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Fireworks in downtown Pittsburgh

Heritage Highlights: Local New Year’s Traditions

By Blog, Heritage Highlights
Fireworks at the Point of Pittsburgh.

Heritage Highlights—Local Ways of Celebrating the New Year

Like so many others at this time of year, we are considering the past as we look toward what the new year will bring. For today’s Heritage Highlights story, we examine some popular local new year’s ethnic traditions and their origins, while welcoming a new perspective on this holiday’s traditions—that of the local Turkish community.

By Julie Silverman, Contributing Writer

Hundreds gather around a well lit new years ball as snow falls in front of historic, columned buildings and a clocktower.

In Harmony, fireworks go off at 6 p.m. after a countdown and ball drop, orchestrated by a local tree trimmer who donates the use of his bucket truck to lower a sparkling ball in the middle of the town square.

Embracing Long-Held Traditions

Pittsburgh is a city filled with shared traditions from the many communities that arrived here from other countries. Industry enticed immigrants to the three rivers area, and foods and customs of those who traveled here found their way into our kitchens and holiday traditions.

German traditions have sweetened the New Year’s Day breakfast with soft cinnamon pretzels topped with icing, glazes, fruits and sprinkles. In Pittsburgh, this good-luck pretzel is often eaten just after midnight for luck in the coming year. Perhaps the snack is eaten at midnight to make room for the hearty meal that takes center stage on New Year’s Day.

A tradition that began in Germany fills Pittsburgh homes with the pungent aroma of sauerkraut, and the savory smells of pork or kielbasa. Eating pork and sauerkraut is believed to bring luck and good fortune in the upcoming year. Pork symbolizes positive progress in the new year based on the fact that pigs move their snouts forward as they forage for food. Green cabbage represents money and good fortune, and finding long strands of cabbage in your sauerkraut portends long life.

A full German celebration takes place in the small town of Harmony, in Butler County. The Silvester New Year’s Eve celebration begins at 6:00 p.m., when clocks are striking midnight in Germany. Visitors from all around the area gather to participate in the festivities organized by the Harmony Museum and the Harmony Parks Board.

If you celebrate in the Irish tradition, you may find yourself banging bread on the walls and doors of your home. If you hadn’t baked fresh bread, pots, pans or wooden spoons will do. The noise will frighten away the bad spirits and bad luck and invite in the good spirits to protect the home in the upcoming year. Another Irish tradition is to begin the new year with a clean slate, symbolized by a clean home. And after midnight, you enter your home through the front door exit through the back door for good luck. Less about luck, and more about honoring those who are no longer present, many Irish families set an extra plate at the table on New Year’s Eve for their missing loved ones.

Artist Benjamin Aysan with First Lady Frances Wolf and Governor Tom Wolf

Artist Benjamin Aysan, seen here with former First Lady Frances Wolf and Governor Tom Wolf.

Celebrating in the Turkish Tradition

Given Pittsburgh’s demographics, which for much of its history has ranked German and Irish ancestry as the two most populous ethnic groups, it is not surprising that the aforementioned traditions have become commonplace. However, this got us thinking—how might some more recently arrived immigrant groups celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day?

So, we looked to our friend and frequent collaborator Bunyamin Aysan to share Turkish cultural traditions around the holiday. The Turkish community is a relative newcomer to Pittsburgh and Bunyamin, who also goes by the name of Benjamin, took a moment before teaching an evening mosaics art class at the Turkish Cultural Center to discuss Turkish new year’s traditions. The Turkish Cultural Center located in Pittsburgh’s Banksville neighborhood. Benjamin is also the outreach coordinator for the Turkish Cultural Center’s City of Bridges Foundation, a facilitator of interfaith dialogue across the many cultures of Pittsburgh.

Turkish traditions for the new year include wearing something red at midnight to usher in good luck. In Turkish culture, pomegranates symbolize prosperity and luck, and by smashing and eating the seeds of a pomegranate, Turks hope to invite good fortune into their homes.

Benjamin talks about those in the Turkish community celebrating the new year in different ways. Some embrace more of the western culture’s festivities, some groups don’t celebrate at all, and some, like his family, mark the evening by gathering together and sharing of their expectations for the new year.

Within the Turkish community, speaking of hopes and dreams for the upcoming year becomes an important discussion. Each person takes a turn sharing their expectations. Benjamin says, “When you look to start the new year, you have new schedules, new programs, and you also have new hopes and new expectations.” Benjamin talks of checks and balances from year to year. “Maybe we can look at new relationships with our neighborhood,” he said, “We can look toward what we might have done wrong last year and then look at our expectations for the new year.” The tradition of asking each other what their prospects are for the upcoming year is shared among family, friends, and neighbors.

Part of the family celebration may be watching TV or listening to Turkish traditional music. There are many different types, from soft background music, Turkish cultural music, and Turkish art music. “Turkish traditional music depends on what you like,” Benjamin says. “Today the culture is mixed all around the globe. Kids listen to the music that is trending, like Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.”

Gifts are a part of the Turkish new year tradition. Benjamin is careful to note these gifts are specifically for the new year, rather than for Christmas. Turkey is a primarily Muslim county, and Turkish-Americans do not typically celebrate Christmas. Benjamin says his children will drop hints for new year gifts, like a new computer or online games. Gifts are also exchanged with neighbors as foods are prepared and shared.

A box filled with dozens of Turkish baklava.

Turkish baklava, photo by Engin Akyurt.

Foodways Traditions

Eating with family members and with neighbor friends is part of the New Year’s Eve tradition. Dinner usually includes well known Turkish dishes from traditional Turkish cuisine, including kabobs, barbecue, and certainly Turkish pastries like borek, a pastry made of a thin flakey dough that may be filled with meat, cheese, spinach or potatoes.

A classic Turkish dinner would include soup, a main dish of meat or chicken, salads, and juice, like orange, apple, or lucky pomegranate juice.

In Turkish culture, a meal isn’t a meal without bread. Benjamin says, “So much bread! In Turkish culture, bread is very important. Turkish culture may be one of the most bread eating cultures on the globe. Oven breads and white breads. There are so many kinds of Turkish breads.” Leavened and unleavened breads, known as yufka, pide, bazlama, and the aforementioned borek are among the many breads found in Turkish culture.

Benjamin says that on special days, New Year’s Day being one, when you get together with your friends, the big Turkish dessert is baklava. “If you celebrate anything, you bring baklava,” he says. “Everyone is looking forward to baklava, it is so good. There are mainly two kinds of traditional baklava, pistachio, and the other is walnuts. Pistachio is the main one. Baklava is what we call ‘the king of the desserts’.” It’s not for every day, he says, just for special occasions.

In Turkey and around the world, fireworks lighting up the sky at midnight is another tradition. So here in Pittsburgh, Benjamin’s family and neighbors will often drive to view a fireworks display and count down together to midnight.

New Year’s festivities are more of a western tradition in Pittsburgh. As technology and social media make different traditions accessible around the world, traditions are shared and often adapted. Still, family and community remain the center of many Turkish celebrations as the calendar turns to January.

About Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage—from ethnic customs and industrial arts directly linked to the Heritage Area’s past to contemporary folk arts and cultural practices emerging from the region’s diverse urban and rural experiences. Usually passed down from person to person within close-knit communities, these traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing another part of southwestern Pennsylvania’s rich ways of life.

A white woman with coily hair in a blue shirt smiles in front of a white background.

Julie Silverman is a museum educator, tour facilitator, and storyteller of astronomy and history for various Pittsburgh area organizations, including Rivers of Steel.  A Chatham University 2020 MFA graduate, her writing is most often found under the by-line of JL Silverman. Occasionally, under the name of Julia, she has been seen on TV.

If you’d like to read more of our Community Spotlight stories, click here.

A diverse group of eight people stand and sit around a table, looking and smiling for the camera.

Heritage Highlights: Currents

By Blog, Heritage Highlights

Collaborators with the Currents program: (Top row from left) Alison Zapata, Lindsay Huff, Jon Engel, Katy DeMent, Til Gurung, and Chitra Gurung. (Seated from left) Benjamin Aysan and Gloria Bal. Participating, but not shown here, is artist Jennie Reyes.

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage—from ethnic customs and industrial arts directly linked to the Heritage Area’s past to contemporary folk arts and cultural practices emerging from the region’s diverse urban and rural experiences. Usually passed down from person to person within close-knit communities, these traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing another part of southwestern Pennsylvania’s rich ways of life.

Earlier this year, our Heritage Arts Coordinator, Jon Engel, teamed up with the Pittsburgh Center for Arts & Media (PCA&M) for a community-building project, dubbed Currents, that collaborated with new American groups in the city of Pittsburgh. Jon and several of PCA&M’s staff artists led an educational program for immigrant tradition-bearers, culminating in a series of free arts workshops for their communities. At the end of their year together, these traditional artists left with a new network of mentors and new ways to share their cultural skills with others. In this article, Jon speaks with each of the artists, as well as leaders from their communities, about why this series and these traditions are so vital and important to their people.

Currents Traditional Arts Education Training

By Jon Engel

A Reflection On Connection

It’s easy for me to take my daily life for granted—the same work, the same food, the same commute. While routine can fade easily into boredom, it is actually made up of a thousand things—traditions and value systems emanating from complex cultures and histories. I love my job because it surrounds me with people from incredibly different cultures who have unique stories to share. These individuals’ journeys are quite unlike my own, yet I consistently connect with them, understanding where our similarities converge. Recognizing that in one another has been a form of incredible awakening that for me has been enlightening.

