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Aluminum in a Steel World: Pittsburgh’s Industrial Legacies

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Aluminum Illustrations, 1948. Illustration of aluminum smelting at Alcoa. Niziol Collection, Rivers of Steel.

By Ron Baraff, Director of Historic Resources and Facilities

Ronald BaraffAluminum—Born of the Pittsburgh Spirit

This August, Rivers of Steel will host the second session of its three-day Sculptural Aluminum Casting workshop, along with another opportunity for newbies to try the casting process—the three-hour introductory Aluminum Casting Session.  So we thought it would be a good time to share this article by Ron Baraff on the origins of aluminum and its industrial rise in the Pittsburgh region.

Aluminum is a Pittsburgh product—not because Pittsburgh had abundant supplies of bauxite ore, for she has not; and not because Pittsburgh had abundant hydroelectric power, for she has not. Aluminum is a Pittsburgh product because Pittsburgh, despite its reputation for smoke and grime, is primarily interested in men. Here in Pittsburgh as in no other community of the United States, does creative genius get a hearing and sound backing…. It was Pittsburgh that listened to an Ohio college boy with the vision of the possibilities of a new and light metal. Not only did it listen, but it gave substantial assistance.[1]

—Arthur Vining Davis, President of the Aluminum Company of America, 1927

The mantra of the contemporary moment is that Pittsburgh has reinvented itself, rising up on a new arc of innovation and ingenuity. The region is being heralded as the new, shiny beacon on a hill, setting the stage for the 21st century and beyond through robotics, biomedical research, and education. While we are moving forward in these fields, fostering civic and fiscal revivals, the very fact that Pittsburgh is a hub of innovation, capital, and ingenuity is as old as the grand metropolis itself. Since its incorporation, Pittsburgh has been a vanguard city, cloaking itself in the comfort of working-class ideals and mores, all the while inviting and nurturing capital investment, research, discovery, and innovation. It has been a leader in the development and success of the boatbuilding, steam power, glass, airbrakes, electricity, rail, oil, iron, and steel—revolutions that shook the world to its very foundations and inextricably changed the course of human development. Often overlooked, or at least underappreciated in all of the civic and economic boosterism that lead to the heralding the city as the “Iron and Steel City,” is the aluminum industry. The rise of the industry through the Pittsburgh Reduction Company and its later incarnation as the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) provided for cross-pollination and integration with other major industries, investors, and industrialists from the Pittsburgh region and was part of what has been described as the “Pittsburgh Spirit,” a mindset that encouraged investment and cooperation among Pittsburgh’s elite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A black and white photo of aluminum stones in an ornate aluminum box.

Photograph of “Crown Jewels of the Aluminum Industry.” The large globule of aluminum at the right is the first run of aluminum made in 1888 by the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (predecessor of ALCOA). The smaller globules are those made by Charles Martin Hall in February 1886 by the electrolytic process he discovered. Niziol Collection, Rivers of Steel.

When American inventor Charles Martin Hall (1863 – 1914), along with Frenchman Paul Heroult, demonstrated the means for aluminum extraction and production in 1886, the stage was set for a new revolution in the metals industry: here for the first time was a way to economically produce aluminum.[2] This process, known as the Hall-Heroult process, attracted the attention of manufacturers and investors alike who saw the opportunities not just to make and market the lightweight, wide-reaching, and durable aluminum, but who also saw benefits for use in other aspects of industrial manufacturing. Among those who was attracted to the new world of possibilities was Pittsburgh industrialist Alfred Hunt. Hunt, whose initial interest in aluminum and the Hall-Heroult process was focused on how it could be applied to the steel industry in a process known as “killing” which would efficiently help to remove dissolved oxygen in the steelmaking process, came to be a central figure in the rise of new industry in Pittsburgh. For Hunt and Hall, efficiency and economy of scale were prime motivating factors, as they would go on to partner in the Pittsburgh Reduction Company and its later incarnation, Alcoa.

The Pittsburgh Reduction Company, Aluminum Price List, 1900. Founded by Alfred Hunt and Charles Martin Hall, the Pittsburgh Reduction Company was the predecessor to the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). Rivers of Steel Collection.

The most interesting thing to this Chamber, however, is that the Aluminum Company of America is a Pittsburgh industry. In the early days when there were only six partners in the business they were all Pittsburgh men connected with the steel companies and other companies of this city. Later on when it became necessary to get in more money, the Messrs. Mellon, Mr. Thaw and one or two others joined us, but they were all Pittsburghers. Since that time we have had practically no money put into the company so that it is as true today as it was then that the money of the company is Pittsburgh money.[3]

—Arthur Vining Davis

Hunt was not alone in his interest in aluminum. Being an “East Ender” in Pittsburgh—part of the enclave of rich industrialists who settled in Pittsburgh’s burgeoning East End—he worked hard to entice some of his neighbors to invest in his new venture. Some of the early investors were those whose fortunes laid in Pittsburgh’s dominant industries: Howard Lash and Millard Hunsiker from the Carbon Steel Company, Robert Scott from the Union Iron Mills, and George Hubbard Clapp and W. S. Sample from Pittsburgh Testing Laboratory. Their interest and investment enticed other titans of Pittsburgh like the Mellon Brothers, who were lured by the investment possibilities that the new industry would bring. They were early and eager investors, working hard to raise much needed capital, as well as providing legal advice where needed. Their concerns and money allowed Hunt and Hall to reinvest earnings into expansion of the company, taking a page from another fellow industrialist, Andrew Carnegie. The idea was to keep building for the future and long-term strategies.

The company was focused on the ideal of vertical integration—again based on the Carnegie model—to keep the profits at home, invest in needed raw materials and supplies, and bring all elements of production under one banner / company. Vertical integration provided a control over all facets of production, from the supply chain to production to end product distribution. This model was heavily rooted in the Pittsburgh tradition—Carnegie Steel, Westinghouse Electric and Airbrake, and the Heinz manufacturing empires were built upon it. Like the Mellon’s, George Westinghouse saw the opportunities that would come with the growth of the industry as it was applied to his Alternating Current (AC) power interests in Pittsburgh, but even more so in Niagara Falls, the aluminum reduction industry was heavily reliant on hydropower. Westinghouse Electric would “manage the building of one of the world’s greatest hydroelectric stations” without which the growth of the industry would have been stymied.[4]

Aluminum Illustrations, 1948. Illustration showing Charles Martin Hall and A.V. Davis showing “the Pittsburgh Spirit” making Aluminum. Niziol Collection, Rivers of Steel.

Another Pittsburgh East Ender who would play a large role in the success of Alcoa was Philander Knox, who served as President Theodore Roosevelt’s Attorney General. For over a decade the company “grew up in the shadow of the large trusts; steel, oil, tobacco, cotton, and pig iron.”[5] In 1903, President Roosevelt instructed Knox to initiate a series of lawsuits under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the first federal regulation of monopolistic business practices. Given Knox’s closeness as a poker buddy and neighbor of the founders of Alcoa (and United States Steel), the company managed to avoid the federal antitrust lawsuits. Operating under patent protections, their control of aluminum pricing, supplies, and distribution was deemed to be valid. While there were some later antitrust issues concerning their involvement in the international cartel, which produced roughly ninety percent of the world’s aluminum supply, the company remained mostly unscathed. The government-issued Consent Decree of 1912 and the coming of World War I a few years later, ended any ongoing and pending legal proceedings. Alcoa agreed to “stop all questionable practices” and ostensibly ended their involvement with the cartel.[6] They were able to withstand competition and ultimately dominate the global aluminum market.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Pittsburgh region was ripe with opportunity. The region was a hotbed of innovation, ingenuity, and investment. The crosspollination and investment of capital that built the early manufacturing industries of Pittsburgh ushered in a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity. This practice became the standard upon which the region was built and is still being built to this day. The “Pittsburgh Spirit” is as alive and well today as it was for Alfred Hunt and Charles Martin Hall when they launched the aluminum industry and changed the course of metals manufacturing worldwide.

[1] Speech to Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, Arthur Vining Davis, President of the Aluminum Company of America. Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Spirit, Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, 1927, p. 185

[2] Heroult developed a similar process in France, thus sharing the patent known as the Hall-Heroult process.

[3] Speech to Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, A.V Davis, President of the Aluminum Company of America. Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Spirit, Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, 1927, p. 177

[4] Skrabec, Quentin R.. Aluminum in America: A History. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2017. P. 56, Kindle edition

[5] Ibid, p. 64

[6] Ibid, p. 65

This article was first published in the catalog for student curated exhibition, Metal From Clayat the University Art Gallery, University of Pittsburgh, October 24, 2019.

Bringing Mad Max to Life

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By Carly V. McCoy, Director of Communications   |   Image: Character from Mad Max: Fury Road.  Image by Jeff Zoet Visuals with J Potosky as Immortan Joe.

Carly V. McCoyGetting in on the Action

Next Friday, Rivers of Steel will screen Mad Max: Fury Road as part of this summer’s Carrie Carpool Cinema, but for moviegoers the fun will begin well before the opening scene flickers onto the screen.

For one thing, Mad Max: Fury Road is just night one of a weekend themed as “Heavy Metal Menagerie” with Wayne’s World being screened the following evening. What’s the connection? Well, it’s the hot metal pour that is occurring both evenings presented by Rivers of Steel Arts’ metal arts crew. Everyone is welcome to watch the Hot Metal Happening, plus anyone can buy a scratch mold, carve their own artwork, and have it cast in aluminum right there!

But that’s not the only way to get in the action—18 cosplayers will be onsite to bring the Mad Max franchise to life! Guests are encouraged to dress in costume themselves or join in and be photographed with the characters, including Immortan Joe, Furiosa, Max, The Wives, and a whole host of Wastelanders.

Pittsburgh Area Costumers

Many of the members of the Pittsburgh Area Costumers have decades of cosplay experience, from local comic conventions such as Steel City Con, as well as local film premiers. Some travel to other events like the Dragon Con in Atlanta—two members were recently part of the Black Widow film premier. And for the group attending Mad Max: Fury Road, the Wasteland Weekend outside L.A, would be a fitting event.

As a group, the Pittsburgh Area Costumers were largly connected through the work of one man—Jeff Zoet. Jeff is a photographer, digital compositor, cinematographer and editor based in Pittsburgh. Back in 2018, he started a series of Cosplay Supershoots, which led to new friendships among the participants. The series of photographs featured in this article showcase Jeff’s photography and visuals. J Potosky and Annie Graves are the subjects, appearing as Immortan Joe and Furiosa from the Mad Max universe.

As a member of the group, J Potosky reflected on role of cosplay:  “It’s freeing and fun to be someone else, not to mention the artistry of emulating the works of art on screen—It’s a true love letter to any film, comic, or video game you may enjoy. Also the cosplay community, especially in Pittsburgh is so much fun, honestly like a big accepting family of nerds.”

Follow Jeff Zoet, J Potosky, and Annie Graves on Instagram.

Tickets are available for the Carrie Carpool Cinema here. The films start at 9:15; doors open at 7:45. Be sure to stop by early to meet the characters from Mad Max: Fury Road on Friday, or to participate in a hot metal pour either evening!

Alloy Pittsburgh: Out & About

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By Carly V. McCoy, Director of Communications   |   Image: Lori Hepner demonstrates the light wand at the Doors Open Homestead Event.

Carly V. McCoyAlloy Pittsburgh—Interrupted

When Alloy Pittsburgh returns to the Carrie Blast Furnaces later this summer, it will be the fourth iteration of the site-specific art installation. Six local artists are currently immersed in a three-month residency that will inform the scope and process of their work, but this year is unlike any other.

The shadow of the pandemic looms large. It is hard to say yet if the collective traumas of the last year or so will be evident in artworks themselves—they are still being created. What we do know is that the process of creating the works has seen some challenges. For one thing, the exhibition was delayed; when it opens on Saturday, August 28, 2021, it will be just about one year off schedule. Beyond that though, the scope of the residency itself changed dramatically.

For the first time, Alloy Pittsburgh artists were to go beyond their residency experience at the Carrie Furnaces themselves—they were to be embedded in neighboring communities. Each artist was to be partnered with a community-based organization adjacent to the Furnaces. Their work was to be informed by not just the history of the site, but by the generations of people living today whose communities are now deindustrialized.  As one can imagine, the pandemic changed what organizations could do in partnership with the artists, how people could interact within their spaces, or if they could even participate at all.

