Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
The steel mills in Bethlehem are quiet now, but Mildred T. Johnstone's boldly colored needlepoint tapestries vividly remind us of their awesome power in the 1940s and 1950s. Far from being realistic, literal renderings, these abstract and highly textural interpretations use steel making as a metaphor for modern life. The machinery is larger than life, crackling and spewing out the molten steel used to construct oilrigs and skyscrapers. The people in the mill are very small—the anonymous steelworkers in masks, the artist as a bewildered Alice in a Wonderland of Steel. Mildred Johnstone's needlepoints are personal and spiritual. Her Buddha rising above the blast furnace signals that no matter how deafening the machinery, spiritual beliefs can prevail, bestowing a semblance of calm in a fast-paced, dehumanized world.
Mildred Johnstone received her artistic training from a variety of sources. In the early 1940s, she studied painting at the Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia. Although she liked painting, she soon realized that her busy lifestyle did not lend itself to oil painting. Johnstone's second husband, William H. Johnstone, was vice president in charge of financial and legal matters at Bethlehem Steel. Consequently, the Johnstones spent a great deal of time traveling within the United States and abroad on Bethlehem Steel business. In the 1930s and early 1940s, Milly (as she was known) created small decorative embroideries—monogrammed towels, ecclesiastical embroideries, and a wall hanging based on a Pennsylvania-German design. These needlework projects, a hesitant first step in finding her artistic medium, kept her fingers busy during her travels, but they did not satisfy her aesthetic curiosity.
The turning point in Johnstone's artistic career came in 1948 when, on the invitation of her husband, she became the first woman to tour the Bethlehem Steel works. Awed by the power and grandeur of the place, she envisioned herself as Alice in Wonderland, growing smaller and smaller. When asked which elements of steel making she most responded to she stated: "That is difficult to say. What you call the elements are something to be felt, not itemized. Perhaps one will be a giant hook silhouetted against the sky; another a hot metal car. Or I may stop and photograph the web like tracery of a catwalk atop a blast furnace."1 These visits provided Johnstone with the inspiration and material she needed for her needlepoint series on the theme of steel making.