouped by their topic: Russia, the voyage, the lower east side, the garment district, labor, and so on) are painted as art.” Describing her process, Robinson said, “I use excellent paper (it took me a lifetime to learn that newsprint is not good enough) and work with graphite, acrylic and sometimes top scribbles of ball point pen that the scanner reads as purple ink.”
The narrative cartoon pages were done the size of the book’s pages since they were painted on the pages of a pre-existing book of the same size, but the theme paintings were done in a smaller format. They were then enlarged, so all the twists and turns of the pen or the brush became intensified.”
Robinson said it took 10 years before Peter mentioned his connection to the famous tragedy. The event happened on March 25, 1911, when a blaze swept through the eighth through tenth floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, killing 145 workers. According to historians, the story is especially tragic considering the deaths were largely preventable. Doors had been locked to prevent stealing. Because they could not get out, some workers threw themselves down the elevator shafts to their deaths, while others suffocated in the smoke, were burned alive, or jumped to their deaths to the sidewalks below. Some — including the owners — escaped by climbing to the roof and jumping to other buildings. According to History.com, “Within 18 minutes, it was all over. Forty-nine workers had burned to death or had been suffocated by smoke, 36 were dead in the elevator shaft and 58 died from jumping to the sidewalks. With two more dying later from their injuries, a total of 145 people were killed by the fire.”
The event led to the implementation of safety measures for others working in deplorable conditions. The owners were indicted, but ultimately not held legally accountable.
Robinson did not set out one winter’s night to tell this story. It fell on her lap. Events and people are presented, or interpreted, in drawings, collage and a smattering of words.
“A Shirtwaist Story” isn’t so much a historic retelling of an event, but rather an intimate biographical portrait of Peter (who wasn’t even born in 1911), his ancestors and many others touched by the event. On that day, Peter’s father was an infant who was rescued by his mother when she carried him out of the burning building through a door on the roof after having delivered a meal to her husband.
But the story begins before that. The world of Peter’s pre-immigration ancestors unfolds wordlessly in grim black-and-white, and black, white and sepia pictures of Peter’s grandfather’s homeland — a Russian place known as “The Pale.” Robinson depicts the region and its people with images of long empty streets and crowds of bearded men huddled in a doorway of a synagogue against a backdrop of Hebrew scripture. Other images include a young woman standing next to a seated older woman, a water carrier shouldering a yoke with buckets of water, villagers playing the violin and a woman in a dark room with another woman holding a screaming baby. An old couple is by their side.
Then words pick up again. Robinson’s friend, Peter, was born in New York City. As an infant he suffered from projectile vomiting. His infant illness was an annoyance to his mother, who planned to summer in Cape Cod. So she left him in the hospital while she left for summer vacation, according to the story.
“At the end of August, his family returned from vacation and picked Peter up at the pediatric ward,” Robinson writes.
The book progresses as Peter grows up in a privileged household on Park Avenue surrounded by parties and clinking glasses, trips to Europe, secret excursions to pay off survivors of the fire, loneliness and life in a “bubble of affluence.” More hints of something dark emerge as fellow students at the Art Students League make comments. “My great aunt saw it all.” “My grandfather’s sister died.” He apparently could not escape this legacy. Robinson never spells out how Peter finds out about what happened and copes with it, except to say that he was coached by his father that there was no problem. “People lie.” “People exaggerate.” In any case, this story is one worth knowing, retelling and remembering.
The book came out on October 31, because, Robinson said, it was the “last day the book could be published this year and still be entered into the Jewish Book Award contest … and it was also my birthday. The award is a long shot for me but it is nice to be in the running.” She also said “I think this book could be a great educator’s tool for young people, though it is good for grown-ups as well, but I composed it without a target audience in mind.” Robinson said. “It pushes you into one way of thinking, and then the paintings reach out to you in quite another way. I like the way it works.”
A Shirtwaist Story is available through Fomite Press (http://fomitepress.com/Home.html), Robinson’s website (delia-robinson.com), and other online websites and at Bear Pond Bookstore. For more information go to delia-robinson.com.