20: Art and Industry – Southeastern Products


On my February sales trip through central Tennessee and northern Alabama, I stopped outside of Alabaster, Alabama to pick up samples.

In a quick stop I 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 then company President Vernon Gibson, Sr.

Gibson founded the now defunct Southeastern Products Corporation in Birmingham, Alabama in 1924. The company manufactured braided compression packaging for industrial applications.

From what I can tell it was around this time Gibson commissioned John Anderson for the painting. Upon completion Gibson hung it in their new Pelham headquarters.

As you can see the painting needs a bit of TLC and restoration but still remains a beautiful and well composed oil painting. For nearly twenty five years it hung in the company’s lobby and played a role in some of their advertising and marketing pieces.

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 corporate branded ashtrays set on an oak table.

If a company was 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 tools and industry 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.

Given the opportunity, I’d take the painting down and see if there are any additional details written on the back of the frame or canvas.

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.


A shout out to the Wilder Family, the paintings new owners, and their willingness to save this painting from oblivion. They bought the painting and moved it to their company’s headquarters in Alabaster, honoring it by giving it a prominent position in their lobby.

Hopefully, the next generation will protect it and recognize it’s artistic significance to the era.


Company History

I was unable to find much about the Gibson or Southeastern Products Corporation. Although I did find an interesting mention in the June 1967 Congressional Record which I posted below.

Apparently, in the mid 1950’s Gibson secured a $115,000 SBA Loan to help with the company’s grow. In the 1960s Gibson secured a second SBA Loan for $250,000 to fund expansion to support the growth of the company.

Adjusted for inflation, those are $1.1 million and $2.1 million loans, respectively.

In 1965 Gibson invested a portion of his second SBA Loan into a new building in Pelham, Alabama and moved its 80 employees to the new plant. It was about this time the painting was commissioned.

The Birmingham Journal reports that 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.

Another reason it may be difficult to find information on the company is related to the industry.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s many packing companies went under for competitive reasons. Plus the industry faced a growing number of asbestos-related lawsuits from workers in the industry and regulatory changes. As a result many companies faced huge financial pressure driving them into oblivion or forcing them to consolidate.

As this was pre-internet I’ll probably have to camp out in the library, historical society, or the local newspaper archives to find more information about the man, the company, and the fire.

Maybe on my next trip.

SEPCO wouldn’t have grown in the 1950s and 1960s without taxpayer funded SBA Loans.

Pipefitters

Just a quick note to those without an industrial background, the man in the hardhat is packing, or repacking, a steam pipe. The job is historically referred to as a pipefitter or steamfitter and remains an essential function in every industry.

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). 

In the painting, a specialized pipefitter is prominently featured installing a pump and packing it. These specialized pumps are equipped with packing, or stuffing boxes. The packing in these boxes prevent air, water, acids, steam, oil or other liquids or gasses from escaping from the pump.

Unfortunately, for centuries much of the packing materials used to “pack” valves contained asbestos. As such, tragically, many pipefitters became ill with respiratory illnesses.

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, when the science of asbestos became better understood, and an industry wide cover-up was discovered, that the industry was forced by government regulations and lawsuits to adopt more modern, less hazardous, materials such as carbon and graphite.

However, while the awareness, technology, materials, 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.

If you are looking for details about fluid sealing and the modern pipefitting industry check out this link to the Fluid Sealing Association.

Even the first century Roman scholar Pliny the Younger (61-112 AD) recognized the impact of asbestos on human beings. He wrote how slaves working in asbestos mines became ill.

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