Fortunately, both artists and arts administrators are quite resilient, so by June of this year, each of the six artists had found a home for summer exploration. Now, we are happy to report, these community connections have begun!

Check out the photo essay below to learn more about three of the six artists—and read about how you can get involved!

Alloy Pittsburgh—Community Events

Reba Harmon

Reba Harmon is a rust belt born and raised visual artist, living and working in Pittsburgh. This summer, she has partnered with the Three Rivers Village School in Hazelwood. In June, she toured the Furnaces with a small group of local students to experience the site with them.

Four youth follow an adult to the car dumper.

Afterwards, they had a hands-on experience working with her, helping to knit the fabric that will be used in her installation at the Carrie Blast Furnaces. This relationship with the students has been an ongoing part of her residency.  Reba’s piece at Carrie aims to foster new community relationships while reconnecting with the historical role of women in the steel industry. She says, “knitting illustrates a dichotomy: a media used in domestic craft backdropped by the industrial space accentuates women’s presence and role in the steel industry, while acknowledging the struggle to find acceptance therein.”

Two youth create a large knit yard from a spool.

You can check it out for yourself! Join Reba, along with Artist Excursions Unlimited at Elizabeth Street Parklet in Hazelwood, Elizabeth Street Parklet, Elizabeth and Gloster Streets, 15207, on Friday, July 23 from 4:00 – 6:00 p.m. You can experience her process and help create the artwork that will be installed in the Hoist House of the Carrie Blast Furnaces. You can also catch up with Reba during the Open Streets event in Hazelwood on Sunday, July 25.

Bradford Mumpower

While Bradford Mumpower’s career history has been varied, he couldn’t escape the pull of “creating” things. In 2010, a sewing course inspired him and set him on the road towards fashion design. His concept for the installation at the Carrie Blast Furnaces is inspired by the “greens” that workers wore while on the job, scaled to size proportionate with the historic importance of the site itself.

An illustration of a giant green shirt over a photo of the Carrie's Blowing Engine House

From the image below, you can see the beginning of the shirt spread out adjacent to the place where it will be installed. The larger-than-life replica of the jacket is almost ten yards from the high point shoulder to the bottom hem, and about 20 yards from end of sleeve to end of sleeve with the jackets arms outstretched.

Part of the artwork lays on the ground

Bradford is in residence at the Wilkins School Community Center, 7604 Charleston Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15218. Stop by there on Sunday, July 25 from 2:00 – 5:00 p.m. to meet the artist, ask questions, discuss the project, and find out ways you can help work on this art project.

Lori Hepner

Lori Hepner is an artist working primarily in photography, new media performance, and public art in community centered projects. Her project for Alloy Pittsburgh explores the connection that the Carrie Blast Furnaces have with the surrounding communities via the air above it.

“My inspiration for the project came from thinking about the Carrie Blast Furnaces as a specific site: pressurized air made the transformation of raw materials into something that could be used for industrial purposes,” said Lori. “The air from the sky above was drawn in through the large air duct pipes that can be seen throughout Carrie, some of which blocked out the actual sky from those working there. Now that Carrie is a non-active site, the air above us floats in from the surrounding communities rather than the pollution from the active site floating out.”

 

Pipes at the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

Lori’s process for creating this work directly engages the community in the process. Recently at Doors Open’s June 28 Homestead Event, Lori invited the community to collaborate to visualize themselves, along with their families and friends, as part of her project, entitled The Air Above Us.  Participants used 6’ light-wand, along with photographs of the sky above them, to create images that will be incorporated in the project, in the process allowing event-goers to becoming light artists.

A small child holds a light wand as mom and sisi watch

The Braddock Carnegie Library Association is the community organization that is hosting Lori, so naturally she also worked with children there to create images to use in the final project, which will take the form of a mural. Taking inspiration from the graffiti works onsite, the digitally created decal mural will be allowed to age in place. However, Lori also has plans for an interactive aspect of the installation—to use augmented reality to form the final presentation of the piece. Check it out for yourself at the Alloy Pittsburgh opening reception on Saturday, August 28 or during one of the exhibition tours scheduled for Friday, Saturdays, and Sunday in September.

Boys play with the light wand

For more information about Alloy Pittsburgh, visit the Exhibitions page or review the April 29, 2021 news release.

Alloy Pittsburgh 2021 is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov.

Additional support has been provided by the Fine Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

a colorful radiating light behind a chalice

Heritage Highlights: Holy Martyr’s Sawdust Carpets

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A sawdust carpet from the Feast of Corpus Christi at the Holy Martyr’s Parish.

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage, from ethnic customs and occupational traditions directly linked to Pittsburgh’s industrial past, to new American folk arts and cultural practices emerging from the region’s diverse urban experience.  Usually passed down from person-to-person within close-knit communities, these cultural traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing one aspect of what makes southwestern Pennsylvania’s heritage so rich.

For this month’s story, Heritage Arts Coordinator Jon Engel visited the borough of Tarentum, just 20 minutes up the Allegheny River from downtown Pittsburgh. Tarentum is host to Holy Martyr’s Parish, a Catholic church with roots in the 19th-century industrial boom and the only church in America that carries on the tradition of creating sawdust carpets to mark religious events. He spoke with David Kuniak, a long-time participant in the tradition, who shared his philosophy on the carpets and the community they create.

a sawdust carpet featuring Jesus and a dove

Holy Martyr’s Sawdust Carpets

By Jonathan Engel

The Sawdust Carpets of Corpus Christi

Like its many cousins in southwestern Pennsylvania, Tarentum is a small industrial town right on the river. It is carved, sometimes deftly and sometimes awkwardly, into the steep hillsides of the Alle-Kiski Valley. Early last month, I found myself walking up one of Tarentum’s slopes to Holy Martyr’s Parish. There, I met David Kuniak, who laughed and complained about the hot afternoon he spent that weekend mowing the church’s lawn. David is a lifelong member of Holy Martyr’s and an expert in one of this region’s singular artforms—the sawdust carpets of the Feast of Corpus Christi.

After the construction of railroads in 1866 and the opening of CL Flaccus’s glass factory in 1879, Tarentum’s population boomed with immigrant workers. In 1896, Catholic priests from the Holy Ghost Seminary established a new church for the borough’s large German community. It was called Sacred Heart. In 1969, as Tarentum’s population declined with its glass production, Sacred Heart was merged with a nearby Italian church called St. Peter’s. A new building was constructed in the same space, becoming Holy Martyr’s Parish. It consists of two distinct flat lots about halfway up the hill that is West Tarentum and a modern church, with a prominent cross on its side and a grotto shrine dedicated to St. Mary up the hill from the entrance. David let me inside and the two of us sat together in the pews as we spoke about the carpets.

The story goes that, in 1943, a new priest arrived to lead the church. Like all his predecessors at Sacred Heart, Father James McNamara was trained at the Holy Ghost Seminary, which is located in the Black Forest mountain range in southwestern Germany. There, priests have been creating elaborate “sawdust carpets” for a variety of church events for centuries. These were temporary murals, the sawdust dyed various colors and assembled on the ground, often used in religious processionals. Similar traditions occur at other Catholic churches all around the world, such as the flower petal carpets constructed inside Arundel Cathedral in England and in the streets of Antigua, Guatemala during Lent. Holy Ghost’s specific practice developed around the white pines common to the Black Forest, the sawdust of which is incredibly good at absorbing water-based dyes. It is said that Father McNamara was so moved by these images that, when he came to Tarentum, he led his new parish in creating their own carpets and processional. They did so to mark the feast day of Corpus Christi, spawning an annual tradition.

That story is a little spotty. Tarentum historian Skip Culleiton has found footage of sawdust carpets at Holy Martyr’s events as early as 1942 and testimonials from church members who recall making them years before Father McNamara moved in. “That’s sort of the mystery of the carpets,” David says, smiling, “Nobody actually knows how they started. The people who knew are dead.”

Each carpet lives for only one day, most of which is spent creating it. The process is long, meticulous, and hard. Participants must bend over concrete in the summer sun and patiently arrange sawdust, soil, and whatever else they choose to incorporate. But despite the labor and the ephemerality of its products, the practice has continued for nearly eight decades. It had never been rained out or delayed, until the pandemic forced them to cancel the event in 2020 and 2021. In 2020, the diocese combined Holy Martyr’s with seven other churches to create Guardian Angels Parish, which is spread across several buildings. David hopes that the carpets will return next year bigger than ever with help from the new parishioners. This would continue a tradition he has helped maintain for most of his life.

A sacred heart fashioned after stained glass made of dyed sawdust displayed like a carpet in a parking lot.

David Kuniak, Steward of the Sawdust Carpets

Back in the ‘50s, the Corpus Christi celebrations were organized by a group called the Holy Name Society, which only allowed its all-male membership to participate in making the sawdust carpets. In 1972, an 18-year-old David Kuniak, fresh out of high school, was made chairman of the carpet committee. He had been making them since middle school, starting with small carpets on the sidewalk outside the old building.

“I wanted to do them because you weren’t allowed! When you were in 8th grade, at Sacred Hearts Church, kids could join in. It was something that you had to grow into and was obviously sacred to the older people, but it took forever to get to 8th grade. And when you can’t participate, for a little kid, that’s tough. When I took over, that ended right there.”

Immediately, David opened the process up to women, children, and even non-Catholics. These days, all sorts of people flock to Tarentum for the celebrations—worshippers, neighbors, and professional artists. It is common for families to make carpets together, passing the art from generation to generation as everyone gets involved at once. Some years, participants have created up to 30 individual carpets, all in the two-level parking lot beside Holy Martyr’s. Though David passed the reins over many years ago—to his cousin Jim Huey—he remains heavily involved. It is a family tradition—his brother creates murals with his children every year, too. He speaks of previous works wistfully, musing to himself about how “absolutely gorgeous” the carpets he’s seen have been.

“People are coming from distances now to do them, to make them. Whenever I see somebody new, I always take the chance to sit down and talk to them. I stick their name and their phone number in my address book. If you’re here and you really like them, you can do them. Don’t stand there and say you’d like to do them. You’re welcome to do them, we want you to do them.”

He continues: “We had some kids who lived on West 10th Ave. here and they don’t go to church or whatever, but they would just be sitting up there on their porch and watching. They said to me one year, ‘Can we take some sawdust and go on the sidewalk and make our own carpet?’ and I said, ‘Instead of doing it off to the side, why don’t you do it here with us?’”

That attitude permeates all aspects of the process. Many different styles abound, from traditional religious scenes to abstract geometries to simple kids’ drawings. “Everybody has their own talents,” David explains, “What can you do? Some people draw, some people just like to fill them in. That’s a talent too, y’know, making the colors blend together. Your skill level doesn’t matter—God appreciates all skills.”

Likewise, the subject matters vary. The church asks that the carpets remain religious in some sense, but participants have expressed themselves not only in Biblical scenes but in various symbols, national flags, and portraits.

The Making of the Sawdust Carpets

The process has remained largely the same since it began with the Holy Name Society. Jim, David, and other church members dye the sawdust a week before the event, although they have shifted from seven natural dyes to a wide array of artificial colors. The dyes are mixed in with white pine sawdust, donated by a mill in the North Side, which is turned in cement mixers and left to dry in burlap sacks outside the church.

Work on the murals begins around 6:00 a.m. on the feast day. Many participants arrive earlier in the morning, sometimes even the night before, to sketch out their carpets on the cement. To do this, they use chalk donated by a local welding company. Since David took over in the ‘70s, Holy Martyr’s has provided drawings on grids and stencils to make the design easier and help people nail difficult proportions. “A lot of people come in and say, ‘I want to make one, but I can’t draw’…no excuses!”

Participants sculpt their images by hand, piling sawdust on to their outlines and using combs to even it out. Several helpers move through the lot, spraying the carpets with a hose set to “mist”. The water holds the sawdust to the ground on windy days and pulls the colors out more vibrantly, allowing the delicate materials to last. At 4:00 p.m., work ends. Shortly after, the priests of Holy Martyr’s lead a processional around the lot, weaving around the carpets up to their outdoor shrine. The carpets are left out for a few more hours for people to view until a street sweeper, borrowed from the Tarentum borough, comes by and clears them out.

“It’s hard to push a broom and clean them up once you’ve put all that work into it!” David laughs, “But also, we have them in the pictures and movies, so they’re never really gone. And their purpose was not for us to begin with. Other people, I’ve seen them in tears once you start sweeping them up.”

The Feast of Corpus Christi—Celebrating Love & Community

“See, I can’t draw.”

