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Food vendors mug for the camera.

Homestead Live Fridays—A Celebration of Community

By Blog

Food vendors in the Community Plaza on Eighth Avenue during a 2023 Homestead Live Fridays event.

Homestead Live Fridays—A Celebration of Community

By Gita Michulka

Rivers of Steel’s Homestead Live Fridays is wrapping up its year with a final event on October 27, after a season fueled by renewed energy and interest in the borough.

Homestead Live Fridays occurs in multiple venues throughout the area’s Eighth Avenue business district. Presented by Rivers of Steel and the Steel Valley Accelerator, the event series features local performers, art exhibitions, workshops, vendors, and activities on the final Friday of each month.

Though it’s easy to focus on the live music, food and drinks, or artist showcases as the draw for the series, the event’s true highlight is the camaraderie between businesses—a shared desire to promote not only their business but those of their Homestead neighbors, as well. Venues along Eighth Avenue know each other well, and they collectively utilize First Fridays as a way to emphasize the whole area as an entertainment destination.

Since the inception of the series in 2019, the Steel Valley Enterprise Zone, now known as the Steel Valley Accelerator, saw the value in this communal celebration and has been a producer and financial supporter of the series. Through their support, venues are able to pay for live music and other performances as a draw for residents of Homestead and the greater Pittsburgh area, which in turn spurs economic development in the area.

Homestead Live Fridays continues to evolve as a program driven by local residents and partnering businesses,” said Chris McGinnis, director of arts for Rivers of Steel. “As one of those community partners, we are excited to help produce and promote the monthly series in an effort to get people excited about Homestead. It’s also exciting to see how community collaboration is creating momentum locally. Working with the Steel Valley Accelerator this year has brought some new energy to the events series and the community alike. The Live Fridays series is a great compliment to their vision of a vibrant and dynamic business district in Homestead, and we are thankful for their partnership and support.”

A view of the Amity Harvest Garden from the corner of Amity Street and Seventh Avenue.

A view of the Amity Harvest Garden from the corner of Amity Street and Seventh Avenue.

One of the unique features of Homestead’s business corridor are spaces maintained by one organization for the good of the whole community. Amity Harvest Community Garden, located at the corner of Amity Street and Seventh Avenue, was established through the Allegheny Grows Program to bring people together with fresh food, ideas, and information in Homestead. The space has evolved to become a small sanctuary along a busy urban intersection.

“Amity Harvest Garden is now more of an education hotspot for gardening,” says Jennifer Miller, longtime volunteer and steward of the space. “We provide a beautiful green space on the corner of an urban setting with the hope that people can walk by and appreciate the pollinators and butterflies and the ecosystem.”

Miller is quick to note that Amity Harvest Garden is a community asset, available for residents out for a walk or for local businesses who are looking to host a meeting or an event in a beautiful outdoor setting. During Homestead Live Fridays the garden hosts live music, with two small caveats—“Bring your own beer, and bring your own chair,” laughs Miller.

Teens perform in a grassy lot with a brick wall behind them.

The Difficult Times Jazz Band performs in the Community Plaza on Eighth Avenue, organized by ACORN ANEW.

Another hyper-local organization with a community wide-serving interest, ACORN ANEW, hosts live jazz, vendors, and community activities at an outdoor lot on Eighth Avenue during the events. The group has been an established presence in the Homestead community for years, and utilizes First Fridays to host musical groups such as The Difficult Times Jazz Band, a youth band that formed during the pandemic.

Homestead partners who contribute regularly to the First Fridays series also include Eberle Studios, The Glitterbox Theater, KSD & The Radio Room, Capri Pizza, EON Bar & Grill, The Forge Wine Bar, Voodoo Brewery, Golden Age Beer Company, Dorothy Six, Duke’s Upper Deck Cafe, Live Fresh Juicery, Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream, and Retro on 8th.

For incoming Borough Manager Amanda Loutitt, these connections across the community are something special to see.

Live Fridays are a unique opportunity that I really don’t see happening in other communities,” she notes. “I’m from the Mon Valley, but the other side of it, and we really didn’t have anything like Eighth Avenue, so this is really exciting, just to see things like this happening. It’s a lot of fun.”

“What makes me smile is when I see people from other communities come to Homestead,” agrees Shunta Parms, fellow Borough staff. “You know, it takes away that stigma that people did have about Homestead, when you have people coming from different neighborhoods wanting to enjoy the nightlife in Homestead.”

LED light installation at Bost Building

In 2019, Rivers of Steel commissioned artist Ian Brill to create a site-specific light installation in the egress stairwell of the Bost Building to kick off the first Homestead First Fridays event, as it was known then. Learn more.

Rivers of Steel, which is based in the Bost Building on Eighth Avenue, started the Live Fridays series in 2019 as a way to stimulate interest in the Eighth Avenue corridor for Homestead residents in particular and the greater Pittsburgh community in general who may have simply equated Homestead with the Waterfront, unaware of the vibrancy of its traditional business district.

“Rivers of Steel focuses on communities like Homestead because they have rich historical and cultural significance. The coal, iron, and steel industries in southwestern Pennsylvania had a national and global impact,” said Augie Carlino, president and CEO of Rivers of Steel.  “As industries evolved or declined, Homestead and other Mon Valley communities often faced economic challenges; by working together we are creating historical awareness and creating economic opportunities. By helping to preserve and promote these communities, Rivers of Steel aims to highlight their contributions to the nation’s industrial heritage, promote tourism and education, and help revitalize these areas by leveraging their unique history.”

Running monthly through October, Homestead Live Fridays occurs in multiple venues throughout the area’s Eighth Avenue business district, including cafes Dorothy Six and Eon Bar & Grill, and local breweries Voodoo Brewing Co. and Golden Age Brewing Company, among others. Presented by Rivers of Steel and the Steel Valley Accelerator, the event series features local performers, art exhibitions, workshops, vendors, and activities on the final Friday of each month from 6:00 – 10:00 p.m. Grab a drink or bite to eat and check out some of the region’s best local live music! For details and updates, visit facebook.com/HomesteadLiveFridays.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  Read her prior article on 2023 Homestead Live Fridays

A woman works on a hooked run design.

Community Spotlight—Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh

By Blog, Community Spotlight
Kardelens Fiber Arts member Hacer works on the design for an upholstered footstool.  Photo by Kirsten Ervin.

Community Spotlight—Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts of Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

Fiber Arts exhibition by Turkish and Ukrainian Immigrants to Open October 3

The Pittsburgh region is no stranger to the immigrant story. For nearly two hundred years, the draw of employment in industry steadily brought people from around the world to the city and surrounding townships, forging communities linked by culture. Now, as it was then, after those communities are rooted, they continue to foster recent arrivals to the region in a variety of ways.

With the help of Pittsburgh’s community organizations, the immigrant story continues. Brought about by a partnership between a resettlement organization and a regional arts organization, a showcase of the vibrancy of immigrant culture will soon be on display at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s (CLP) main branch in Oakland.

Funded by the Rivers of Steel Mini-Grant Program and Awesome Pittsburgh, Cultural Mosaic: Textile Work by Turkish & Ukrainian Immigrants to Pittsburgh will feature rug punch textiles, embroidered jewelry, and other fiber arts created by Turkish and Ukrainian support groups. The display will be open to the public at CLP through the end of October, and will then move on to a showing at Studio Forget-Me-Not in Carnegie, Pennsylvania.

Kardelens Fiber Arts member Neslihan displays her work, while a young Kardelens fiber artist works on hers! Photos by Kirsten Ervin.

A Partnership is Forged

In 2018, the Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) Refugee and Immigrant Services team created a Turkish support group and soon discovered that some of the women loved to knit and embroider and that others were very eager to learn. JFCS connected with the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh, who began to teach knitting and embroidery and provided materials for embroidered jewelry. The Turkish support group began selling their wares at craft festivals and eventually went on to establish their own Etsy business, Kardelens Fiber Arts.

Susan Swarthout, a long-time member of the Fiberarts Guild, was named head of the guild’s outreach committee around the same time, and she was excited to see the relationship between JFCS, the Turkish support group, and the guild come together. The Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh had just wrapped up two large-scale community projects, Knit the Bridge and Pop des Fleurs, and were looking forward to another initiative that would showcase fiber arts—fine art whose material consists of natural or synthetic fiber and other components, such as fabric or yarn—while bringing together the larger community.

One of Pittsburgh's iconic yellow bridges is shown lined with knitted work created by volunteers.

The “Knit the Bridge ” installation , part of the Fiberart International 2013. Photo courtesy of Susan Swarthout.

“A group of us got together to decide—what did we want to do?” Swarthout explains. “One of our members had a contact with the JFCS. When they get a lot of newcomers, they will reach out to them and put together a support group that’s headed by someone from their community. And it’s for social and emotional support. What we offered is what we believe that the arts do offer, which is the comfort and companionship and creativity and mental health benefits of working in an art form.”

An Exhibition is Created

Working with the Turkish group was such an enriching experience that the outreach committee jumped at the chance for a similar connection in the fall of 2022 with a newly formed Ukrainian support group. Their first project was supporting the women in making caps and balaclavas for Ukrainian solders.

