We’re Standing On It

Photo credit: Left: Salem Gabbro photomicrograph, 40 times magnification, courtesy Rory McFadden, Geology . Right: “Exterior View” by Kim Mimnaugh, Art + Design.

We’re standing on it. When we’re at Salem State University, we’re standing on it. When playing with our children at Forest River Park, we’re standing on it. When having an ice-cream or a nice meal in Pickering Wharf, we’re standing on it. The Peabody Essex Museum is built on it. Anywhere we go in Salem, we’re standing on it. What are we standing on? It is the rock known as Gabbro. Gabbro is now on display in a creative and interesting exhibit at the Winfisky Gallery on the campus of Salem State University.

When looking at the rock, Gabbro, there seems to be nothing special about it. As the Winfisky Gallery curator, Haig Demarjian admits, “when I examined specimens of the Gabbro, I found the rock itself….underwhelming.” So why create an exhibit about this particular rock? The simple answer from geologist Rory Mcfadden is “we’re standing on it.” The rock itself may be underwhelming but when you bring together poets, geologists, artists and musicians the rock becomes an amazing form of art. The evolution of this rock and the hard work that went into creating this exhibit from the different disciplines is truly magnificent and inspiring.

The History of Gabbro

To understand the history of the Salem Gabbro we need to return to the coast of Africa some 600 million years ago. The story of the Salem Gabbro begins at the volcanic islands of Avalon off the coast of North Africa 600 million years ago. 450 million years ago the volcanic islands of Avalon migrated north where they eventually collided with North America. According to Rory McFadden and Lindley Hanson of the Salem State Geology Department, the Salem Gabbro intruded during a period of magmatism that persisted throughout the 50 million years that Avalon crept toward North America.

The collision with North America helped form the northern Appalachian Mountains. Eventually Africa collided with North America creating the super continent of Pangea. It was another 200 million years before the Pangea drifted apart establishing the present continental margin and the Atlantic Ocean.

“Gabbros are dark, dense crystalline rocks derived from a partial melting of the earth’s mantle; they commonly form the foundation of oceanic crust and volcanic island chains.” says McFadden and Hanson. Why is this important? Because, the formation of crust we live on and the oceanic crust is formed by melting rock. They sit in chambers and cool and crystallize and produce interesting interlocking textures we can see under a microscope. So for over 600 million years the igneous rock that is the Salem Gabbro has been waiting to tell of its long journey.

J.D. Scrimgeour, a professor of English at Salem State University, wrote an excellent poem to describe the story of the Salem Gabbro. His poem is an example of the beautiful work, done by the people involved, to bring this underwhelming rock to life. Scrimgeour wrote,

“Avalon, a chain of large volcanic islands off the coast of Africa, migrated towards proto-North America and eventually rubbed up against it. Clashing, they made Appalachians, whose rival was Andes. Soon after, Africa also converged with proto-North America, creating Pangea, but Africa and North America began breaking up, and their tears formed the Atlantic Ocean.

The Next two hundred million years was a period of relative calm. Avalon worked in a crust-forming factory, all the while gestating with Gabbros. Gabbros grew to be a dark, intense boy who, if asked, would tell the stories of his ancestors.”

The Story Behind the Exhibit

It all started on a train platform in Salem. The Salem State University’s Dean of Arts and Sciences, June Dixon, happened to be waiting for a train into Boston and bumped into Tracy Ware of the Salem State Biology Department. They immediately entered into a discussion about how the construction on the new library was causing mayhem with classes. Between the noise and the dust it was wreaking havoc on classes at Salem State.

A thought that came to the dean’s mind was a line from a poem by William Empson called “His Last Pain”. The line he refers to is, “and learn a style from despair.” The dean told Ware how he had just come from viewing some of the rocks unearthed during construction and they are quite pretty. “We have a lot of happy people in the Geology Department about the blasting,” he said. Ware then responded, “if they are so pretty why don’t we show them in our gallery.”

This exhibit is unique because of all the creative people involved. All the departments of Salem State came together to make this rock come alive. The effort was vast. The coming together of the Geological Sciences, Biology, Geography, English, Theatre, Art and Music Departments is a true testament to this exhibit’s powerful but simple message, “We’re Standing On It.”

Gabbro under a microscope

A Few More of the People Behind it

Karen Gahagan, the Director Center for Creative and Performing Arts, was the driving force that held everyone together. According to the dean, you can have ideas but they make no sense unless you have someone who can take the idea and give life, form, and shape to it. Gahagan was this person. Her positive, upbeat attitude and hard work helped pull the exhibit together.

Mark Malloy a Professor at Salem State who teaches landscape art, was involved in the most interesting part of the exhibit. Not only did his students go to observe the Gabbro in its natural state at Forest River Park but also got to see it up close and personal. An art student named Nicole Roy painted a beautiful landscape of the Salem Gabbro that is exposed on the shore-line at Forest River Park. Roy and the other students involved did a magical job of capturing the texture of the rock, mentioned above. They were able to accomplish this by not only observing the rock in its natural state but under the microscope in the geology lab.

The Salem Gabbro may be just another run of the mill rock and the exhibit may have been a little unconventional and out of the ordinary but the creative minds at Salem State envisioned an opportunity for more. They delivered an interesting and emotional story of the igneous rock, Gabbro. As Rory McFadden stated, “When you ask what the Salem Gabbro is now, it is no longer a rock it now is The Salem Gabbro”!

WE’RE STANDING ON IT: A cross-disciplinary exhibition inspired by Salem Gabbro
Salem State Universtiy
Winfisky Galley
352 Lafayette Street
Salem, MA 01970
February 11- March 21, 2013
The Winfisky Gallery is located in the Ellison Campus Center on North Campus.
Hours: Monday – Friday from 10 am – 2 pm or by appointment at 978.542.7890.

Tyson Dion is a senior at Salem State University.

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