Helena Duncan

A Small Town’s Last Cruze

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s first Chicago solo exhibit puts labor struggles in context

You enter into the space, it’s half holy, half assembly line,” says LaToya Ruby Frazier of her photography exhibition “The Last Cruze,” on view at The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. 

 The exhibition illuminates the struggles of workers at the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, who were told in 2018 that the Chevy Cruze line they built would be discontinued and the plant “unallocated,” or closed down, part of a larger trend of GM plant closings across the country. Workers were laid off or forced to transfer to GM centers in other states—uprooting or in many cases leaving behind their families—if they wanted to keep their pensions and benefits. “The Last Cruze” is the first Chicago solo show by Frazier, an associate professor of photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) whose critically acclaimed work addresses social, racial and economic inequality in America.  

During this time of profound uncertainty and anxiety, Frazier collaborated with members of the two unions at the Lordstown plant—United Auto Workers Locals 1714 and 1112, which were recently consolidated into one union, Local 1112—who voted in a rare move to allow her access to their offices and other spaces at the factory so that she could photograph their members and create a visual archive of their stories.

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In the gallery, Frazier’s black and white photographs hang from a red-orange metal structure in a diagonal line through the center of the space, requiring viewers to weave in and out of the structure to make their way through from one end to the other. 

“By you activating that space that makes you a part of the assembly line, it makes you on the line as a worker. It also makes you on the line as part of the Cruze,” Frazier said, addressing the audience at a September 28 panel discussion. 

To take the photographs, Frazier would teach at SAIC Monday through Wednesday and then fly to Cleveland and drive an hour from there to Lordstown to shoot, she said in an interview with Chicago magazine. The photographs, which were all taken in 2019, underscore that history is unfolding before our eyes: United Auto Workers’ four-year contract with General Motors expired on September 14, the day the exhibition opened. More than 50,000 UAW members across the country have been on strike since then; the workers’ lives and the social fabric of their communities are unraveling at a dizzying pace.

Frazier took many of the photographs in the workers’ living rooms, entire families posing for the camera in front of the fireplace or seated on the couch. In others, workers sit in their union offices or stand in groups outside of the GM complex. Some smile faintly, but others face the camera with apprehension, melancholy, or a resolute sense of pride. Frazier’s captions carefully denote the workers’ titles, union affiliations, how many years of service they’d put in at GM, and which part of the plant they worked in. The rest of the text is written in first-person, taken from interviews conducted by Frazier.

In one of the simplest yet most arresting images, a woman embraces another with one hand while wiping a tear with the other, her eyes open and gaze fixed somewhere out of frame. The subject is Kesha Scales of UAW Local 1714, who worked for GM Lordstown’s press room for twenty-two years. She’s hugging her former coworker, Beverly Williams. 

We would make 3,000 to 4,000 parts per day in the press room, the text reads. You couldn’t hear anything. It was dirty. You smelled like oil, but you know what, you smelled like production. You smelled like you made some money today. It was a little city.

In another photograph, a sales and leasing agent named Keith Burke has crawled underneath a car—the last Chevy Cruze built at Lordstown—to look for hidden signatures scrawled by the workers who put chassis together. He takes a photograph with his phone and, in the next image, holds the screen up for Frazier, revealing the workers’ signatures etched into the metal part. Central to the exhibition is this simple theme: pride in one’s work. 

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On September 28, Frazier was joined in conversation at UofC with Dave Green, UAW Local 1112’s president, and Rick Smith, its financial secretary, who are both currently participating in the ongoing strike. Sporting a dark blue blazer over a neon orange shirt—a nod to “General Motors blue” and the orange of the assembly line structure, also reflected in the exhibition’s color theme—Frazier asked Green and Smith about their lives as workers and union leaders, the social impact of the closing of the Lordstown plant, and what it was like being photographed in an intensely personal moment for their careers, unions, and families. The two men welcomed the opportunity to meet again at the panel discussion—Green has since been transferred to a General Motors plant in Indiana, and Smith to Michigan. “Every time we assemble for the exhibition and programming it’s also a reunion of the union,” Frazier explained. 

“Walking into the show when it opened was very powerful for me. I had to step away from it, I became very emotional, you know, this is my livelihood,” said Green, who began working at the Lordstown plant as a temporary summer helper in the summer of 1989, right after graduating from high school, and was hired full-time in 1995. Smith began working at the plant in 1999. Both men’s fathers also worked at the plant, but the union was a family affair in more than a literal sense: “It’s a brotherhood, it’s a sisterhood, it’s a tight-knit family that you know, no matter what you do the person next to you has your back. And that’s unionism. You protect each other.”

The show’s opening image depicts Smith, Green, and UAW Local 112 Vice President Timothy O’Hara inside Green’s office at the union hall. Smith is standing, turning around to face the camera at Frazier’s beckoning. The three men wear serious, almost confrontational expressions. By Smith’s recollection, the plant hadn’t completely shut down yet, and the men were likely discussing the chaos of the layoffs and transfers: “There was just a lot going on…it’s just so powerful that picture, just the setting and seriousness of all of our faces as we were in this discussion.” 

“And then there’s me,” Frazier said, “As this young woman, this outsider, this non-union person, a Black woman, like, what does all of that mean?” She said that this dynamic “comes full circle in this arresting, disarming way in the portrait.”

If pride is one theme of Frazier’s project, power is another.

“For LaToya to come in and share our story, this is powerful for me now because I hope that people recognize that this isn’t going to stop happening until workers decide that they can stand up and they do have that power, there’s power in people,” Green said. “So when I see the artwork now I’m hoping that people understand and kind of grasp that, that these are human lives, we’re not numbers.”

The Last Cruze is on view through December 1 at The Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis Ave., Cobb Hall, Fourth Floor. On November 2 at 3pm, Frazier will speak with members of the UAW Women’s Committee at the UofC’s Swift Hall, 1025 E. 58th St., Third Floor. On November 9 at 3pm, Frazier will hold a walk-through of the exhibition. The exhibition and companion programming are free and open to the public.

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Helena Duncan is a writer based in Hyde Park. She last wrote for the Weekly in August about the opening of Inga Bookshop in Pilsen.

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