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Heritage Highlights: Holy Martyrs’ Sawdust Carpets

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A sawdust carpet from the Feast of Corpus Christi at the Holy Martyrs Parish.

Heritage Highlights

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

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

a sawdust carpet featuring Jesus and a dove

Holy Martyrs’ Sawdust Carpets

By Jonathan Engel

The Sawdust Carpets of Corpus Christi

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Kuniak, Steward of the Sawdust Carpets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Making of the Sawdust Carpets

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

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

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

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

The Feast of Corpus Christi—Celebrating Love & Community

“See, I can’t draw.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

a sawdust carpet with a rainbow and a cross

Citations

All images courtesy of David Kuniak.

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

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

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

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

Well dressed patrons enter Forbes Field

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

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

By Ron Baraff, Director of Historic Resources and Facilities

Ronald BaraffThe Origins of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field

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

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

Barney Dreyfuss’s Baseball Club

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

A Home at Exposition Park

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

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

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

A flood stadium with downtown across the river.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fashionable Place to Build

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

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

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

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

A Home at the Entrance to Schenley Park

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

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

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

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

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

Dreyfuss’s Folly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forbes Field in Photos, Later Years

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


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

 

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

Where Environmentalism Meets Historic Preservation

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

By Suzi Bloom, Director of Education

Suzi BloomEnvironmentalism and Historic Preservation

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

National Heritage Areas—Exploring a Sense of Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crane in Mon River Valley

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

Deindustrialization and the Recovery of the Rivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elementary school students look out at the water.

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

Environmental Science on the Three Rivers

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

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

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

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

The Here and Now of Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

A couple photograph the skyline from the boat,

Getting to the Heart of The Hardest Working River

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

Getting to the Heart of the Hardest Working River

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

By Kirsten Paine

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

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

Industrial remnants

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

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

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

The Carrie Blast Furnaces seen from the Explorer riverboat.

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

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

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

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

Viewing Homestead from the a vantage point on the Explorer.

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

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

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

Profiles in Steel: Ed Parrish, Jr.

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

Profiles in Steel

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

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

An Interview with Ed Parrish, Jr.

By Jon Engel

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

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

Packing the Sand

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

Ed Parrish, Jr.

So first off, you went to art school…

Yeah, in North Carolina. East Carolina University.

You from North Carolina?

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

How’d you end up here?

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

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

Or Pittsburgh?

Or Pittsburgh.

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

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

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

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

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

Ironheads?

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

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

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

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

How did you get work after college?

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

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

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

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

A crowd of ironworkers attend to the cupola.

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

Pouring the Cast

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

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

What is a cupola, by the way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did these pieces start as, material-wise?

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

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

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

So these are all unique?

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the Mold

So how did you end up working at Carrie?

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

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

A metal arts crew at dusk work a furnace.

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

How did the Hot Metal Happenings happen?

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

So aluminum is easier?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Ed’s artworks on display at the ZYNKA Gallery.

Why faces?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re an astronaut.

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

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

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

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

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

Heritage Highlights: Women of Visions

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

Heritage Highlights

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

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

Women of Visions

An Interview by Jonathan Engel

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

Christine Bethea—A tradition of Quilting

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

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

“The Hill is Our Home” by Christine Bethea.


A quilt of a Black cowboy on a horse

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

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

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

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

Who taught you to quilt?

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

What does quilting mean to you and your community?

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

“Roberto Clemente” by Christine Bethea.

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

How has quilting changed over time?

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

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

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

How do you think quilting will change over future generations?

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

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

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

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

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

LaVerne Kemp—A Culture of Weaving

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

LaVerne Kemp

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

What kind of weaving do you do?

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

How did you learn to weave?

A colorful patchwork coat with mixed geometric patterns

A coat by LaVerne Kemp, stitched from upcycled materials.

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

How has weaving changed over time?

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

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

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

A handwoven shawl by LaVerne Kemp.

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

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

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

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

Mary Martin—Communicating through Pottery

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

Mary Martin

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

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

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

 

Why do you, personally, make art?

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

How did you learn ceramics?

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

A teapot by Mary Martin

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

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

Can you talk a bit about your ceramics tradition?

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

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

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

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

Two plates by Mary Martin

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

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

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

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

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

Janet Watkins—A (Second) Career in Ceramics

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

Janet Watkins

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

What kind of ceramics do you create?

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

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

“Adolescent Girl” by Janet Watkins.

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

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

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

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

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

Nine multicolored clay masks of women's faces

“Me Too Group” by Janet Watkins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A small figurine by Janet Watkins.


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

“Sitting Girl” by Janet Watkins.


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

“Soulmates Couple” by Janet Watkins.

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

August Wilson’s American Century Cycle

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Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences (Paramount Pictures)

A Look at August Wilson’s American Century Cycle

Brianna Horan

By Brianna Horan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A black and white image of four white women, two in hard hats and respirators in front of a smoking steel mill.

Women of Steel: Steffi Domike

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Women of Steel, the production team from the 1985 documentary of the same name— (left to right) Beth Destler, Steffi Domike, Linny Stovall, & Allyn Stewart

Women of Steel—Steffi Domike

Brianna HoranBy Brianna Horan

When Steffi Domike graduated from college in 1975 with a degree in economics, so many of the jobs available to women at the time didn’t pay well. Not wanting to go to graduate school, she decided to move to Pittsburgh to work in the steel industry, which had recently been in the headlines for affirmative action policies meant to correct past discriminatory policies against hiring minorities and women.

“It was the beginning of the women’s movement, and there was this consent decree. It was national news that women could work in the mill, and I found that intriguing,” Domike says. “The idea of getting into the mills was a foreign experience, but not that bad. I thought I could try it, and it paid better than what my friends were getting with their college experience so I went for it.”