In 2022, Kirsten Ervin, a Fiberarts Guild member who has spent the last ten years focused on learning, making, and teaching traditional rug-making techniques, gave a tour of the Fiber Art International Exhibit on display at Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh to the Kardelens Fiber Arts Turkish artisans. Members of Kardelens Fiber Arts expressed interest in the hooked rug on display, expressing that rugs held so much importance in their culture. The technique was also of interest to the Ukrainian group as well.

In early 2023, the Fiberarts Guild applied for and received funding that allowed Ervin and fellow guild member Linda Brown to teach the groups the technique of rug punch in a series of workshops. The technique is being used by both groups to further express their old and new cultures through fiber arts. The products from these workshops will be the displays at the Cultural Mosaic show.

Two women hold up their handiwork both reflect the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Left: Artist Natalay shows her Ukrainian pride. Right: Ukrainian Support Group leader Daria Loschak shows off a punch rug of a drawing by her six year-old daughter Varvara. Photos by Kirsten Ervin.

“What’s beautiful about this project is how many different partners and people have been involved: Contemporary Craft, The Fiberarts Guild, Rivers of Steel, Awesome Pittsburgh, Jewish Family and Community Services, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mount Lebanon, Kardelens Fiber Arts, the Ukrainian Support Group. Local Pittsburghers who have donated bags of yarn and volunteer hours. It is truly a community effort,” says Ervin. “And this project has ignited creativity and passion in these women, who have big plans for future entrepreneurial work. Kardelens Fiber Arts are busy creating their first punch rug upholstered footstool, which they plan many more of. The Ukrainian makers are investigating selling work at local markets. The project has a future.”

Swarthout notes that the Fiberarts Guild has a longstanding mission of community engagement through the arts. “Outreach has been a whole bunch of different things over the years. It has been as simple as going out and doing a class in a school where we taught students how to sew or weave or knit or any of the fiber arts, or it has been as all-encompassing and huge as Knit the Bridge.”

This particular project spans across cultures and communities, bridging refugees’ home countries and the environment they now call home.

Colorful hooked rug technique pillows and works in progress.

Work by mother and daughter Tetiana and Helena. Photo by Kirsten Ervin.

In the words of Kardelens’ group coordinator Serap Uzunoglu, “Through our art projects we became aware that we can have a place in the community and we gained our self-confidence again, like we had in our country. We hope to support other newcomers as we have been supported by the Pittsburgh community.”

The Carnegie Library Show at the Main Branch will begin on October 3and run throughout the month of October. There will be a reception with the artists on the afternoon of Saturday, October 28.

The exhibition at Studio Forget-Me-Not in Carnegie will open on Saturday, November 25, with a reception from 12–5 and will run throughout December; everything will be on sale here including pillows, bags, and fiber jewelry, all created by the women involved in the project.

Contact the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh at fiberartspgh.org/contact to learn more or follow them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FiberartsGuildofPittsburgh.

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read about Grow Pittsburgh’s summer program.

Detail of A mosaic image of a miner with a light on his forehead wearing a jacket with lapels. The lines of the image contour the shape of this face, goatee, and curvature of his chest.

The Ruins Project—Walk the Line

By Blog

Rachel Sager’s The Ruins Project, Part Three

This week we are sharing the final of three articles by Rachel Sager reflecting on The Ruins Project, a long-term collaborative mosaic art installation amid the ruins of a former coal mine in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Rachel Sager operates the Sager Mosaics Studio, which is located near mile marker 104 on the Great Allegheny Passage and adjacent to The Ruins Project, which represents the rebirth of abandoned American coal country into a spiritual and artistic pilgrimage and destination for adventure seekers and lovers of art and history.

In her first article, Rachel introduced the site and the project and outlined her first rule for collaborators contributing artworks—they must Honor What Was. Rachel set in place a trio of rules the first year, before any of the collaborative art was begun. The rules apply to everyone. The artists use them to make mosaic in ways that preserve the delicate balance of her vision. The rules also help visitors to appreciate the story that is unfolding on deeper, more meaningful levels.

Then, for her next article, she reflected on the second rule—to build relationships with the raw materials. The process reflects a sense of place—exploring creativity, storytelling, and mosaic traditions.

Today, for her final submission, Rachel considers an essential aesthetic technique—the use of andamento or the way of the line in the construction of the artworks. Beyond a principle of the craft, the use of andamento takes on a meaning that is both grounding and transcendent for Rachel Sager. Join her in understanding the balance of what she refers to as “walking the line.”

By Rachel Sager, Guest Contributor

A white woman with reddish hair in jeans and a long sleeve tshirt wearing a smock stands in a concrete doorway that is adorned with mosaic artworks.

Rachel Sager

Walking the Line at The Ruins—Exploring the Language of Mosaic

There is a fancy word in mosaic land that holds a kind of sovereignty over all other words.

It’s stronger than tesserae, which means each individual square of stone. It’s stronger than material, which can mean glass or ceramic or pebbles or shells.

It’s even stronger than composition, which is crucial for all the arts.

It is the ABC of mosaic. Some describe it as the language that mosaicists speak.

It can be described as flow. And sometimes as pathways.

I have taken to calling the line. And I ask all artists at The Ruins to walk the line.

(The greatest respect goes to Johnny Cash for gifting the world with those three brilliant words.)

Images of different shaped blocks in a line with the word andamento

Andamento

But you don’t see andamento in all mosaic; only the kind that is steeped in the old ways. Let me take you back about one thousand years, give or take.

The mosaicists who came before us built an impressive infrastructure of rules (guidelines) that enabled them to tell their stories. When we see Greek, Roman, and Byzantine mosaic work, we are looking at centuries of cultural knowledge that evolved slowly and specifically to perfect the image. Whether that image was the human form, a sea monster, or a mountain landscape, the elegant lines made them all come alive.

Shape, size, angle, placement, direction, and space are some of elements that make up these rules. I teach a contemporary version of them in my popular online course, Intuitive Andamento.

image of text: reads "Origin of Andamento <Italian, equivalent to anda(re) to walk (see andante) +mento-ment

For those who work within the miracle of the line, experiencing a mosaic that does not respect andamento is just not quite as exciting. We work in pieces, not paint. Tesserae, not clay. The inherent heaviness in these pieces of things provides us with the challenge of creating the illusion of lightness. There is no one solution to this challenge. The beauty of the problem lies in the unending ways an artist can create that lightness and elegance of the line.

The artists of The Ruins each have their own particular voices as they walk and interpret the line.

A mosaic image of a miner with a light on his forehead wearing a jacket with lapels. The lines of the image contour the shape of this face, goatee, and curvature of his chest.

Look closely and you will see the lines of movement in every stone of Margy Cottingham’s portrait of the Anonymous Miner

My Perspective on Walking the Line

By nature, artists are meant to redefine boundaries and push others into uncomfortably new places, right? I agree. For me, pushing into new places works best when I am working within the line. My hands, brain, heart, and soul do their best when building a line that starts with one piece and reinvents itself with every piece that follows. I experience an absolute individual liberty within the confines of the line. I don’t know what’s coming around the next bend—and that’s the whole point.

Sandstone square, smalti sliver, marble rectangle, limestone circle—jumping into the rabbit hole of andamento, possibly never to come out again! As some may feel confined by following the rules of what makes mosaic language work, I experience complete liberation. When looking at the details of my work, you are seeing a human being tapping into a communication style that works better than speech or text for her. It is pure expression tempered through technique.

 

A mosaic of a landscape from above, like a map, representative of a body of water, a shoreline, some rivers and land.

An Alchemical Map of Mosaic by Rachel Sager

I think of walking the line as an unanswerable question because there is no limit to what I can express with my lines. Completely abstract or highly realistic, my lines are me. If I am doing it right, my lines become an extension of my personality, my philosophy, and dare I say it? Yes, I do…my soul.

When I am building lines my brain switches to another frequency. I experience a peace that is missing in my other life. When I look for that next square of stone, there are no doubts and no second guessing. I am sure of my choice. And then I am sure of my next choice. I choose with confidence whether to set a keystone, a cube-like shape, a sliver, a rectangle, a circle, or even a triangle. I choose, mostly on an intuitive level, how to angle the shape of stone or glass into its bed of mortar. One way of describing this phenomenon is that I put the best of myself into my lines every day. My glaring imperfections in life contrast to the little bits of perfection that I can build onto the substrate.

A recess in a large cement wall is filled with horizontally stacked lines of many colors. In the foreground on the protruded part of the walk an adjacent mosaic work shows an American flag.

E Pluribus Unum at The Ruins by Rachel Sager and Deb Englebaugh.

Building the line makes me a better person.

The line builder is expressing herself within the line. She may be working in the confines of some boundaries, but those are secondary to her total immersion in building lines that stand on their own, lines that speak for themselves. Nothing makes this kind of mosaicist happier than making all those hundreds and thousands of choices, knowing that with each one she is expressing actions that are deeply intimate but also universally common.

A rainbow of lines form the shape of Argentina.

Argentinian artist Alejandra Martin representing her country as a map at The Ruins.

We can compare line building to architecture: creating little communities of tesserae that can theoretically be never-ending cities of communication, from a single tesserae house to a collection of tesserae villages, onward toward cityscapes, patchwork fields, layered landscapes, or even global swaths of expression.

