The history of Hamilton is undoubtedly affiliated with steel. The label “steel town” has stuck with the city for over a century; however, Hamilton is undergoing a cultural and social change that veers away from the steel industry. The label “steel town” often underscores Hamilton and clouds it in a haze of misconception. In the midst of change in our city we must consider: Who were the steel workers of Hamilton? Why does the steel town label hold a negative aura? And how can we appreciate the steelworkers today?
I recently spoke with Mark Jenkyns and his son Mackenzie about the history of steelworkers. When moving to Hamilton in 2001 Mark’s appreciation for steelworker culture blossomed. He began to create a series of artwork that celebrates the stoic past of Hamilton steelworkers. Mark’s art deco style pieces create a sense of pride and heritage around the steelworkers. The steelworkers were not always respected despite their contribution to a growing city and an unwavering work ethic from Mark. In addition to enduring harsh and unforgiving working conditions, steelworkers were often taken advantage of by corporate executives. Mark uses his art as a way to bring focus to the steelworkers and educate Hamiltonians on the impact these individuals had on the city.
In a changing city there can be ignorance to history as progress speeds ahead. From an environmental standpoint the label of a steel city is not necessarily a flattering one. We may be transitioning to a more sustainable city but are we misinterpreting the past appropriately? It is assumed that these steel companies have polluted our environment and have done more damage than good. Although the environmental degradation may be true, the steelworkers are not to blame. The large corporations who operate the industry have little regard for the environment and put economic benefits as their foremost priority. Mark’s Steeltowners project seeks to expose the misconceptions of steelworkers and highlight the growth these individuals brought to Hamilton. Mark suggests having Steeltowners artwork at the homes of steelworkers can help bring the focus back on the workers. Recognizing the steelworkers of Hamilton is not about paying tribute to industry but rather recognizing individual’s impact on the city.
Mark’s artwork does pay tribute to Hamilton’s history but also brings the focus on today. The Steeltowners project can act as a local vernacular for Hamilton that creates a communal linkage. As Mackenzie points out: “whether it be a family member or a friend, everyone has a connection to steelworkers in Hamilton.” Having banners, sculptures, and other artistic reminders of the steelworkers can create a sense of civic unity. For example, having a statue of steelworkers by the Pan-Am Games in 2015 can be a statement of Hamilton pride.
Mark’s artwork and medium varies which provides the opportunity for all of Hamilton to enjoy it. Aside from sculptures and banners, Steeltowners artwork can be put on everyday items to show Hamilton pride. Having art on hats, beer steins, reusable bottles, and even bike racks, Steeltowners can showcase the culture of Hamilton while beautifying our neighbourhoods. The idea of using art to unify the city coincides with the current shift in Hamilton. Especially in neighbourhoods such as James St. N., art can provide an outlet for conversation and community bonding. With the Steeltowners artwork we can shake the negative associations with being a steel town and move onward to a stronger community!
You can find out more about Mark Jenkyns and Steeltowners here.