The mill environment at United States Steel’s Clairton Coke Works certainly embodied a place like no other she’d experienced. “I found it to be an interesting world to inhabit. The mill was a different kind of world. In fact, you’d walk in, clock in, go to the locker room, and then you would put on your disguise—your clothing—because it was head to toe,” she says. “I worked in the coke works so it was yellows—we had to wear yellow suits made of very tightly woven cotton as a protective layer against the coke oven fumes. And then there’s metatarsal arches on your feet, and then there’s a respirator, and then there’s a hard hat, sand safety glasses, gloves. There wasn’t a lot of flesh exposed. And then the scenery was a whole other world—it was like living on the moon. The jobs we did were like nothing else I’d ever seen. The machinery was unique to the industry, and the whole thing was a different world.”

Steffi Domike via Zoom screengrab.

Domike was born in the United States but grew up in South America because of her father’s work for the United Nations—so being back in the U.S. after so long also felt somewhat foreign at the time. Her job at U.S. Steel as a janitor and then electrician apprentice, along with her involvement with the United Steel Workers of America Local 1557 while she worked there, would end up rooting her career in activism and organized labor.

The 1974 Basic Steel Consent Decree that was a catalyst for Domike’s consideration of the steel industry was a settlement between nine of the nation’s steel companies that represented more than 75% of the steel industry. It was the result of suits filed mostly by Black steelworkers in the Alabama and Chicago area, and also at Homestead. With the legal backing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it required companies to end longtime discriminatory hiring and promotion practices against minorities and women. They also had to pay more than $30 million in retribution, shift to a company-wide seniority system, and abide by a mandate to award half of all bids into trades & crafts apprenticeships to people who were Black, had a Spanish surname, or were women. The other 50 percent of these bids would go to white men based on overall seniority – not department seniority.

“Before the consent decree, folks who were hired were hired into specific departments and couldn’t get out, and the company would hire people into departments really based on their ethnicity,” Domike says. She describes the clear patterns she observed where skin color, last names, and family connections determined how grueling and demanding a person’s job in the mill would be, with little chance of moving to another department. “Whatever the skill of your ethnicity, or whatever the track was for your race… they would just track you. The consent decree sort of stopped that… What happened was the favored groups no longer had that pull. When I talk to people who are critical of affirmative action, I say, ‘Well, it really leveled the playing field for all white people as well.’”

For the first nine months of her employment at the Clairton Works, Domike was the first female janitor, hired to clean the numerous new women’s locker rooms and bathrooms that had been created across the massive plant. Her gender solved a problem that had developed when men were cleaning these facilities; they were an ideal place to lock the doors and take a nap on the job. “So when the guys’ bosses were looking for them they couldn’t find them, and the women couldn’t use the facility. So that became a small crisis within a crisis – and that’s why they hired me! I could clean the locker rooms and women could still use them,” Domike says. “I got an education, because even though I had a college degree I hadn’t done a lot of cleaning, and, you know, I needed to learn.”

Once she’d worked there long enough to be eligible for apprenticeship training in other areas of the mill, she started to bid on the different opportunities that were posted but was repeatedly passed over. After an electrical job to train and join the wire gang that Domike applied for was given to a white worker with seven years of experience, one of the grievance officers noticed the discrepancy between the hiring practice and the policies laid out by the consent decree. “He came up to me and introduced himself and said, ‘Hey, you put in for this bid and they hired the white guy, but the way the consent decree reads, they’re supposed to give 50 percent of the bids to Blacks and women and people with Spanish surnames. But it looks to me like U.S. Steel is trying to get around that by just putting one bid up at a time.’ So I signed a grievance, because he was trying to defend the consent decree, and I was fortunate enough to kind of go in on the coattails of that.” The grievance was settled by opening up the wireman apprenticeship job to both the first man who was hired and to Domike; training took place at the Duquesne Works, where the apprenticeship school was. “It was a really good job, because now I know something that people think is useful to know—how to put in receptacles and run wire.”

Domike also learned how to stand up for herself and other women who were simply trying to do their job in a male-dominated environment. Some of the women she befriended on the job were training and working as diesel mechanics, millwrights, and welders. “For the most part, the men didn’t really want us there. We’d been forced upon them [by the consent decree]… There were some people who wanted to make it really uncomfortable.” She said there were reports of assaults, a lot of harassment, and some women were even asked to sign papers stating that they weren’t capable of doing the work. Domike remembers a woman, the daughter of one of the plant’s managers, who returned to the locker room day after day in tears following her shift. “I finally got it out of her that the guys in the cable crew were so resentful of her presence that they tied her up during the day. They tied her hands together with the zip ties that they use now for handcuffs, and they tied her to a work box, a big metal box, and left her there all day.” Domike confronted the leader of the cable crew that day, and although she herself “got some wild eyes after that,” her co-worker was never tied up again. “What I learned—and I learned this from the other women, but also from some of the supportive guys, is how to stand up to a bully. And nobody likes a bully; they don’t even like themselves.”

Domike was active in a group of rank and file women in the U.S. Steel plants who formed an unofficial group that they called Women of Steel. They started putting out a newsletter of the same name in March of 1979, written by and for USWA women in districts 15, 19, and 20—Domike was a frequent contributor. A similar kind of publication had been established at the Edgar Thomson Works called Hear, Here. An article in the first issue of Women of Steel answered the question, “Why get together?” It stated that the group’s meetings were open to all steel workers, and their aim was to solve common problems together with their brothers, while pointing out that there are “special forms of harassment … reserved just for us.” Seventy steelworkers came to the first Women of Steel meeting to talk about issues that women face in the mills, like “arbitrary firings during probation, overcrowded and inconvenient locker and washrooms, harassment and denial of [Sickness and Accident] benefits during pregnancy, discrimination in job training and apprenticeships, and sexual harassment.” It called for local union women’s committees to further the “good stands” that had already been made, and to increase the equality and unity within the union.

Being an active member of her local union was another part of the appeal for Domike in joining the steel industry after college, where she had written her undergraduate thesis on cooperative business models. “The Steelworkers Union was and still is one of the largest and most powerful industrial unions in the U.S. and North America,” she says. “I wanted to learn about it, and the best way to learn about it is to get right in.” She represented her local in the USWA Civil Rights Committee, and ran for recording secretary in 1979, as well as contributing to the Steel Workers Stand Up newsletter. Women’s issues and obstacles to employment were not unfamiliar territory for her, either. At the same time that Domike was graduating from high school, her mother was graduating from law school. Despite her qualifications, she struggled to get a job in a law firm and instead found employment in the Internal Revenue Service with the aid of affirmative action programs at work in the government. “My mother was a pioneer in her own way. She fought all her life to be taken seriously.”