Instead, David typically creates large, tapestry-like prayers with a set of letter stencils he made years ago. “A lot of the priests would come around and say, why are you doing prayers all the time? I says, ‘well, for a number of reasons, Father. First one is, I went to a confession and that was my penance.’ But people, when you start making it, they start reading it. So by the time I’m done, every person has said a prayer.”

In David’s eyes, the carpets are offered up for God, and the act of creating them is an act of love. Even among non-Christian participants, he sees deep love in the effort they put in to create images for others to enjoy.

“Love, that’s the catch-all term for everybody who’s doing it. For a Catholic, that comes in the body and blood of Christ—that, here at the altar, bread, and water change into. That’s the Eucharist. That’s our belief.”

The Feast of Corpus Christi is dedicated to that belief. It is a holiday unique to Catholics and a small cluster of other Christian faiths. But, through the spontaneity and inclusivity of the sawdust carpets, that day has been opened up for the entire community to celebrate.

“I think that’s what God would want, too. He wants people to come together, He wants them to live together. People getting involved with other people. People caring about other people, and working with other people, and being happy with other people. How many things like that are there in life? You wanna’ be a professional baseball player? You can’t, you don’t have the skill level. We don’t care about skill level here. We want you, you as a person.”

The next Feast of Corpus Christi will occur on Thursday, June 16th, 2022 at Holy Martyr’s Parish in Tarentum, Pennsylvania. Participation is open to all.

a sawdust carpet with a rainbow and a cross

Citations

All images courtesy of David Kuniak.

Culleiton, Skip. Corpus Christi Carpets: Holy Martyr’s Parish, Tarentum, PA. Creighton Printing Company, 2004.

“About Tarentum”. Tarentum Borough, tarentumboro.com. Accessed June 30, 2021.

McDonnell, Sharon. “The Flower Carpets of Antigua Presage Easter in Guatemala”. Garden Collage Magazine. 5 April 2017, gardencollage.com.

Read more in the Heritage Highlights series. Check out this story about artist Kathleen Ferri or this interview with members of Women of Visions.

Well dressed patrons enter Forbes Field

Dreyfuss’s Folly: The Origins of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field

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“Entrance to Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, PA.” Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

By Ron Baraff, Director of Historic Resources and Facilities

Ronald BaraffThe Origins of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field

Next weekend, Rivers of Steel will celebrate America’s Pastime with two baseball-themed films at the Carrie Carpool Cinema. This prompted Ron Baraff to look back at the origins of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and the place in holds in the hearts of many who visited this legendary ballpark.

For many baseball fans, there is more to the sport than the game that is played on the field. It has a history rich with colorful characters and places. Standing tall among these legendary characters of time are the ballparks. They are the “where” of the action and are inextricably woven into the very fabric of the nation’s sporting past. Within their “hallowed” walls, the fans felt like they were part of the game. A community existed where common ground was established on fond memories and cheers. The kinship of the fans related directly to the ambiance of the field. Here they were one, not of a diverse mind, but rather a singular pursuit. Never was this phenomenon more evident than in Pittsburgh—with its sixty-one-year love affair with Forbes Field.

Barney Dreyfuss’s Baseball Club

Barney Dreyfuss, a German-Jewish immigrant took control of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club before the start of the 1900 season. Over the course of the next eight years, the Pirates established themselves as one baseball’s premier franchises. They won National League pennants in 1901, 1902, and in 1903, the year in which they hosted the first modern World Series. In Dreyfuss’s thirty-two years as owner and president of the Pirates, they only finished out of the first division a total of six times. “I am a first-division club president, and I won’t stand for any second-division managers or teams.” It was precisely that attitude that drove the Pittsburgh franchise during his tenure as owner.

A Home at Exposition Park

A baseball stadium lined with fans in suits and hats, with a few women.

Johnston, R. W., Copyright Claimant. Pittsburg vs. New York, Saturday, Aug. 5. Pennsylvania Pittsburgh United States, 1905. August 5. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007663636/.

Home to the Pirates since 1891, Exposition Park, located approximately in the same location as current day PNC Park on the North Side, was not an ideal major league facility by any means. The structure certainly was no longer serviceable in the eyes of the forward-looking Dreyfuss, who remarked that, “The game was growing up, and patrons no longer were willing to put up with nineteenth century conditions.” The Park had many factors that inhibited its future success as a major league facility. Foremost was the problem of natural disasters. Because of its situation along the Allegheny River, the park was in peril of flooding whenever the river overflowed its banks. Floodgates were eventually placed on the sewers, but they were not very effective. The outfield was usually marshy, leading many to refer to the area as “Lake Dreyfuss.” In 1900, and again in 1901, high winds tore the roof off the grandstand.

A flood stadium with downtown across the river.

Lake Dreyfuss—A view of Exposition Park and the surrounding area during the flood of March 28, 1913. It looks across the river from Monument Hill toward Downtown. “Exposition Park during 1913 Flood,” Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh, Historic Pittsburgh Archives.

Along with the problems incurred because of floods and winds, another worry for Dreyfuss was the issue of the park’s construction. Exposition Park’s grandstands, like all the other parks of its era, were constructed of wood. These structures were in continual need of upkeep. Without it, they were prone to rot, collapse, and of course, fire. Dreyfuss repeatedly attempted in the years that his Pirates were tenants in Exposition Park (1900 – 1909), to obtain a lease that would make “it feasible to rebuild the wooden stands,” yet he was constantly denied. Dreyfuss himself said of the conditions at Exposition Park:

It was impossible to build modern stands at Exposition Park because a lease could not be obtained for a term of years. Besides, we had more than a half dozen floods to contend with every year, and it often happened that after spending a great deal of money on repairs, all of our work was undone by a sudden flood.

Perhaps the most salient factor in Dreyfuss’s dissatisfaction with the park was its location. He saw the game as being a mode of entertainment that needed to attract larger and more affluent crowds than the usual working-class crowds that gathered at Exposition Park. For the game to survive and prosper in Pittsburgh, the Pirates, in Dreyfuss’s view had to have a more attractive location. He considered the area around the stadium to be dangerous and dirty, and felt that the “better class of citizens, especially when accompanied by their womenfolk, were loath to go there.” Dreyfuss reasoned that by attracting a more affluent class of fans, not only would attendance at the ball games increase, but so would profits. With these criteria in mind, Dreyfuss set out to find a desirable location to build his new park. He yearned for a showcase that would have its own personality, idiosyncrasies, and feel. He wanted it to be “state-of-the-art,” that it could serve as a source of pride for the community, the ball club, and himself.

Moreover, a new form of architecture was coming into being. In 1906, Frank Lloyd Wright made the use of steel reinforced concrete in the construction of his Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. This technology was not only less expensive than building with stone, it also was more durable than using straight steel, which cracked easily. This use of reinforced concrete not only cut down on the amount of steel needed for construction, saving the builder money, but also increased the strength of the building and was fireproof as well. Until that time, even the new fields that had been built were still relying on the old process of wood construction. Barney Dreyfuss, was one of the owners who took notice of the new processes and was determined that his new park would be thoroughly modern in all respects.

Wooden fences and stands must go, just as frame structures and frame public buildings have been supplanted by fireproof structures…Steel and concrete stadiums will be the structures of the future.

A Fashionable Place to Build

“Landscaping at Schenley Park” Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh, Historic Pittsburgh Archives.

By 1908, it was becoming increasingly evident to Dreyfuss, that Pittsburgh’s growth would be centered in the East, around Oakland. It was there, that Dreyfuss turned his attention in his search for a new ballpark location. By the late 1890s, the East End of Pittsburgh was rapidly becoming the fashionable place to build. Pittsburgh’s growing elite of socially and politically ambitious families were settling in and around the area. In 1889, Mary Schenley, heir to a vast tract of land in Oakland, presented the city with three hundred acres of her property to be used as a park. One year later, Andrew Carnegie, chose a site at the entrance to the new Schenley Park as the location for his “gift to the people of Pittsburgh,” of a library, concert hall, and museum. With the addition of the new park and the Carnegie complex, thousands of people would be drawn to the area to “take advantage of its manifold facilities for learning and pleasure.”

Upon Mary Schenley’s death in 1903, Andrew Carnegie, John W. Herron, and Denny Brereton were appointed trustees of her estate. They set out to establish Oakland as the cultural and business center of Pittsburgh. In 1904, Carnegie broke ground for the Carnegie Technical Institute. Soon, he encouraged other Pittsburgh millionaires such as Henry Phipps, H.J. Heinz, Henry C. Frick, and the Mellon Brothers, to invest and build in the area.  In 1905, Franklin Nicola, builder of the Hotel Schenley, along with his brother Oliver, owner of the Nicola Building Company, came to control, with the blessings of the Schenley trustees, vast tracts of the Schenley Estates. They incorporated their new holdings under the guise of the Schenley Farms Company.

Oakland also was home to the Casino Skating Rink, Schenley Oval Racetrack, and Luna Park, an amusement center that claimed to attract 25,000 customers a day during the summer months. There were some fifteen different trolley lines that regularly ran from downtown Pittsburgh to the eastern suburbs and were easily within walking distance of any proposed Oakland building site. These factors, along with Oakland’s advantage of being a transition community between blue-collar and white-collar Pittsburgh, served to hasten Dreyfuss’s decision.

A Home at the Entrance to Schenley Park

On October 18, 1908, after several months of negotiations, and lots of encouragement from Andrew Carnegie, Dreyfuss purchased nearly seven acres of land at the entrance to Schenley Park. The $250,000 land purchase was made from the Schenley Estate through E. C. Brainard and the Commonwealth Real Estate Company. The transaction was deemed to be the “largest real estate deal” to have taken place within the city in many years. In later years, Barney Dreyfuss liked to claim that when he bought the property, “There was nothing there but a livery stable, a hothouse, while a few cows roamed over the countryside.” The site, which was first proposed to him by Andrew Carnegie, was being used by Carnegie Technical Institute and the University of Pittsburgh as a football field. Moderately populated residential districts bound it on the West and the South.

Though Dreyfuss felt that he had found the perfect location for his new field, certain hurdles still had to be overcome for the project to be a success. Among the problems, was the natural landscape of the area. The site was not considered to be one of the better lots in the Oakland. It was at one end of a series of deep ravines that ran through the Schenley Park region. The main portion of the property was traversed by one of these ravines (Pierre Ravine) and would require a large amount of landfill before it could be useful. Only the northern portion was deemed to be suitable for building upon. Since most of the park would be open field, this it was felt, would not present a problem.

A newly built Forbes Field with landfill and the Pierre Ravine Bridge.he

“Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.,” Between 1910 and 1915. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

When Dreyfuss agreed to purchase the land, he did so under certain conditions set forth by the Schenley Estate trustees. The trustees demanded that the structure be built of fireproof materials and be of a design that was in harmony with the other structures in the Park district.

Dreyfuss’s Folly

After an exhaustive search for an architect to build his new field, Dreyfuss chose Charles Wellford Leavitt, Jr., a 38-year-old, New York City civil engineer. Leavitt, preferred to think of himself, not as an architect, but rather as a “landscape design specialist.” Leavitt’s final design was elegantly simplistic. Emphasizing the park’s surroundings more than the structure itself, the only external extravagances were to be the buff terra-cotta fronts of the grandstands and the arched windows at the street level. Leavitt conceived of many revolutionary plans for the interior of the ballpark that included a three-tiered grandstand, and exposed bleachers that would be attached to the grandstand on the third base line. The grandstand seats would be accessible by a series of inclined ramps between the decks, eliminating the need for steps, thus easing fan movement. Elevators went from the main entrance to the third-tier boxes. Leavitt also incorporated plans for electric lights, public telephones, and have a seating capacity of 25,000, which would make it twice the size of Exposition Park and larger even than the Polo Grounds in New York. Yet, the proposed park size also became fodder for Dreyfuss’s critics, who claimed that there was no way that the Pirates could fill such a large venue and coined the new venue as “Dreyfuss’s Folly.”

A half tone image of a half built stadium.Dreyfuss chose the Nicola Building Company to build the park. Groundbreaking for the site took place on January 1, 1909. The job of filling in Pierre Ravine came first. This necessitated 11,155 tons of dirt and fill to be put in place. Grading of the field entailed the use of 60,000 cubic yards of earth, and the construction of the heavy retaining walls used to hold the fill, required 2,000 cubic yards of concrete.