Last April, the light shone in as I ate dinner at the home of Benjamin Aysan, a Currents artist and traditional Turkish calligrapher. We were sharing chicken and roasted potatoes, just as I would at any of my grandfather’s Christmas dinners. However, this was an iftar, a Ramadan feast. For one month, practicing Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, denying themselves sustenance so as to strengthen their own contemplation of God and their relationship to compassion. At the end of each day, they hold one of these dinners, trading food between family members. On this occasion, Benjamin and his family shared their meal with the rest of the Currents cohort and me. We ate as Benjamin spoke about the deep wisdom of his people, the things that Ramadan teaches and the people it brings together. I sat and listened, seated among engineers, bakers, and rice farmers from all around the world, artists all, and thought fondly about my dad’s potatoes.

15 people with diverse skin tones gather for a group photo, seated on an L-shaped couch, looking up at the camera.

The collaborators of the Currents project, gathered with their immediate families at Benjamin Aysan’s home in April 2023.

Traditions like this are built to foster intimacy. In part, that is why they are so valuable. Prior to that dinner, the team at PCA&M, which included Mary Brenholts, their director of artists in schools and communities, along with teaching artists Katy DeMent, Lindsay Huff, and Alison Zapata, worked with Rivers of Steel and the community artists for six months. Our goal: to translate that intangible value into a series of arts workshops, highlighting the unique traditions of the artists—and their communities—who gathered for this special meal.

In addition to Benjamin, three more artists were nominated by a Pittsburgh Area ethnic center representing their communities. They included Gloria Bal, who also originated from Turkey, Chitra Gurung of Bhutan, and Jennie Reyes of the Philippines.

Benjamin, Gloria, Chitra, and Jennie were selected based on their expertise in traditional forms, along with their desire to share that expertise with the people around them. Under the guidance of Katy, Lindsay, and Alison, each artist created a lesson plan that communicated their skills and gave context as to why their practice was so important to their community. Afterward, they taught these lesson plans to other members of their community in a free gathering at their ethnic center.

Starting this fall, these lesson plans will available at various local libraries. For now, it is my deepest honor to introduce you to the Currents cohort of 2023.

Our Traditional Artists

Eight young girls, nearly all with long, dark hair gather around a woman with her hair covered as she looks down and demonstrates, gesturing with her hand.

A group of middle schoolers gathers around Gloria Bal at the Turkish Cultural Center to learn the water marbling process.

Gloria Bal with the Turkish Cultural Center

Gloria Bal was born in Istanbul, the capital of Turkey, where she studied to be a teacher. Since moving to the United States to complete her Master’s degree, she has taken an interest in ebru, a traditional Turkish form of water marbling. In this art, Gloria uses natural products like ox gall to thicken a tray of water, transforming it into a fluid yet jelly-like substance. She then draws on the water with special ebru paints that float on the surface, instead of dispersing through the liquid, allowing the waves and ripples to shape the image. She uses these properties to make images like flowers and hearts, which she can copy onto paper by laying it on the water.

“In this art, the tulip shape is important,” she says, “It is a symbol for Turkish culture. Because a tulip comes from a single bulb, it symbolizes the one and only oneness of God. Ebru has a big philosophy behind it.”

A tray is filled with water with ink dripped and stylized on the surface of the water. The background is yellow . The design looks like white and purple abstract flowers with green leaves.

Midway through the process of creating an ebru artwork. The paint has been applied over the water and designs have been created within it. Placing paper over the design is the next step.

Historically, ebru was often practiced by dervishes, a kind of Islamic mystic. Echoing this, Gloria finds it deeply spiritual and calming. “This art teaches us to be patient because when you’re doing it, you can’t do it fast. You need to be slow and focused. And you can’t do the same thing with the water every time, you’re going to do it different.”

A somewhat rotund man of Turkish decent points a board with a drawing on it. It also reads "Calligraphy Lesson"

Artist Benjamin Aysan demonstrates the angles desired as he workshops his calligraphy lesson.

Benjamin Aysan with the Turkish Cultural Center

Once used primarily to decorate mosques and copies of the Quran, calligraphy has a very similar place in Turkey. “In many different cultures,” Benjamin says, “calligraphy has significant cultural and historical importance. In addition to being a beautiful art form, it is a way to celebrate and preserve that cultural history via the written word.”

On top of his calligraphy practice, Benjamin is also the outreach coordinator for the Turkish Cultural Center Pittsburgh, located just off Banksville Road. In both this role and his work as an artist, he seeks to connect Turkish culture to other cultures. “We focus on fostering cross-cultural dialogue, comprehension, and appreciation. Providing opportunities for people from all backgrounds to learn about Turkish culture, art, and customs, workshops aid in the achievement of these objectives.”

“Programs like Currents provide possibilities for visibility, teamwork, and skill development,” he adds. “That makes it easier for artists to communicate with audiences and other artists, encouraging participants to appreciate and understand one another.”

A Filipino woman stands and gestures towards two garments that are hanging behind her.

Jennie Reyes shows off various Philippine fabrics.

Jennie Reyes with the Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh

Jennie Reyes grew up in the town of Daraga, Albay, in the southeast of Luzon, the main island of the Philippines. Growing up, her family ran a manufacturing business, which produced housewares, handbags, novelties, and more from the island’s natural materials, and sold them for export. These materials included plants like seagrass, rattan, wicker, and abacá. The abacá is a Filipino banana plant, the leaves of which can be processed into an extremely strong fiber sometimes called “Manila hemp.” Jennie worked as the head of product development for her family’s company and learned a deep reverence for this material from the artisans her family employed on their production lines. She learned how to weave abacá by traveling across the Philippines and the world for trade shows and observing the local techniques these merchants brought with them.

“I have been surrounded by beautiful handmade products,” Jennie says of her work. “I would like to emphasize their importance because there are only a few small cottage industries and villages that are engaged in creative handmade weaving. In this age of technology, I think It is important to preserve and continue the traditions of hand-weaving of abacá fibers.”

Lani Mears, president of the Filipino Association, personally recommended Jennie explore teaching through the Currents program. “According to the unofficial results of the census in 2020, there are over 8,500 Filipinos in the greater Pittsburgh region,” she says. “A significant portion of the Filipino immigrants are in mixed marriages, so it’s very crucial for us to promote programs that educate the partners and the children about our backgrounds, our heritage, and our culture.”

“Workshops like the one conducted by Jennie highlight the livelihood and crafts of our people. They provide Filipinos who attend them a feeling of pride and self-identity. And, because the workshops are open to non-Filipinos, we are also providing opportunities for much deeper relationships and mutual understanding.”

Two men in hats work at weaving reeds.

Chitra Gurung, left, instructs a Bhutanese American man, sharing how to create a ghum—a woven umbrella traditionally used by rice farmers.

Chitra Gurung with the Himalayan Foundation-USA

In the past fifteen years, Pittsburgh has become home to thousands of Bhutanese Americans, many of them originating from rural villages high in the Himalayan mountains. These villagers, largely descended from groups who migrated north from Nepal centuries ago, are members of a vast array of ethnic groups and religions. Each has their own unique farming methods, ceremonies, and cultural traditions. They are unified primarily by their use of the Nepali language, as opposed to the Dzongkha language favored by Bhutan’s primarily Buddhist ethnic majority. In the 1980s and ’90s, the Bhutanese government heavily persecuted Nepali speakers and other village people, categorizing them as “illegal immigrants” and denying them their rights to property and / or their traditional religious beliefs. Many people were displaced as they lost their homes or fled oppression, leading to the establishment of massive refugee camps in Nepal, where cultures intermingled and traditions were adapted for their new circumstances.

In 2008, the United Nations began to voluntarily resettle many people in those camps to new countries, with the United States taking in around 60,000 people. Since then, Pittsburgh has become a major cultural hub for Bhutanese American communities, first as a city where many were settled and then as thriving communities as folks flocked to live alongside friends, family, and others who spoke their language. These communities vary vastly in age and experience, ranging from elders who spent the majority of their life in the homeland to young children who have never left this city. In times like these, artisans like Chitra Gurung have become vastly important to their people as guardians of memory.

Chitra was born in the village of Gairigaon in the Sipsoo area of southwestern Bhutan. He is a craftsman of many talents, including woodcarving and weaving, which he primarily used to create tools, baskets, and other utilitarian items on his family’s farm. After the displacement of his village, he lived for a while in the refugee camps. There, he applied his skills to survive in a very different reality—learning, for instance, to weave with strips of fiber torn from plastic packaging rather than split from bamboo stocks. Since moving to Pittsburgh, he has become a gardener here as well, adopting power tools and store-bought twine. His craft practices are thus more than practical but are also records of the many ways he has lived his life and the experiences these disparate peoples have shared.

Chitra also works closely with Himalayan Foundation-USA, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that helps to preserve memories of life in Bhutan and in the camps while also working to sustain the shared community of Bhutanese Americans. They offer many social programs, particularly to elders and youth, and are working toward the creation of a museum in Pittsburgh that will honor each of the individual Himalayan ethnicities now living here. At the workshop led by Chitra, elders worked together to create a ghum—a woven umbrella for rice farmers—but also sang, danced, and discussed times gone by.

“Elderly people are isolated, even within their family,” says Til Gurung, president of the Himalayan Foundation, “because the subject of their interest—their skills, their experiences— are totally different to their children and grandchildren. They don’t have much opportunity to express their feelings, to share their experience, to tell their stories.”

“But this type of project, the workshop and the get-together, gives them this opportunity to share with their friends who really understand and have similar experiences.”

Jon Engel HeadshotJon Engel is the Heritage Arts Coordinator for Rivers of Steel and the author of the Heritage Highlights column.

To read more about local traditional artists, check out the other articles in our Heritage Highlights series, including this piece about Ukrainian pysanky in Carnegie. To see more of our work with Benjamin, you can read our interview with him from 2021 or check out this calligraphy tutorial he made with us last year. If you’d like to learn more about the process of water marbling or even try it for yourself, check out this heritage craft tutorial and kit that highlight Gloria Bal’s practice. 