Some mosaicists compare the line to writing. One word builds on the next. Each word should work to make the one before and after it stronger, or if not stronger, then at least more interesting. Every word (tessera) matters to the overall story (composition).

A repeated pattern of lines

Can you see the lines? Sager Mosaics andamento

Some mosaicists are fluent in andamento. They don’t have to think as they choose the next right stone (word). Others are new to the language, and their newness shows in the awkward placement and shapes of their stone. But all the artists of The Ruins understand that walking the line is an adventure that should never really be over. Because with each piece set, we are walking the line as we build it.

One piece at a time.

Ten red stones are placed in a line following a crack in the cement wall.

A very small line at The Ruins by Patty Darke Thomas

A Trio of Rules

This ends the trio of rules that help give The Ruins its form and function.

Without #1 of Honoring What Was, we would lose the stories of the past.

Without #2 of Building Relationships with Raw Material, we would lose the intimacy of connecting with the earth that is so important for artists who spend time here.

Without #3 of Walking the Line, we would lose the structure of an ancient language that, for the contemporary mosaicist, is just as important today as it was a thousand years ago.

The three rules work together to preserve what we already have while building on the mosaic of The Ruins future.

All images are courtesy of Rachel Sager. 

Rachel Sager in her studioRachel Sager, The Storytelling Mosaicist, has been making mosaic, writing about mosaic, speaking about mosaic, and teaching mosaic for over twenty years. Her signature forager and intuitive teaching styles have changed how mosaic is experienced and have helped build on the golden age that the art form is enjoying in these exciting decades.

As the owner and creator of The Ruins Project and Sager Mosaics, Rachel lives and works as an Appalachian entrepreneur in the hills and hollows of her hometown just down the river from Pittsburgh in Fayette County.  

The easiest (and most engaging) way to keep up with what’s happening at The Ruins is by subscribing to The Ruins Substack which is also where you can find the growing episodes of The Ruins Podcast, a collection of conversations that Rachel hosts with all walks of creative people who interact with her cathedral to coal.

She hopes you will join her in her quest to unearth optimism; some days with a shovel, some days with a hammer, and some days with a pen.

The Ruins is accessible through guided tours only. To make arrangements go to Book a Tour.

 

This is the second in a series by Rachel Sager. You can read Honor What Was, the first rule, and stay tuned for Rule #3  with more of The Ruins story.

A black teen with small braids holds up two white onions she recently picked, standing in front of a cart full of baskets of onions. Her shirt reads "Love and Unity is our Community Braddock Youth Project."

Community Spotlight—Grow Pittsburgh

By Blog, Community Spotlight

A teen with the Braddock Youth Projects displays the onions she picked on a recent morning at Braddock Farms.

Community Spotlight—Grow Pittsburgh

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts of Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

Grow Pittsburgh’s Urban Farmers in Training program Connects Teens to their Communities through Local Food Systems

On a sunny July morning at Braddock Farms, a group of teenagers is hard at work harvesting onions. Their crop, destined for local farm stands, is just one part of the urban agriculture ecosystem that they’ll learn about throughout the year.

The students are members of Grow Pittsburgh’s Urban Farmers in Training (UFIT), a workforce development program that immerses high school participants between the ages of 14 – 18 in the workings of a farm, connecting them to the process of growing and distributing food while deepening career readiness skills.

A group of teens harvest onions at Braddock Farms and the Edger Thompson Steel Mill is seen in the background.

A group of teens with the Braddock Youth Project harvest onions at Braddock Farms, part of Grow Pittsburgh’s Urban Farmers in Training program. The Edger Thompson Works is seen in the background.

This year, Grow Pittsburgh is partnering with the Braddock Youth Project and Homewood Children’s Village to recruit students for the UFIT program, which is partly funded by Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program.

During the course of the growing season, the UFIT students are hands on at the farm, preparing the space, seeding crops, maintaining the gardens, and harvesting what grows. They also interact with the community by working regular shifts at the organization’s low-cost farm stands, distributing fresh food and providing cooking demonstrations. At the same time, they are building relationships with those community members and learning about the business side of farm management.

A red and white structure is labeled "Farm Store" on it's barn-like doors. A nearby sign reads "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" and "FarmToTablePA.com"

The Farm Store at Braddock Farms is open to the public several days a week.

“We’re trying to give a comprehensive and cohesive education that touches a little bit on everything in local food systems, as these teens are starting to really think about what they want to do after high school,” explains Vee Bleiweiss, development coordinator at Grow Pittsburgh. “In addition to farming and the farm markets, we do a lot of field trips and hands-on experiences. The goal with our UFIT program is to give the teens a sense of local food systems and where they can work within them. With everything that we do, we try to incorporate a ‘This is what it would look like to work here’ approach.”

Each week on the job broadens the students’ sense of the many facets of agriculture and offers them work experience and life skills that can be carried over into other types of employment.

“We take them to various food distribution factories and talk about what it looks like to work in a place like that,” Bleiweiss continues. “We take them to PNC Park—Grow Pittsburgh manages the rooftop garden there for the Pirates—and talk about what it looks like to work at PNC Park. We have representatives from PNC Bank come in and do financial literacy courses. We talk about entrepreneurship. We meet with local farmers and small business owners to talk about some of the ways that they got where they are, the struggles that they’re facing, and their advice for teens that want to start their own businesses.”

Seven teens, all young people of color, mill around on the rooftop garden at PNC park.

Teens visit the rooftop garden at PNC park. Image courtesy of Grow Pittsburgh.


A group of teens, adults and a child pose for a photo during a ballgame at PNC park.

UFIT teens and company during a ballgame at PNC park. Image courtesy of Grow Pittsburgh.

The program is comprehensive, and continues even as the seasons change. Once the farm has been winterized, lessons continue at the Nyia Page Community Center, where the students learn about seed saving, medical tincture making, garden planning and organization, and run through seed catalogs, among other lessons.

Beyond the practical lessons learned, the program also has a focus on deep ties to the community.

“Grow Pittsburgh partners with a lot of local farmers and urban ag groups,” Bleiweiss notes. “And one thing that’s unique about the Homewood UFIT Program is that we are part of the Homewood Food Access Working Group, which is a collaborative with five Black-led nonprofits—Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh, Oasis Farm & Fishery, Grow Pittsburgh, Sankofa Village Community Garden, and Operation Better Block—focused on increasing racial equity and food access in the Homewood neighborhood. All five organizations are focused on urban agriculture, youth and community education, and addressing issues of food access and insecurity. Our UFIT teens will visit each site, working with participants from the other programs, to demonstrate the full scope of urban agriculture in their community.”

Two teens display a presentation board with information about herbs.

Teens present about herbs during the Youth Garden Summit, organized by the Youth Leadership Council. Image courtesy of Grow Pittsburgh.

The UFIT program also includes a Youth Leadership Council, which involves up to ten youths from urban agriculture organizations across the city. Over the course of five, paid planning sessions that focus on leadership development, the teens work together to plan an annual Youth Garden Summit. During this summit, ten local youth organizations come together to share with each other their newfound knowledge and experiences from their summer programs. Each organization delivers a teen-created presentation, participates in group bonding activities, and receives a private tour of Phipps Conservatory.

Grow Pittsburgh also offers multiple other avenues for students and community members of all ages to get involved with urban agriculture. From school and community gardens to their pre-apprenticeship program, the organization is on a mission to support food-growing initiatives and programs across the region as a key way to improve the social, economic, environmental, health, and educational realities of people in the Pittsburgh community.

This mission pays dividends in fresh produce. In 2022, through their urban farms and programs, Grow Pittsburgh grew and distributed 34,094 pounds of food, 28,034 of which was sold at their low-cost farm stands and 6,060 donated to local food pantries and free food distributions. Their farm stands served 4,443 customers in Wilkinsburg, Braddock, Homewood, and North Point Breeze.

They offer plenty of ways to celebrate as well. Each year, Grow Pittsburgh hosts a Zucchini Festival and a Fall Festival—harvest-themed parties open to the public with games, activities, music, and of course, great food.

A pavilion with a green roof is lit with strands of party lights and filled with event-goers.

The scene at Grow Pittsburgh’s Garden Get Down. Image courtesy of Grow Pittsburgh.

On Wednesday, August 23, Grow Pittsburgh will also be hosting their annual Garden Get Down, a fundraiser that brings together community members and gardeners for a fun-filled night of fresh local food, specialty drinks, dancing, and garden-related activities. This all-ages party is a great way to connect with local gardeners and farmers. Party-goers can learn about Grow Pittsburgh’s work to increase food security or just enjoy a great meal and break it down on the dance floor with some friends.

Regardless of your gardening status, Bleiweiss hopes you’ll consider stopping through. “It’s a big party that brings together community and backyard gardeners, UFIT and farm apprentice participants, garden educators from local schools, and farm stand customers to celebrate the incredible urban agriculture and fresh-food access work happening across our city. It’s a great way to connect with the local community, whether you’re a gardener or not—plus there’s fun music, art activities, and great food!”

A white couple, likely in their late 30s, hold up art made during the Garden Get Down.

Party-goers at the Garden Get Down show off their screen prints. Image courtesy of Grow Pittsburgh.

Visit growpittsburgh.org for a variety of garden and farm resources, information on urban farms, event details, volunteer opportunities, and more! 

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, check out the latest round of awards.