On February 26, 1909, the necessary building permits were obtained by the Nicola Company, for the construction of the $250,000 grandstands. The construction of the ballpark began on March 1. By March 21, the Raymond Piling Company had completed the foundation piles for the stands. Construction of the left field stands was finished one week later, well ahead of schedule. Beginning on March 29, the Nicola Building Company began to work double, eight-hour work shifts. The increased working hours, coupled with good weather allowed the work to progress rapidly. On May 9, the Pirates announced that the Park would open on June 30. The contract for the steel for the new park was awarded to the American Bridge Company, who supplied over 1,500 tons of structural steel. American Bridge, whose fabricating and manufacturing facility, located in Ambridge, PA and was the largest of its type, was part of J.P. Morgan’s United States Steel Company and a successor to Andrew Carnegie’s Keystone Bridge Company.

An illustration of train cars mocking the amount of building materials needed for Forbes FieldBy June 13, most of the construction was complete. All the box seats had been sold, and the temporary bleachers finished. On June 16, the installation of the electrical wiring for the park began, as did the sodding of the field. Within a week, the last of the seats were installed. In all, to complete the construction of the park, it took 650 carloads of sand and gravel, 110 carloads of cement, 90 carloads of brick, 130 carloads of structural steel, 40 carloads of sewer pipe, glass frames and elevator materials, 40 carloads of ornamental iron, and 70 carloads of chairs. The final cost for Forbes Field, which took six months to complete, but required less than four months of actual construction time, was around $1 million dollars.

A half tone image of the newly built Forbes Field Entrance.

Exterior of Forbes Field, a baseball stadium, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Pittsburgh, ca. 1909. https://www.loc.gov/item/95503573/.

Within the history of Pittsburgh and the western Pennsylvania region, Forbes Field stands as landmark. From 1909 until it was vacated in 1970, it served the area as not only a venue for sporting events, but as an arena for political rallies, circuses, religious revivals, cultural events, and more. Very few Pittsburghers during its lifespan were exempt from its influence. At one point or another, no matter what their station in life, they had gathered within its perimeters and taken in its ambiance. It was a place where bonds were made and memories cast. Generations of Pittsburghers were able to share in its memory, hearkening back to a time when they could look out beyond its walls and feel as though they were a part of the neighborhood—all the while soaking in the green terrain that surrounded them. In Forbes Field, there was a sense of community that no longer exists, except within the precious memories of its loyal patrons. It is there, that it will live on and forever be cherished, thanks to Barney Dreyfuss’s folly.

Forbes Field in Photos, Later Years

View of the Schenley Park Entrance, taken from the 2st Floor of the Cathedral of Learning showing Forbes Field, the Carnegie Library, and the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain. “Schenley Park and Forbes Field,” 1936. Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh, Historic Pittsburgh Archives.


Aerial view of Forbes Field and Oakland,” 1968 / 1970. Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs Collection, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center, Historic Pittsburgh Archives.

 

An avid baseball fan and historian, Ron Baraff’s passions intersect when it comes to the Josh Gibson Collection of the Rivers of Steel Archives. If you like to read about Pittsburgh’s baseball legacies, you’ll probably want to check out Ron’s piece Josh Gibson Gets His Due from earlier this year. 

Where Environmentalism Meets Historic Preservation

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Men fish in the Monongahela River in front of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, a recreational activity that is far more common today than it would have been 40 years ago when the Furnaces were still operating. 

By Suzi Bloom, Director of Education

Suzi BloomEnvironmentalism and Historic Preservation

To coincide with World Environment Day, Suzi Bloom, Rivers of Steel’s director of education, reflected on our region’s industrial and ecological history, exploring the intersection of environmentalism and historic preservation—as well as just what the impact of our work as a National Heritage Area means for future generations. 

National Heritage Areas—Exploring a Sense of Place

Many of us attended school in a time when each subject was taught as an independent entity from the other. History class did not mix with science class.  And art class, well that was its own thing too. The beauty of National Heritage Areas is their ability to bring together various subjects as interconnected, with all facets being part of our collective experiences and sense of place.

When Rivers of Steel, an industrial heritage preservation organization, acquired RiverQuest, an environmental education nonprofit in 2016, I was often asked how an environmental science program that focuses on the health of Pittsburgh’s river ecosystems, could meld with an organization that talks about industrial heritage—as though remembering our past also glorifies the challenges that the past created.

With a mix of historical preservationists, public historians, artists, and environmental conservationists on the team at Rivers of Steel, it becomes obvious that we all have similar goals; albeit goals that are not traditionally viewed as commonalities. Our team works hard on the grassroots level to deepen community partnerships, promote heritage tourism, and preserve local recreational and cultural resources for future generations.

Remembering our regional environmental history helps us to reflect on our present challenges.  Stories like Donora, Pennsylvania, a small industrial town that suffered from a deadly smog inversion in 1948. This incident later inspired the early drafts of our nation’s Clean Air Laws. And Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers—the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio—have an environmental past is so complex, the stories that they could tell would go on for days!

archival image of the J&L steel mill from the 1960s

Jones and Laughlin works on the Monongahela River with downtown Pittsburgh in the background. Image from the Rivers of Steel Archives.

Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers—A Legacy of Commerce and Industry

We can look back on Pittsburgh’s long history of both our reverence for the rivers and our mistreatment of the rivers. Long before steel mills and other manufacturing dotted the river banks, the three rivers long served Indigenous Americans as corridors for movement and a source of food. In the early eighteenth century, the Seneca, Delaware (Lenape), Shawnee, and Mingo tribes utilized the region for hunting grounds and access points to trade with Euro-American fur trappers.

In the mid 1700s, the discovery of bituminous coal by European settlers led to the beginnings of our region’s air pollution. In 1758, the first mine in the region began supplying coal to the residents of Fort Pitt at the confluence of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. Some reports list the Fort Pitt community as the largest user of coal on this continent for over three decades.

River access to the West, as well as the abundance of coal, was conducive in the rapid development of the region. Our resources led to our economic successes as well as to our environmental challenges.

By the 1800s several small industries, including the manufacture of iron and glass, began to spring up along the three rivers. Records indicate that as early as 1804, there were cries for public action over Pittsburgh’s smoke problems.

The rivers were also integral to interstate commerce, but drought and normal fluctuations in river flow often plagued the rivers, and left them too shallow for river traffic. Trade booms led the rivers being declared by Pennsylvania as public highways. This declaration sparked efforts to modify and deepen the navigation channels through dredging and installing wing dams, with both activities having the potential to impact river habitat including native fish and freshwater mussels.

In 1852, when the Pennsylvania Railroad opened and provided service between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the city’s access to coal, water resources, and access to the west was once again a catalyst for rapid industrialization and the shift to the steel boom began.

The rivers also served as a means of waste disposal, which included industrial waste as well as raw sewage. The city had the highest typhoid fever mortality rate of any city in the nation between 1872 and 1908. Additionally, river water was utilized for industrial processes. Estimates are that it took 70 tons of water to produce one ton of steel.

By 1930, R.L. Duffus wrote in the American Monthly, “From whatever direction one approaches the once-lovely conjunction of the Allegheny and the Monongahela, the devastation of progress is apparent. Quiet valleys have been inundated with slag, defaced with refuse, marred by hideous buildings. Streams have been polluted with sewage and waste from the mills. Life for the majority of the population has been rendered unspeakably pinched and dingy. This is what might be called the technological blight of heavy industry.”

Crane in Mon River Valley

A crane flies towards the Edgar Thompson Works with the Braddock lock and dam in the background.

Deindustrialization and the Recovery of the Rivers

While throughout this entire time period, there were efforts and ordinances to control pollution levels in Pittsburgh, namely the air pollution issues, the eventual diversification of fuel sources led to some visible improvements in air quality.

Visionaries, Like David L. Lawrence who was elected mayor of Pittsburgh in 1946, also embarked on efforts to clean up the city. Lawrence’s “Renaissance I,” led to a 20-year redevelopment effort that resulted in significant reductions in smoke pollution as well as the construction of a major sewage treatment plant for the city.

The recovery of the rivers was perhaps a little bit slower, as many residents still viewed them as industrial assets rather than recreational assets. In 1957, surveys from the Elizabeth, Pennsylvania lock and dam area of the Monongahela River document a pH of 5.7 and only two bluegill sunfish. And even years later, in 1970, when Three Rivers Stadium was constructed, despite its name, it was built without views of the rivers.

A painful part of history soon followed with U.S. Steel’s mill in Duquesne closing in 1984; the Homestead works shuttered in 1986; followed by National Tube and American Bridge in 1987. By 1985, almost all of LTV’s Aliquippa works was idled, as was the Southside Works. The next year, Wheeling-Pittsburgh closed its Monessen factory.

From 1979 to 1987, the Pittsburgh region lost 133,000 manufacturing jobs. Some of those jobs vanished into obsolescence because new technologies led to improved productivity, and many more drifted overseas and into nonunion mills. Foreign steel was everywhere and new environmental regulations in the United States were also hurdles for industry.

Deindustrialization was happening across the country, but in few places were the forces of globalization felt so acutely—and so abruptly—as in Pittsburgh. While deindustrialization was devastating to the region, it allowed for additional recovery of our environment.

In the years since, industrial and environmental regulations like the Clean Water Act, along with concerted efforts from community players, have restored the ecosystems on the rivers surrounding Pittsburgh. A fish sample like the one done in 1957 would potentially return hundreds of fish—there are now at least 80 species in the Mon.

Elementary school students look out at the water.

Student scientists on the Explorer riverboat look out towards the Smithfield Street Bridge.

Environmental Science on the Three Rivers

Each summer Rivers of Steel’s Explorer riverboat is coated in Mayflies. These insects spend up to two years foraging on the river bottom before they emerge from the water as an adult flying insect where they live the briefest of lives—sometimes as little as two hours—with just enough time to reproduce to start the life cycle over again. That said, they are indicators of improving water quality.

Students participating in Rivers of Steel’s Environmental Science on the Three Rivers program onboard the Explorer riverboat, now collect data to show that our rivers frequently test at an acceptable pH level between about 7.0-8.4.

Our goal for the environmental science program, which in a typical year welcomes aboard approximately 3,000 students, is to not only provide students with a STEM experience, but to offer transformational experiences involving our rivers and to instill in students a love for the natural resources found in their city. We want students to go home and tell their families about all of the cool plankton, birds, and macroinvertebrates that they saw during their field trip. Signs of life, that not all too long ago, were not very common on the three rivers.

Guests on the Explorer riverboat take in the view as the sun sets on downtown Pittsburgh.

The Here and Now of Climate Change

As we enter this latest chapter on climate change research and issues of environmental justice, many of us are looking for things that we can do to protect our ecosystems.  We’ve grown beyond the phrase reuse, reduce, recycle, to more complex issues like carbon credits and more importantly, worrying about our children’s futures. We now challenge the concept that the zip codes we were born into all too often determine our destiny when it comes to asthma rates and life expectancies.

A changing climate could mean more frequent or powerful storms that increase the amount of sediment runoff into our rivers. Pittsburgh is also still managing the retrofit of aging combined sewer infrastructure, a system in which stormwater and sewage are transported together in one pipe. Heavy storms can overwhelm this system, leading to higher instances of raw sewage releases into our rivers.

Changes in climate could impact the ecosystems and environmental conditions for our freshwater fish species and macroinvertebrates. Organisms whose survival is often based upon certain water temperatures or stream flow conditions. The loss or weakening of native species can lead to non-native or invasive species becoming more established. Floods or high water can also scour out communities of native mussels, some of which are already listed as endangered species.

In a 2013 survey of local attitudes and awareness of environmental issues, conducted by PittsburghTODAY and University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research (with a participant pool of 8,000 residents of Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties), more than 64 percent say climate change is a “severe” or “moderate” problem, while 18.5 percent say it’s not a problem, with men and those earning more than $75,000 more likely to be in the denier group.  Perhaps more alarming, nearly 79 percent of those surveyed believe there is nothing they can do to solve environmental problems.

Our National Heritage Area duties—as educators, interpretive specialists, artists, preservationists, and advocates for the love of our region—are crucial for the positive outcomes of decisions about our future. Jacques Cousteau, once wisely stated that “people protect what they love.” One has to think that our environmental future has a chance—that we can continue to be active mouthpieces for conservationists and preservationists and we can spread the word about protecting the things that we love for future generations.

A couple photograph the skyline from the boat,

Getting to the Heart of The Hardest Working River

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The Explorer riverboat approaches the Monongahela River during the Hardest Working River Tour, which was first offered last fall.

