If there is a best flag to represent America in 2022, it may well be this one. Fifteen or twenty feet tall, the big metal version of the stars & bars fills a huge section of exterior wall on the Dura-Bond Pipe facility in McKeesport.
The image is all there, but it’s seen better days. The blue field behind the flag’s fifty stars is faded and streaked; red stripes are all but gone entirely. In their void, scratchy, rusty striations seem to be eating Old Glory from the inside out.
If that’s not a perfect analog for the current state of our American union, I don’t know what is. America is still here, we see its shape and form, still recognize its power and pretense, but it seems to be disappearing—or is actively being destroyed—right in front of our eyes, in ways we never imagined.
We’ll not do any great opining here—you’ve got blow-out mattress sales and sun-soaked cookouts to get to. Maybe, though, in between all those hot dogs and foul balls, consider what you can actively do—and not just on the Internet—to preserve American democracy between now and next Independence Day.
Enjoy the flags (and flag-like things). Happy Independence Day, y’all!
If that ain’t enough flags for you, our sister blog The Portland Orbit has their own flag post out today. Let’s go, America!
If you’re like most, you can’t even remember when or where the fever set in. A trip to the department store with Mom, perhaps—that’s where I caught it—or glanced from the corner of the eye while hustling down a busy sidewalk past downtown shop windows.
Figures, stiff and lifeless with contorted expressions and abstracted features frozen mid-pose, draped in seasonal attire or modeling hats and jewelry. Not people, but also not not people, mannequins are no simple clothes hangers in 3-D. Mannequins lead strange existences like harmless exhibitionist vampires—caught in an eternal state somewhere between alive and dead, real and imagined, naked and clothed, a waking dream and a living nightmare.
One can be excused for thinking mannequin fever only expresses itself within the world of retail apparel. I’m not going to lie, when your author is jonesing and it’s been a while he’ll take a stroll into a Marshall’s, Gabe’s, or Target’s just to take the edge off. It’s a good idea to have one’s local vintage shops in poking distance during a fallow period.
Sure, that’ll get you through, but the real fever kicks in when you’re well out-of-range of sterile department store fluorescent lights and the ringing of cash registers. We’re talking about the not-quite-beating heart of Mannequin Nation.
Dozens of mannequin heads stacked cheek-to-jowl in the front window of a wig store. Headless mannequins dressed in patriotic red, white, and blue finery. Like something out of a cable TV crime drama, a lone female model, dressed for summer sun, on the front deck of a house literally down by the river with a sign reading Lobo’s Lair.
Mannequins cheer on the Pittsburgh Steelers—in their own way—and advertise political candidates on crime scene cleanup coveralls. (“Shut up and do your job!”) Mannequins hawk vape store offerings—like we need another reason to try Juul strawberry lemondade e-cigs, am I right? Along with the rest of us, mannequins have their own pandemic concerns to worry about and get left out on the curb for big garbage day.
Bored fashion mannequins—hey, you’d be bored too if you had to sit still for months at a time!—wait to catch the eyes of sidewalk strollers. Arty mannequins with paint-cracked skin, ridiculous wigs, and detached hands look for a whole different type of attention. Mannequins are relegated to the side porch with the cat box and dumped in construction sites like stool pigeons who’ve squawked for the last time.
One more note for the heads (ha!): no discussion of Pittsburgh-area mannequin fever should leave out Randyland—the city’s grand buffet of mutant mannequins. The central North Side artvironment has a little bit of everything and whole lot of over-the-top. That includes mannequins—available any time you need them—hand painted, accessorized, and ready to party. A must, when you’ve got the fever.
Lastly, a big shout-out to our sister blog The Portland Orbit whose recent story Whatever Happened to Mannequin Fever? got us up off the thinkin’ chair and digging through the archives for a suitable answer post, many years in the making.
Consider the dumpster. It’s just a big trash can, hauled in when a house is getting gutted, rented out to construction sites, left out back in semi-permanent residence to contain ongoing retail and restaurant waste.
Like garbage bins of any size, dumpsters live brutally utilitarian lives, out of sight and out of mind. I’m guessing the majority of us rarely engage with industrial-grade waste receptacles. Sometimes—like Boyd Roll-Off Services’ breast cancer awareness dumpsters—the big steel bins get a tiny moment to shine. That’s the exception; not the rule.