Six eclectic, young white people pose for an image. Some hold sparklers, another has a puppet, one is spinning a plate, and there is a DJ in front of a circus-style bearded mermaid banner.

Homestead Live Fridays—Creating Community Through Creativity

By Blog

Members of the Glitterbox Theater collective: (from left) Tree, Anna, Bailey, Amos, Lex, and Chris at their outdoor showcase during June’s Homestead Live Fridays event.

Homestead Live Fridays—Vibrancy Through the Arts

By Gita Michulka

At the heart of Homestead Live Fridays is a celebration of community. Certainly of Homestead itself, with its rich history and long-standing residents—but also of the clusters of venues and businesses who have formed vibrant, interconnected communities centered around the arts, music, and expression within the neighborhood.

The event series, presented by Rivers of Steel and the Steel Valley Accelerator, features local performers and live music within partnering bars and restaurants, along with art exhibitions, workshops, vendors, and activities in Homestead’s Eighth Avenue business district on the final Friday of each month from 6:00 – 10:00 p.m. This “community crawl” allows visitors and residents a chance to experience diverse programming while also shopping and grabbing a bite to eat, all while making connections between the Live Fridays partners with similar offerings.

Homestead Live Fridays arts partners include Glitterbox Theater, Eberle Studios and Gallery, Pittsburgh Sound + Image, and KSD & The Radio Room. This eclectic mix has one big thing in common—they all strive to give a wide range of art and artists a platform—and in the process, they have elevated the arts scene in Homestead to captivating levels while revitalizing notable buildings from Homestead’s past.

In front of a red brick building with a sign reading Olds, three people jump rope in the foreground what two other practice juggling in the background.

In June, members of the Glitterbox collective created a welcoming space in the parking lot of the old Oldsmobile building, playfully jumping rope and providing impromptu juggling lessons for visitors.

A Welcoming Addition—Glitterbox Theater

Glitterbox Theater, who recently relocated to Homestead after a successful three-year tenure on Melwood Avenue, is dedicated to giving performances of all kinds “a stage, a platform, a microphone” through affordable and accessible community-based theater rentals, according to Teresa “Tree” Martuccio, a spokesperson for the collective. The group particularly aims to be queer normative, where all types of people can feel welcome and comfortable.

Though their new residence—located at 210 W. Eighth Avenue in the former Oldsmobile building—is currently under construction while they get settled in, that doesn’t stop their members from putting on a good show during Live Fridays. Utilizing their outdoor space for the Friday night festivities, they have plans for large live paintings, circus-themed activities, and music—all of which guests can participate in or can simply observe as they drop by during the event.

Glitterbox is currently in the last push of a capital campaign to raise the funds needed to revitalize their space and complete renovations needed to make it accessible for theater crowds. The architect on the project is John Kudravy, who is located directly across the street from the Oldsmobile building. Required work includes adding more entrances, exits, and restrooms, along with parking lot upgrades for handicap spaces and accessibility. Plus, they’ll be adding in a concessions counter!

In the meantime, the collective is hosting shows at alternative locations around town while working on weaving their village of artists and performers into the community of Homestead. In particular, they hope residents will keep an eye out for their monthly variety show, an open-mic format for performers with any talent they’d like to showcase, open to new and old friends of Glitterbox alike. Tree shared that they look forward to connecting with more Homestead residents this summer as they grow their community in the Mon Valley.

A film projector, draped in a strand of orange lights, projects an abstract image on a screen. In between the projector and the screen about thirty people sit in three rows of chairs viewing the film in near darkness.

Pittsburgh Sound + Image at the Eberle Studios during June’s Homestead Live Fridays. Image courtesy of Steve Felix.

Eberle Studios and Gallery Partner with Pittsburgh Sound + Image

Homestead is also home to Eberle Studios and Gallery, a venue that is so much more than their name implies. The Studios, located at 229 E. Ninth Avenue, contains art spaces including ceramic artist studios, a photography / film studio, and a fashion upcycling incubator.

“Eberle Studios was founded when artist Ed Eberle, a Pittsburgh native, relocated his studio to Homestead in 2012, in the old Elks Lodge,” explains Jonathan Eberle, Ed’s son. “There have always been several artists working in the building, but in 2018 The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference came to Pittsburgh, and we opened our gallery space for the conference. The experience of having so many visitors come to Homestead, to our art studios and gallery—it was such a positive experience that we decided to open up the gallery for more exhibits.”

More than 15 patrons mil around in small groups in a white gallery space with large ceramic vessels on pedestals.

Eberle Studios and Gallery during the NCECA Conference in 2018.

Ed Eberle also has a vision for artists who work in ceramics. “He wanted to create a quality workspace for artists to further their careers,” notes Jonathan. “Ed feels that artists need a good studio where they can do their best work. And that’s what we do.”

Though Eberle Studios has a focus on ceramics, the gallery exhibits a multitude of art mediums, including sculpture and photography.

Jonathan Eberle, who is a filmmaker and a Pittsburgh Filmmakers and University of Pittsburgh Film Studies alum, has woven film into the space’s offerings. A few years ago, he met Steve Felix, Executive Director of Pittsburgh Sound + Image, along with Steven Haines, the organization’s Director of Programming. Now, Eberle Studios serves as the exhibition venue for Sound + Image screenings. The nonprofit has a mission to introduce the region to artists—both global and local— who otherwise do not currently have outlets in Pittsburgh, and they conduct film screenings and preservation as well as operate pghcinema.com, which tracks and promotes all organizations hosting film events citywide.

At Eberle Studios, Pittsburgh Sound + Image events include films shown on their original 16mm reels, followed frequently by some form of audience participation such as panel discussions with the film’s artists or Q&A with Haines. The shows have limited seating, and Live Fridays events are very popular.

“I think the hands-on element, the tactile, analog element of what Steven does, his expertise with projection and archiving and the film medium as a physical medium, is very special—very rare, of course, now,” notes Felix. “I think that’s a big part of what people come out for. It is truly unique to be in the room with a projector, to hear that clatter of the reels.”

A lot of the films come from Haines’s personal collection, which he has acquired over the years from flea markets, but he also seeks out films held in collections that are maintained through various co-ops across the country. When Sound + Image borrows a film from a co-op, the rental fees go back to the artists and the cooperatives. Haines is eager to note how much this support matters. “By coming to our screenings, when we’re getting films from these co-ops all over the country, you are supporting this whole film ecosystem. It keeps a lot more human experts in the mix, being an analog film, because you do have to think about borrowing physical things.”

Three figures are seen in silhouette as they view colorful art hung saloon style on the walls.

An art exhibition at KSD during Homestead Live Fridays.

KSD & The Radio Room

Located at 101 E. Eighth Avenue, KSD—Kindness Solidarity Design—was founded on the idea that tattoo studios shouldn’t be scary and intimidating places, and that the space they occupy can be used to showcase art, artists, and music in a communal environment.

“A few years ago, my friend Kyle Rybak and I decided to open up KSD & The Radio Room,” says Doug Lopretto, co-owner of the venue. “I had been tattooing for sixteen or more years, and I was kind of tired of the business the way it was run in other parts of the city, where tattooing is more of an assembly line versus focusing on quality over quantity. I had also worked in shops that were sometimes a little intimidating. I wanted to create a private space where people feel comfortable.”

At KSD, private sessions can be made with the tattoo artists by appointment only, with an emphasis on the meaning and artistry behind each tattoo, what they aptly refer to as “lifelong body art.” Though this idea isn’t solely unique to KSD, the space certainly is—their focus on the arts bleeds over to the gallery and music venue that coexist within the tattoo studio.

A crowd of 20 people watch a band play in a gallery space. The stage has "Radio Room" painted on the back wall.

A performance in the Radio Room helped kick off the 2023 Homestead Live Fridays season.

Their building was once home to the WAMO and WAMO-FM radio stations, with strong ties to the local community. The KSD team dubbed the space “The Radio Room” as a nod to this heritage and are doing their part to continue the tradition of rooting their work in the community. For each gallery show, Lopretto encourages the artist to decide who the band will be when gallery shows are paired with performances. Because of this, the gallery has hosted a wide variety of art formats along with practically every genre of music you can think of, including noise installations, interactive video game art installations, and an oversized Theremin that visitors were encouraged to play.

Revitalized Spaces and an Ecosystem of Artists

This ecosystem of artist collaboration is an integral part of the venues who are rooted in Homestead, along with a belief in the importance of showcasing art and artists who might not typically have the opportunity to be seen. In the process, the partners are working hard to ensure they celebrate the culture of the neighborhood, including revitalizing some of the area’s historic buildings as shared community spaces for residents and visitors alike.

“What strikes me about the artists that work in Homestead these days is how involved they are in the community,” notes Jon Engel, the community and program organizer for Homestead Live Fridays. “Homestead is currently undergoing some seriously renewed energy in the arts, and there’s a lot still coming.”

Homestead Live Fridays continues on July 28th.

– Drop by and visit with new neighbors, The Glitterbox Theater, as they keep the vibes fun and funky, offering up live paintings, circus-themed activities, and music. Learn more.