Getting to the Heart of the Hardest Working River

A white woman with blond hair and glasses in a sleeveless white top with flowers on it. Kirsten Paine, a tour guide and researcher with Rivers of Steel, reflects on the creation of The Hardest Working River Tour, a special boat tour of Pittsburgh’s Monongahela River being offered on the Explorer riverboat on May 15, 16, 22, & 23.

By Kirsten Paine

I am a shy person. Introverted. I am easily overwhelmed in a crowd. I do not care for being the center of attention. I am a scholar of the 19th century, and I am very much a teacher. I enjoy talking to people. I like sharing stories, especially when those stories are old. My shelves at home are filled with old stories—novels, memoirs, poems, and plays. The best parts of my day occur when I can teach others about people, places, and events from two hundred years ago. Last fall I jumped at the opportunity to create a brand new tour for Rivers of Steel, one that makes some of those old stories reverberate in the 21st century.

As with just about every aspect of life, the COVID-19 pandemic shaped The Hardest Working River Tour. It has been a period of jarring disconnection, but I wanted the new tour to be all about connecting to the landscape shaped by the Monongahela River. I wanted to pull together the fragmented voices of black citizens who moved to Pittsburgh during the Great Migration in order to get factory jobs and let them set the stage for telling the story of industrial labor movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I wanted to uncover a hidden cityscape by highlighting visible industrial remnants like empty barge moorings and decommissioned Bessemer converters. I wanted distant histories feel close, especially because we all needed to keep our distance from each other.

Industrial remnants

Industrial remnants on the Mon River near the Hazelwood Green site.

While researching material for the tour narrative, I needed a mix of big picture historical context as well as quirky, personal stories. The personal stories are the key to animating dates and statistics with life and purpose. Some visitors will disembark from the Explorer and remember barge tonnage or the date a factory opened. However, other visitors will go home and recall Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm, an intrepid journalist, fierce abolitionist, and passionate women’s rights advocate who named the town of Swissvale. As visitors cruise past Carrie Furnaces, which sits partially in Swissvale, and see that mighty remnant of the Monongahela River’s industrial height, they hear about the woman reporter from Pittsburgh who worked to make her country a safer and more just place for marginalized people. The story is not really about how the land inherited a name; instead, the story is about a woman born more than two hundred years ago and how she just might have changed our lives.

Former iron furnaces and associated buildings see behind a tree lined riverbank.

The Carrie Blast Furnaces seen from the Explorer riverboat.

In addition to being the voice you hear from the speaker system on the Explorer, you might see me greeting visitors and leading tours at Carrie Blast Furnaces. And when I am not talking my way through iron-making history,  I am a visiting lecturer in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh. I have always found a deep sense of belonging in a classroom, and as a scholar who researches and writes about women’s writing in the Civil War era, I focus on ways to make 19th-century American literary culture accessible and useful to a 21st-century student body. My classroom is a space where assumptions of contemporary irrelevance are tested by the kinds of literature those assumptions are about, in this case 19th-century literature written by women. There are always unexpected moments of connection forged in lively discussions about narratives of lived and imagined experiences. It is so important, however, that such discussions also transpire beyond the walls, or the Zoom screens, of a classroom.

That is why some of the opening lines of The Hardest Working River are not mine. Instead, they belong to Rebecca Harding Davis, a writer born in Washington, Pennsylvania. She published a novella called Life in the Iron Mills in The Atlantic Monthly in 1861. While the story is set at a blast furnace in nearby Wheeling, West Virginia, the way Davis describes a 19th-century mill town just like Pittsburgh is choked, almost suffocating. She writes, “the idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke. It rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets. Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river,—clinging in a coating of greasy soot to the house-front, the two faded poplars, the faces of the passers-by.” As a foundational piece of American realism, Davis’ language evokes the kind of image one might see in a photograph. Her description is visceral, but it is also at odds with Pittsburgh in 2021. The smoke is gone. Buildings are no longer caked in black soot. The trees bloom in springtime and burst with color in the fall. People congregate near the river to run, walk, bike, boat, and fish.  If we are really lucky, the skies are blue.

The heart of The Hardest Working River Tour explores the incongruity of those two images and tries to reconcile with the existence of two Pittsburghs—the lumbering powerhouse of 19th-century American industry and the quick, mobile vanguard of 21st-century modernity—from the perspective of the Monongahela River.  The river becomes our vantage point, and from there, the pieces of Pittsburgh descending from neighborhoods nestled in the hills down to the businesses perched on the riverfront, become a classroom unlike any I have ever been in.

A man looks out at the stacks at the waterfront from the boat.

Viewing Homestead from the a vantage point on the Explorer.

I work for Rivers of Steel because publicly accessible and equitable educational opportunities are fun and ultimately serve the greater public good. Everyone I know at Rivers of Steel is committed to sustainable development through preservation and community outreach. Our communities benefit from resources where everyone has the chance to explore new ideas and learn from thoroughly researched and well-crafted programs. From my perspective, The Hardest Working River is a chance to give back to Pittsburgh in return for the personal and professional life it has made possible for me. I might not be a born and raised Pittsburgher, but I do feel like I can tap into the reservoir of complicated history and culture of this region and talk to people about why the Monongahela river valley is a rich source of stories from which we can all learn.

This article was published to coincide with the spring 2021 schedule of The Hardest Working River Tour on the Explorer riverboat.

Ed Parrish shown smiling in his hard hat, sunglasses, and leathers.

Profiles in Steel: Ed Parrish, Jr.

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Ed Parrish, Jr. during an iron pour at the Carrie Blast Furnaces, fall 2020. Photo by Richard Kelly.

Profiles in Steel

Rivers of Steel is excited to launch a new series that shines a spotlight on the talented members of our organization’s community.  From staff and volunteers to collaborators and patrons, it takes a dedicated group with many and varied talents to support the community-based initiatives offered through Rivers of Steel.

In this installment, we meet Ed Parrish, Jr., our furnace master and metal arts coordinator. Ed has worked with Rivers of Steel since 2016, heading our Hot Metal Happenings and other industrial arts programming. He is also a talented sculptor who works in iron and other metals. You can view his work at the ZYNKA Gallery in Sharpsburg until the end of May in the exhibition Labour of Love,  a two-person show with painter Jack Taylor, curated by Jeff Jarzynka.

An Interview with Ed Parrish, Jr.

By Jon Engel

The first time I met Ed was at the Festival of Combustion in 2019. He was armored in the iconic metalworker’s suit: thick protective jackets of layered leather, dark brown and uniform, with glass shields hanging over the face. Molten aluminum flowed from a massive bucket down into a line of sand molds, burning orange under the shadow of the Carrie Furnaces. Sparks sputtered by the dozen busy workers in our Metal Arts team, all of them working in tandem to ensure the foundry process went off without a hitch. In all honesty, I was pretty intimidated: the second a piece of metal starts to glow and warp, my first instinct is to put soles to the street and skedaddle, as it were.

In contrast, Ed himself is cool and breezy. “I’d like to sell this and put it on someone’s wall,” he remarked, gesturing to one of the 250 pound pieces in Labour of Love, “This stuff’s heavy so I’m not trying to haul it around forever.” We talked about his work, as a solo artist and a metalworker with Rivers of Steel, and what draws him to sculpting in the foundry…

Packing the Sand

Ed Parrish, a white, lanky man in the black cap, blue shirt with a red bandana around his neck.

Ed Parrish, Jr.

So first off, you went to art school…

Yeah, in North Carolina. East Carolina University.

You from North Carolina?

Yes. This little town called Rocky Mount. It’s right about 45 minutes from the Virginia border. If you’ve ever driven south on 95, you’ve seen signs for it: “Rocky Mount”, then “Miami”. But I’ve lived in Pittsburgh since the late ‘90s.

How’d you end up here?

I moved here with a friend shortly after college. And every time I tried to leave, it was like, for where? For what?

I’d been through Pittsburgh a couple times before, coming up from North Carolina. I used to pour a lot in Buffalo. And I was drawn to the kind of Rust Belt jam here and, like, the history of industry and metal work here. And it was cheap. It was like, do I wanna’ move to New York or…

Or Pittsburgh?

Or Pittsburgh.

I imagine most people around here get into metal arts through, like, they’re from here and this is history and the heritage around here. But it seems like you were already interested in metal arts and moved here because this was the logical place for that.

Yeah, I was into metalworking from college and Pittsburgh seemed like a good spot—although, when I moved here, no one was casting iron here. Carnegie Mellon, at that point, still had a foundry for bronze and aluminum, but that also got eliminated at some point after that. I was actually the first person to ever cast iron in Pittsburgh for artmaking purposes. We poured the first metal, at Carrie Furnaces, that had ever been poured there since the mills closed—which was kinda’ cool.

So, iron, specifically, is what you’re interested in?

I mean, primarily, yeah. Iron, as a metal, that was the one that I first became interested in, for casting purposes. It was more just a connection to the material and its connection to the Earth. Like, the center of the Earth is molten iron, so that was always a draw for it, conceptually, as a material. And the aesthetics of iron, I was drawn to those.

Casting iron is a much more involved process than casting aluminum or bronze. It’s more of a team sport or a group activity. And there’s always, like—there’s “heads” that travel around to iron pours around the country like people would follow around the Grateful Dead.

Ironheads?

Yeah! There’s a community like that around the process. And it’s something you can do in your backyard, but to do it at scale, it’s tough to do when you’re out of college and you don’t have access to stuff like that. So, early on, when I started pouring in Pittsburgh, we got a Sprout Fund grant to fund it and we did these traveling, kind of performative iron pouring demonstrations around town. And that’s when we got started doing that here again.

Anymore, it’s fun to travel to go iron pours, sure. But I have a really nice set-up at home [Carrie Blast Furnaces], so it’s less about traveling for the need to make work than it is about the community and to go to different places and make friends.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about it as a community, because I know Carrie is like that to Shane [Pilster] and the graffiti artists. That Carrie can serve the same function for you guys, that’s interesting to me.

Yeah, well, a lot of universities are kind of dropping their hands-on foundry programs. You have some of them pop-up, but… as that falls out, alternative places like Carrie and alternative venues pick up the slack and provides places for artists to do stuff like this outside of the university. And for people that are getting out of school or didn’t go to school and don’t have access, it gives people like that an opportunity to work in the medium.

How did you get work after college?

When I moved to Pittsburgh, I worked at a place called Iron Eden, doing ornamental ironwork and custom fabrication. Then I ran my own shop called Red Star Iron Works for years, then I just got kind of burned out on it and walked off and made art. Then I worked in the film business, did that for a while. It’s a lot more profitable than making art.

(laughs) You say that so dispassionately. “Oh yeah, I was in the film business for a while, I did that and eh”-

Well, I got into the film business because, I used to have a studio space in a building over in Etna, and there was a fire in the building, and I lost all my stuff. And I was making work out of there that was paying the bills. So a bud that was working in the film business goes, “hey, you might need work right now, do you wanna come work as a painter on this movie?” That was The Road, the first movie I worked on. Kind of a bummer, the movie, but it was good. Not super “feel good”.

I did that for a long time and I just had to get out of it, because my daughter had to live with me with full time again. So I had to be around with her more than I had to make money. So I took the pay cut, figured it out, and went back on my full time dad duty, which—that’s my actual favorite activity anyway.

A crowd of ironworkers attend to the cupola.

Ed and the metal arts team during an iron pour, September, 2020. Photo by Richard Kelly.

Pouring the Cast

It seems like the way you got started in the metal arts was academic, in that you started at university. Is that how most people get into this field? Or was that the case at the time? ‘cause it seems like the spaces are shifting.

Art iron casting is pretty removed from the industrial foundries. It’s a real do-it-yourself kind of thing. For iron furnaces, I’ve never operated a furnace that wasn’t hand-built, homemade by someone I was working with. Apparently, industry was like, at one point, “a cupola is not gonna’ function, at that scale, for what you guys are trying to do.” So the old white beard dudes were, like, “OK, now we’re gonna’ have the smallest cupola festival to see how small we can make this work.”

What is a cupola, by the way?

A cupola is a coke-fired furnace for melting iron. It’s basically the furnaces at Carrie, those are just big cupola furnaces.

So building the smallest one you can that can still get hot enough to melt iron, not easy?

Yeah, I think it ended up being like three, four inches. And they would nerd out and make little tools and stuff for it. It’s pretty cute.