A tray is filled with water with ink dripped and stylized on the surface of the water. The background is yellow . The design looks like white and purple abstract flowers with green leaves.

Heritage Highlights: Ebru Heritage Craft Kits

By Blog, Heritage Highlights
Ebru, a Turkish water marbling practice., shown here  in progress, for the Ebru Heritage Craft Kit.

Heritage Craft Kits—Ebru

Through an ongoing partnership with the Carnegie Library of Homestead, Rivers of Steel is occasionally able to offer heritage craft video instruction, along with corresponding craft kits that patrons can take home from the library to practice an artform, like the one available now that provides instruction on ebru, Turkish water marbling. Support for this round is provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, in partnership with the Carnegie Library of Homestead.

Please note: Kits are available beginning Wednesday, November 8. 

Ebru Water Marbling with Gloria Bal

Gloria Bal is an artist and teacher from Istanbul, Turkey. After moving to the United States to complete her Master’s degree in Education, she lived in Pittsburgh for a decade before moving to Wayne, New Jersey in 2023. During her time here, Gloria showed her art and held workshops with many local organizations and arts festivals all around Pennsylvania.

Gloria specializes in the art of ebru, a Turkish tradition of “water marbling” (painting in water). Ebru has been practiced by Muslims for hundreds of years as a method of decorating mosques and copies of the Quran with fluid, floral images. Symbols like tulips have deep meaning to them as representations of God—the original ebru brushes were even made from rose stems. Turkish people have historically made special water thickeners from animal substances like gall, a fluid produced by oxen, to make the water into a jelly that can be painted. These days, many now use powdered seaweed.

Watch her video tutorial below to see how easy the process of water marbling can be. Then practice for yourself by picking up a kit at the Carnegie Library of Homestead while supplies last.

Heritage Craft Kits for the Carnegie Library of Homestead

Now that you’ve watched the video to learn more about the process, try it for yourself! Stop by the Carnegie Library of Homestead to pick up an Ebru Heritage Craft Kit.

This craft kit contains: a brush, a pin, a tray, a packet of ebru powder, and a set of ebru paints. You’ll also need water, a whisk, and printer paper. The kit is best for children in sixth grade or above, or third to fifth grade with adult accompaniment. You can view and download a PDF of the instructions here, and you can pick up a kit of your own at the Carnegie Library of Homestead at 510 East 10th Avenue, Munhall PA, 15210.

About Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts Program

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program represents the region’s diverse cultural heritage, from ethnic customs and occupational traditions to new American folk arts and urban cultural practices. Usually passed down from person to person within close-knit communities, these traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing another part of southwestern Pennsylvania’s rich ways of life.

Are you a folk or traditional artist? Are you looking for other cultural experiences to explore? You can contact our Heritage Arts Coordinator Jon Engel at for more information.

For more information about Gloria Bal, read about the Currents project she participated in with Rivers of Steel in 2023.

A bowl full of decorated pysanky eggs.

Heritage Highlights: The Practice of Pysanky Eggs

By Blog, Heritage Highlights
Image of pysanky eggs created and photographed by Lisa DiStefano-Bauer

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage—from traditional, ethnic customs and industrial arts directly linked to Pittsburgh’s 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 traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing another part of southwestern Pennsylvania’s rich ways of life.

This month, Heritage Arts Coordinator Jon Engel visited St. Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, just ten minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. In this historic church, which is 118 years old, they practice the centuries-old tradition of Ukrainian egg art. This art is called pysanky, from the phrase meaning “to write.” Jon spoke with members of the congregation about their community, the art of the egg, and the culture and mystical meanings embedded within them.

St. Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Image courtesy of Chris Mills.

St. Peter & St. Paul’s Pysanky Sale

By Jon Engel

One of first things I noticed about Carnegie is the train tracks that divide it. Built during the peak of mill production, they run beside James Street between the diner and the ceramics supply store. Now, they are integrated by concrete overlays into the borough’s road map, part and parcel of the town. Before they were here, Alice O’Neil tells me, this side of Mansfield Boulevard was all housing, torn down when the highway expanded to two lanes. When she was a child, the working people of Carnegie lived there and walked to church.

To her family, that church was St. Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox, which sits now between the Ukrainian-American Citizens’ Club and Holy Virgins Russian Orthodox. Like much of Carnegie at the moment, it is adorned in blue and yellow. The Ukrainian immigrants here came to the mills over a century ago, but have stayed rooted in this place, their culture continuing even as the circumstances around them have changed dramatically. I thought about this as I ate lunch at a local joint, Sunset Pizza, which sits on a historically brick road in the middle of Main Street. The employees chatted idly in Turkish as a Ukrainian flag flapped into my eyeline, pulled into view by the breeze. I finished my meal and made my way to St. Peter & St. Paul.

Cynthia Haluszczak shows an egg featuring the traditional net design—Christ is the fisher of men.

Faith and Family

I was first invited to St. Peter & St. Paul’s church by Michael Kapeluck, the lead organizer of the church’s annual pysanky sale. Each year, a friendly crew of church folk works to produce somewhere between 400 and 500 dyed eggs, which are lovingly decorated with intricate patterns steeped in traditional symbolism. These eggs are sold alongside traditional Ukrainian foods like stuffed cabbage and beet soup on Palm Sunday every year, as they have for decades, echoing the even older tradition of springtime pysanky.

The first pysanky eggs were created by ancient Ukrainians before the arrival of Christianity. Back then, they were sun worshippers who lived by the course of the agricultural seasons. They tended crops and kept animals, most importantly bees and chickens. The winter was a time for mending, housekeeping, reflection, and dreaming of the next year. The practice of pysanky grew from these short, cold days, where the house was lit by candles and hands were more idle. The women of this culture developed a practice of sketching on unused eggs with melted beeswax. They created complex works of metaphor, weaving the imagery of their everyday lives into prayers and fortunes. A sketch of a ram became a symbol of masculine strength, to be given as a blessing to the male head of the household. The pattern of a pine needle, the only plant to survive the snow, became a symbol of life used to conjure a bountiful harvest for the next year. Eggs were created both as charms and simply to beautify, left around living areas or hidden in the rafters of homes.

Christians began to evangelize Ukraine as early as the 800s, eventually leading to the development of many churches, including the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of which St. Peter & St. Paul is part. As the culture shifted to this new faith, pysanky persevered, becoming metaphorically tied to the arrival of spring and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Old symbols shifted meaning and were joined by new ones, like crosses, Christian fish, and tears of the mourning Mary. Still, the process by which the eggs were created remained largely unchanged, even as Ukrainians began moving to the United States during the industrial boom of the late 1800s, when many of the families that now make up St. Peter & St. Paul’s congregation settled in Carnegie.

Many of those who attend the church now learned pysanky from their parents or grandparents, inheritors of family traditions as distinct as Ukraine’s many regions and towns are from one another. However, the annual sale can be traced back to two women. Michael’s mother, Beverly, was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she attended St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Through a series of national events between Orthodox churches, she met St. Peter & St. Paul’s Stephen Kapeluck, whom she married. She moved to Carnegie to live with him and brought St. Michael’s pysanky practice with her. At St. Peter & St. Paul, the priest’s wife, Tillie Beck, was already teaching the traditional art to some of the parish children. Together, Beverly and Tillie organized a series of demonstrations and sales to raise funds for the church. This eventually developed into the annual sale, which has run for more than fifty years, attracting customers and collectors from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.

Most of St. Peter & St. Paul’s current crop of egg-makers learned the craft from others in the church and primarily practice the art to support the annual sale. Across the decades, all have become extremely skilled and passionate, delicate with their tools and close to one another. They joke as they work, egging each other on, gently teasing. Carnegie is a small town, and St. Peter & St. Paul is a small church. Both literally and spiritually, the members are family, praying together for decades, attending events together, intermarrying, dancing the old dances, and making pysanky. Their humor and their affection affirm their work, and the work affirms their community. They are one and the same.

“I personally believe that church begins when you come out of the building,” says Sherri Walewski. “I believe in the community. During COVID, we couldn’t do certain events, so we just did ‘em outside . . . People were still so happy to come and socialize, come and get food. Same thing with the pysanky sale.”

Sherri Walewski and Cynthia Haluszczak make pencil sketches on the eggs.

Making the Eggs

In Ukraine, and even at St. Peter & St. Paul, pysanky styles vary greatly. One of the biggest deviations is the Lemkos tradition, native to the Western Ukrainian region of the same name. As Alice describes to me, this is a tradition of the especially poor, who had no access to the dyes that other regions might have. Her mother’s family replicated this with melted crayons in America. “When they were growing up,” Alice explains, “they didn’t have a lot. They would put the crayons in a pot on the stove and then they would cover them with a lid to melt them. And she would have a straight pin with a little ball on the end. She would put that into a pencil, at the end of an eraser, and she would dip it into the wax and then make the stroke.” This produces white eggs with the design raised from the shell. Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans have used techniques like this to recreate traditional patterns for centuries.

The standard method practiced at St. Peter & St. Paul is similar. Designs are drawn in pencil by the individual artist, or by members Pat Sally and Cynthia Haluszczak. These drawings are used as the base for future lines, which are traced in melted beeswax, just as ancient Ukrainians used. The eggs are then dipped into dyes—traditionally brewed from vegetable material like onion skins and beets—now replaced with chemical colorants like those used for American Easter eggs. The wax solidifies so that when the egg is submerged, the dyes can’t reach the shell beneath and those lines stay white. Colors and shapes are layered over and over through the repetition of this technique, so that the final pattern builds in reverse, ending with the background color.

Tracey Sally chats with Jon Engel as she works.