– Eberle Studios presents series of showcases on local independent filmmakers from the 1960s–90s, including “Essential Pittsburgh: Sheila Chamovitz” on July 28.  Sheila Chamovitz is the Pittsburgh director behind two important but seldom screened 30-minute documentaries. In the 1970s, with Skokie: Rights or Wrong, Sheila examined free speech via the controversial events of the ACLU defending a Nazi march in a Jewish neighborhood. In the 1980s, she made Murray Avenue: A Community in Transition, an elegy for the changing culture of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.  Reserve tickets here.

– This month, KSD & The Radio Room will host a Makers’ Market, complete with local artists, crafters, jewelry makers, candle makers, print makers, illustrators, metal workers, face painting, vintage clothes, hand knit items, and more! View event details.

Amity Harvest Community Garden, The Forge Urban Winery, Golden Age Beer Company, Voodoo Brewing Co. Homestead, Eon Bar and Grill, Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream, ACORN/ANEW, Retro on 8th and more are also participating in this month’s Live Fridays series.

Running monthly through October, Homestead Live Fridays occurs in multiple venues throughout the area’s Eighth Avenue business district, including gastropub Blue Dust, cafes Dorothy Six and Eon Bar & Grill, and local breweries Voodoo Brewing Co. and Golden Age Brewing Company, among others. Presented by Rivers of Steel and the Steel Valley Accelerator, the event series features local performers, art exhibitions, workshops, vendors, and activities on the final Friday of each month from 6:00 – 10:00 p.m. Grab a drink or bite to eat and check out some of the region’s best local live music! For details and updates, visit facebook.com/HomesteadLiveFridays.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  Read her prior article on 2023 Homestead Live Fridays

A still life of sorts showing a hammer a metal chisel anchored to a board, and several split rocks that have a gray center and white exterior.

The Ruins Project—Red Dog, Hammers, and Hardies

By Blog

Rachel Sager’s The Ruins Project, Part Two

This week we are sharing the second of three articles by Rachel Sager reflecting on The Ruins Project, a long-term collaborative mosaic art installation amidst the ruins of a former coal mine in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Rachel Sager operates the Sager Mosaics Studio, which is located near mile marker 104 on the Great Allegheny Passage and adjacent to The Ruins Project, which represents the rebirth of abandoned American coal country into a spiritual and artistic pilgrimage and destination for adventure seekers and lovers of art and history.

In her first article, Rachel introduced the site and the project and outlined her first rule for collaborators contributing artworks—they must Honor What Was. Rachel set in place a trio of rules the first year, before any of the collaborative art was begun. The rules apply to everyone. The artists use them to make mosaic in ways that preserve the delicate balance of her vision. The rules also help visitors to appreciate the story that is unfolding on deeper, more meaningful levels.

For today’s piece, she reflects on the second rule—to build relationships with the raw materials. The process reflects a sense of place—exploring creativity, storytelling, and mosaic traditions.

By Rachel Sager, Guest Contributor

A white woman with reddish hair in jeans and a long sleeve tshirt wearing a smock stands in a concrete doorway that is adorned with mosaic artworks.

Rachel Sager

 

You can try talking to a stone, but most people will tell you it won’t talk back.

And if it does, you may have other problems that this hammer can’t solve.

I will give you a cheeky little smile as I explain that stones do talk.

For the right listener, stones have stories to tell.

Red, gray, and black rocks surround a chisel mounted to a board.

A girl can never have too many hammers. The traditional tools of the Roman mosaicists haven’t changed much in the last five hundred years.

The Search for a Stone

When happening upon the right stone, there is a fleeting moment when it seems that all things are possible.

Picture yourself walking along a riverbank. Head down, eyes focused. You have a goal.

Your goal is not simply to find something pretty (although you always leave room for that). Your goal is to find a stone that can be opened. You have been learning to cut things with your steel-tipped hammer and hardie (a chisel mounted upside down), and you want to begin the lifelong process of identifying what can be cut and what is better left alone.

You are not a geologist; you are a stone lover. You want to unearth the secrets. This walk along the river is your first date in what may become a long and passionate love affair.

You pick up lots of stones. You drop just as many.

You don’t realize it yet, but this first walk is about making the wrong choices.

You will fill up your bucket or bag or pockets with what you think are the right stones. You will lug them back to your workspace, wash them, scrub them, and lay them out in the sun. You’ll appreciate their angles and ridges.

You will think you know what they look like from these appreciating stages.

Five rocks are arranged in a line to show their rainbow of colors—orange-red, yellow-tan, red-purple, green, and a mossy green.

Stones from Touchstone Center for Crafts property. Photo by Kelley Knickerbocker.

But really, the best part is yet to come.

Cracking them open with your hammer is when their true nature is revealed because they have been rolling around in the air and the water and the forces of nature for so, so long that their outsides have changed. It’s like looking at a walnut: the green outer shell gives you clues as to what the dark, ridged inside reveals, but the clues take time to learn, and they can be tricky.

Three black walnuts emerging from their green shells while still on a treel

The Black Walnut

The inside of a rock is almost always a different color and texture from the outside. It’s a present from the past, waiting for you and your hammer to reveal its nature. Will it be sandy or smooth? Reddish or grayish? Will it cleave like butter or withstand your hammer strikes like a rocky vault?

With time put in, you will realize that the speckled, egg-shaped calling card of granite is not worth the trouble. It’s too hard on your hands and your hammer. You will learn that sandstone is a beginner’s joy and limestone is just difficult enough to cut that you may need help from a seasoned mosaicist to learn the tricks for working with it.

With enough time put in, you may come to give certain stones nicknames and personalities. I call sandstone humble and limestone sophisticated.

And then there is red dog. This stone deserves a category all its own.

A reddish-orange rock that is nearly heart shaped being held between the middle finger and thumb on someone's hand, over a background of slivers of black stones.Red Dog: The Storytelling Stone

We are always on the hunt for “choice” red dog, the kind that has black embedded into the insides and rosy reds on the outsides.

The imagining is one of my favorite parts. You let your imagination sweep you back up the river, where a stone has traveled to get here. Was it washed all the way from West Virginia? Did it break off from a giant monolith of sandstone to be washed here, today, for you to discover it?

Or was it once something else entirely? Red dog is the colloquial term for a byproduct of the bituminous coal industry during the decades that Banning #2 coal mine, now The Ruins Project, was in operation.

A coal miner during these times was paid by the ton, not the hour. If he couldn’t get his ton of coal out of the hillside and onto a car to be weighed, he very likely couldn’t feed his family. This working by material weight created an urgency throughout the entire process of coal extraction. From the diggers with shovels to the bosses wearing suits, it was all about the volume.

In their urgency, the men dumped anything that wasn’t coal along the riverbanks. Decades of dumping created small mountains of the black shale that was tucked up tightly against the seams of coal.

A miner was only paid for the coal, but he had to move the shale too.

A roughly onion shaped arrangement of small red dog stones that also resembles a flame.

A red dog flame to symbolize the fire that created it. By Ruins artist Julie Christmann.

These hills of refuse would catch fire periodically and burn deep inside—the kind of hot burning with no air that transformed the black Youghiogheny shale into incredible shades of red. All the colors of red from the Crayola box: burnt sienna, brick, copper, bittersweet, apricot, salmon, and even violet red.

The shale on the inside, the burnt-by-fire on the outside. Red dog is part geologic, part manmade. For The Ruins artists, it represents an opportunity to work with a beautiful, unique mosaic material that has history wrapped into its mysterious layers.

Building relationships at The Ruins is a bottomless bank of possibilities. We don’t go shopping at stores for our mosaic tesserae (the small pieces used in mosaic). We are more likely to find raw stone and transform it with our hammers in surprising ways.

Each artist has the freedom to translate their relationship to mosaic material in unique ways. Some use glass. Others ceramic. And many choose stone.

I will highlight two Ruins artists to explain.

Two images of the same artwork showing a yellow to red gradient arranged in a sliver with gray horizontal lines of stones stacked on either side of it. On the left is a nearly profile view demonstrating the 3-D nature of the gray layer. The image on the right shows it from straight on.

East Meets West. Photos by Bri Santoro.

Anabella Wewer’s East Meets West

Classically trained mosaicist Anabella Wewer took her relationship building to astonishing lengths with the masterful East Meets West composition, built to represent the heat of the steel industry. Standing below it, looking up, one feels the connection between coal and steel.

It’s a perfect symbol to connect Rivers of Steel and The Ruins Project. The bituminous coal from Banning #2 was loaded onto The P and LE coal cars that would then make the many journeys north to fuel the Carrie Furnaces.

But looking at it and understanding it are two different things.

The artist wanted gray material. She needed a lot of it given the large size of her planned five-foot by three-foot composition. She also wanted to achieve a strata effect that felt like the depths of the earth. Anabella says, “pouring my own concrete made sense once I decided to make the molten steel look as if it was breaking through the concrete wall.”

Different shade of gray concrete fill up ice cube molds.

The artist tinted and poured her own shades of concrete. In all, seven shades of custom-created tesserae help to make up the nuanced color changes in East Meets West.


Small gray gravel like concrete tesserae surrounding a hardie chisel.

The finished raw material.

It’s one thing to cut every piece of tesserae with a hammer, an already time-consuming process. It’s quite another to pour molds for your own handmade raw material and then cut them down into the small squares that are the building blocks for classical mosaic.

The results look like natural stone but are actually hand-poured and then carefully cut concrete.