But, as we’ve already alluded-to in verse, if an object or environment can hold paint, be glued-upon or used to hang things from, performed in or danced-around someone will find a way to turn it into a venue for artistic expression. Big steel dumpsters are no exception … even if the audience for exhibition thereon is almost certainly random, and limited.
Let’s call the patrons of these al fresco galleries of chance the real deal, seekers, culture vultures. Not content with a curated-by-the-man experience of a trip to The Carnegie or The Warhol, feeling confined by the lower-expectations, but still-commercial ambitions of a first Friday in Garfield, the connoisseur de carnage digs deep behind buildings and circles sidewalk skips looking for that one elusive scribble, one perfect stencil, one perfectly-dripped spray-paint doodle.
Whether you, dear reader, fall into this exclusive, sneakin’ Sally down the alley, pungently-fragrant coterie, know that The Orbit will be there—poking retail backsides, circling the big bins, and capturing this momentary, transitory artwork … before it all gets thrown away.
In so many cases, we have next-to-nothing to go on—an overflowing bundle of plastic flowers, maybe, or a tumble of teddy bears. There are memorials with rain-streaked and sun-bleached photographs. Utility poles are strung with flags, photographs, and the personal effects of the departed. Crosses left by the side of the road decorate every highway and bouquets adorn all too many neighborhood telephone poles.
Sometimes we get a name, or names, but that’s it. Who were Tony, Bette & Sisters? (photo above) And how did they come to be memorialized with flowers and a placard on the concrete support of the Homestead High-Level Bridge? Did this fairly anonymous spot have a special significance to their lives? Their passing?
Chance Borgese who lost control of his car and crashed into a guardrail on Rt. 88 near Monongahela in 2020. Borgese has a large wooden cross adorned with a wreath of flowers, a photograph, and decorative pots left for him on the site. He’s not the only one with a roadside cross.
When we see similar scenes on residential side streets, it’s had not to worry something more sinister was afoot.
That’s definitely true for Dai’Shawn Grace, whose memorial on a Munhall utility pole includes a photo-adorned cross, flowers, and protective ring of stuffed animals. In 2019, Mr. Grace was murdered, shot multiple times, walking home from the bus stop after working a shift as a prep cook.
This Memorial Day2022 there’s no shortage of human losses to mourn. A million American lives to Covid—an enormous number of which could’ve been prevented if people simply believed science. Unimaginable—and likely difficult to even estimate—deaths in Ukraine. Horrific mass murders in Buffalo and Uvalde. No small number of shooting deaths right here in Pittsburgh. The list goes on and on.
So while many of us get to enjoy this sunny, summery day off from work—quite possibly with friends, beers, and the smell of charcoal in the air—let’s not forget that Memorial Day need not be reserved for our fallen soldiers. When any 18-year-old can legally buy an assault rifle, no questions asked, and turn it on a classroom full of fifth-graders—when the freedom to purchase that weapon is considered more important than the freedom for those children to reach their eleventh birthdays—the war is very much right here at home.
I was lucky to be fertile during the time of Roe v. Wade, to have the protection of a law that ensured that I had the right to control my own body. Roe v. Wade meant I could decide if and when I wanted to be a parent, or if I wanted to be a parent at all. If the Supreme Court overturns this ruling, it will have existed for just under 50 years; I am currently 54 years old. The thought that people younger than me—women and non-binary folks—will not have this same right, the same control of their bodies is chilling. As Senator Patty Murray stated this week, if Roe v. Wade is overturned “this will be the first generation of women with fewer rights than their mothers.”
Thirty years ago, when I was just 24, I interviewed two doctors who regularly witnessed what illegal abortions did to women for In Pittsburgh. They regularly saw hospital wards full of people sick with sepsis, bleeding profusely, often with permanently damaged reproductive systems—all due to illegal abortion. Over 5,000 women died this way every year. Both doctors fought to create access to reproductive freedom, and ensure women maintained control over their bodies and lives. May we be inspired by their fight, by their resolve and commitment to freedom of choice in our current struggle. Please vote on Tuesday’s Primary Election and know how your candidates stand on the issue of choice. Our lives depend on it.