The pysanky-makers draw their lines with a specialized stylus called a kitska, which consists of a small bowl with a dripping point. Traditionally, kitskas are heated over a candle flame so that they can scoop chunks of wax from the honeycomb and let them melt naturally. However, during my visit, artist Tracey Sally was using an electric kitska that heats itself. Tracey is, in many ways, a modernizer of the pysanky tradition. She married into St. Peter & St. Paul through her husband, Mike Sally, son of Pat, and learned the practice from them. Now she applies contemporary techniques like tie dyes to her eggs and pulls design inspirations from tissue boxes and floral purse interiors. “There are people who will sit down and just plan out their whole egg,” she explains. “I don’t. I have a rough idea of what I want, and then I just go from there. I pull a lot from the tradition too—even a lot of my contemporary designs have some inspiration from the traditions. I’m not Ukrainian, [but] I love Ukrainian culture. Ukrainians are a very unique people. They have a lot of background, and most Ukrainians will carry that with them.”

Mike and Tracey, like the church as a whole, bond over pysanky. “The one time, how many years ago was it?” Mike recalls, “We decided to take a vacation together, and we went up to our family’s camp up near Tionesta. There’s no TV, nothing to do. You can put on the radio, that’s it. We had a potbelly stove to keep us warm, and we sat and we made about five . . . five and a half dozen pysanky in one weekend. We just kept cranking ‘em out. You get tired, go to sleep. You get hungry, make something to eat. Just the middle of the woods, sitting around.”

Michael Kapeluck strips an egg by melting the wax.

When all the color layers are dyed in, the wax lines are “stripped” from the egg, revealing the full, multicolored patterns beneath. This is done by holding the egg over a candle flame so that the wax melts again and can be wiped clean from the shell. Michael Kapeluck and his wife Michele were stripping cartons of freshly made eggs when I sat beside them to chat.

Michael has inherited his mother’s position as point person for the pysanky activities, just as there is someone responsible for organizing the food sale and the monthly clothing donations. Michael has been an artist since he was a child and is a graduate of the studio arts program at Carnegie Mellon. As he tells it, he spent a few years as a modern artist, showing works in local galleries. But he began to find the work hollow. “I just got bored of the art world,” he says. “I think it’s the connection—the kind of internal connection. You’re always trying to reinvent yourself. I feel like the contemporary art world just became about the individual artist—it ceased to have any real roots. It just didn’t have that world connection.”

Some time ago, he began to focus his energies on traditional religious art entirely. Other than the pysanky sale, he works as a professional iconographer, painting various pieces for Eastern Christian churches around the country in continuation of Orthodox aesthetic traditions. “The art form itself is what art used to be before the modern era,” he explains. “There was no difference between art and science. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment and all that started separating all these things into different categories. Science, magic—it all just merges. And that’s what iconography is. It isn’t just a pretty thing to hang on the wall. It serves a function.” That much is surely true of pysanky too, steeped in wishes for good fortune.

A dyed egg in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, halfway through being stripped of its wax.

Michael sighs as he reaches for the next egg from the crate. “Who did a yellow egg?” he says with a touch of dry irony. “Who did a yellow egg?

“Is there a problem with a yellow egg?” I ask.

“It’s hard to take the wax off,” Michael explains. “It scorches because it’s lighter. You get the carbon from the flame on it. It’s a pain in the rear end.”

“That’s why it’s usually best to have a darker color as the last color,” Michele adds.

But of course, this egg was yellow and blue to evoke the Ukrainian flag. I asked: did they know why these colors were chosen to represent the nation? Michael nodded. Blue for the clear skies, yellow for the bountiful grain. The flag stands for the horizons of pastoral Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe.

“The wheat fields,” Michele says wistfully, her eyes fixed on the egg in her hands, “that are all getting destroyed.”

Volunteers in the middle of loading the trucks of donations to Ukraine.

A Long-Held Tradition

Throughout, our conversation was often disrupted by a storm of footsteps thundering out over our heads. Initially, I assumed that the dance group was practicing above us, but I came to learn that their practice space had been filled with boxes—diapers, canned foods, clothes, and medical supplies. St. Peter & St. Paul had collected two moving trucks full of critical needs to aid Ukrainians during the invasion, which were moved by a volunteer team of nonparishioners in the course of an afternoon.

Like the donations drive, the pysanky sale is the work of ordinary people who are extremely dedicated. Tracey is the manager of Carnegie’s Rite-Aid. Alice works at the local Lowe’s. Carnegie is a town of around 8,000 people. St. Peter & St. Paul has around 100 members. Within this community and this art form, each of them has a significant influence over the world—they are the creators of distinct and refined works, their signature choices of color and linework recognizable to each other and their patrons, their capacity for creativity and organization limitless.

Above all else, pysanky eggs represent the changing of the seasons. Nearly all of the traditional symbols—the ancient symbols and the pagan forms—are omens of spring. Birds flock back from their winter migrations. Flowers bloom to collect the morning light. And the sun is everywhere—once a representative of the Ukrainian sun god, now the Christian son of God—either way, warmth, surging back toward the springtime.

The eggs themselves are perhaps the most potent symbol. Each of them contains a literal piece of life (or contained, as some have their yolks blown out through a pinhole poked at the top of the shell so as not to rot). They are ephemeral and delicate and full of potential. They are symbols of birth and rebirth, adorned with many colorful lines that trace their circular bodies. Functionally, these are used to divide the image into sections, but they are also by far the most recurring visual element for deeply spiritual reasons.

“They represent eternity,” Michael notes. “Lines that go on without beginning or end.”

Following that line, we see what the Ukrainians have always known across eons, religions, and nations—inevitably, all things change. All things die. And all things live again.

And still, across it all, the children of the farmlands sit with their needles, drawing lines along their eggs, just as it has been for centuries.

St. Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s annual pysanky sale will take place at their church, 220 Mansfield Boulevard, on Sunday, April 10, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. You can also read more about Michael’s iconography work at

Jon Engel HeadshotJon Engel is the Heritage Arts Coordinator for Rivers of Steel and the author of the Heritage Highlights column. Looking to learn more? Check out this recent Heritage Highlight, which features the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center

Heritage Highlights: Heritage Craft Kits

By Blog, Heritage Highlights
Artist Benjamin Aysan writes his name in italic letters.

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage, from ethnic customs and occupational traditions to new American folk arts and urban cultural practices. Usually passed down from person to person within close-knit communities, these traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing another part of southwestern Pennsylvania’s rich ways of life.

Heritage Craft Kits for the Carnegie Library of Homestead

Jon Engel HeadshotBy Jonathan Engel

So other than the stories about local artists that we share in this forum, how does Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program realize its goals? Especially during 2021, we’ve had to get creative in addressing these core questions: What are our communities’ art traditions? How do we bring them to more people? And how do we use those traditions to improve those people’s lives? With those questions in mind, we look for projects that increase the accessibility of art and seek partners that also value local culture.

The Carnegie Library of Homestead is one such partner. They have always sought to connect our neighbors to the resources they need to explore and express themselves. During the first social distancing period of the pandemic, the library began releasing monthly activity kits, free to anyone. They consisted of art supplies and instructions on how to make a simple craft. They were designed for children, suddenly stuck at home, without the creative outlets that they might otherwise have had access to—or have never had access to.

We’re excited to share that we have collaborated with the Carnegie Library of Homestead to produce a round of kits for them, co-created with local Turkish calligrapher Benjamin Aysan. Free as ever, anyone can pick them up at the library—located at 510 East 10th Avenue, Munhall PA, 15120—and begin creating their own works of handwriting art today. We hope that they bring you joy—and pull you a little bit closer to the rich heritage of one of our many wonderful communities.

Calligraphy Bookmarks with Benjamin Aysan

Benjamin Aysan, a frequent collaborator with Rivers of Steel, has designed our first Heritage Craft Kit. Benjamin is originally from Van, Turkey, and has been a practicing calligrapher for over ten years. Calligraphy has a long history in Turkey, extending at least as far back as the early days of the Ottoman Empire. Practitioners, then and now, decorated mosques with stylized passages from the Quran. Benjamin writes in both Arabic and English, adapting his talents to his new home in Pittsburgh. In this kit, he teaches us how to write our own name on some beautiful bookmarks for all our library favorites. To learn more about Ben, read this brief biography (pdf link).

This craft kit, available at the Carnegie Library of Homestead, contains: a set of calligraphy pens, a pair of scissors, paper, and instructions on how to cut the bookmark and make your letters. The kit is best for children in sixth grade or above, or third to fifth grade with adult accompaniment. You can view and download a PDF of the instructions here, and you can pick up a kit of your own at the Carnegie Library of Homestead at 510 East 10th Avenue, Munhall PA, 15210.

For more information about Benjamin Aysan, read an interview with him from the Heritage Highlight series, published in January, 2021. You can also check out the most recent Heritage Highlight, which features the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center

costumed dancers

Heritage Highlights: Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center

By Blog, Heritage Highlights

Otets Paissii Performing Folk Ensemble. All images courtesy of the BMNECC.

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.

This month, Jon Engel popped down the street to 449 West Eighth Avenue in West Homestead, which has been home to the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center for nearly a century. There, he met a tight-knit—yet ever-expanding—community, bound by their rich folklife and universal love for food, music, and each other. He spoke with some of their members about the specific traditions that the Center seeks to preserve, why those traditions are valuable, and how they remain relevant to this day.

Jon Engel Headshot

The Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center

By Jonathan Engel

The Bulgarian Macedonian Club

Lambe Markoff immigrated to Pittsburgh in 1909. He was part of that vast generation of Eastern Europeans who came to the United States at the turn of the century, one of the working class immigrants from whom so many in this region now claim descent.

