I made a quick stop and found this stunning oil painting in the lobby.
I’m not sure of the complete history of the painting. It is my understanding the painting was commissioned in the mid-1960s by the company’s founder Vernon Gibson.
Gibson founded Southeastern Products Corp in 1924 to manufacture braided compression packaging for industrial applications. After securing an SBA Loan for $250,000 in 1964, the company purchased a new building and moved its 80 employees to Pelham, Al.
Around this time Gibson commissioned John Anderson for the painting. Upon completion he hung it in their new headquarters.
The painting was then moved in the mid-1980s by Susan and Geoff Wilder, the new owners, from the company’s old headquarters in Pelham to it’s new one in Alabaster.
The painting needs a bit of TLC and restoration but still remains a beautiful and well composed oil painting. For over half a century it has hung in the company’s lobby and played a prominent role in their advertising and marketing pieces.
I would have loved to see it hanging in its original building in Pelham but have been unable to find much about the company’s history or original location.
Part of my love for this painting is the mythology I project onto it.
Because it was the 1960s, I imagine the painting watching over a marble lobby of an early 20th-century building, accented with leather furniture, mid-century modern lamps, and SEPCO branded ashtrays set on an oak table.
If a company is going to commission a beautiful painting like this I doubt it was hung in the men’s room or overlooking the manufacturing floor. It’s going to be placed where people like me can admire it and recognize the story.
I really appreciate how Anderson combined not only the story of the company but also of the industry in post-WWII America. Just a general look reveals major American industries of the era including steel, paper, chemical, and oil and gas. It also gives a lovely shout out to the power industry and shipping,
Most importantly to me, Anderson doesn’t just show the industries or a collection of packing materials but communicates the idea that a man is at the center of the work. He creates a space for the people doing the job.
In addition to the themes, I find the color and styles fantastic. It feels mid-century modern with an art deco flavor.
For those without an industrial background, the man in the hardhat is repacking a steam pipe. His job is commonly referred to as a pipefitter or steamfitter.
A pipefitter is a “tradesperson who installs, assembles, fabricates, maintains and repairs mechanical piping systems. Pipefitters usually begin as helpers or apprentices. Journeyman pipefitters deal with industrial, commercial, or marine piping. Pipefitters work with pipes that transport chemicals, gases, and acids as well as heating and cooling systems” (Wiki).
From power plants to chemical plants and steel mills to oil and gas refineries, a certified, knowledgeable, and trained pipefitter remains an important employee installing and servicing essential systems in the industry.
Unfortunately, for nearly a century much of the packing materials used to “pack” valves were loaded with asbestos. As such, many pipefitters became ill with respiratory illnesses. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, when the dangers of asbestos became better understood, that the industry was forced by government regulations and lawsuits to adopt more modern, less hazardous, materials.
However, while technology and industry have changed the job of a pipefitter remains significant to manufacturing. I found this great list of five reasons you should consider being a pipefitter from Brown Technical.
I was unable to find much about the history of SEPCO.
There are probably a lot of reasons for this.
According to a story in the March 11, 2000 Birmingham Journal, in 1984 the company was destroyed in a fire and apparently whatever was left of the company was simply a shell owed by someone in California. The Wilder’s purchased company’s name rights, salvageable assets and the customer base and jump started it giving the company life again.
Another reason may be related to the industry.
As I mentioned earlier, many packing companies went under for competitive reasons, the industry also faced a growing number of asbestos-related lawsuits and regulatory changes. As a result many companies faced huge financial pressure driving many into bankruptcy or forcing them to consolidate.
It appears SEPCO avoided this fate and remains a privately owned, family enterprise.
Today SEPCO Industries is a manufacturer and distributor of high-performance non-asbestos packing and seals. This includes mechanical seals, compression packing, graphite products, and gasketing materials.
If you have any information about the painter, the history of the company, or the story of the painting please contact me. I’d love to archive a bit more of the story of art and industry.