After five and a quarter years at U.S. Steel, the industry-wide shutdowns and lay-offs hit Domike’s job in 1981. By then, she had completed her wireman schooling but was just shy of completing the training hours needed to make top rate. “I got laid off along with everyone else, and everyone else was looking for a job. So what room there was for craftspeople in the market was pretty well taken up. It was really hard to find a job in the early ’80s,” she says.

Many Women of Steel members initiated unemployment campaigns, and created foodbanks in Homestead and McKeesport where “thousands of people” came for food. Domike was working for the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee while also studying filmmaking at the Art Institute and Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Along with three other women that she worked with at the MVUC, Domike created an oral history project called Crashin’ Out: Hard Times in McKeesport, which compared the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s with the Great Depression in the 1930s. “It was great sadness in our communities when, starting in ’77, the jobs dried up and the mills closed, because whole communities were just dependent on that constant job,” Domike says. “People, particularly men, hadn’t really planned for what they could do besides work in the steel industry… They felt sort of shunned. There were generations of families that had fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and uncles all working in the mills.”

Before long, Domike was producing documentaries like 1985’s Women of Steel, which chronicled the struggles that laid-off female steelworkers faced in the wake of the steel industry’s collapse, and The River Ran Red, which portrays the 1892 Homestead lockout and strike from the workers’ perspective. Her artwork and activism have brought attention to feminist, environmentalist, and labor themes. She is currently a labor educator at United Steelworkers. You can watch Women of Steel, The River Ran Red, and Out of This Furnace: A Walking Tour of Thomas Bell’s Novel, all produced by Domike, on YouTube by clicking this link. The playlist also features a recording of a recent USW program, “The Origin Stories of Women of Steel.”

Today, the United Steelworkers (USW) has an activist-arm called Women of Steel that evolved from the early women’s caucuses that demanded a seat at the table in the union. The USW Constitution requires that each local union with female members must establish a Local Union Women’s Committee. USW considers all of its female members to be Women of Steel regardless of their union-position or the industry or service that they work in.

Take a look at the University of Pittsburgh Library System’s highlights from its Steffi Domike archives, where you can page through a pamphlet that Domike wrote called Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions: Some Hints for Women in the Mills for Getting Through the Verbal Abuse, along with the first issue of the Women of Steel newsletter, and other pieces of her collections. Here’s a zinger: Question: “What does your husband think of you working here?” Response: “1. What does your wife think?” or “2. He likes the paycheck as much as I do.”

This article was published to coincide with Women’s History Month. For another article on women in steel, read Shining a Light on the Ciloets

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

Heritage Highlights: Kathleen Ferri

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

Heritage Highlights

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

In this month’s installment, Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts Coordinator Jon Engel shares an in-depth dive into the life and art of local painter Kathleen Ferri. Ferri is a lifelong resident of the Mon Valley, born in Turtle Creek and now living in North Versailles. Her unique works provide deep insight into the Valley of the 20th century, from factory labor to family life.

Kathleen Ferri, Artist & Historian

By Jonathan Engel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking Up the Brush

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

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

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

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

A corner building with a busy street scene.

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

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

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

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

Going Over the Faces

A church surrounded by industrial buildings with streetcars.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hanging the Canvases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Citations

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

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

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

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

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

Black and white professional women in hard hats pose outside a mill

Shining a Light on the Ciloets

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A few of the 148 Ciloets who visited the Johnstown Works in 1977.

Shining a Light on the Ciloets

Brianna Horan

By Brianna Horan

Having a friend at work can be a lifesaver—whether it’s a collaborator who makes tight deadlines a breeze, a confidante who can empathize with your workplace struggles, or a colleague who is happy to share her aspirational organization strategies to make your day run more smoothly. For nearly 80 years, an organization called the Ciloets has provided a way for women who work at United States Steel to forge these types of friendships while furthering their own professional and personal development and supporting charitable work.

A 1942 photo of 15 professional women gathered around a table.

The original Ciloets in 1942.

The origins of the Ciloets (pronounced “silhouettes”) began in February 1942, when a training program was established for the women employees of the Pittsburgh general office of U.S. Steel’s Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company. In the midst of World War II, these trainings were intended to teach these new hires about the steelmaking process and the various aspects of the company’s businesses. Fifteen women were invited to attend a series of lectures for 14 weeks, and also toured U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson (Braddock), Homestead, McDonald (Ohio), and Vandergrift steel production plants. The experience gave the participants an invigorating sense of familiarity with the technical background of their daily jobs, and create bonds of friendship between the “classmates” that they were keen to nourish. In that spirit, these women decided to meet once a month for dinner—and because they wished to continue to expand their knowledge of U.S. Steel’s workings, they invited a member of company personnel to be their guest speaker at these gatherings.

U.S. Steel continued to offer the 14-week training course and learning tours, and each subsequent class of participants was invited to join these dinners. Eventually it was decided that this club needed an official name, and “Ciloet” was formed from the initial letters of the training course’s name: Carnegie-Illinois Office Employees Training. Three objectives were also identified at the time: “1. To continue to merit the confidence implied in our selection for training, 2. To preserve the bonds of friendship formed in our studies and travels together, and 3. To provide for other USS women who will follow a means for both fellowship and fun.”