He brought his family over from Macedonia in 1912—his wife, daughter, and father. His descendants have lived in the Steel Valley area ever since. In 1930, Lambe and a group of other Bulgarian and Macedonian immigrants banded together to create the Bulgarian and Macedonian Benefit Association. They established themselves as one of many ethnic clubs that sprouted around this time. As new arrivals, they sought to make new lives in America, under the ashen sky of the steel city. Like other such clubs, the Association’s primary directives were to support their community and to preserve the arts and traditions of their home cultures. When Ed Markoff, Lambe’s grandson, tells me this, he is brimming with pride. Ed is 73-years-old—we spoke on his birthday. He has spent his life continuing his family’s legacy. He is the current president of the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center (BMNECC), the Association’s new form, still located in the original brick building in West Homestead.

Ninety-one years after the club was founded, while many other 20th-century ethnic clubs have closed, BMNECC has evolved into a multifaceted organization with a focus on community events and cultural education. The endurance of the Bulgarian and Macedonian folk culture in Pittsburgh is largely due to the efforts of people like Ed, who speak of their families and friends in poetry. But he is not alone. At BMNECC, a cohort of life-long locals and recent immigrants strive to maintain their ancestral traditions and unique histories, both of which transcend borders.

A man stands in front of a portrait.

Ed Markoff with a portrait of Lambe Markoff.

The Founders

Lambe Markoff was not a steelworker. In fact, back then, very few Bulgarians and Macedonians were. As Ed sees it, they were “entrepreneurs,” an “independent people” coming from rural countryside with no steel mills. Many preferred to start their own businesses. In the early 1900s, Pittsburgh may have been home to something around twenty Bulgarian bakeries, BMNECC member Zhelyzako Latinov recalls.

Lambe was a founder of the West Homestead Baking Company, which was supported by twenty more Bulgarian and Macedonian immigrants. Located next door to the Center, they operated well into the 1960s, providing bread and baked goods to the city. That building has since been demolished and the land is now used as the Center’s parking lot, to which they have recently added a patio and garden.

A baker in white displays a pan of bread.

Zhelyzako “Jak” Latinov

The Baker

But that history survives to this day. Zhelyzako “Jak” Latinov moved to Pittsburgh in 2010, drawn by the support the public education system offered his kids. Jak, like many members of the Center, is part of a “new wave” of immigrants who have come from Bulgaria since the end of the Cold War. If you ask him, it is fate—his name translates, literally, to “steel”. He began his business, Jak’s Bakery, back in his home city, but it now operates out of the Center’s large, recently renovated kitchen. The Center offers it to him at a small rent, to help him build capital in America and to honor their own culinary heritage. Jak is giddy when he talks about this: “Everything is so connected. . . . I feel special when I’m saying ‘Oh, I’m a Bulgarian baker in Pittsburgh’. It’s awesome! To be part of it . . . everything’s kind of meant to happen.”

Decorative Breads, one displays a cross

The Bread

Bread is absolutely central. Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Macedonia border each other, straddling Europe and Asia. For as long as records go back, the region has been a throughway for travelers from many disparate lands, each of whom brought a piece of their own world with them, . . . much like Pittsburgh itself, Jak wagers. Bread became a key part of this history, being the thing that locals offered the weary. “Even if you don’t have anything,” Jak says, “you always have bread and salt to share with strangers.” As well as a staple food, bread became a symbol of Bulgarian folk culture’s core value: hospitality. And Bulgarian bread takes many forms, especially at Jak’s Bakery. From layers of cheesy banitsa to jam-filled kifla crescents, Jak combines traditional recipes with local ingredients to create unique, but storied, treats. Much like Americans have birthday cakes and holiday pies, in Bulgaria, there is a bread for every occasion, including pita za proshtapulnik, a ceremonial bread prepared to celebrate the first steps of a newborn child. Layered with walnuts and sugar, traditionally, it is completed by imprinting the shape of the baby’s feet on top. Jak serves a variation, footless, as a delicious dessert.

Young costumed dancers

The School

Another recent immigrant is Nick Nedev, who has become the head of BMNECC’s Bulgarian Sunday school. Nick says that the community and focus of the Center has been vital to him as a first-generation citizen: “Being immersed in the sounds and the images that I’m used to, from my childhood, allows me to take myself back to where I was born and kinda’ charge me with energy for this quest that I’m on. Y’know, deciding to pursue a better life, in a different country, and still not forget where I came from. Just having that experience, essentially once a week, is beneficial to me. And, at the same time, it’s very important that I pass these traditions that I’m aware of—this wonderful music as well!—to my own children.”

Every week, students enrolled in the Center’s classes practice speaking Bulgarian and learn traditional folk dances. “Moving to a different country is a huge step,” Nick says, “and usually there is a sense of sadness. You miss the homeland. Places like this remind you of where you came from. At the same time, having a school for the kids is a way to not dismiss their past. Just like I am trying to teach my kids the culture and the music—that sense of pride, a lot of parents are treating the school as a way to teach their kids about where their parents are from.”

Costumed dancers pose in a line

Danka Folk Dance Ensemble

The Dancers

Frances Wieloch is not Bulgarian. She grew up in a Croatian church in Steelton, Pennsylvania, dancing. But in accordance with the Bulgarian code of folk ethics, there is a place for her at BMNECC too. Their two dance troupes—the performance-level Otets Paisii and casual Danka ensemble—focus on the traditional dances of Bulgaria, but offer membership to anyone interested in partaking. Fran is a member of both and, like many of her colleagues, is a former member of the local folk dance legends, the Tamburitzans. (Other alumni include Ed Markoff, multiple staff members, and several performers in Otets Paissii.)

“It’s definitely filled the void for me,” Fran says of BMNECC, reflecting on her participation in folk dance troupes across the world, ranging in traditions from Israeli to Ukrainian. Like many other non-Bulgarians, Fran is drawn to this folk dance—called horo, in Bulgarian—because of its unique rhythms. While American music traditionally employs time signatures like 2/4 or 3/4, Bulgarian folk music is often much faster, ranging from 5/8 to 11/16. This means that the dances are also faster and more challenging, even for veterans like Fran. This challenge has attracted many dancers and exercise enthusiasts from all around the world.

Women in traditional costumes dance together with the arms crossed in front of them.

Otets Paissii Dancers

The Dances

Despite being relatively small, Bulgaria and Macedonia are hugely diverse in their geography and culture. Within Bulgaria itself, dance styles range greatly, stemming mostly from the history and topography of the many subregions. As Bilyana Stafura explained it, there is a deep contrast between the fast-paced, highly competitive dances of the Shop region and the modest, elegant dance of Pirin, arising from exchanges with different neighboring countries and the many different contexts in which people danced. She also contrasts the light, wide dances of the Moesia plains with the subtler, smaller dances of the cold Rhodope Mountains, which follows from how the people moved through the different landscapes and different histories. This variety also shows through in Otets Paisii’s costumes, which are based on the clothing rural Bulgarians would have worn in their daily lives. Performances that draw heavily from Moesian dance styles will favor lighter clothing, while performances focused on Rhodope will tend towards heavy, chill-friendly costumes. In a way, each dance performance serves to symbolically recreate the homeland on any stage—adopting the wardrobe and even the physical postures of daily life there, though with a theatrical flourish.

About 60 dancers pose for a group photo.

The Ensemble

The Choreographer

As artistic director, Bilyana shapes every Otets Paisii performance. In each show, she tries to incorporate styles from as many of the different folklore regions of Bulgaria as possible, as well as some contemporary movement, while honoring the unique traditions of each. She describes the steps in a performance as part of a “dance vocabulary.” Like learning a language, performers begin by carefully memorizing the physical actions of each step, then slowly piecing them together into routines and then routines into performances. “You have to learn the letters before you can learn the words,” Bilyana says, “and then you can arrange them in a sentence. Before you can write the novel, you need the basic foundations. So, in dance, we learn the foundation. Then we expand on it. We expand the vocabulary. And then we write the poem—we do the dance.”

Since taking charge of the troupe in 2008, Bilyana has worked with Otets Paisii to stage annual shows that are accurate to Bulgarian culture, entertaining to audiences, and collaboratively challenging to the dancers. Bilyana has been dancing all her life, having trained at two national academies back in Bulgaria: “I was five, sitting and watching my brother dancing, and my feet were just going. And the dance teacher told my mother, she will be a dancer!” Just as BMNECC has sought to maintain the folk dances brought over by immigrants to America, in Bulgaria, the government established national academies and dance troupes to professionalize the art. Recent years have also seen a resurgence in informal interest and practice in horo within the Bulgarian people.

A woman sings with three musicians behind here

A Musical Performance

The People’s Songs

Bilyana has danced these dances her whole life. “For me, half of my soul is in the folklore,” she says, “It’s how I was able to connect with others, how I was able to find myself as a person, how I was able to cope in life.”

These traditions are held onto, most of the members agree, because they are at once expressive and communal. “It’s community, 100%,” folk musician and frequent player at the Center, Paul Stafura, explains. “It’s the community, and it’s the culture, and it’s the people!” He has played Eastern European ethnic music all his life, in many different venues, and greatly enjoys the niche audiences he performs for.

“People are interested in what you’re doing. . . . They request songs, the whole thing. I think that’s a powerful experience. Most musicians would agree, especially in an ethnic context, that once you get in a crowd, and the crowd’s around you, and everybody’s singing the same songs and they’re arm-in-arm, arms on the shoulders, whatever—it’s a special moment.”

To the patrons of the Bulgarian Macedonian Center, these traditions are alive and vital, connecting them to their ancestry and to the here and now. To the musicians who play there, their audiences are friends that they know well and understand what they are seeking. “We call them ‘people songs’,” says Nick Nedev, “Y’know, the folk songs. Those are the ones that have existed for hundreds of years, and we all know them, and we’re all able to sing them. When a song like that comes on, and you look around, you can definitely see people appreciating it. You can almost just nod at them and it’s like, ‘Yep! I got you.’ It’s an unsaid experience, an unspoken experience.”