It’s interesting that you make this distinction between industry and art foundry. Working at Carrie, what is the relationship between the industrial history and the industry people who are still attached to that to your art and your program?

Well, I mean, the process is the same, largely. Us melting metal is not terribly different than people melting metal in the industry. Except for now, there aren’t many coke-fired iron foundries anymore in this country. It’s a lineage, y’know? It’s taking the industrial process and experimenting with it to make. These are simple, two-part, cope-and-drag molds for most of the things we do, so not all the technique that it would take the part for a car, but it’s the same process. But they won’t usually use cardboard, bubblewrap, and bull**** for their mold patterns.

Most of the people I know from industry who see us, they’re like “Oh, you’re just doing this for ****s and giggles? Just because?” It’s kind of hard not to respect that, if you have any respect for the process at all. If you’re like, “I hate it, I worked in the mill for years, why would you do that?”, that’s also (laughs) a pretty valid response. But I think most people are into it, they’re stoked to see people doing the work and keeping things going.

I’ve often joked I should have been a painter. It’s easier, and I still end up painting these things anyway.

As a sculptor, what about metal works grabbed you and made you say, I wanna’ do this?

Psychologically, it’s, like, the transformative process. Especially with this work at ZYNKA, using garbage and discarded materials, very temporal things, and then transforming that into something that’s relatively permanent…

What did these pieces start as, material-wise?

They’re a wide variety. There’s a lot of use of cardboard in a lot of these—it’s a very democratic material, everyone has access to it. And random stuff from the thrift store, like toys and craft materials. There are bottle nipples in one.

It’s a mold-making process, right—you make your pattern for the thing, either out of wood or all this stuff. These [the works in Labour of Love] are all cast from resin-bonded sand molds. It’s a two-part chemical, the catalyst and resin. Then you mix that in the sand, make a shape or a “flask” around the pattern in the mold, pack the sand, and flip it over, pack your lid. When you take it apart and take all the stuff out of there, you’ll have a void in the sand block. That’s your mold.

Then you make a “gate”, which is like a road, from the edge of the mold into your piece, so you can pour the metal. And you’ll need vents so the air can get out and doesn’t make an air bubble in the metal. Then you pour the iron in. The sand is a waste material, it’s a one-shot mold.

So these are all unique?

Yeah. There’s some of them where I recycled the patterns, like these two eyes. That was the first pull off the pattern, then that was the second pull off that pattern. So you can see, that iris was a plastic grocery bag material? When I pulled that first one out, that bag kind of blew out. So I just poked it in the eye and made another one.

I’ve been working with some of these patterns, especially the heads, for a while and reworked them. But this is probably my last show that’s gonna’ be all wall work, for a while. I’ve been working on wall pieces for a minute, not really doing much in the round, but I used to do a lot of installations, using some of the more temporal pattern pieces along with the metal.

So there’s a lot of steps. There’s a lot of steps that don’t involve touching the metal. Actually casting the pieces is one of the shortest parts. You get to touch the metal when it’s done, but I spend a lot more time with a hot glue gun and a paintbrush than I do actually, like, manipulating the metal for these pieces.

A white man wearing a faded red bandana mask points at the iris in his sculpture of an eye.

Ed Parrish points at the iris in his eye sculpture in the ZYNKA Gallery.

Breaking the Mold

So how did you end up working at Carrie?

I had worked with Ron [Baraff] before on an iron pour at the Pump House, probably in ’07. Then I did the casting for the Iron Garden project down there with my friends Josh and Addy and the Penn State Master Gardeners project. We did all the mold-making at my shop in Lawrenceville, 39th St, which has since been torn down to make room for condos. Then we did the pour at Carrie and installed those pieces and, after that, we really got the ball rolling to do more metal programming. It was kind of around the first time that Chris [McGinnis] was doing the Alloy program down there and Rivers of Steel was starting to get into more art programming,

And then, during the pandemic, Metal Arts was some of the only stuff that kept going. The facilities at Carrie are so big and so much of our work is outdoors so we were able to do a lot of socially-distanced programming, with Hot Metal Happenings and our doodle bowls.

A metal arts crew at dusk work a furnace.

A “Hot Metal Happening” at Touchstone Center for Crafts, 2019.

How did the Hot Metal Happenings happen?

That was programming I developed back in 2007. That was our name for our traveling foundry show, so it was easy to adapt to what we’re doing now. For the traveling pours, we mostly stick to aluminum pours. It’s a much easier lift, both weight-wise and the amount of crew. You can pour aluminum with three people. Pouring iron with three people, you’re not gonna’ be having a good time. It’s just too much work. Especially for the scale we do at Carrie, you want 10-15 people, at minimum.

So aluminum is easier?

Takes less heat, takes less materials. You can just pick up aluminum and get to work like– (clicks tongue).

Dipping into my Pittsburgh history, both aluminum and iron have been produced at an industrial scale here. The raw materials are mined here, right?

Yeah, the coal mines. The rock around here is basically coal, limestone, and iron ore. A lot of coal was imported here, transportation plays a huge role in Pittsburgh, but a lot of coal here too. So a lot of iron ore.

These minerals have taken on a kind of identarian role, almost spiritual role, for the people of Pittsburgh for nearly 200 years, because that’s what the economy has always been based on. I mean, we’re called “Rivers of Steel” – that’s what we identify by. What it’s like coming from North Carolina to a place like “the Rust Belt” that defines itself by this kind of material and this kind of work?

For me, I grew up in a working class family, so I have that kind of background. It makes sense to me. I identify with blue collar stuff. It’s a pretty natural shift, for me, to Pittsburgh, as far as that feeling. But also I always spent a fair bit of time in Appalachia, so I figured I should come to the Paris of it.

(laughs) Metal arts to me seems like a pretty “working class” field. Most of the people who end up in it identify with that idea?

Yeah. And, for me, even when I was in art school, the work that I was paying more attention to was more like craft and folk kind of art, what people describe as “outsider art”. I always respond to the rawness of that more so than hyper-conceptualized work that doesn’t have as much tooth to it at times. So there’s the grit of that that I always enjoyed. That’s one of the things that drew me to Pittsburgh originally, too. It’s fading away, you still have parts of Pittsburgh like this, but Pittsburgh used to be pretty grimy. And as much as I enjoy working class and blue collar stuff too, it’s also nice to have conversations with people who have expanded their brain beyond that kind of mentality and mind set… As much as my work is influenced by industrial history, working class stuff, it’s doing its own thing, too.

 

a grouping of cast iron, painted artworks on a wall.

Ed’s artworks on display at the ZYNKA Gallery.

Why faces?

Well, I was playing with more abstract kind of imagery, more cellular. With the faces, I made one and went, “That’s kind of like derp-y face”, and I was like, “Yeah, I’ll make more faces.” People relate to it. That’s how people communicate now, with little cartoon faces. And it’s also considering the idea of a mask, of an emotion, and seeing… seeing life and expression in everything? I’ll see a piece of cardboard on the side of the road, a sweet, wrinkled, rain-damaged piece of cardboard, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, get that!” I look at the age and character, what can be expressed in a piece of cardboard.

My experience with metal art is, it scares the **** out of me, to this day. It feels very, like, inert and lifeless. But the work you’re doing is very against that. It’s very cute, and kooky, it’s fun. It makes an interesting contrast to what I expect. Like, there is life in this.

Even before the paint, I think there’s a lot of life in this work. There’s movement. A lot of this work I started making  while processing a lot of loss. There was a lot of mourning process when creating these pieces, while trying to maintain a level of joy through that. I lost my mom and, six months later, the pandemic happened.

The work has always been very influenced by the women in my family, the craft work they did. People in my family always made stuff. I never had an understanding of “art” as a kid until I got into high school and a real art class, because it was always just stuff that we did. We were always making stuff. People like my mom, my aunt, my grandparents. And I think that shows too, in the pattern materials.

I think that’s interesting too, incorporating craft and women’s work. Because, I think, the association with metal is with these, like, big burly working men—

Yeah, that’s not true. It’s just perceived that way, in a lot of ways.

There’s a new director at this place called Franconia Sculpture Park, who was speaking of their 30 years of metal work happening at their sculpture as this kind of macho, machismo thing. When, in reality, the metal-casting community that I’m involved in has always been super inclusive. Generally, there is as many, if not more, women involved in all the pours that I have ran and been to over the years, and at that Sculpture Park, there’s a list of hundreds of women who have been and contributed to Park. And, yeah, you get young boys who start casting and it makes them feel like whatever...but as a community, as a whole, it’s a very inclusive community. Everybody’s welcome.

Yeah. The other thing is, trying to incorporate craft, I think there’s a very beautiful sentiment in trying to meld metal and craft, these things that are very gendered. 

The machismo, that myth, is what I think is not true. That’s just the patriarchal society that’s been ruining things on the planet for however long it has. And that’s changing, and that’s great.

Now that you say that, I see some of these, especially that one with the hair, as depiction of women?

I think most of my faces are pretty nonbinary. Someone once asked a friend of mine, “So what gender is your sculpture?” (laughs) And she says, “It’s a sculpture!”  But then she says, “You’re an a-hole for asking me what gender my sculpture is.” It’s a face. Is it the face of a woman or a man? I don’t know. These are all pretty fluid.

When people make the doodle bowls with Rivers of Steel, do they tend to make faces also? I did when I made mine. Do you think about that at all?

In those workshops, there’s a pretty wide variety of things and subject matters people make. A lady in the last one made a nice bowl with all the zodiac signs. Another made one with ribbons, because her friend had cancer. It’s all over the place with what people make on theirs. I don’t think I’ve seen many faces, though.

You talked a lot about the difficulty of the iron-casting process, that you need a team that really knows what they’re doing. The cool thing to me about the doodle bowls and the Hot Metal Happenings is, it makes these things accessible.

Yeah, the doodle bowl is a really easy way for people to get a glimpse into casting, to take something, make something rad that you can take home. The longer workshops that take longer let people get more creative. Even the ones that ask people to make a sculpture, instead of just scratching a design into a sand bowl, they’re pretty accessible. And they give you good experience. You can do all the jobs in the process, running the furnace. Can you go home and start your own baby furnace? Maybe. But at least you can dip your hands into all parts of the process.

What are the kinds of things that you’d like to do in the future, for the Metal Arts program at Rivers of Steel and your career? What’s next for Ed?

Me, I’m just looking forward to making some new work, continuing what I’m doing now but starting to explore space again, space in installations.

You’re an astronaut.

Traveling the spaceways. Listening to a lot of Sun Ra lately.

But I’m just making work, we’ll see where it goes. I usually work pretty intuitively, I don’t try to have too rigid of a plan going into making the work beforehand. So just taking a minor break, but not really a break, because two days later I’ll be in the basement working on patterns.

And stuff at Carrie, I’d like to sink my teeth into more programming, expanding what we’re doing through workshops, exhibitions, moving into offering some blacksmithing and fabrication. I’ve got this iron class I want to work on to combine the two mediums and bring partners in working both. I’d like to bring more sculpture down to Carrie, rotating like a sculpture park kind of thing. And we’re working on a diversity in metal arts program, to bring in a broader community and make this accessible to everyone.

Labour of Love, featuring Ed Parrish, Jr. & Jack Taylor, will be up at ZYNKA Gallery in Sharpsburg until May 30. You can also catch Ed at Rivers of Steel’s next Doodle Bowl Experience workshop.

A green glazed vase with an illustrative face paired with a white teapot with a figural image of a Black woman.

Heritage Highlights: Women of Visions

By Blog
Functional ceramics by Mary Martin, a member of the Women of Visions artists collaborative.

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage, from ethnic customs and occupational traditions directly linked to Pittsburgh’s industrial past, to new American folk arts and cultural practices emerging from the region’s diverse urban experience.  Usually passed down from person-to-person within close-knit communities, these cultural traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing one aspect of what makes southwestern Pennsylvania’s heritage so rich.

In this month’s installment, Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts Coordinator Jon Engel met with Women of Visions, a local Black women’s art collective. The group, which is based in Pittsburgh, seeks to help Black women show their art through collaborative exhibitions and other programming. Many kinds of artists are represented in the collective, including heritage artists practicing traditional African-American arts. This year, Women of Visions celebrates their 40th anniversary, and four of their members spoke to Jon about their individual crafts and the way the organization has helped them as artists.

Women of Visions

An Interview by Jonathan Engel

Through their conversations with Jon, artists Christine Bethea, LaVerne Kemp, Mary Martin, and Janet Watkins share elements of their craft and reflect on the how the Women of Visions organization has shaped their careers while providing support, camaraderie, and inspiration to themselves and other members.