Anabella lovingly added this extra step of work to the process—such a quintessentially Ruins things to do.

An artwork of an arrow stretches at least a dozen feet back along a concrete wall. It is applied to the surface, but the arrowhead itself rises up about eight inches from the wall. A flush image of a turkey is on the wall below it.

The Arrow is the anchor for the many animals that make up The Cave.

Wendy Casperson’s The Ruins Arrow

Wendy Casperson is a self-taught McKeesport artist has been slowly but tenaciously building a twenty-six-foot-long mosaic arrow in a room loosely titled The Cave. It’s a space dotted with native animals and represents a time before the people of coal. The Ruins Arrow is a symbol of the many indigenous tribes that once thrived along this river valley. The arrow is built from dozens of materials ranging from Marcellus shale, coal from The Ruins, river pebbles, stained glass, freshwater clam shells, iron ore pellets, red dog, sandstone, and possibly the most surprising of tesserae, deer teeth.

Wendy has become a mosaicist through building the many sections of The Arrow. She has adopted a phrase that personalizes the idea behind building relationships here at The Ruins. It has become a kind of identity for an artist carving a path into mosaic.

I am the Arrow.

Wendy takes great care in choosing each new section and learns how to cut and shape its materials as she works in situ on the wall. She forages the Youghiogheny River, both the banks and the river itself, and often collects animal skulls and bones to incorporate in the andamento (the flow of lines in a mosaic piece) of The Arrow. As a local artist, she has the luxury of taking her time as she builds relationships with each new chosen material.

A panoramic image shows the details in the shaft of the arrow. It is mostly earth colored with a blue line through the middle.

The meandering blue line of smalti (colored glass or enamel) to represent the river is the one constant material throughout the composition.

The Ruins is Relationships

There are over 250 Ruins artists who take the time and effort to build relationships with raw material as they build their mosaic art for the giant cement canvas in the woods.

It is not lost on me that as the artists build relationships with stone and glass, they are also cementing friendships and professional bonds with me and with each other.

Each stone cut and laid into mortar is one more connection in a long line of andamento that makes The Ruins a one-of-a-kind creative force that is changing how the world understands the art of mosaic.

All images are courtesy of Rachel Sager. 

Rachel Sager in her studioRachel Sager, The Storytelling Mosaicist, has been making mosaic, writing about mosaic, speaking about mosaic, and teaching mosaic for over twenty years. Her signature forager and intuitive teaching styles have changed how mosaic is experienced and have helped build on the golden age that the art form is enjoying in these exciting decades.

As the owner and creator of The Ruins Project and Sager Mosaics, Rachel lives and works as an Appalachian entrepreneur in the hills and hollows of her hometown just down the river from Pittsburgh in Fayette County.  

The easiest (and most engaging) way to keep up with what’s happening at The Ruins is by subscribing to The Ruins Substack which is also where you can find the growing episodes of The Ruins Podcast, a collection of conversations that Rachel hosts with all walks of creative people who interact with her cathedral to coal.

She hopes you will join her in her quest to unearth optimism; some days with a shovel, some days with a hammer, and some days with a pen.

The Ruins is accessible through guided tours only. To make arrangements go to Book a Tour.

 

This is the second in a series by Rachel Sager. You can read Honor What Was, the first rule, and stay tuned for Rule #3  with more of The Ruins story.

A woman looks at the signature image for the Gledaj exhbition, a self portrait by Maxo Vanka.

Gledaj! Looking at Pittsburgh through Maxo Vanka’s Eyes

By Blog, Community Spotlight

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer   |   Image: The Gledaj! The Gaze of Maxo Vanka exhibition at the Bost Building

Community Spotlight—Gledaj! The Gaze of Maxo Vanka

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts of Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

Gledaj! Looking at Pittsburgh through Maxo Vanka’s Eyes

“His youthful fire, as an observer of social injustice and human brutality, is never extinguished. For most of his artistic career, Maxo mixes together his classical training and highly developed drawing skills with the anger of a reformer and the didactic narrative of a classical painter.” Bruce Katsiff, Former Director, James A. Michener Museum, 2001

When Croatian artist Maxo Vanka visited Pittsburgh in 1935 and again in 1937, he saw a city entrenched in industry, steeped in a laborer’s Depression-era anguish, and budding with marvels that included countless churches and bridges and the recently completed Cathedral of Learning.

His sketches from his travels through the region showcase just how keenly he saw the beauty and the bereavement, observations that shine through in the murals he later created in St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale.

Thanks in part to funding from Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program and the LIGHT Education Initiative, longstanding partners Rivers of Steel and the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka (SPMMMV) have collaborated to showcase an exhibition of works by Maxo Vanka. The gallery exhibit brings together private works on loan from the Vanka family and private collectors, paired with SPMMMV’s The Vanka Collection—a gift of more than 130 drawings, sketches, and preparatory drawings for the murals by Maxo Vanka’s granddaughter, Marya Halderman and her husband John. The exhibition is on display now at the Bost Building in Homestead.

Titled Gledaj! The Gaze of Maxo Vanka—in Croatian “Gledaj!” translates to “Look! See!”—this collection brings to life Maxo Vanka’s passion and purpose. Though his focus while he was in Pittsburgh was on completing a series of twenty-five murals to adorn the interior of the church, he also spent time exploring the region, expanding his observation of the plight of immigrant communities and the laborers of that time.

two white women stand in a gallery and gesture to a painting as a crowd looks on.

Christie Clayton and Dr. Sylvia Rhor Samaniego lead a group through the exhibition during a gallery talk in May.

“We thought that the Bost Building was an ideal location for Gledaj!, reinforcing the murals’ connection to the region’s history and not just Millvale,” said Anna Doering, executive director of SPMMMV. “Vanka celebrated Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage through his sketches, and they seem at home at Bost. But we also wanted to raise awareness about the Vanka Murals among the Rivers of Steel audiences who might be interested in exploring a related aspect of Pittsburgh’s history.”

“I have always felt that our two sites, The Vanka Murals at the St. Nicholas Croatian Church in Millvale, and the Carrie Furnaces in Swissvale / Rankin, are the two ‘can’t miss’ tourist sites in the region,” agrees Ron Baraff, Rivers of Steel’s director of historic resources and facilities. “The legacy of industry and the ‘culture of steel’ are woven into the fabric of both our stories. The steel industry was the draw factor and economic driver of the region’s growth, while the church and the immigrant experience were central to the social and cultural lives of those who left behind everything they knew to create a new life in this country. Their triumphs and tragedies, and wealth of culture and experience, are central to our themes. Nowhere else can you find such unique and genuine immersive forays into the makeup and vitality of the region.”

A black woman with braids in a gray t-shirt looks a provocative religious artworks.

Themes displayed in the Vanka Murals are foreshadowed in earlier artworks by Vanka.

Though not native to Western Pennsylvania or its steel mills and industry, Vanka’s lived experience in Croatia and travels through the established and emerging industrial centers of America in the 1930s had a unifying thread—the plights of the laborer and of the immigrant. His murals are prominent works of art for their style and imagery, but it is the underlying story behind each piece that stands out. The images on display in the Gledaj! collective offers glimpses into the movements and the monuments that struck him—labor disputes, striking workers, cities under the fog of industry. In the series of work from his time in Pittsburgh, viewers see the newly constructed Cathedral of Learning in Oakland, the iconic Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Polish Hill, views of downtown and the Point, and of course, bridges. His travels also took him to the Johnstown Mill, where he captured the essence of a working steel mill.

A man looks at a wall of sketches of Pittsburgh, including bridges and the Cathedral of Learning.

Landmarks like the Cathedral of Learning and bridges captured Maxo Vanka’s gaze.

“We think the exhibit fills in some important areas of knowledge about Vanka and the genesis of the Murals,” continues Doering. “Visitors can appreciate influential highlights in his personal story, artistic training, and many forms of inspiration. It challenges the myth that Vanka was simply inspired to paint these images once he entered St. Nicholas. The availability of loaned items allowed us to tell a more complete story by showing works that were completed before and during his time in Pittsburgh.”

Gledaj! offers viewers a glimpse of the other influential arts movements from the early twentieth century, on display in Vanka’s oil paintings, watercolor portraits, graphite sketches, and sepia studies. But the works themselves, particularly as a collective, showcase a unique and distinctive talent made stronger by his desire to highlight the marginalized immigrants, workers, and Black Americans.

A woman leans in to view a realistic, pastoral painting. Another Van Gogh-esque impressionistic painting is adjacent to it.

The range of Maxo Vanka’s influences are shown through this collection of artworks.

For exhibit curator Steffi Domike, “Vanka employed all of the tools of his training as a portrait artist, his lifelong practice of figure drawing, and his keen sensitivity to the burdens of poverty to his work at St. Nicholas Church. He is particularly gifted in painting personality and emotion in the bodies of his subjects, as well as in the facial expressions. Vanka’s workers are muscled and strong and express pride, but also fragility, exhaustion, and death. Their joy lies with community, faith, and family.”

“The exhibit reinforces his artistic talent and ability to tell a compelling story through his art. In many ways, it shows that he was uniquely qualified to paint the Murals in St. Nicholas through the circumstance of his birth, lived experiences, talent, and temperament,” notes Doering. “The artist, the murals and the opportunity for the commission in a historic Croatian Church in Millvale, PA, are all truly one of a kind.”

