By Seth Daniel
Artist Allison Cekala never intended to be the spokesperson for road salt.
The Jamaica Plain resident, and Museum of Fine Arts School (Fenway) professor, only saw incredible lighting and interesting shapes in the Chelsea salt pile – located in varying quantities and in a very visible place right adjacent to the Tobin Bridge on the Chelsea waterfront.
However, the twists and turns of the constantly changing piles of salt – a landscape in miniature – that Cekala saw took her on her own journey that had twists and turns leading to a salt mine in Chile and to an understanding of road salt that few artists or Boston residents have.
“It’s like I’ve become the spokesperson for salt now,” said Cekala, 31, noting that people often question her due to some of the potential environmental negatives associated with road salt. “The salt is complicated. I don’t feel like I’m pushing it, but simply telling a story. People can take what they want from that. I always get questioned about the environmental degradation, but I encourage people to do the research on their own. This exhibit and project are about human ingenuity, globalization and the raw beauty of the salt. I only hope it sparks people’s curiosity or interest. I do care about the environment and I get a lot of pushback, but I’m used to that now.”
The reason she’s used to it is because of Cekala’s recent photography project, which included following the trail of road salt from the Eastern Minerals mine in a remote coastal plain in Chile and onto a ship that travelled through the Panama Canal and up to the Eastern Minerals salt pile in Chelsea. Once in Chelsea, it is distributed to cities and towns all over the area, including Boston, for spreading on the roads and major sidewalks to the benefit of all drivers and pedestrians in storms such as the city has seen over the past week.
The end result was a montage of photographs and videos taken along the entire route and in Chelsea, with the final results being first displayed late last winter in the Museum of Science Gallery. That exhibit, which was very localized, gained such popularity that the Mayor’s Gallery in Boston City Hall decided to feature the work this winter for another exhibit. That refined exhibit is up now on the fifth floor of Boston City Hall through Feb. 29. Cekala has also participated in Chelsea’s Art Walk last summer with the exhibit, showing it on the site of the salt pile last summer in an industrial container. She hopes to be part of that effort in Chelsea once again, and to participate in other such exhibits as well.
Cekala’s focus has been centered on salt, and so much so that now she can tell the variety of salt and the origin of the salt by sight – such as a wine connoisseur can do simply by observing and tasting a type of celebrated vintage. Even with the focus on that one thing, it was the idea of tracing back a common product to its source that intrigued Cekala.
“I love the idea of finding where things come from,” she said. “It’s been really incredible doing this and investigating one piece of material ubiquitous of the landscape and tracing it back to the source. It makes me wonder about other things we use – the pens we use and the paper we write on. Salt is a good subject for this because it doesn’t require a lot of refinement or processing. It comes from the mine and is shipped up here and used. Other things might be harder to trace, but the idea is very interesting…This project is so relevant in Boston and I hope to have people in Boston see it and be able to make that same connection through my work that I made when I was creating it.”
Salt came into Cekala’s life a few years ago when she was looking for strange urban landscapes to photograph. Cekala was born in Boston and grew up in Cincinnati. She attended Bard College and moved back to Boston to attend Fenway’s Museum School – specializing in photography and environmental studies along the way. As a professor of photography now at the Museum School, she has focused on photographing open, urban spaces with unique characteristics.
One day as she was out hunting for such rare areas, she crossed the Tobin Bridge, looked down, and found salt.
At first she photographed the pile close up during off hours, with its meandering and moveable mountains of crystal – which were interesting on their own. Some time after that, she came back during working hours and approached the supervisors, who were all too happy to help her.
Soon, Eastern Minerals owners Shelagh Mahoney and Joe McNamee had befriended Cekala and given her access not only to their business, but also to their family. Cekala’s journey then became more than just the beauty of salt, and expanded to the trail of salt and the company that produces it.
Soon, she had travelled to Chile, to a remote desert plain that stretches for hundreds of miles into Bolivia and hosts several salt mines. The mine she visited is owned by Eastern Minerals and has been for decades, with the company aligning its operations years ago from beginning to end. Cekala watched the workers mine the salt, observed the blasting of the large deposits (which are simply petrified ocean salt deposits from the ancient past), and the transport of it to the nearby coastal port.
“The salt deposit goes as far as you can see,” she said. “I was wondering about that before I went. I wondered if they were taking all the salt and that we could deplete the resource. That isn’t the case. The deposit goes all the way to Bolivia.”
From the mine, Cekala watched workers transport the salt nine miles to the port, where it was loaded on a ship for the two-week journey up to Chelsea. While she was able to observe the loading and board the ship at port, security restrictions didn’t allow her to travel on the ship.
“It was a surprising how many people were involved in the process, how many are in the mine, driving to the tankers and working on the ships,” she said. “It’s an exact and precise process. More of the operations in Chile are mechanized than they are in Chelsea. Still, there is someone always watching the operations. Everything just has to keep going. Also, it was notable to see how this huge quantity of minerals traveled from one continent to another continent, 4,500 miles and through the Panama Canal and up to Boston. The entirety of the process is incredible.”
The company said they are very pleased with how Cekala has seen their company. While they observe the operation as a business, it was out of the ordinary to view it through the eyes of an artist.
“Allison did a great job,” said Mahoney. “To me it was great to see our business through the eyes of an artist. We know how the business works, but we are amazed by what she did to portray this business. I know where it comes from and the operations of it all, but to see it how she portrayed it was an amazing look at what we do.”
Cekala said she didn’t envision the project catching on the way it has, and even after the Boston City Hall show, she expects that it will continue – especially in the winter seasons when road salt is on the mind.
“I didn’t expect it would keep on going this year,” she said. “I’m realizing this will keep going and probably will be for a long time. I’m happy with that. I believe I will probably now do more work with salt of some kind.”