Ed Markoff stands in front of a mural of dancers in the countryside.

Ed Markoff with the mural featuring dancers at the BMNECC.

The People’s Center

When I visited the BMNECC this fall, I walked in to see the students of a weekly conga class filter out. The Center is available for anyone to rent and often hosts events featuring other forms of folk music, especially other Eastern European bands. As Ed puts it, the Center is focused on “unity in diversity.” This attitude means that, while Pittsburgh’s Bulgarian and Macedonian population have never been relatively large, it has always been the center of the traditional arts scene. Many members recall the Pittsburgh Folk Festival, where immigrant cultures from around the city would gather together to put on public performances and cultural displays. Every year, the crowd would consume huge music halls or the massive convention center, only to end up back at the annual BMNECC afterparty.

“You bring an instrument, you got in for free,” Fran Wieloch recalls, “because you got up on stage and played! Everybody came, everybody played anything. So there was this sense of community, an ethnic community, that the Bulgarian Center fostered. And I think that is part of Bulgarian traditions—to be welcoming. It transcends over to how they live and how they present themselves with culture.” Ed states it more simply: “You never have a bad time at the Bulgarian Macedonian Center.”

It is my belief that BMNECC will celebrate its 92nd anniversary next year because of this, more than anything: because they understand that, if these traditions are to survive—in this place or any place—they are to survive together, in mutual appreciation and respect. Because that is what a tradition exists for. That is what a community exists for. And that, if I may editorialize a bit, is what life exists for.

I wish you all happy holidays, and I thank you for a wonderful year.

Read more in the Heritage Highlights series. Check out this story about the Greensboro Pennsylvania Art Cooporative.

Heritage Highlights: Greensboro Pennsylvania Art Cooperative

By Blog, Heritage Highlights

Entrance to the Greensboro Pennsylvania Art Cooperative’s ceramic studio.

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.

This month, we continue our exploration of southwestern Pennsylvania’s small towns. Heritage Arts Coordinator Jon Engel spoke with Shane McManus, founder of the Greensboro Pennsylvania Art Cooperative. The Cooperative is a group of artists working out of the historical Davis Theatre in Greensboro, a Monongahela River town just a few miles upriver from the West Virginia border. Providing studio and commercial space for its artists, the co-op model splits profits between members and the organization as a whole. Shane himself is a life-long resident of Appalachia, a folk artist, and a musician. Jon and Shane discussed the Cooperative’s guiding philosophy and how it interacts with the things that make Greensboro unique.

Greensboro Pennsylvania Art Cooperative

Jon Engel HeadshotBy Jonathan Engel

“In Greensboro,” says Shane McManus, “it’s really hard to throw a shovel into the ground without finding something historic.”

We spoke over the phone this summer about his work with the Greensboro Pennsylvania Art Cooperative, an artists’ group and studio that he founded. Shane and the other members have become something like DIY archaeologists over the years. Guided by aged maps of the town’s 19th century ceramics industries, they have explored the Cooperative’s historic property with boots and shovels. In doing so, they discovered the foundational bricks of a 200-year-old kiln, still in the same spot that the town’s earliest potters built their businesses. Artifacts like these abound in Greensboro, with many of them on display at the Antique & Oddity Café, a local shop next to the Cooperative’s Front Street studio space.

Greensboro Origins

Greensboro is a small town, but a storied one. It was one of the first areas of southwestern Pennsylvania to be colonized. Before this, it was populated by a group of Iroquois, also know as Haudenosaunee, tribespeople, who—the current locals say—named this area “Delight” for its excellent soil and flat, riverside land. Sometime in the 1780s, a Virginian man named Elias Stone acquired it and delineated it into the street plan that stands today. On February 2, 1790, Stone’s new village was officially recognized as “Greensburgh,” named for the Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene. It would keep that name until 1879, when it became Greensboro.

The new town quickly found its niche as a home to industry. In 1795, a businessman named Albert Gallatin met some German glassblowers who were traveling out west to start anew in the recently created state of Kentucky. Somehow, Gallatin convinced them to move to New Geneva, Pennsylvania instead—right across the Mon River from Greensboro—and start a company there, producing high-quality “New Geneva glass,” which became famous across the nation. The factory moved to Greensboro ten years later.

From then on, like most of the Mon Valley, Greensboro lived and died by the boom-and-bust cycles of the manufacturing industry. The old glassworks factory closed in 1849. By then, Greensboro was home to several successful redware potters, who created basic pottery in small shops. Then, in the mid-1800s, they were replaced by two large ceramics companies, who used local clay to produce more durable stoneware. This became Greensboro’s main export.

For a while, Greensboro was the gateway to Pennsylvania trade, attracting up to 500 residents to this .11 square mile town, which consists of about a dozen blocks and a dock. Then in 1880s more efficient potters began to outcompete the James Hamilton Company. Their manufacturing economy suffered further when engineering changes to the Mon River shifted trade traffic toward Morgantown. Tides turned again in the early the 1900s as Greensboro became a cultural hub for the Valley’s network of coal settlements, a place where the miners could come to church and enjoy a night on the town. This lasted until the local coal industry collapsed in the 1930s, and, again, the local economy went with it.

These familiar trends have left a vast weight of history, metaphorically and literally, on Greensboro.

Promoting the Past; Sustaining the Future

A black and white image of a bearded white man in his late 20s or 30s.

Shane McManus

Enter Shane and his father Keith McManus, local musicians and artists and proud citizens of Appalachia. In 2010, Keith purchased the Davis Theatre, a performance venue built in 1909. The Theatre had sat abandoned since the 1950s and fallen into disrepair. Shane has spearheaded the effort to restore the Theatre, preserving its historical façade and converting the interior into extensive artists’ studios. These include a woodshop, a bike repair shop, pottery kilns, music practice spaces, and more. These studios are now home to about 40 members of the Art Cooperative.

Shane puts their goals eloquently: “We are promoting the past, sustaining the future, and encouraging people to look around them and create with what they see.”

“Sustainability” is the big word for him. Not only does the Cooperative seek to give a reason for artists of all stripes to come to Greensboro,  but it seeks to sustain the current population with cultural engagement and the earth itself with reuse-based philosophies. Ninty-eight percent of the materials that Cooperative artists use are recovered from trash, dug up from Greensboro’s rich veins of material history, or gifted to them by friends. Clay for the kilns is dug up from the same banks used by the Hamilton Company. Their bicycles are retrieved from local garages. Even the wood they use is pulled from decaying barns or burned-down buildings. Scrapping, dumpstering, recycling. They do their best to avoid spending money.

“In this part of Appalachia, I’ve always said the living’s easy. In the summertime, there’s always work to be found. In the wintertime, there’s always someone willing to share their harvest of whatever they had in their garden. The fat of the land is so rich, it’s kind of superlative to buy anything we need.”

Embracing Tradition; Building Community

That 200-year-old kiln has been restored and is firing new ceramics today. The artists in the Cooperative use many of the same art methods that Appalachians have always used, processing wood and clay just as their ancestors did long before they thought of it as “recycling” or “green.” Of their three pottery wheels, for instance, two are powered by the traditional method, spinning uniquely shaped pots every time. Shane hopes to one day use these wheels to launch a line of pots inspired by Greensboro’s 19th-century makers. It is this combination of the Davis Theatre’s space and Greensboro’s historical methods that draw members to the Cooperative.

And many have been drawn. The group claims members across 11 countries, ranging to France, Senegal, Ghana, and China. Many are musicians that are drawn to town to play a gig booked by Shane, often at the Antique Café. It is relatively easy to join. No portfolio or particular artistic expense is required. You simply have to earn the others’ trust. In exchange for access to the Cooperative’s resources, members must commit to a few hours a month volunteering to help repair the Theatre. This work is also great skill-building. Shane is a carpenter by trade and has taught one member, a musician from Maine who is nearly blind, how to swing a hammer and work on the building despite his failing vision.

The Cooperative’s resources include their studios, living space in town, and a huge array of scrapped supplies, such as large piles of local stained glass. But most valuable is their social network of committed craftspeople. Members regularly share skills and their own connections. This crosses borders, too. Greensboro has made friends with another art cooperative in Aarhus, Denmark, and the groups have now worked out an exchange program allowing members to visit each other’s spaces.

In the immediate, the Cooperative’s goal is to produce and sell quality works of arts by local artisans. In an economic sense, they one day strive to incorporate as both a small business and a nonprofit. They want to create a model where artisans cultivate their materials from the resources present in small towns like Greensboro and give back to those towns through public art and educational resources like their community garden. On a philosophical level, the Cooperative lives out the communal values of Appalachia and applies them to answer the problems that face the Mon Valley today.

A white man leans over a length of wood that is in a vice.

Cooperative member Gabe Acita making a paddle.

Greensboro Pennsylvania Art Cooperative’s Core Values

Shane takes a view both practical and worldly. His investment is not just in the business or the artmaking, but in the ideas guiding both. When he talks about his aspirations for the Cooperative, he talks about notions of self, ideas borrowed from philosophies like Taoism and hippie back-to-the-earth movements. “It’s always been our goal [as humans] to distract ourselves from ourselves,” he explains, “so we should try to distract ourselves with something positive.” Hence art: an act where the mind can wander away from its worries and into a state of flow.

Though this suggestion seems simple, it is a complex part of how Shane works through the difficult history of the Mon Valley, where the same cycles of economic growth and decline have dominated for hundreds of years. “That’s the hardest part, is being able to read the future, to know when the next cycle is gonna hit. The best way I’ve found to do that is to listen—to not try to predict, but to know what is happening around me. So when I don’t feel like creating, I don’t create. When I don’t feel like participating, I don’t participate. Those are actions that I choose not to be counterproductive, but to be productive in a different way.”