Gledaj! The Gaze of Maxo Vanka will be on display at the Bost Building through August 25, 2023, and is open to the public for a suggested donation of $5 per person. Public tours of the Vanka Murals are offered at the historic St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale on Saturdays at 11:00 a.m. or 12:30 p.m. and Mondays at 6:30 p.m.

In conjunction with the Gledaj! exhibition, SPMMMV will also be offering expanded community engagement opportunities through the summer, including sketching sessions in the South Side, Carrie Blast Furnaces, and Polish Hill. Inspired by Maxo Vanka’s views of Pittsburgh, sketched in 1935 and 1937, these three-hour outdoor sessions will help participants learn how to use their sketchbooks to observe, experience, and celebrate unique spaces here in Pittsburgh and beyond.

Registration is $20 per person and includes water, snacks, and a gift from the Vanka Murals. Spaces are limited. Participants must bring sketching supplies and portable seating if desired. Sketch with the Vanka Murals! South Side (Sunday, 6/25) with session leader John Martine; Carrie Blast Furnaces (Sunday 8/6) with session leaders Rick Landesberg and Ron Donoughe; and Polish Hill (Sunday 10/1) with session leader Ron Donoughe.

A black woman in a hat takes a photo of a photograph of Maxo Vanka.

The exhibition includes some photographs of the artist.

Curated by Steffi Domike, Gledaj! is presented in partnership with the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area. Funding was provided in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Additional support comes from 2023 Paint the Town Maxo Sponsor Dentons Cohen & Grigsby.

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, check out the latest round of awards.

A tour group gathers in the Carrie Deer courtyard while a tour guide points at it.

A Sustainable Look at the Arts and Grounds of the Carrie Furnaces

By Blog

Guests of the Green Building Alliance take a tour of the Carrie Furnaces that examines how the site is sustainably repurposed, May 25, 2023.

A Sustainable Look at the Arts and Grounds of the Carrie Furnaces

Recently, Rivers of Steel collaborated with the Green Building Alliance to weave two divergent narratives at Carrie—its industrial and the postindustrial stories—into a unified thread that reflects the sustainable approach our organization brings to the development of the historic site.

By Jordan Snowden

A Second Life, By Chance

Over a year of Sundays from 1997 to 1998, a group dubbed the Industrial Arts Co-op broke into the grounds of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, now a National Historic Landmark, and slowly but deliberately crafted a forty-five-foot-tall deer head structure out of discarded found objects—steel tubing and structural metals, copper wire, and rubber hose.

Called the Rankin Deer at the time, the artists were inspired by the way nature was reclaiming the abandoned site. It had only been a little over a decade since the former iron mill had been largely stripped by scrappers and left to languish, and already plant and wildlife were taking charge. The collective embraced that concept—one that brings to light human beings’ use of something for their own benefit, only to turn away when it no longer serves to be profitable—to showcase evolution and an inevitable return to nature.

They thought their art would be temporary, making it not for public consumption but simply for the artists’ sake. Their thinking was that the Rankin Deer, also known as the Carrie Deer, would be torn down and bulldozed over like the rest of the site eventually would. But the Industrial Arts Co-op, made up of George Davis, Liz Hammond, Tim Kaulen, John Latell, Joe Small, Tim Yohman, and Bob Ziller, was unknowingly changing the course of history and the fate of the Carrie Blast Furnaces. They were seeding the site with a second life.

A group of mostly younger to middle age white folks in a hard hats gather around a tour guide who orients them to the space with a map behind him on a brick wall.

Tour guide Andy Schneider orients the Green Building Alliance guests to the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

Sustainability, Multiple Ways

On a sunny Thursday evening toward the end of May, the Green Building Alliance (GBA), a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit focusing on supporting sustainable buildings and community, explored the postindustrial site, located in both Swissvale and Rankin, for a special tour merging the historical, industrial aspects of the Carrie Furnaces narrative and its art-rooted resurgence that Rivers of Steel has fostered over the last decade.

“Much of our work with various stakeholders involves nurturing both supply and demand of healthier, higher-performing buildings—and we love to use inspiration as a motivating force,” explained Leslie Montgomery, Vice President of Education & Communications at GBA. “One of our favorite ways to accomplish this is through building tours to show people what is possible, and often we’ll have contractors and architects showing people how they achieved their green buildings or owners / operators will describe their efficiency updates. We also really love to showcase historic properties and talk about how preservation plays into sustainability.”

A woman examines an art installation.

Patrick Camut’s sculpture Stan, which features a fulcumb, speaks to how his grandfather balanced his life working in steel, sometimes quite literally when he drove to work with a coffee mug balanced during the ride. The artwork is now a permanent feature at the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

In the case of the furnaces, the tour not only spoke to Pittsburgh’s regional culture and history, alongside Rivers of Steel’s role in preservation, but showcased the Carrie Blast Furnaces as a shining example of one of the many ways a location can be sustainable without technical upgrades or significant changes.

“GBA does a lot of green building tours, a lot of times single buildings, but because of the nature of Pittsburgh, there are a lot of sites like Carrie that were once industrial and are now being repurposed that are of interest to us,” Montgomery said. “In the world of the built environment, when you’re reusing something that’s already there, that’s more sustainable than doing something new.”

This is true particularly in Pittsburgh, where many contaminated industrial sites were remediated into usable brownfields to be repurposed. One example is Hazelwood’s Mill 19, a previous steel mill location now being used for housing and commercial use.

“But at Carrie Furnaces, it’s so interesting because they’re just using it in its state, and they’re using it as an arts and cultural center, which is very unique,” said Montgomery. “Especially because it sounds like that’s what people went in and used it for.”

The tour passes through the Ore Yard and guests look up at the stoves, stack, and furnaces.

While graffiti writing and spray can murals are allowed in designated places, the Carrie Furnaces proper are off-limits. The historical graffiti at the base is being allowed to fade on its own.

Let’s Compromise . . . and Make Art Together

By the time Rivers of Steel began managing the Carrie Blast Furnaces, word had gotten out that some artists had broken into the dormant property and constructed a massive structure . . . and people from across the globe were interested in seeing it. At that time, in the mid-2000s, Rivers of Steel’s vision for the historic site was to focus on sharing its storied industrial heritage. The Carrie Deer added a different layer to the location and highlighted the multiple possibilities for what the site could become.

“The Carrie Deer opened us up to tell a postindustrial story,” explained Carly V. McCoy, Rivers of Steel’s Director of Marketing & Communications. “Carrie’s story doesn’t end in the early 1980s when the site went offline. As their ancestors had done before them, the next generation still came to mill, only they were looking for a new way to understand their place in the story. In a city without Big Steel, what was their destiny? Groups like the Industrial Arts Co-op, their graffiti-writer companions, and local youth, in general, had already begun their own reinterpretation of the site.”

Members of the Industrial Arts Co-op were not the only creatives to venture into the Carrie Furnaces over the years. Since its closure in the ’80s, the site became a hotbed for Pittsburgh graffiti artists to leave their mark on the former industrial space. When the site became a National Historic Landmark, this presented a challenge for Rivers of Steel. The culture of the site needed to be transformed to preserve the venerable structures. But instead of choosing to put up defenses, Rivers of Steel came up with a compromise: they fostered a collaborative relationship with the local artists. By offering up specific—and not historically designated—walls as canvases, the work of graffiti writers and street art muralists became a curated collection, featuring artists from across the globe. In doing so, they hoped to be able to curtail vandalism.

And it worked: stretching the length of the back edges of the Carrie Blast Furnaces are colorful, mostly temporary artworks, some of which are now third or fourth-generation pieces. Graffiti art became another part of Rivers of Steel’s unique draw; besides enjoying the murals, visitors to the historic site can participate in graffiti-based tours and workshops.

A table is set up in the clearing of a natural garden, where tour guest gather for a reception.

A clearing in the Iron Garden, called the Green Room, provides a place for reflection, and during this evening a place for a reception.

The Iron Garden—A Place for Reflection

As the tour concluded, the guests with the Green Building Alliance gathered for a reception in the shadow of Carrie Furnace #6. Along the eastern property line of the site, Rivers of Steel has allowed nature to (nearly) fully reclaim a stretch of land, with a path carved through it and a small clearing for reflection. Rather than planting in this garden, Rivers of Steel manages the natural growth with a light touch, allowing the story of nature’s resilience to shine through. Instead, the land has been seeded with sculptures and is currently adorned with an installation by Bradford Mumpower and Latika Sewell called Mini Greens 2. Dubbed the Iron Garden, the space resonates with the spirit of the Carrie Deer, a collaborative and organic journey that finds beauty in the unexpected.

“It’s an unbelievably interesting way to utilize the site in an additional capacity besides a bunch of nerds walking around talking about steel industry history,” said Andy Schneider, the tour guide for the evening.

Perhaps surprisingly to some visitors, the site is blossoming with connections between art, sustainability, and historic preservation.

A youthful brown skinned woman with silver and black braids, smiling in a gray mock turtleneck.Jordan Snowden is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh whose work has been published in The Seattle Times, Pittsburgh City Paper ,and elsewhere. She also runs @jord_reads_books, a book-focused Instagram account where she connects with other bookworms. In her free time, Jordan can be found with a book in her hand or DIYing something with her husband.

