Art is the Handmaid of Human Good

The city seal of Lowell, Massachusetts.
The city seal of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Lowell’s city flag, like so many, places the city seal on a plain field — an example of the infamous “seal on a bedsheet”.  And, yes, there is a Roman Mars-inspired grassroots effort underway to improve it at

But let’s stop a moment to consider this artwork. Lowell’s seal is a remarkable example of its genre.  It features plumes of smoke — symbols of progress, not pollution, in its day — rising and converging on a cornucopia of produce in the sky.  Local historian Richard Howe has written an excellent short essay on its symbolism and evolving design. In it he points out that the word “art” itself has evolved in its meaning:

But just as a city must continuously reinvent itself to survive in post industrial America, so must the meaning of a city seal evolve. In the twenty-first century, Lowell sees the creative economy as vital to its future and “art” as that word is now commonly understood, is a major part of that effort. In 1836, the billowing smokestacks of the city seal were a glimpse into the future; today they are a peek back into the past. In 1836, “art” referred to the work of those who built the first looms and locomotives; today it points to those who use paint or pixels to propel Lowell into the future.

The same insight applies to flag creation and adoption as well: while this used to be a matter of textiles and top-down management, it is increasingly becoming a matter of digital media and online organizing.

In terms of organizing, as in the case of Dallas, rather than running a big, public flag design contest, the Lowell Flag group is using Facebook to do more focused brainstorming.  And, as with Dallas, the process has been bootstrapped by the organizer, Mark van Der Hyde, providing an initial proposal to get things rolling.  His initial design — prominently marked “not 100% final or even a direction we have to take” — is abstract but with multiple layers of symbolism.

The organizer’s initial proposal.
Eight white stripes for Lowell’s eight main canals. (Lowell, on the Merrimack River, is famous as a major 19th century center of water-powered manufacturing.)
Nine red stripes for Lowell’s nine neighborhoods. (Back Central and South Lowell seem to have lost the luck of the draw.)
Eight-pointed stars, inspired by quilt designs, represent people of Lowell. This is reminiscent of the Chicago flag’s design, in which stars and even star points have been given particular historical and symbolic meanings.

The effort in Lowell appears to have been started in late August of this year.  It will be interesting to see where it leads.  For more information, check out this article in The Lowell Sun: Proposed flag design pays tribute to Lowell heritage.

ÒItÕs a lot of symbolism that I think is more modern and relevant than whatÕs there now,Ó said Mark van Der Hyde of Dracut, showing his proposed design for a new city flag at LowellÕs South Common. SUN / JULIA MALAKIE
From the Sun article: “It’s a lot of symbolism that I think is more modern and relevant than what’s there now,” said Mark van Der Hyde of Dracut, showing his proposed design for a new city flag at Lowell’s South Common. SUN / JULIA MALAKIE



Mark van Der Hyde was interviewed in June 2016 on the Vexillogicast podcast about the ongoing Lowell Flag project:

Author: SDM

Ethnography * Technology * Design

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