Christine Bethea—A tradition of Quilting

As an art quilter, folk quilter / storyteller, and traditional quilter, I do nearly all the genres associated with the art form. The majority of my work, I machine quilt. I did a lot of it by hand at one time but found that time, for me, was best spent in the design. One thing I do prefer from the traditional school is the use of fabrics taken from vintage clothing. In the past, that’s where women got their fabrics. They almost never bought their cloth new. Most of these fabrics are no longer manufactured, and so any quilt I make will be quite unique because of the blend of old and new.

A quilt with a white background, stripes on the left & right border and a colorful patchwork in the middle that reads "The Hill is our home."

“The Hill is Our Home” by Christine Bethea.


A quilt of a Black cowboy on a horse

One of Bethea’s favorite pieces, “Deadwood Dick/African-American Cowboy”. She says she especially enjoyed “researching the history of black cowboys, who I was told as a child never existed”.

Why do you quilt? How does it fit into your life?

I believe I was born to it. My grandmother quilted, and her mother before her. It was a kind of therapy for me, and most likely them too. You could forget all your cares concentrating on a quilt. It made my children crazy watching me quilt. I did it a lot during my divorce. My daughter even wrote a poem for school, which I will never forget: “My mother made a quilt. She built and she built and she built. She built a big square layer by layer.” I think my friends thought it was pretty old fashioned. I found my “tribe” when I took a class at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts with Louise Silk, and later joined an African American quilt guild.

I’ve learned that I’m a salvage girl. I’m a Dumper Diver and love all that is recycled and repurposed in the world. I do assemblage art as well. Nearly all the quilters I know are doing some other kind of fiber art or mixed media art.

Who taught you to quilt?

I used to sleep under my grandmother’s quilts as she made them, because she worked on them in her bedroom after dinner. We grandkids often squeezed in with her. She’d be sitting on her favorite chair beside her bed, quilting, and I’d have about half the quilt—the done part—over me. When I woke up in the morning, the quilt would be mostly finished, and I’d be completely covered. She had worked on it long into the night, and often when my eyes popped open, she was already in the kitchen cooking breakfast. Those days were magical, filled with stories about her mother, gardening, and watching her take a short break in her constant work to skin a whole apple without breaking the peel. I’d wait in anticipation, but she never failed to produce a perfect spiral. Afterwards, she’d always share a slice or two of apple with me. It was the perfect bedtime snack.

What does quilting mean to you and your community?

A quilt with a red border with a white baseball bat on each side that has blue fabric in the middle and a portrait in fabric of Roberto Clemente. It also has photographs of him on fabric, along with his name and number "21".

“Roberto Clemente” by Christine Bethea.

As with my grandmother, quilts have been made by African American women—indeed, women the world over—not only as a necessity to keep their families warm, but as a creative release. It was an art form that was totally their own. Something that was not controlled by a world who saw little value in them or their work. When you worked on a quilt, you knew it was all yours. Made by cloth you chose and wrought through hours by your own hands. Even today, women who are unable to sell their quilts say: “It would be like giving away one of my children.”

How has quilting changed over time?

Not too much. Thank God. Much of the same block styles, the choice in traditional fabrics (like muslin), and the construction of quilts is very much the same. There are new construction techniques, however. The long-arm sewing machine, which I thought was invented maybe 30 year ago, was first made in 1871. Of course, the new ones are faster, and the movement has been vastly improved, but sewing is sewing. You can only make it easier and faster. I think that’s the secret of its staying power. Once you pick up a needle and sew, you connect with women—and men—going back to the ice age.

a quilt depicting a street scene with lots of people, mostly Black, and engaged in lots of activities.

“Hey-Day on the Hill” by Christine Bethea.

How do you think quilting will change over future generations?

Actually, I don’t see it changing. This is one tactile artform that no one is in a hurry to modernize, not so much. Doing what was always done is part of the charm of quilting. It’s not hurting anything, its eco-friendly, and it makes people happy.

What does Women of Visions mean to you? What do you want for the group?

At a time when the art world made it clear you were not part of its artistic conversation, you had to go somewhere. For many women in Pittsburgh, that was Women of Visions. I wasn’t a member at the beginning, but I was there for 16 years of my life. They let me know I was an artist, and it was alright, and they didn’t really care what other people thought about it. We wanted to create. We needed to create.

If we do our job right as an organization, WOV should be looking ahead to get recognition nationally. We’ve been swimming in the same pool for a long time, which is one reason I became President. We were getting stuck. We needed to pass the reigns to the next generation of young women and African-American artists.

I hope [people] will say of my work: she was at the forefront of Pittsburgh women working with salvage, as an African-American quilter, and as a mixed media artist.

LaVerne Kemp—A Culture of Weaving

A light skinned black woman with platinum curly hair works at a loom.

LaVerne Kemp

My medium at any time might be weaving, quilting, felt making, crocheting, basket making, book making, spinning, or dying, but my main focus and education has been in weaving. My art is soft and tactile. It almost always relates back to my African American heritage and traditions by the colors, patterns, and symbolism in my work. For example, if I am weaving, I have to put my own spin on it, and you can always feel my culture shining through.

What kind of weaving do you do?

I make a variety of items because I participate in art shows, not as much as I used to, but I like to keep my options open. My artwork ranges from large scale wall hangings and trees to smaller home decorative pieces like table runners and area rugs to shawls, ponchos, and jackets. I use a variety of materials from wool and silk that I purchase from across the US to repurposed fabrics, yarns, beads, and buttons for embellishments. I might turn anything into a piece of art! I don’t like to waste and I’ve always been able to see the beauty in things that others don’t, even people!

How did you learn to weave?

A colorful patchwork coat with mixed geometric patterns

A coat by LaVerne Kemp, stitched from upcycled materials.

I have been weaving since I took an elective in college called Threads and Fibers, where we made baskets, macrame, rugs, etc. And it changed my life. I produced large wall pieces like my professor, Leslie Parkinson, and she talked me into taking a weaving class. Although the loom was intimidating, I progressed from weaving a sampler to a coat in no time. I never had an art class before college but I always knew that I had an artist’s spirit. I always felt a little different but very creative, like both of my grandmothers. I come from a family of people who all had their own businesses so the art helped me assume my place in the world. I know that I was meant to be an artist/entrepreneur. This was God’s gift to me, and I was determined to make it happen, and it has. My art is my passion! I have to “touch” it daily or it feels like something is missing.

How has weaving changed over time?

Weaving has been around as far back as Biblical times. It is how people made their fabric for clothing and everyday items such as tent covers and table coverings. My personal interest is in the African traditional cloth, with their colors and patterns and textures and the meaning behind the symbolism, and how they were and still are made. It used to be that the men did the weaving in certain cultures while the women took care of the daily chores and the children. I believe that has changed somewhat now. Different parts of the continent have various traditions and there are now more women weaving, as well as different types of looms that the weaving is produced on.

How does Women of Visions influence you? What do you get out of being part of the group?

A lux orange shawl with purple details adorns an older black woman.

A handwoven shawl by LaVerne Kemp.

I appreciate all art forms and, of course, all art can be inspiring in one way or another. As a teacher, I am always taking classes of some sort to keep it fresh and exciting for my students. I have tried glass making, ceramics, and even a little painting and jewelry making. Each Women of Visions member and each exhibition brings forth something new and creative in my eyes and I have the other women to thank for that. But I have decided to stay in my element and stick with the softer side of the art world, with my fiber.

I have been told that I am the only African American weaver in Southwestern Pa. I know of two others who have passed away, so this might be true. To that end, I am a part of history. I’ve also been told that Women of Visions is the oldest African American women’s art group in the country, so again we are history, and I am proud to be of it. More than this, I feel good knowing that I have influenced so many others in my exhibitions and through my teaching. I have used the gift I was given.

Woven strips of canvas with photographs and names layered with yarn and beads to depict a family tree.

“Rooted by Blood: The Journey of Ono and Hattie Bell” by LaVerne Kemp, with detail inset.

Mary Martin—Communicating through Pottery

A younger, medium toned black woman with two tone glasses and a pea green headscarf.

Mary Martin

I am primarily a ceramic artist, but I also work in metal, glass, and collage. Each medium informs the other. It’s like a call-and-response experience. This is part of my heritage as well. Music is just another means to communicate.

I love making functional pottery that is heavily adorned with carved or hand drawn lines, patterns, and textures. I love making teapots, bowls, cups, vases, etc. But I also make abstract pieces to express personal stories as well. I work using wax, underglaze, stains, commercial glazes. I work on the potter’s wheel and hand-build. I’m constantly being influenced by West and East African designs. I am strongly influenced by textile designs as well.

I also work in metals to create functional body adornment. Brass and copper mainly. And my collages are made of magazine imagery, papers, and paint.

 

Why do you, personally, make art?

I make art because I love to have a purpose. My artwork is a means to preserve traditions that would otherwise die out. Artists have a responsibility to preserve our traditions. We are meant to share our gifts with others. I believe that we are here to raise questions, but also to find solutions about life. Problem solving is such a large part of what I do. If there’s no struggle, I feel like the work isn’t complete.

How did you learn ceramics?

A black teapot with white concentric half moon circles that create a geometric pattern.

A teapot by Mary Martin

My educational journey has been very non-traditional. I grew up in a creative house. My father is a painter and a retired art educator for Pittsburgh Public Schools. I would watch him expressing himself in multiple mediums: watercolor, sculpture, and he also made handmade leather handbags.

I went to art school to study architecture at Rhode Island School of Design. We were discouraged from taking classes outside of our major, so there was only one ceramic class that I was able to take at RISD. After college, I grew frustrated with finding entry level work in local architectural firms. Looking back, those experiences really reflect the racism that still exists within that field locally, as well as nationally. So, my mother encouraged me to make an appointment to show my portfolio to Bill Strickland at Manchester Craftsman’s Guild. He told me that he didn’t have architectural work, but that I could choose any of the art studios to work as a teaching artist. I chose Ceramics and never looked back! It was a community environment where there were always at least four instructors in the space to teach different approaches to art making. I was mentored by Josh Green. He’s now the Executive Director of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts.

Can you talk a bit about your ceramics tradition?

It was really interesting to discover that women are the primary artists working in clay in West Africa. I was really surprised to find this out, but I felt like I was part of a continuum, keeping that tradition alive. Like everything else, technology has replaced so many crafts that take time to create. It does feel like there’s a surge in folks wanting handmade art vs. factory-produced.

It’s a struggle to educate folks about the time it takes, though. I try to make pieces that are affordable by everyday folks so as not to cater to an audience that’s only wealthy. My works are appreciated by a wide variety of people. That excites me. I want everyone to have access to beautiful things, not just the wealthy.

I see my work as a continuum. It excites me to have a connectivity to an unbroken chain of artists with a common language. I know that some things that I make are subconscious decisions. It is exciting to discover an artist that connects with my work through the medium, process, content, or imagery. It’s that common language that runs deep as the rivers that Langston [Hughes] spoke about.

A teal plate with concentric circle and a hand depicted on it and a second plate in white with a woman with braided hair and a geometric halo.

Two plates by Mary Martin

Broadly, what role does Women of Visions play in your art life? What is the value of this collective to you — professionally, artistically, emotionally, whatever?

WOV has been a major influence on my artistic growth as an artist.

My mother was in an African American female book club with a member of the group, Jacqueline Poindexter Jordan. She mentored me as soon as I relocated back to Pittsburgh from college. My first show was that summer, as part of the Harambee Black Arts Festival in Homewood. I was recruited to join the group when I dropped off my drawings for the exhibit. I was seeking other African American female artists to connect with and this felt like it. At the time, I was their youngest member, and I wanted to learn how to navigate the art scene in Pittsburgh.

The group has always brought about opportunities to stretch my imagination, to step outside of my comfort zone, and to step into administrative roles that I’d never thought I’d do well in. It’s offered me opportunities to grow professionally, artistically, and spiritually. I’ve always believed in collaboration, mentoring, and purpose. WOV offered all of these aspects.

As a mother, a daughter, granddaughter, aunt, niece, etc. I also feel that this group has been a constant reminder of femininity. It is one of the few spaces that I inhabit where I can be myself and see myself in other black female artists. I live the life of a chameleon, forced to change skins depending on the space that I’m in. WOV makes room for me unlike no other place. It’s about purpose, reciprocity, growth and identity. We support one another in ways that don’t happen in the workplace: I’ve connected with the members of the group with long term relationships that have been nurtured for almost three decades. My marriage, my children’s births, are all mapped with WOV experiences in mind. I can track any of these experience by associating them with one another. That’s how integral this is in my life.