Giving people the freedom to listen to themselves is one of the Cooperative’s core values. Its salvaged materials and low rental costs allow members to keep their expenses low, meaning that their need to sell work is lessened, allowing them time and space to create according to their own individual vision and internal clock.

Initiatives like the Cooperative abound in our region today, as many of us look to art and culture as a way to “revive” industrial areas we consider “dead,” but Shane is much humbler than that. “One of our mottos at the Cooperative is, ‘If you’re doing it, you can talk about it. If you’re not doing it, you cannot talk about it.’ We notice a lot of people saying to us, you could do this, you could do that, you could do this, you could do that. ‘You could make a lot of money doing that!’ And, yes, somebody could. But the question is, is it going to be you?”

“It’s mainly a focusing goal for us,” he continues, “because we’re so multidisciplinary. And the way we fill in each other’s gaps is by humility.” The Cooperative keeps their eyes on the immediate. Their approach to improving Greensboro is to ask, what can we do right now as the people we are? For them, it means not only creating a space for sharing work and knowledge, but also taking time along the way to honor their neighbors.

A workshop with a man lined up in front of clay pots.

Cooperative member Keith Koury pouring ceramic cups.

Residents Coming Together, Defining Community

Not all that long ago, Greensboro almost ceased to exist. On Election Day 1985, Virginia and West Virginia were ravaged by floods as Hurricane Juan came to land and tore through them. The Mon Valley was hit hard, too. Large parts of Greensboro and other rivers towns were damaged by the rising river and ten inches of rain. Shortly thereafter, the Army Corps of Engineers began to redesign the Monongahela River dam system, threatening to raise the water levels permanently higher and destroy many of Greensboro’s oldest buildings.

Residents banded together to organize against this. Their efforts culminated in 1994 with the creation of the Nathanael Greene Historical Foundation, now called the Nathanael Greene Community Development Corporation. The NGCDC has launched many initiatives to preserve the town’s historic buildings and share them with the world. They now work with the Cooperative on a yearly cultural festival in Greensboro, Art Blast on the Mon. It is in this tradition that the Cooperative really arose – those people who refused to let Greensboro die.

Shane speaks about elders with the utmost respect. He admires people like Betty and John Longo, who owned and operated the local confectionary for decades, even as businesses elsewhere in town disappeared. And, when he reflects on the ways the Cooperative most improves Greensboro, what he calls “the giveback,” his mind does not immediately go to economic development or their community arts initiatives—it goes to them. “Emotionally and spiritually, we have gained so much from helping the seniors in town,” he says. “Their kids are no longer in town, grandkids no longer in town, and they need someone to just listen to them, really. And when I think about it, that’s probably the proudest thing I’ve done at the Cooperative, is talking to the seniors and hearing their stories. Some of them aren’t around anymore to tell them.”

“Really, they’re all artists in their own way.” He reflects on not only the glassblowers and the potters, but also the miners and ice cream shop owners. “They brought their artistry with them wherever they went!”

Guided by this respect, members of the Cooperative seek to help their neighbors naturally, in the course of their daily lives. “It’s that Buddhist notion of karma,” Shane says, “We all have to find something to give every day.”

For instance, one older woman in town walks from her home to the post office each morning as part of her daily exercise routine. When it snows, Shane and the others will shovel the sidewalk for her. On other days, the Cooperative will load up in their trucks and drive out to a local florist to collect discarded flowers from their dumpster. Some of these they keep for art, but most they hand out at local retirement homes. “It’s about becoming the heroes of that moment,” he concludes.

“It can be as simple as just picking flowers out of the garbage. And all the moments leading up to it, the driving, the traffic… everything leading up to donating that flower might be mundane. But that moment when you give that flower to that senior, I see the spark in their eyes. And first-time members who have never been on these trash-picking journeys before, they’ve never had that opportunity to be a hero in the moment. It’s a moment that, if we pay attention to and listen to, it can linger on inside of us. We can dwell on it for a really long time and it can create opportunity for creation. We don’t just feel good about ourselves because we’ve achieved something, we know we want to continue that feeling of good and continue that achievement.”

This is the real utility of the Cooperative—empathy. As Shane puts it, though he enjoys creating art, he is most motivated to do so when working with a community. This goes not only for art, but for improving the Theatre or simply being kind.

“When we work together as a group,” Shane says, “we find something that we can’t find alone. It’s a simple word—it’s called ‘muse.’ Like, as in to amuse, as a word. To amuse somebody is to give them the inspiration of humor, or of joy, or of just sorrow. Sorrow can be amusing.  So that’s the benefit of a cooperative. You have somebody who’s pushing you, not to create necessarily, but just to have somebody there with you doing their thing is really powerful. It’s an opportunity to say ‘yes’ to another experience.”

a colorful radiating light behind a chalice

Heritage Highlights: Holy Martyrs’ Sawdust Carpets

By Blog, Heritage Highlights
A sawdust carpet from the Feast of Corpus Christi at the Holy Martyrs 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 Martyrs 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 Martyrs’ 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 Martyrs 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 Martyrs 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 Martyrs 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 Martyrs’ 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 Martyrs 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 Martyrs. 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 Martyrs 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 Martyrs 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 Martyrs Parish in Tarentum, Pennsylvania. Participation is open to all.

a sawdust carpet with a rainbow and a cross


All images courtesy of David Kuniak.

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

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

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

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

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, Heritage Highlights
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

A gray haired woman in a black sweater paints a pastoral scene. Behind her is a wall of her other paintings.

Heritage Highlights: Kathleen Ferri

By Blog, Heritage Highlights
Kathleen Ferri painting, image courtesy of the artist, by Bob Donaldson for the Post-Gazette.

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 shares an in-depth dive into the life and art of local painter Kathleen Ferri. Ferri is a lifelong resident of the Mon Valley, born in Turtle Creek and now living in North Versailles. Her unique works provide deep insight into the Valley of the 20th century, from factory labor to family life.

Kathleen Ferri, Artist & Historian

By Jonathan Engel

Like most Europeans, the Orgills first came to the Monongahela Valley for the mills. They had been living in some English colony—the name of which is one of the few things that Kathleen cannot remember—where the state gave out land through lottery. The Orgills drew the worst, and so their patriarch made for America, specifically for an aunt already living in Lawrenceville. He quickly found employment in steel but burned his hands badly on the job. Now unable to work, he set sail back to his family. Meanwhile, his wife and children had suffered in the colony during a typhoid outbreak and boarded a ship to find him in America. As Kathleen tells it, with a laugh, their ships passed each other in the sea.

“Through people helping them,” she concludes, “they got back together.”

A colorful image of a neighborhood from an aerial point of view.

A painting of Braddock in the 1940s by Kathleen Ferri.

Kathleen Ferri (née Orgill) is full of stories like this. “Before TV, families discussed ‘local history’ at the dinner table.” Mainly, these stories are about two topics: family and work. She is a historian of these things in the Mon Valley, a history she records in her vibrant paintings.

Kathleen was born in Turtle Creek in 1926 to two Westinghouse employees, who had met at the company’s East Pittsburgh office. In this story, Kathleen’s father is a dogged romantic hero turned down numerous times by her mother, a young secretary that found employment when most men were drafted into World War I. Shortly before their long-requested first date, Mr. Orgill, a strapping young football player, injured himself on the field. He arrived at the future Mrs. Orgill’s doorstep on crutches and covered in mud, not at all the image of the young gentleman she knew at work. Kathleen laughs again, noting that her mother did not like that very much.

Throughout Kathleen’s life, she also worked at Westinghouse, and at the local bank. Her son Vince worked at U.S. Steel’s Homestead mill. Others of her children and grandchildren have worked and lived throughout the Mon Valley. Thus, these family stories tell about more than just her own life, but about the social conditions of the entire region. When the Depression came, the Orgills—like most of Turtle Creek—were poor. Mr. Orgill worked only two and a half days at Westinghouse and sold sweepers on the side to make ends meet. Still, they made frequent trips to the Penn Avenue business district in downtown Turtle Creek. “During the ‘Depression Days’,” says Kathleen, “money was so scarce, we seldom could afford any new items, but we enjoyed ‘window shopping’ and dreaming of ‘better days’ coming.” These small-town streets and storefront displays were the beginning of a lifelong fascination with local scenes, which was tied intimately to an interest in the metal and manufacturing industries that supported that lifestyle.

A depiction of an open hearth mill at Carnegie Steel in Homestead, PA.

An undated Kathleen Ferri painting of the Homestead Works steel mill and adjacent trolley.

Picking Up the Brush

Kathleen did not begin painting until she was in her sixties. Whenever she tells this story, it is only ever one sentence away from a story about her late husband, Jim Ferri.

Growing up, Kathleen’s family often visited the local Italian grocery, Ferri Brothers’, which was founded in 1919. Ferri Brothers’ was a key community-gathering place. The first phone in town was installed there. “People would call in from Altoona,” Kathleen says, “‘Can you tell so-and-so her sister died?’” (Mickens, PGH City Paper, 2002). They frequently catered community picnics. The company truck was lent out to anyone who needed help moving.

When she was young, Kathleen met Jim, the owner’s son. One day at the store in 1942, Jim told her he was going to the join the army and asked Kathleen to write him. Reminiscing now, she remembers being skeptical and fiery—“Get out! The army won’t have you!”—but she also remembers crying on her walk home.

They did write. “His first letter was signed ‘Love, Jim!’—and I thought, my mother’s gonna’ kill me, I’m still in high school!” When he returned, the two were married. They raised four kids together and Jim worked in the store that his uncles ran.

A corner building with a busy street scene.

A 1986 painting by Kathleen Ferri, showing the Ferri Brothers’ grocery store in Turtle Creek, c. the 1940s.