As time went on and the U.S. Steel training course ceased in the mid-1940s, the Ciloets invited 15 women from the Pittsburgh General Office to join their ranks two times a year. Instead of monthly dinners, they began meeting in a company conference room to hear from corporate executives. As the Ciloets’ 50th Anniversary program from 1992 notes, “Over the years, our guest list reads like a ‘Who’s Who in U.S. Steel.’” In addition to learning about their work environment, the Ciloets also learned about the Pittsburgh community from an array of invited guest speakers. Some of the guests in the 1950s were a prominent Pittsburgh surgeon, an FBI narcotics agent, the manager of Kaufmann’s Department Store’s book department, a handwriting analyst, and the president of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

While these meetings provided a social element, the Ciloets’ continued to plan two special dinner events each February and September that allowed them to connect at some of the city’s most premiere venues, like Oakmont Country Club, the Duquesne Club, Edgewood Country Club, Top of the Triangle, Grand Concourse, and many more. In the early decades of the club’s existence, these chances to mingle outside of work were much appreciated by members, as pointed out in the Ciloets’ 50th Anniversary program: “For although the work setting for these women was more advanced than that found at other places of employment in the city, it was nonetheless a place designed where work was done in a staunchly formal environment. Though it was not unusual on a limited basis for secretaries to exchange greetings of the day with their co-workers and converse on the telephone with business associates, the friendly atmosphere of today’s office was not present. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Ciloets cherished their time together and did everything possible to make each meeting a pleasant memory that they could long remember.”

A bus full of women in white hard hats and greens.

A snapshot of the 1977 trip to Edgar Thompson and Clairton Works.

And just as the tours of steelmaking plants had been one of the most memorable elements of the original training program, the Ciloets continued to organize trips to U.S. Steel facilities as a core part of their programming each year. Visits rotated between daytrips to local plants, and longer trips to tour operations and offices in Washington, D.C., New York City, and even Košice, Slovakia when U.S. Steel bought a steel company there. Members learned about the history and development of the facilities, the technologies and processes that were carried out, and got to put faces to the names that they corresponded with by phone.

In 1970, the Ciloets voted to begin a new charity initiative as part of their annual programming, which would come to be known as Charity at Home Project. In its origins, the project collected funds and gifts to give to children and patients in need at different organizations throughout Allegheny County. In 1978, the Ciloets began raising funds to support laid-off and unemployed steelworkers and their families as local mills began to shut down. Food certificates, money, holiday gifts, clothing, and other donations were distributed to families in need.

In more recent years, the Ciloets have continued to focus on furthering the interest and knowledge of the women employees of U.S. Steel in various business operations, functions of the Corporation, and in business matters generally. Providing a means of fellowship for members through social and educational functions remains a foundational part of the organization, as well. Eventually, membership was opened up to all women employees at U.S. Steel, beyond only the headquarters. Ciloets who retired were also permitted to retain their membership and participate in the meetings and events.

The Ciloets’ membership has often exceeded 300 active and retired women of U.S. Steel over the years. Today, the organization has 154 members who meet two times in the fall and two times in the spring. As U.S. Steel has made cutbacks in employment and closed facilities in more recent years, the Ciloets put a hold on their mill tours amidst the changing dynamic. Layoffs at the company have made it difficult for the Ciloets to maintain an active employee as the club’s president, but a core group of retired members have continued to organize programming. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the group has not been able to meet since December 2019, but they hope to be able to safely gather in the fall to reconnect and reminisce.

Six women gather holding signs showing various Ciloet logos

Ciloets at the 75th Anniversary of the organization in 2017.

An Interview with Four Ciloets

Since the club’s earliest days, U.S. Steel also designated an advisor to the Ciloets who could offer guidance on the administration of the organization and the programming selections. Until 2006, the Ciloets’ advisors had all been men.  That year, Lisa Roudabush was asked to speak to the Ciloets to share her perspectives as U.S. Steel’s general manager of processed products. Before then, Lisa hadn’t heard of the Ciloets, but after meeting with the club, she decided to become a member and take over the advisor role, which she held until her retirement from U.S. Steel in 2015.

Lisa and three other retired Ciloet members talked with Rivers of Steel via Zoom earlier this month to share the history of the Ciloets and their own recollections of working at U.S. Steel. Below are excerpts from their conversation, which has been edited for length.

Ciloet Members and Career Snapshopts

Bonnie Galla worked in administration for the audit division of the accounting and finance department at U.S. Steel’s Pittsburgh Headquarters for 47 years, from 1967 until retiring in 2014. She has been a Ciloet for 43 years; she joined in September 1978 and has served and chaired different committees. She is a past president of the organization from 1997 to 1998.

 

Donna DeBone worked in U.S. Steel’s personnel services and human resources department for 35 years at the Pittsburgh Headquarters from 1964 to 1999, when she retired as the Manager of Human Resources. She has been a member of the Ciloets for 53 years; since joining in 1968 she served on various committees, and became very active after her retirement to chair committees, coordinate mill trips, and serve as the organization’s president.

 

Marylin Roberts worked in administration, employment, and training at U.S. Steel Technology Research Center in Monroeville for 37 years, from 1966 to 2006. She has been a Ciloet for 46 years; since joining in 1975 she has served on committees, and as treasurer and president of the organization. Marylin is currently the membership chair for the Ciloets.

 

Lisa Roudabush worked in plant operations and management at U.S. Steel for 33 years. She began working for the company in 1982 as a student co-op at the Research and Technology Center, and after graduating from college progressed through management roles in that division and at the Gary Works and Mon Valley Works. In 2006, she was appointed as the first woman plant manager of the Clairton Coke Works, and in 2008 became the first woman general manager of the Mon Valley Works. She retired in 2015 as the managing director of quality assurance. She joined the Ciloets in 2006 as a member and as the organization’s advisor. Today she is a retired member and has been president of the Ciloets since 2017.

Interview Excerpts

Can you talk about how the Ciloets organization came to be in the midst of a male-dominated industry, and how that might have changed over the years?

Lisa Roudabush (LR) : When you think that in the 1940s, there was a women’s organization at a very male-dominated, manufacturing company—in essence, one of the first women’s affinity groups. And now you see a lot of affinity groups in companies nowadays—women’s organizations within in companies, and U.S. Steel had one since the ’40s, which I think is tremendous. And it was certainly a tremendous opportunity for women to explore the company outside of their area, and learn about the company from executive speakers. The mill trips were, I think, one of the biggest components of the Ciloets organization where you got to go and see how the steel was made, and meet a lot of people in the company that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise—whether you were a male or female, actually, you wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

I came in in the early ’80s as an engineer, and again there were not many female engineers at the time. I think that there’s been a lot of growth in [the employment of] women. The plants are still very male dominated. I was the first female general manager of the Mon Valley Works, I was the first female plant manager of Clairton, so that was unique, I guess, but it’s still male dominated, though there were a lot of parts of the organization that have really flourished and promoted women.