Janet Watkins—A (Second) Career in Ceramics

A black woman in a white shirt holds a colorful ceramic bust that appears as if it could be a self-portrait.

Janet Watkins

My passion for working with clay actually didn’t begin until after I retired from a 30 year career in banking. I was looking for an affordable hobby, then one day I noticed the beautiful church in my neighborhood posted a sign showing open studio pottery class.  I stopped in, paid the hourly rate, and after one hour of working with clay I was amazed at the possibilities. I enjoyed the clay and process so much. In that short afternoon I discovered what I thought was merely going to be a new hobby.

What kind of ceramics do you create?

I usually work with brown earthenware, red clay, and porcelain. The type of work I create is mostly hand-built, functional, sculptural, and unique gardening art.  I enjoy incorporating salvaged and discarded items into my work.  I will often use items such as old, recycled telephone wire for hair, screws, bolts, old buttons, scrap wood & metal parts for added interest and texture for my artwork.

An earthenware nude torso and head of a young black woman with shoulder length straight hair.

“Adolescent Girl” by Janet Watkins.

My passion for sculptural work comes from my early childhood time spent playing with dolls. And later in life, after retirement, spending time with my granddaughters making dolls out of playdough. I often find inspiration and attempt to repeat certain facial features of people I meet or just observe in conversation. I may talk with someone and notice they have unique or unusual eyes, nose, or face. There are often times when I will dream of a sculpture and wake in the morning, wanting to run to the studio and begin a new piece. It is so satisfying seeing the completed work. This form of art, I enjoy doing with my granddaughters, and I am passing it along to the two of them.

Why do you make art? What does it mean to you?

Coming up as a child both my parents were creative. Unfortunately, neither of them had the luxury of being able to be artists; they were much too busy working to make ends meet for me and my siblings. They raised us with the “can-do spirit”.  They didn’t have extra money, so whenever we needed something, we found ways to make it.  Example: when I got married, I made all of my bridesmaids’ gowns, the flower bouquets, and my wedding bouquets.  We made our clothes for special occasions, such as prom gowns.

My career in art started just a short three years ago and I am still learning different techniques.  I am what many would call a “shelf-made artist”.  I work out of the little church where I first discovered clay — there is a very talented group of potters who are always willing to teach and share information.

How did you join Women of Visions, and how has it affected your art?

Nine multicolored clay masks of women's faces

“Me Too Group” by Janet Watkins.

I knew about WOV for many years.  In fact, I attended several of their exhibits before becoming a member.  Two of the members visited my home and noticed a few items I had created. One member, Charlotte Kai, asked me if I ever thought of becoming a member of WOV.

In our group, we have many artists who work with several different mediums.  This inspires collaboration between artists. As a new artist, I am still in the experimental phase. I have an appreciation for each artist and the medium which they chose to create from.

Exhibitions are a wonderful opportunity to grow, learn, experiment and challenge yourself. Sometimes you may create something based on a theme or title which you are not passionate or motivated about.  This is exactly why I love being a part of this group.  It’s in this type of situation where you learn and grow.

We as artists all enjoy creating. However, it’s important for me to be able to share my work, get feedback from my peers, and sell my work. By selling, I can purchase supplies and make space in my studio for more work.

Women of Visions’ website states that “We envision that in the next decade, we can create a visual record that places us in the annals of American history”. What does that mean to you, to be remembered in history?

 We have a wonderful group of women from all different walks of life and different levels of work.  Some have studied and taught art and some, like myself, are self-taught and still learning.  I hope women, regardless of the color of their skin, can be encouraged and know you are never too old to begin a new career and learn something new.  As for the group, what we share is a strong love of art and a desire to see each one of us be successful in our art form.  We can be an example for all women for years to come.

A porcelain figure with her hands behind her back, flower on her dress and a small box sculpted out between her hips that holds a vase with flowers inside

A small figurine by Janet Watkins.


A bronze colored sculpture of a woman's hands crossed over her lap

“Sitting Girl” by Janet Watkins.


A red clay couple seemingly joined at the shoulder with closed eyes and smiles

“Soulmates Couple” by Janet Watkins.

Read more in the Heritage Highlights series. Our most recent story is on Mon Valley folk artist Kathleen Ferri

August Wilson’s American Century Cycle

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Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences (Paramount Pictures)

A Look at August Wilson’s American Century Cycle

Brianna Horan

By Brianna Horan

The Carrie Carpool Cinema season kicks off this weekend with a duet of movies that were filmed in Pittsburgh: Fences on Friday night and The Dark Knight Rises on Saturday night. Both features have backdrops that will be recognizable to locals, but the setting is especially vital to the essence of Fences, a 2016 film adapted from the sixth play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle and set in the Hill District, where the playwright was born and raised.

A collection of ten plays, each taking place in a different decade of the 20th century, the American Century Cycle depicts the struggles and triumphs of everyday life while demonstrating the impacts that slavery, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, and institutional racism have on everyday people. As in real life, the pull of the past and the hopes for the future are intertwined with the here and now in Wilson’s plays. Written and staged between 1982 and 2005, all but one of the plays in the American Century Cycle are set in the Hill District.

A black man in brown suit and gray cap with a salt and pepper goatee

August Wilson at the side of 1727 Bedford Avenue in 1999. His two-room childhood home is up the stairs at the rear right. Courtesy of the August Wilson House / augustwilsonhouse.org.

“The lessons, stories, laughs, cries, anguish, hope, fervor, pain, resilience, and love reflected in my Uncle’s body of work are as relevant today as they are poignant when they were written. They stem from the Black experience, but with universal appeal and relatability,” says Paul A. Ellis, Jr., Esq., nephew of August Wilson, and Founder of the August Wilson House, a local, and national historic landmark located in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. “Fighting for equity, an aversion to blight, equal citizenship, basic community resources and amenities, safety, empathy, effective representation, and fair dealing are all concepts not dependent on demographics, just humanity and equitable application. The Historic Hill District has a stunning history of beauty and targeted destruction—the proper outcome of its residents’ ongoing struggles is a complete restoration of economic and cultural vitality.”

Indeed, the forces at play in one of the central struggles of Fences, set in 1957, remain a contentious issue today. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning play and “Best Picture” Oscar-nominated film, 53-year-old Troy Maxson grapples with his frustration and disappointment about the limited prospects that were available to him as a talented baseball player because of the major leagues’ refusal accept Black players. He provides for his family as a sanitation worker, and fights for Black workers to be allowed to drive the garbage trucks as well as load them. Maxson’s resulting bitterness creates complicated relationships with his family and the way they live their lives. Last year’s announcement from Major League Baseball that the Negro Leagues’ statistics will be incorporated into major league records has highlighted the many ways that the experiences of Black and white players were very separate and very unequal, and continue to have harmful repercussions today.

Written and staged between 1982 and 2005, Wilson’s epic ten-play collection is considered to be one of the premiere achievements of American theater. His masterpieces earned two Pulitzer Prizes, multiple Tony Award nominations (and a win for Fences), a Peabody, and many other accolades. They also brought the Hill District—and unrepresented voices—to stages on Broadway and across the globe. The Pittsburgh Courier, the Crawford Grill, Satchel Paige, Wylie Avenue, Diamond’s Five and Ten, and other local landmarks all contribute to the lively character of the Hill District in the plays—as they did on Herron Hill before Pittsburgh’s urban renewal campaign in the late 1950s and 1960s condemned and demolished the homes of 8,000 people and 400 businesses in the heart of a nationally-renowned center of Black culture and entrepreneurship. When the Civic Arena and its surrounding parking lots were built on the cleared land of the Lower Hill in 1961, the remaining residents were physically cut off from downtown, leading to further isolation and lack of resources for the neighborhood.

Born in 1945, Wilson spent the first 13 years of his life in a two-room flat (later four rooms) with his mother and five siblings at 1727 Bedford Avenue, a red-brick multi-family, multi-use building. The Hill District of his youth was multi-ethnic (mostly Jewish, Italian, and Black), and he would later remember his childhood as “wonderful… As a family, we did things together. … We all sat down and had dinner at a certain time. … We didn’t have a TV, so we listened to the radio.” The family and neighborhood life that was happening around him all inspired his plays in a very personal way that millions of audience members would later be moved by. “I happen to think that the content of my mother’s life—her myths, her superstitions, her prayers, the contents of her pantry, the smell of her kitchen, the song that escaped from her sometimes parched lips, her thoughtful repose and pregnant laughter—are all worthy of art.”

Along with art, Daisy Wilson opened her son’s mind to knowledge by teaching him to read at age four. Wilson was a bright and creative student, but after a series of demoralizing school experiences—he faced daily racist taunts at Central Catholic, felt unchallenged at Connelly Trade School, and then was accused of plagiarizing a paper as a 15-year-old at Gladstone High in Hazelwood—he dropped out in tenth grade and educated himself by reading voraciously at the Carnegie Library of Oakland. Wilson often called himself a “graduate of the Carnegie Library,” and years later the Carnegie presented him with an honorary diploma. Wilson co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in his early twenties in 1968 a few streets over from his birthplace. The characters he wrote would be infused with the stories and voices of the people in the restaurants, barbershops, and streets around him in The Hill, preserving the neighborhood on paper while so many of its physical structures were being destroyed and its people and culture were being displaced.

Wilson’s childhood home on Bedford Avenue still stands today, just a few blocks behind where the demolition of the Lower Hill was centered. He visited the building for the last time in 1999, six years before his death in 2005. By then it was already derelict, and admirers of his work who came to visit this foundational place found a wreck rather than a site worthy of the playwright’s legacy. Wilson’s nephew, Paul A. Ellis, Jr., Esq., is leading an initiative to create just such a place as the Executive Director of the Daisy Wilson Artist Community, Inc., named for Wilson’s mother. The August Wilson House (AWH), which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is in the process of being restored by the nonprofit to its 1950s period of significance in Wilson’s life, but in keeping with his wishes it will be “useful” rather than a museum. In addition to celebrating the literary and personal legacy of August Wilson, the mission of the August Wilson House is to serve as an arts center to nurture the historic Hill District community and arts practitioners and scholars influenced by his work.

A crowd of theater-goers sitting in the round behind the August Wilson House.

An early fruit of the AWH restoration was this 2016 back- yard production of “Seven Guitars,” staged in the exact space August describes in the script, drawing on memories of his family life. Courtesy of the August Wilson House / augustwilsonhouse.org.

While the renovation work is in progress, the AWH has already begun hosting an annual August Wilson Birthday Block Party, which will take place virtually and in-person with Covid precautions this year on April 27. This year the artwork of ten local artists honoring the playwright’s legacy and influence will be unveiled, each one receiving a $1,000 grant. The annual Duquesne University / August Wilson House Fellowships are also underway—the inaugural Fellow Natasha Trethewey, who is a former U.S. Poet Laureate, a Pulitzer-Prize winner for poetry, and author of memoir Memorial Drive, attended the groundblessing ceremony for the AWH in 2018 and read one of her poems. The Fellowships are intended to allow nationwide artists of color to be artists in residence and “engage in literary, cultural, and artistic expression that advances their own work and serves the joint interests of the university and community.” The 2019 Fellow was Njaimeh Njie, a Pittsburgh-based photographer, filmmaker, and multimedia producer who created the public art project, “Homecoming: Hill District, USA.”

In addition to support from local and national foundations and donors, restoration of the August Wilson House is also supported by director and actor Denzel Washington, who is leading the efforts to bring all of the American Century Cycle to film. He assembled a $5 million donation in 2018 with contributions from Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Shonda Rhimes, Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Antoine Fuqua, and himself. Washington directed Fences and starred as Troy Maxson alongside Viola Davis as wife Rose Maxson (reprisals of the Tony Award-winning roles they played in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play). Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is set in Chicago but was filmed in Pittsburgh, debuted on Netflix in October 2020. The other eight plays of the Cycle will also be adapted.

Rivers of Steel is pleased that Ellis will attend Friday’s screening of Fences, and will deliver remarks that include an update about the August Wilson House restoration, and his experience with Washington during the filming of Fences.

This article was published to coincide with the screening of Fences at the Carrie Blast Furnaces. For more about the Carrie Carpool Cinema drive-in film series, click here