He passed away in 1984. By then, their children had all moved out to find jobs elsewhere. Kathleen was left lonely and bored. At the encouragement of some friends, she made a social visit to a local senior center. There, she was convinced to stay for a holiday crafts class, making ornaments for the center’s Christmas tree. Told to do “anything”, she made her first painting: a five-inch disk with an image of Mickey Mouse, which she thought little of. After class, she was pulled aside by the volunteer instructor, Shirley Knezevich, who told her: “You are a natural-born artist, I can tell!”

Kathleen and Shirley forged a strong bond. Kathleen began attending Shirley’s classes to paint, staying after to tweak her works with the input of her friend. From the beginning, Kathleen’s paintings were almost always family scenes or scenes of the community. “I thought, well, paint what you know. So I started to paint the little town of Turtle Creek! I love that town! I know everybody and they know me!” Soon enough, she painted Wilmerding too. After that, East Pittsburgh. Then Trafford. Then McKeesport. Then Braddock, and so on. Kathleen has made over 70 deeply detailed paintings over the past 35 years.

Nearly all of these are rendered from a bird’s eye view, even at impossible angles. Still, they remain faithful to the towns’ layouts. Kathleen knows her subjects so well she can picture them from any vantage point. This is because, with few exceptions, she does not paint from photographs or from any other reference. She paints from her memories, especially her memories of being a child in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Going Over the Faces

A church surrounded by industrial buildings with streetcars.

A painting of the Strip District depicting the 1940s era by Kathleen Ferri.

Kathleen’s works immediately caught people’s eyes. Not only do they carry a unique visual character, but they capture rarely seen views of the Mon Valley: views of not just industry, but also neighborly living. In 1987, Kathleen entered a painting of Turtle Creek into the Wilkins Township Art Festival and received best of show; in 1988, she showed two paintings at the Three Rivers Arts Festival; and by 1994, her painting of Ferri’s Groceries had won the statewide Senior Arts Festival’s first prize. In 1995, she was part of a large folk artists’ show at the Pittsburgh Center of the Arts, where then-director Murray Horne commented: “I walk through the gallery during the day and hear people commenting that they can do this or that. And it’s true, maybe they can do it too if they pick up a brush” (Norman, Post-Gazette).

Not long after, Kathleen sold the only painting she ever has. (She has, at several points, recreated paintings or sold prints of them, but she has not parted with any of the rest of her originals.) This was a painting of Pittsburgh’s Strip District, to the Heinz Foundation. It is characteristic of her works: a bright red cathedral is in the center, with boats, trains, cars, and little people all about. Many factories surround the church, spitting up fire. In the background, the original Heinz plant sits across the river, the element that intrigued the Foundation. As Kathleen tells it, she sold for a simple reason: the Heinz representatives were kind and described the Berlin Wall to her, so she could paint it.


A painting of a small amusement park with a roller coaster, merry-go-round, auto ride, a dancing pavilion and a pool.

A 1993 painting by Kathleen Ferri of Burke Glen, a former amusement park in Monroeville. The park operated from 1926 to 1974, just off the Old William Penn Highway.

Kathleen has never received any formal art training. She does not much consider painterly techniques like perspective, lighting, or anatomy. She prefers her own intuition. Her works have been called “childlike” or “primitive” but, really, they are personal. They thrum with the unique rhythm of her “good ol’ days” window shopping: place names, street plans, brick walls, and windows. Often, she calls her paintings “memory scenes”, and designs them as a resident might describe them in a story.

She recalled to me how she painted the Berlin Wall scene from details passed on by the Heinz people and the TV news: “There was tears of happiness, so I have to have tears of happiness in there. And they said there was people dancing in the streets, so I had to put dancing in. And you need to have music, you can’t have them dancing around the lunchbox, so I painted a German man playing music,” and so forth. “I’m not in a rush. As long as something’s recognizable, it’s good—and I can always just go over it a second time!” She can stay up all night, making little improvements just as she did in Knezevich’s class, redrawing clouds and faces.

In Kathleen’s paintings, people are mostly happy. They are happy under blue skies, at play in busy amusement parks like Kennywood or Monroeville’s Burke Glen. They are happy under red skies, at work in smoggy mills like Homestead and Edgar Thomson Works. They are happy in town, at business, and with family. The intimate connection between all these aspects of life is obvious, as is the deep familiarity everyone in town has with each other. Her people—often drawn simply, almost like dolls or toys—are in harmonious community with one other and with their surroundings. Kathleen’s artworks are not just key records of the Mon Valley’s underappreciated boroughs, but of Kathleen’s views of 20th century life. In contrast to the Depression, “steel mills, electric production, and boats on our rivers, and many trucks were the evidence of employment returned once more.”

While she gleefully blends small details like period boats and contemporary cars, she is careful to accurately pin down the precise geography and architecture of the town she is painting. She is not only preserving the visual appearance of these places but a loving view of how the people interacted in them. This has only become more crucial as time has gone on and economic forces have changed these towns.

A snowy painting of a old bridge with industry in the background contrasted with a modern photo of the scene.

Left: an undated painting of Dooker’s Hollow Bridge c. the 1940s by Kathleen Ferri. Right: a March 2021 picture of the Dooker’s Hollow Bridge construction siteby Mike Engel. Dooker’s Hollow Bridge spanned a gorge between North Braddock to East Pittsburgh until its detonation in February 2021. Construction on a new bridge is scheduled for later this month.

Hanging the Canvases

Like everywhere in the Rust Belt, Turtle Creek’s industrial economy crashed in the second half of the 20th century. While factories like Edgar Thomson and the Westinghouse Airbrake Factory still remain, they employ far less. As jobs changed, so did the forces and infrastructures that dominate people’s lives. Mill life shifted towards office life and company towns like Wilmerding shifted towards long commutes and large highways. The logic of existence was changing.

The Tri-Boro Expressway was built through Turtle Creek in the 1970s to connect it to Pitcairn. “You crawl after Pitcairn,” remarks Kathleen. During its construction, Ferri Groceries, along with most of the business district, was demolished. A new, smaller plaza was built in their place. A small Vietnam War memorial was erected where the store once was.

Ferri Brothers’ had been seized through eminent domain. Jim, having lost his job, worked various odd jobs. Kathleen got work at the bank. Though the Ferris survived, the way their neighbors related to each other was forever altered. According to the Census Bureau, the 10,600 people of Turtle Creek in 1960 had become 8,300 by 1970 and 6,000 by 2000. The population now hovers somewhere over 5,000.

“They took the whole town!” Kathleen says, naming the Isaly’s deli and local pharmacy as shops long gone. “[The redevelopment] was successful, but they tore down all the old reliables where you knew everyone”.

A then and now set of images of a brick building and an park space.

Left: a picture of the Ferri Brother’s Groceries building at 901 Penn Avenue in Turtle Creek c. the 1930s. Right: a picture of the lot where the building once stood, taken by Mike Engel in March 2021.

Kathleen’s painting of Ferri’s Groceries is one of the few relics of the store left. It preserves not just the’’ building’s façade, but the way of life the store was integral to, a more communal time when people were more known to each other. Many vanished places still endure in Kathleen’s paintings, and her memory. Perhaps because of this, she is careful to only paint things which she remembers well. Though also lacking formal training as a historian, Kathleen is a diligent one. In addition to her art, until recently, she gave lectures on local history at high schools and volunteered at the now-closed Westinghouse Castle Museum.

Contrasting views of the painting and photograph show both change over time and the unique birds-eye perspective of the artist's point of view.

Left: a painting of the town of Wilmerding by Kathleen Ferri, made in 1990 for the town’s centennial celebration. Right: a picture of Wilmerding Park by Mike Engel in March 2021. Note the famous Westinghouse Air Brake Office Building on the left of both, nicknamed “the Castle”. The Air Brake company was based from 1889 to 1985, and from 2006 to 2016, operated as a museum to local history. It is now being developed into a boutique hotel.

These days, Kathleen lives in an independent living residence for seniors in North Versailles, not far from Shirley Knezevich. She spends much of her time writing up old family stories, having created a comprehensive Ferri family history with a photo album and paintings to accompany. She has no plans to sell any more of her artworks, which densely line the walls of her apartment. “They’re like my babies. You don’t produce a baby and then sell it.”

They still bring her great joy: “When I hear people try to describe my art, I say, ‘I don’t even know what you’re talking about!’ It just tickled my heart!”

A gray haired woman in a flowered jacket sits in a chair with three of her paintings hung on the walls behind her.A picture of Kathleen Ferri, c. 2021, with several of her paintings behind her.

For this article, my father and I set out to photograph some of the places Kathleen painted as they look now. This proved difficult, as our pictures were somehow never as sharp or as real as her works. Not having lived in these towns as she did, we were earthbound, in earthier tones. Still, I am surprised to say: the colors are really there. In the sunset, industrial grays and tans become alchemical golds and reds. Another generation grows up among these buildings, in Turtle Creek and Rankin and Wilmerding and more, witnessing their own hues, making their own memory scenes.

Kathleen Ferri will turn 95 this July. She has four children, ten grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren.


Kirkland, Kevin. “Artist Kathleen Ferri is a Pittsburgh original”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 21 March 2012.

Mickens, Julie. Interview with Kathleen Ferri. PGH City Paper, November 2002.

Norman, Tony. “School of Life: City’s self-taught artists get own show at PCA”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1995.

All images of artwork, along with the featured image of the Kathleen Ferri painting, appear courtesy of the artist. They were photographed by Bob Donaldson for the Post-Gazette on Tuesday, January 24, 2012, for the article cited above by Kevin Kirkland.

Read more in the Heritage Highlights series. Check out this interview with Turkish Calligrapher Benjamin Aysan or this interview with drag queen Akasha Van Cartier