Bonnie Galla (BG): In audit, when I started, it was all male. There wasn’t one woman. And when I retired, I have to say at least half or three-fourths were women management on the workforce there. I think more towards the end of when I worked, you saw definitely more women coming in to different positions… When I started there were six administrative assistants in the department, and those were the only women. Eventually, as those six retired, I would take over their positions. Then I was the only admin for the audit department, and we had offices, probably when I started, in 14 different cities that were under headquarters. Then, when I retired, we only had the headquarters office left, in Pittsburgh.

Donna DeBone (DD): I started in 1964 and, as I mentioned earlier, I started in the personnel services department at headquarters as a secretary. I was attending evening school at Pitt working toward a degree at the time, and I did complete those degree requirements as time went on. The personnel services department was a very large department at the time, covering many aspects of personnel and labor relations, and there were very few women in management at that time in the department. After several secretarial positions, I was moved to an entry-level management position, and again, both in our department, personnel, and throughout the corporation, there weren’t a lot of women, even at the entry level.  Because U.S. Steel—and I would expect also with Alcoa, Westinghouse, they were all desirable corporations to work for—we actually had women who came in with college degrees onto secretarial positions, and some of them ended up on executive secretarial positions. But the doors were beginning to open for women, and when I was promoted to the position of Manager of Human Resources a number of years later, there was only one other female manager in the personnel services department. She was an older woman; she worked in the training area.

So, as I look back at my own career, I’ve seen a lot of change in that 50-year period. But also looking at it from the perspective of having worked in the personnel human resources department, I look back at how hiring changed. U.S. Steel had traditionally hired into the corporation for management positions at the management trainee level, and they were looking for people with the technical degrees, the science, engineering, business, financial degrees. And back in those early years, women weren’t really majoring so much in those fields, so it was difficult with the recruiting. As I look back to my high school years, the women who excelled in the math and science areas generally went into teaching. That was the way they could use this field that they loved. But slowly things did begin to change, both within and on the outside, so the company was looking on the inside to move women to advance. They were attempting to hire more women. There was a lot of competition for U.S. Steel on the outside as they were hiring, too. These women that had the technical degrees were being recruited by other companies also and, I don’t know how Lisa feels, but we found that sometimes the steel industry wasn’t as attractive, maybe, to women in those early days as some of the other companies. But, the company began to move women over the years, advance women that were in the corporation—Lisa gave some examples of what has happened over the years, and she certainly is an example of the changing role of women in the corporation.

There is one interesting story—I think we’ve all heard it and maybe just quickly can tell you—there was a woman who, this goes back to the ’50s, she is deceased now, but she spoke several times with Ciloets to tell us of her hiring experience with US Steel. She had a law degree and she lived in the Cleveland area, and she applied for a job in the Cleveland law office. The attorney who headed up that office wanted to hire her, but he told her that he could not hire her as an attorney, but he could hire her as a legal secretary, and he would give her work in the legal field, which he did. And he actually became her mentor. She spent the rest of her career with U.S. Steel; she ended up in Pittsburgh in the headquarters’ law department as a senior general attorney, so it was a story that we were always interested in that kind of showed the change that occurred over the years. I think she was an assistant to the general council, so she reached a nice level within the corporation. 

Were there ever discussions in terms of hiring certain quotas, that you wanted to make sure that a certain number of women were considered for certain positions, or overall a certain percentage of the workforce should be female—was that ever a topic of discussion?

LR: … I don’t know that there was any quota per se, but certainly during the ’80s there were a lot of women that were being hired in all departments. I remember when I started, as a management associate, our class of management associates were very diverse with lots of women. But a lot of women didn’t stay in the steel industry. It is especially tough in the plants, in plant operations and plant maintenance, and working shifts was not as appealing, and you know, women had opportunities when there were very few women who were engineers; they had a lot of opportunities at different places that maybe, as Marylin said, had a nicer work environment, for lack of a better term. It’d be one thing working downtown in an office setting. It was a little bit different in the mill—a little bit later in terms of increasing amounts of women in the organization.

Marylin, could you share what your experience was like in research?

Marylin Roberts (MR): I started at U.S. Steel in August of 1966, and when I was hired, I worked in the employment office for quite a few years there. It was basically bringing in people to be interviewed. I did a lot of testing for the clerical part of it. I’d always been in an admin position at the research center. During the years working there, I got into a position where we had a group of ladies that were hired, and they were more or less put into a secretarial group, so they were trained then to move on to the different divisions—the technical divisions. So, when there was a position opened in the division, they would interview these five or six ladies that were already being groomed to be going out into those positions—which makes sense, because if an individual retires or leaves, or whatever, she gets married, then they’re hiring from within and they’ve already had some training as far as the procedures and the things they would have to do and be responsible for in any secretarial position. And then as some women would go out to an area, then they would look at the process of hiring new female positions. … When they would come in—not a lot, but there were several ladies that really wanted to move on. They were going to night school, they were getting in position to hopefully get their degree in some type of an engineering background. A lot of these ladies would go into a technician job, and still continue their education and then once they got their degree, they could move on to another position in the organization, which was very—I think they were great in wanting to pursue their career that way.

I actually, for my 46 years that I worked at research, I never worked in technical division. It was always through the administration part, and then my job when I retired in 2003, I was the training coordinator for research, organizing, coordinating, setting up for the engineers. And I really learned a lot—even in a clerical position, and I think that’s what the Ciloets really was a great organization for. At that time back in the ’40s, for these women who were in the clerical field to really try to understand what the engineers were doing, either in their office as an engineer, and out at the plants. So, back then that’s how it really started. These ladies wanted to know more about what they were doing in the office working for these engineers. And over the years, [women with technical positions] came into the organization. They took in people from the plants. So we had a mixed group of people that we had friendships with them, but we also learned among a lot from them, too. It was a nice career that I had at U.S. Steel. I wouldn’t have given it up for anything. It was wonderful, and like I said, staying in the field that I was in, I was very happy in the jobs that I had in research.