Kirsten Ervin, 2022
The Bad Old Days: Two Doctors Describe the ‘Illegal’ Years
Originally published by In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, 1992
Like Mary Litman [see last week’s story The Bad Old Days: One Woman Remembers How It Was] thousands of women were hospitalized due to botched illegal abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade. According to the 1970 Kinsey Report, one out of five pregnancies ended in abortion at that time, with the resulting deaths of about 5,000 women each year. Pittsburgh obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Robert Kisner, who was an intern at Magee Women’s Hospital from 1969 to 1973, recalls the many women who came to Magee after illegal abortions: “The typical ones I saw and remember were people who were really sick. They had a temperature of 104, 105; they looked like the devil and were really septic. If they had done this in an era where we didn’t have powerful antibiotics, a lot of these women would have died.”
Dr. Tom Allen, now the medical director of Women’s Health Services, was a resident intern at Magee from 1944 to 1945. He remembers that usually about half of the 12 or so beds in the Septic Ward were occupied by victims of illegal abortions. Since World War II was on, “all the penicillin, which was the only antibiotic we really had at that time, was reserved for the military,” Allen says. Quite a few women died, and “if they did get better, they were probably gynecological cripples.”
Kisner says patients often developed sepsis, a poisoning caused by absorption of bacteria into the blood; or peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdominal lining. Both were brought about by the unsterile instruments and harsh chemicals of back-alley abortionists. If aggravated, these infections could result in sterility or the later need for a hysterectomy.
Yet “these women almost always waited until they were sick to come in, because they didn’t want to share with us and they knew we would probably be able to figure out what happened,” Kisner says. “It was so painful to me to ask these poor women, ‘Who did this to you?”, or ‘What did they do to you?’ … You could see the shame on their faces.” Many had remained silent because they feared prosecution: “It was almost as if they were educated by the person who performed this to ‘deny everything, because you don’t know me’,” says Kisner.
A number of factors united to change conditions in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Standards set forth by the Obstetrican-Gynecologist Hospital Services in 1969 broadened the scope of medically necessary, or therapeutic, abortions permitted in hospitals. Around this time Magee established the Therapeutic Abortion and Sterilization Committee, which acted on patients’ requests for abortions and/or tubal ligations.
Allen concedes that the meaning of therapeutic abortion was stretched a little bit. Therapeutic abortions in the ’40s and ’50s were for very severe heart or kidney disease that complicated continuation of the pregnancy because of the extra stress on the organs. But there was a conscious movement on the part of [Magee’s] staff to challenge the abortion law. The chairman required that two psychiatrists say, “The continuation of this woman’s pregnancy will endanger her life.” They got it down so they could say, “damage her mental health.”
Also, two direct court challenges were made to Pennsylvania’s restrictive 1939 abortion law. In 1970, motorcycle mechanic Barry Graham Page—a convicted abortionist from Centre County—attacked the law as being too broad and ambiguous, and won. For a time, Centre County was the only place in Pennsylvania where abortion was permissible.
That same year, Allegheny County District Attorney Robert Duggan subpoenaed the hospital records at Magee for all of 1970. He had filed a criminal complaint charging three Magee physicians with conspiracy to commit illegal abortion. Outraged, three therapeutic abortion patients at Magee filed an equity class action for an injuction against the release of such records, claiming this would violate their privacy. Common Pleas Court Judge Anne Alpern granted the injunction, concurring that the state’s 1939 law was ambiguous and therefore unconstitutional.
Now technically without any abortion law, Allegheny County officials allowed a more permissive atmosphere. As Allen remembers, “We could interpret it so that we could go ahead with an abortion until we were challenged … It was our hope that we could change the legislation. and get a law similar to New York but that didn’t happen.”
What did happen was that Allen, along with the late Leah Sayles, co founded Women’s Health Services in the fall of 1972 as Pittsburgh’s first free-standing, nonprofit clinic providing abortion services. The U.S. Supreme Court made its landmark Roe v. Wade decision in January 1973, three months before WHS actually opened its doors. But Allen says, “We didn’t really care. We were going to open [WHS] anyway.”
