Public art likes to announce itself. Sometimes, cast bronze and twisted metal structures appear, prompting discussions of politics or aesthetics — for example, “The Embrace.”

Or it could manifest as a project to transform the mundane into a thing of beauty — Boston’s painted utility boxes come to mind.

But a new series of mosaic panels at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation offers a commentary on the land that once was, is, or shall become.

Produced in collaboration with the New England Mosaic Society, the artwork outside the museum — installed in November of last year and formally dedicated in June — depicts several centuries of wildlife and human activity on the Charles.

Three visions of the Charles

The first panel, set sometime in the 1600s, presents an Edenic portrait of the river, undisturbed by industry. The skies are blue, and flora and fauna abound, represented by the evergreen trees, fish, turtle, turkeys and a heron.

“Those amazing hills in the background incorporate motifs from Native American textiles from the region,” said mosaic artist Emily Bhargava, who designed the community project.

The middle panel introduces the 19th-century factory.

A mosaic framed by stone depicts a smokestack with smoke churning out next to a green field and gray sky.
The center panel at the mosaic installation shows the impact of pollution on the Charles River.
Hannah Reale GBH News

Emissions from a smokestack tint the sky a dull gray. The wildlife has largely disappeared; the hill itself has become a massive loom. Strikingly, a gray mass of industrial waste penetrates the deep blue of the river and fish are conspicuously absent.

The third panel represents 21st-century efforts to meaningfully correct the harm done to the Charles — and to reintegrate industry into the landscape.

In this mosaic, sewer pipes run beneath the river now, and fauna has returned. A boat signals the resurgent recreation on the river.

“We have watch parts from the Waltham Watch factory,” Bhargava said. “We have bits and pieces from the industrial era that we’re still in that haven’t disappeared.”

Old gears and trinkets create a mosaic of curves against a backdrop of drab green, gray and blue tiles.
A close up of one of the panels reveals watch gears and metals retrieved from old mills and factories in the area.
Hannah Reale GBH News

“We had begun during the pandemic to do collaborative projects that allowed our members all across New England to participate in projects that would be installed in communities without necessarily having to come together physically,” said Bhargava.

A mosaic of artists

The mosaic was truly a community effort.

Sections of the design were mailed to artists, who then built out out their contributions in their own studios. The New England Mosaic Society and the museum also hosted community tiling sessions, where interested individuals could lay tile in contribution of the larger work.

The result was three frost proof 42 x 68 inch panels, largely constructed of glass and stone.

It’s an appropriate narrative: the historic building for the Francis Cabot Lowell Mill — the first vertically integrated textile mill in the world — today houses the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation. And it’s that mill on the northern bank of the river that irreversibly altered society.

A mosaic of bright blues, greens, orange and brown depics a canoe and a fox and two signs indicating recycling and the Earth.
The glass and stones in the third and final mosaic panel depict the current trend toward industry and environmental sustainability coexisting.
Hannah Reale GBH News

“The reason that area was chosen was because of the natural 9- foot drop that they dammed up to 12 feet,” said Joseph Niedbala, director of operations for the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation.

“It was an immediate success. They cut a canal off on the far side of the building that would bring water in at the premium level. It would come in to [a] breast water wheel that would power all of the machinery.”

The factory turned out cotton textiles from the valuable crop produced via southern slave labor, in turn powering the economy. Young female workers known as mill girls operated the factory overseen by male management. They worked and earned their own income — at least until they married and exited the workforce.

Progress at a cost

Lowell’s factory in Waltham was ground zero for an explosion of industry and wealth in 19th century New England.

A colorful mosaic depicts a large bird flying over a building, hills and a river.
In the third mosaic along the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, the river is clean and industry thrives alongside the natural environment.
Hannah Reale GBH News

But that industrial progress came at great cost. The Charles River was the vital artery powering the economy, but it also served as the region’s doormat.

“There’s an area of Waltham further downstream referred to as ' The Bleachery,'” said Niedbala. “And then there’s an area called 'The Chemistry.’ The Chemistry would mix the chemicals, and The Bleachery would apply it to all of the fabric.”

The river has since become much cleaner, thanks in part to the EPA’s Clean Charles River Initiative, which started in 1995.

The new mosaics offer a sobering moment of reflection. They prompt the question of balance between technological innovation and natural preservation.

“By beautifying a community, you create a different sense of ownership of it,” said Bhargava. “People begin to take the space more seriously and to enjoy their time in it, but also to protect it in a new way.”