What’s the balance of how much of a professional development organization versus a social organization the Ciloets has been for its members. With the opportunity that the organization offered to tour different plants and locations, it must have been a way for members to see all of the different experiences that were available at U.S. Steel. In what ways did it help women or change the course of their careers?

MR: I think a lot of the ladies really strived to get ahead if they could, and it was hard because, like I said, some of the secretaries back then that even wanted to be a technician—they actually had to be able to lift [a certain number of] pounds. They were going to be out in the lab area working with the other engineers and other male technicians, and I saw quite a few move on—either staying in that job or moving on to a position as an engineer.

 LR: The Ciloets really … started out as a group of women who got an opportunity to take a training class to learn about steel, and that was set up by the company. They loved it so much and learned so much that they kept it together and spread that to other women. And the fact that the educational piece—we always had at a minimum two U.S. Steel speakers a year. The discussion was on topics of the company: what they were doing, the big projects, how they ran their organization—and the women in the audience were, one, very interested in learning about the organization; number two, asked amazingly great questions. They were very knowledgeable about what was going on at U.S. Steel.

The mill trips again were another opportunity where you may be working with a mill or a plant, or other offices as Donna or Bonnie had mentioned, that were scattered all over the country but you never got an opportunity to meet face to face. Well, here was an opportunity where the women went to Chicago, they went to Washington, they went to New York, they went to Birmingham, Alabama—they went to all the plants and got to see how the steel was made. They got to interact with the people that they probably only heard of.

A group of mostly women in white hard hats stand in front of a chemical plant with a sign board behind them that says Welcome Ciloets

The Ciloets trip to U.S.S. Chemicals at the Haverhill Plant in 1986.

But the other big thing about the Ciloets was that it was a pretty big organization. At one point we had way over 300 members, and it was run by the women… All the meetings were organized by women who volunteered for these leadership positions and committees And there were some very large, complicated organizational activities that were done by the Ciloets. Charity work, just the set-up of the meetings, the set-up of the mill trips. And it gave these women an opportunity to be in a leadership role, and maybe learn those aspects that they could take back to their jobs. To have to speak publicly, and interact and network with lots of different organizations and people both within the company and outside the company to bring in speakers. So, I think the Ciloets gave women that outlet to expand their leadership skills in an area near work, but kind of outside of work as well. A lot of this stuff was done on your own time.

When you think out about the different committee positions and leadership roles with the Ciloets, and starting out as members as well, what are some of your favorite memories—whether the connections and friendships you made, or speakers that you heard from that really changed your perspective on things? The mill trips sound like they were really unique, one-of-a-kind experiences as well.

BG: I have to say, I think the mill trips were just above and beyond, and Donna chaired them for many, many years. I used to help her. I remember [when I] worked in headquarters, and [other staff from headquarters would visit the auditor office in Gary] and say, “Gary Works is a city within itself,” and you just couldn’t picture how huge this place was. Then, when we did a mill trip there and I got to see it. It sits on the lake, surrounded by these other steel tech companies, it is just massive. It’s beyond what you could even imagine. And then also going to the [Monongahela River] Valley and seeing them make the steel and pouring the steel out of the big ladles; and that was so huge, and you can’t even imagine these men currently and back in the day doing this. That was very impressive, but I don’t even know if they would even take people through today with the safety rules. We were fortunate enough back then that they would take the women through. I don’t know if they would do that anymore. And also, the railroads, I have to say the topography of going through the Valley and how the train moved, and moved the product to the different plants—that was interesting, because growing up in the Valley, you don’t even realize all this until you actually go and tour these places and see it. So those were interesting, and I think of the camaraderie with the women to this day.

A group of women in greens and white hard hats in front of the Gary Works sign.

The Ciloets outside of U.S.S. Gary Works in Indiana, 1999.

In finance and auditing, you might not necessarily need to know how to make steel, or how railroads move things from one place to another—but when you got back from a mill trip and had that wider knowledge, how did that effect how you did your work?

BG: Typing your reports, and some of the stuff you’re typing you’re not sure what it means, but then you tour the plant and they explain things to you, it all comes together and makes sense. It was a learning experience.

DD: I can tell you that our members always looked forward to hearing where the trip was going to be. That was the big question—where the trip was going to be this year. We always tried to announce it months in advance. Our program year ran September through May, and we generally took the trip in spring, usually in April. We alternated between a one-day, local visit to a U.S. Steel facility in the area, and a weekend trip for the following year. For the local trips, we visited all of the plants, so those that are still in existence—Irvin, Edgar Thomson, Clairton, National, Homestead, all of the area plants were visited probably several times over the many years. We went to Youngstown, Johnstown, Lorain—we even went underground—U.S. Steel has some employees at the Annandale Archives in Boyers, PA, so we did have an opportunity to do some things that other people just didn’t have an opportunity to do.

On the weekend trips, we generally left on a Thursday afternoon, spent Friday visiting the facility, hosted by the organization, usually a wonderful day. Then we would spend the rest of the weekend wherever we were visiting. These weekend trips were to Gary, Indiana; Fairfield, Alabama; Minnesota Ore Operations. In addition, we had government affairs offices in Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg, so we visited there. There were financial offices in New York City, so that got us to New York. Bonnie mentioned the two international trips; those were done in recent years. When U.S. Steel bought the Steel Company of Canada we went to Hamilton in Ontario and had a wonderful visit at the plant that day. Again, hosted by all of the management people that were working at the time. We were actually there when they were in strike, but we had a great visit. We spent the balance of that weekend at Niagara on the Lake, which is a delightful little theater town up there, and we were able to visit Niagara Falls. The other international trip was a 10-day trip to Slovakia. U.S. Steel had bought the steel company in Slovakia in Košice and we spent probably about a week visiting Vienna and Prague, and we spent quite a few days driving across the lovely countryside there in Slovakia and had a couple of just great days with the people at the plant at Košice. In addition to the tour of the plant and a walking tour of the town, they hosted a number of events. They included spouses in some of the events, and they had some delightful Slovakian entertainment for us. So, again, there are examples of the support that we had from the corporation even on these international trips.