Read her previous story for Rivers of Steel. 

Three women and a man pose for a photo while holding paint rollers on extension poles. They are standing over a blue painted pavement that is clearly in progress.

Community Spotlight—New Parklet in Monongahela

By Blog, Community Spotlight

Volunteers Asriel Barnabei, Tom Higgs, and Rebecca Carter join program administration Ashley Kyber (center, right) in painting the pavement for a new parklet outside the Mon Valley Alliance building in Monongahela, PA.

Community Spotlight—Monongahela

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts of Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Carly V. McCoy

A blue on blue spiral is painted on the surface of the pavement in front of a one-story building. The area is shaded by several types of trees.

Progress is made on the new pavement mural outside of the Mon Valley Alliance building.

New Parklet Debuts in Mon City

Rivers of Steel is excited to partner with the Mon Valley Alliance and Monongahela Chamber of Commerce to celebrate the opening of a new pocket park during the City of Monongahela’s annual 4th of July Celebration. Join us at 235 West Main Street in Monongahela between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. on July 4, 2023, to see this colorfully reimagined downtown space!

A time-lapse video featuring the painting of the pavement mural.

Unveiling New Artworks

Covering the grounds of the entire Mon Valley Alliance property, the space is designed from the ground up! A bright-blue pavement mural provides the foundation for new public sculptures that were inspired by columns from early twentieth-century street fairs in Mon City. New planters featuring sustainable plants and greenspace will be complemented by orange sun sail installations that offer shade as well.

Nearby, be sure to check out a new vinyl mural measuring 100 feet wide mounted on the Aquatorium fence line. This massive mural is based on an Appalachian Cranky, a traditional story scroll, and was created with students at Ringgold Elementary and seniors from the Mon Valley Senior Center in collaboration with artist Katy DeMent.

Five women gather around a table working on a collaborative art project.

Ashley Kyber, right, collaborates with women at the Mon Valley Senior Center on an artwork that will be incorporated into a new mural near the city’s Aquatorium.

These public artworks and design interventions are part of Rivers of Steel’s Creative Leadership Program, which helps heritage partners throughout southwestern Pennsylvania develop and implement long-term placemaking strategies for their communities. Realized over a nine-month period, this new pocket park was the culmination of an action planning process led by Ashley Kyber, who oversees the Creative Leadership Program.

Two people are shown in silhouette against a twilight sky with fireworks. Copy reads Monongahela Area 4th of July Celebration!

A Celebration in Monongahela

This exciting event coincides with the city of Monongahela’s annual 4th of July celebration downtown that includes food trucks, vendors, games, and live music followed by a spectacular fireworks display over the Monongahela River. The event is hosted by the Monongahela Area Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the Mon Valley Academy for the Arts.

About the Creative Leadership Program

The Creative Leadership Program is one of four key strategies in Rivers of Steel’s Partners for Creative Economy initiative. Presenting a long-term vision for the future of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, the program fosters transformational opportunities for communities left out of recent economic growth and prosperity as seen nearby in the city of Pittsburgh. This initiative unites Rivers of Steel’s approach to placemaking by investing in the future success of the region’s cultural and heritage assets and building up local leaders through a range of promotional and professional development strategies, including workforce development, technical assistance, and funding. Support for Partners for Creative Economy is made possible by a grant from the National Park Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by Rivers of Steel, check out other stories in the Community Spotlight series.

Educators in hard hats walk through the ore yard of the Carrie Blast Furnaces as the warm glow of a setting sun falls on the furnaces.

PSEA Educators Take a Field Trip to the Carrie Furnaces

By Blog

Educators with the Pennsylvania State Education Association walk through the Ore Yard during their mini-tour of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, on of three activities offered during their open house experience in May 11, 2023.

PSEA Educators Take a Field Trip to the Carrie Furnaces

By Jordan Snowden

A rare, cloudless seventy-degree day in Pittsburgh set the stage for Pennsylvania State Education Association’s (PSEA) Open House at the Carrie Blast Furnaces on Thursday, May 11. Hosted by Rivers of Steel, PSEA teachers and support staff working at Allegheny County public school districts had the opportunity to not only take part in an educational tour of the historic landmark site, but also participate in hands-on experiences with metal and graffiti arts.

The combination of offered activities is what drew Jessica Whiting, a teacher at Homestead’s Allegheny Intermediate Unit, or AIU, to the event. While Whiting is a Pittsburgh resident, she was unfamiliar with the industrial site and said she was excited to tour a place she had never heard of or been to, get her hands dirty, and have a souvenir to take home.

Two women smile as the work on carving their scratch mold blocks at a pop-up table.

PSEA educators work on carving designs into the scratch mold block, which will later be cast in aluminum.

After chowing down on a generous spread of fruits and cheeses, chicken and veggie skewers, chicken sliders, and grilled cheese, and in between industrial tours of Carrie Blast Furnaces, educators took turns crafting aluminum “make and take” artworks and spray-painting plastic-wrapped posts that boasted the letters PSEA.

While the aluminum scratch-mold session was a popular attraction for its keepsake ability—tools like dental instruments and forks were used to carve an inverse design into a 4×4 sand mold before 1400-degree melted aluminum was poured on top and left to cool—the graffiti art area had a steady stream of visitors throughout the evening, making for an out-of-the-box, interactive learning venture.

A man add to a "PSEA" graffiti mural.

Educator and graffiti writer Max “Gems” Gonzales adds some details to the interactive spray-painting mural during the PSEA event at the Carrie Furnaces on May 11.

“A lot of teachers assume that there’s this inaccessibility with graffiti art, like it’s not meant for them because it’s an art form that exists in the urban world,” explained Max Gonzales, a local street artist operating the spray paint station. Through hands-on involvement, Gonzales helped change this perspective while providing background and context on the art form’s origins. “It’s important to not erase the history of cultures of where it came from, Black and Brown kids in New York and Philly who fought to have their voices heard, who were jailed to have their voices heard,” he said.

By the end of the evening, the educators had created an eye-catching collaborative work of graffiti art, flush with bright spring colors, to match the pleasant mood in the air.

 

A temporary spray-painted mural colorfully reads P S E A.

The finished PSEA mural. Photo by Jordan Snowden.

Every five years, teachers in the state of Pennsylvania are required to get 180 hours of professional development credits, thanks to 1999’s Act 48. These hours can be fulfilled with standard educational courses, workshops, or modules, but rather than spend a culmination of seven and a half days in school-like classes outside of the classroom, Alisa Murray, region field director for PSEA’s western region, is always seeking ideas for attractive, unique activities that will satisfy Act 48’s requirements while providing teachers entertaining, interactive experiences. So when she discovered Rivers of Steel and its offerings, she set up what she hoped would be a delightful end-of-year event.

“We look for cool, fun things that we can do for them so they can mingle together, get together with their friends, and get their hours,” said Murray. “This seemed like it would be a super cool event for teachers because it is Pittsburgh’s history, and what we’re thinking is a lot of teachers will leave this event, then go back to their school districts and probably have field trips as a result.”

Two women in hard hats look at a rusty colored cylindrical sculpture.

Two educator pause during their tour to examine one of the many installed artworks onsite.

The activities presented to the teachers that day are the same experiences Rivers of Steel offers to visiting students. “Regardless of audience—educators, students, or the public—we are able to give context to our region’s heritage while engaging individuals in active learning that introduces them to new skills and artistic mediums,” explained Carly McCoy, director of marketing and communications at the local nonprofit. “The process of this learning is more about the future than the past.” However, even if educators don’t or aren’t able to bring their students back to Carrie Blast Furnaces, introduced skills like teamwork, creativity, community connection, and new knowledge of local history can be brought back and shared.”

“You see these places from the roads and bridges, and they look totally abandoned,” said Lindsay Cox, a first-grade teacher in the Moon Area School District. “So it’s a cool opportunity to come and see what they’re all about. The tour guide had a lot of great information. We learned about the history of Pittsburgh and why people chose to come here.”

Cox’s friend Aja Weston, an elementary special education teacher for the Mt. Lebanon School District, added that her favorite part was walking the grounds. “As a teacher, you hear about how things were run [in the industrial steel industry], you teach about these things as part of the curriculum, but actually getting to see it up close helps you realize what they were doing, how they were working, and what the conditions were.”

She plans to utilize what she learned in her life and functional skills lessons. “We look at different jobs and job skills, and it’ll be interesting to do an overview of jobs and to be able to discuss the conditions and the changes in how it used to be when you worked industrial jobs.”

Six aluminum tiles sit on a table. One displays the Superman symbol.

Finished aluminum tiles cast by the PSEA group.

Educators and administrators who are interested in booking an educational visit to the Carrie Blast Furnaces can review our program offerings here, including Science & Industry at the Carrie Blast Furnaces, which explores job roles.  Please contact education@riversofsteel.com to schedule.

A youthful brown skinned woman with silver and black braids, smiling in a gray mock turtleneck.Jordan Snowden is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh whose work has been published in The Seattle Times, Pittsburgh City Paper ,and elsewhere. She also runs @jord_reads_books, a book-focused Instagram account where she connects with other bookworms. In her free time, Jordan can be found with a book in her hand or DIYing something with her husband.