A large group of women pose for a group photo.

The Ciloet trip to New York in 1997 to visit the financial offices.

I think the other thing about the trips that I always found wonderful and I think others will probably agree is that we were traveling with a great group of women. These were women who were coworkers and friends, and I think that made the trips extra special also. I know there are so many good memories of the trips, and talking about the friendship and the fellowship—in the original objectives of the organization, that first group of women, one of their objectives was to provide for other U.S. Steel women who will follow a means for both fellowship and fun, so I think the trips really helped accomplish that. As I said, I think there are many wonderful memories that we all have of the times that we shared on those trips.

I might add too, that in planning these trips, we did not use travel agencies. We did plan all of the details of the trips. It took a lot of effort by a lot of people, and the women who are participating today were all involved and were always willing to share the work, the responsibilities. But again, it was fun working together. I think we stayed together quite a few years doing this, so I guess we always enjoyed it, and it added to our getting to know each other better.

In fact, I really did not know Marylin and Bonnie all that well before I retired. I knew who they were, but we really didn’t know each other that well. And, I always kid Bonnie; she was nominating chair the year I retired. I retired in March, and I tell her that I was home doing some housecleaning when the phone rang, and it was Bonnie and her co-chair of that nominating committee that asked me to be president, so that sounded good after a day of doing house work. But it was really through involvement at Ciloets that we’ve become friends. We know each other’s families, we do other social things together, so I think a lot of friendships were forged over the years through Ciloets.

MR: What I liked about it too was that there were times we had socials, [and] you would see these people at work all the time, but you never saw them in another type of situation. We would have amateur hour, we would have … groups get together and do some singing or whatever. We saw these people at work, and we saw them at the meetings, and on our trips, but to see another side … Even the advisors would get involved in some of our social activities and join in with the ladies. Very good memories of every aspect of the Ciloets, from being involved, and that’s important. You have to be involved in order to understand and grow with the organization, which I think we all have grown and learned a lot, met a lot of people. Like I said, I worked at research, and I really didn’t know anyone from downtown or even at Muriel Street when I had to deal with these people by phone. And once we were all together as far as in the Ciloets organization, we became a family and really, like Donna said, with not only work, but Ciloets have maintained a wonderful friendship with so many wonderful, wonderful people. It’s been great.

What led each of you to want to get into the steel industry? Did any of you have any family connections of people who immigrated here to work in the industry?

LR: Well my grandfather was actually an employee of U.S. Steel; he came over from Slovakia as well,  actually from the Košice area where [U.S. Steel] bought the plant. My uncle worked down at National Tube, my other uncle was an accountant for U.S. Steel. My dad actually worked for U.S. Steel for a while. I think if you were born in Pittsburgh, you probably knew for somebody or were related to somebody that at one point worked for U.S. Steel. None of that actually got me, necessarily, into U.S. Steel. I think, a lot on the union side, yeah they would bring their sons and other relatives in preferentially maybe through the union, but on my side, I just became an engineer, I happened to like metallurgy, and then I happened to go to U.S. Steel, but I did have a legacy of U.S. Steel in my family. I don’t know that it necessarily prompted me to begin a position there and stay there for so long. And I met my husband at U.S. Steel … We met at Research playing volley ball of all things—not working together at all, different sides of the spectrum in terms of the operation. But certainly we moved with U.S. Steel, and U.S. Steel made it very easy for us to be a couple, and a couple working at U.S. Steel.

DD: Yes, actually. My grandfather also worked at Edgar Thomson, and he also came from Slovakia, so there is that history in my background also. But I think what really drew a lot of us to U.S. Steel—it was a major employer, and it was a very well-respected company. It was a company that contributed a lot to the Pittsburgh area in many ways. In the theater programs over the years, you always saw U.S. Steel as one of the major contributors. The Foundation did a lot in terms of contributing to many aspects of the cultural life of Pittsburgh. And I’m sure there are people that worked for Westinghouse and Alcoa—there were a number of large corporations that probably had employees that felt the same about those corporations also. It was certainly a place where people wanted to work, at least I think women. It was a big employer of men, whether or not it was their first choice of employment, I don’t know if that was always the case. But it was a major employer in the Pittsburgh area, so a lot has changed in that respect now; but back when we were hired, it made an impact here in the city, the corporation.

Can you talk a bit about your hours, and what your work day, work week was like in terms of stress levels and things that were on your plate for the day, the projects you worked on? Without being too personal, in terms of salary was something that was able to sustain you comfortably? And if you’d want to share details about the everyday parts of your workday, like the things that you ate for lunch, or what you wore to work.

DD: I think one of the things that made U.S. Steel a desirable place to work was that it did pay employees well. Women that came into the organization even on secretarial jobs, I think salaries were very competitive. The other companies again—there were others that were also excellent employers, but that, I think, definitely is one of the things that made the corporation so attractive to people.

Those of us working at headquarters, and I think also at Tech Center, when I first started, headquarters was across the street from where Kaufmann’s had been at 525 William Penn Place, and we had a large employee cafeteria there, so most everyone ate in the cafeteria. But when we moved into the new building, they did not include an employee cafeteria. So the cafeteria was always a place for socializing and seeing employees also. U.S. Steel had, at headquarters, had, we called it the “Andrew Carnegie Athletic Association.” It was an employee organization that sponsored many kinds of events and activities. They actually, way back, did golf weekends and many other activities. So, it was a good place to work for many reasons.

MR: The reason I think I decided to pursue a job opportunity at U.S. Steel—it wasn’t far from home, I could get there very easily, and fortunately I did get the job there. It was nice working at this location, the research center in Monroeville. We didn’t have to pay for parking; you could just park your car and go into work. The type of socializing, as far as the Tech Center was concerned, we had a Tech Center Club that we all—you didn’t have to belong to, but the majority of us did. They had a bowling league, they had a golf league, they had a volleyball league… There were always other activities going on that brought us together outside of the office. And as far as our lunch bag, we were fortunate that we had always maintained a cafeteria, and U.S. Steel would subsidize part of that cafeteria as far as the expenses. So, Tuesdays were prime rib day, and you could get a prime rib dinner for $2.50. It was just a wonderful place to go to every day. Sure there were stress times. There were deadlines you had to meet. But, we worked together as a team in the office that I worked in, and we got through what we had to do. But also, making good friendships and good memories of U.S. Steel.

BG: We always had to dress. I mean, there were no pants, and I don’t remember what year it was—Donna might remember this, but they were talking about women wearing pantsuits to the work place, and that was the big deal. And when the chairman of the board’s secretary wore pants, that was our cue that we were allowed to wear pants to work and that was a big deal! And then down the road, it was many years after that, you could come to work casual. So, I saw from the very dressed—heels, nylons, to pantsuits, to casual.

DD: I retired in 1999, and we were just beginning to be able—I think it was on Fridays, that you were permitted to wear pants. So my career really was spent dressing up coming to work except for a few days probably within that last year. That certainly changed over the years, but I enjoyed that. Now when I think back, I’m glad I worked at a time where we dressed up when we went to the office.

MR: I know out at research, especially on a Friday, if one of the engineers had to be called into a meeting in Pittsburgh, they better have a suit jacket and a change of dress pants to go downtown. Because one time a person went down just in their blue jeans and whatever, and they were… we had to make some changes that dress down day, casual day should be khakis and a shirt. You looked nice.

LR: … It was funny, because downtown people would [have casual day], and in the mills they thought it was a little silly to have an event like that because jeans was our daily wear. Jeans and then you changed out of your jeans into your fire-retardant greens, you know. For me, I was in a lot of different roles. When I was downtown you dressed up more.

Certainly later in my career but at a time when I had a lot more responsibility, days were very long. They were 12-, 16-hour days. The plant could be like that all the time, working on weekends. Even coming home and still working, emails and such. So, I mean, when you’re in a position of leadership at any corporation, those are the kinds of hours that you’re going to have to put in. One different thing about working in the mill is the calls. You get called any time of the night, especially if somebody has an injury, if there’s a hiccup in the operations at all, you would get a phone call. And there were times when it was something you could handle over the phone, and there were times when you would go into the office. That was particularly tough when you’re juggling that with a spouse and children, but you make it work. So, the work for managers in the mill, they’re there right with the union guys. They’re working the same hours, but probably more, a lot more responsibility.

When I was running the plants in the Mon Valley, every day I was responsible for the health and safety of 3,000 people, and there’s a lot of stress there. So there’s, safety, there’s quality, there’s environmental—especially in the Pittsburgh area that’s very prominent. And then there’s still operations and costs. So, it’s a very stressful, it’s a very stressful job. And then there’s positions where it’s maybe not as stressful. At Research, if you’re just an engineer, maybe 8 or 10 hour days, but there was a lot of travel. Every job comes with its set of stressors, its set of responsibilities, and usually that ebbs and flows in your career. Anyone, when it’s crunch time and you have to get a report out, or you’re doing union negotiations. Everyone has their times when they’re working significant hours. But there’s a lot of fun, too. Steel gets in your blood, and you just love it.

That sounds like a lot to keep on your mind all the time. Lisa, being the first woman to hold some of the plant management roles that you did, do you think employees interacted with you differently than they did with your male predecessors? Did you run into challenges?

LR: First I was the plant manager at Clairton, and then I was the general manager of the Mon Valley operations. I honestly don’t think I did [run into challenges]. At the time, between myself, and actually having a husband who worked there in some of those plants, I knew a lot of the people before I started. When I went to Clairton though, I had no idea how to make coke or anything like that, and when I went in I was very honest with the guys and I said, “Look I don’t know anything about making coke. Here’s my skills, and this is what I bring to the job, and I will learn. I will learn very fast, and I will let you teach me.” And they did. I guess, listening—making sure you’re listening, taking in a lot of information to make decisions. I think I was very collaborative and respectful of everybody and their knowledge. I didn’t come in like, “I know everything and I’m going to be the manager.” I think that maybe that helped me, and that was my style. I certainly had men tell me what I should do from a style standpoint, and I politely just ignored their advice. I don’t feel I ever was discriminated against, at pretty much any time in my career. If anything, I was given more opportunities, I believe. I don’t know, maybe I was just blind to that, but I really enjoyed my time at the mill. But I did—I brought my skill set there and I was able to fight for the plants and advocate for the plants in my role. And I, I don’t know, maybe you’d ask other people, but I was an engineer all the time, I loved solving problems, I was very quality-oriented and it was a lot of my background in quality and research, and that was what I brought to that role. I think being a mother actually helped in management skills as much as anything else.

Can you tell me what being a Ciloet has been like in more recent years? What kind of topics and speakers are you hearing from during your meetings? Are the mill trips still happening in non-pandemic times?

LR: We haven’t had a mill trip in maybe about five years. The last one that we went to was local in Monroeville. And a lot of that had to do with the economy at the time, and the changes in U.S. Steel. In more recent years, we have had the opportunity to have speakers from the new members of U.S. Steel that have been brought in as a lot of our people had—you know, there’s shake up in the organization. So it was really interesting, I think, to hear a new CFO, a new HR, and in fact we had several HR turnovers. There was a woman that was in charge of the commercial department, there were some very higher-level women that were part of this new regime of executives, so it was neat to hear their perspectives, because a lot of them came from other companies. And U.S. Steel had a long—a long, long, long tradition—of just promoting from within, raising people from the time that they were right out of high school or even college, up to their executive ranks. There was a large loyalty factor, there was a large grow-within factor, and in more recent years, since several years before I retired, so maybe the last eight to ten years, [they started] bringing in people from outside. And I thought that that was probably the most interesting things in terms of speakers. And what was nice about them was that they all agreed—they knew very little about the Ciloets, but they all agreed to come and speak with this organization, and it was really nice to hear their perspectives.

A plastic bag, a notebook, pen, key ring, a calculator, all with the Ciloets loto

Ciloets items from the Rivers of Steel Archives.

This article was published to coincide with Women’s History Month. Stay tuned for more stories highlighting women in steel and in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The images from the article are from the Rivers of Steel Archives.