As the Supreme Court prepares to rule on Pennsylvania’s new Abortion Control Act this July, Allen says “Women should never relinquish a right that is theirs,” and warns that protecting choice “is going to take some hard work politically. The only way is … to elect a pro-choice Congress and a President who will not veto choice legislation.” Kisner agrees on the need for activism, adding that “if [choice] ever came down to a single vote, men should not even participate in the vote. We don’t get pregnant.”
Thirty years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Mary Litman, a woman who had experienced the physical danger and emotional trauma of an illegal abortion in the 1950s. What could have been a safe medical procedure for Mary instead became a months-long nightmare of shame, secrets, and life-threatening internal bleeding—all with far-reaching consequences.
When I interviewed Mary for the now-defunct In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, I was fresh out of college. While her story greatly impacted me, I don’t know that I ever truly considered that we as a country would ever go back to such a dark place, where anyone with a uterus is denied the basic choices about their own body. As Mary states in the interview, “When you have control over your body, you have control over your life.”
Now, with Roe v. Wade threatened at its very core by a looming Supreme Court decision, Mary’s story takes on heightened significance. The raw truth of this single story gives us a glimpse into a world without access to safe, legal abortions. When reading Mary’s story again, I am struck by the sense that her world is closing in on her; she is ready to face death, jail, or a lack of any viable future. With Roe v. Wade struck down, abortions won’t go away—they will go underground. Anyone facing an unplanned pregnancy will have their own life choices severely constricted. Without control over our bodies, we lose access to social, vocational, and financial freedom.
Please excuse the fact that the language in this 30-year-old interview is not as gender inclusive as it could be. I know the loss of Roe v. Wade would affect not just women, but also many non-binary folks as well.
My hope is that those who read Mary’s story, as well as countless others, will be moved—beyond sharing and posting on the Internet—to action, to the streets, and to the ballot box. In Pennsylvania, we have an election primary coming up on May 17. Please vote and know your candidates’ stances on matters affecting reproductive freedom. Our lives depend on it.
Kirsten Ervin, 2022
The Bad Old Days: One Woman Remembers How It Was
Originally published by In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, 1992.
Political issues often remain abstract until they are personalized. Certainly this is true of reproductive choice. How many women too young to know the realities of illegal abortion feel the same visceral attachment to the issue as those who remember? How clearly can today’s women envision life without reproductive freedom, as it was before Roe v. Wade?
Mary Litman, pro-choice activist and education director of Women’s Health Services in downtown Pittsburgh, agreed to share her 1958 illegal abortion experience with In Pittsburgh. Litman first went public with her story at a NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) speak-out in July 1989, just prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Webster decision. She has been featured, along with the patients and staff of Women’s Health Services, in the HBO documentary Abortion: Desperate Choices.
Kirsten Ervin: Why did you decide to finally speak out?
Mary Litman: I just decided that it was time I shared my story with other people—specifically with other women to remind them of what it was like to not have any place to turn for counseling, or help, or treatment, or even a pregnancy test. I knew there were some restrictions coming down, and wanted to have some impact on people’s consciences.
KE: How hard was it for you to first speak out publicly, at the NARAL event in 1989?
Mary: I spent about three or four days pacing my living room—because I had repressed so many of the memories, I didn’t want to think about it—trying to get the words to come out. I would sit on the bus and let the words run through me, and I would walk around my house and let the words run through me.
KE: Are you glad you spoke out? What changed for you in the process?
Mary: It’s like walking around with weights on your shoulders, and then it felt like they were gone. It was being able to look at the world and think, “It’s out there now, I have nothing to hide from you.” It also made me feel more of a sisterhood with the women who had had legal abortions. The other thing it did was inspire other women to speak about their own experiences, and they felt exactly as I did. [We all] were isolated from each other because nobody ever wanted to stand up and say, “I had an illegal abortion.”
KE: Could you describe the circumstances surrounding your abortion? What was happening in your life at that time?
Mary: I came from a very large, Appalachian family—very loving, but not exactly upwardly mobile. I was the first in my family to formally graduate from high school and I had a job in one of the big corporations in Pittsburgh.
The person who I became pregnant with could not marry me, and I knew I couldn’t continue working at my job as an unwed pregnant woman. I didn’t want to go back home to my mother and be an extra burden on her. I just saw everything in my life I had strived for and worked for, and had attained, slipping away from me.
KE: How old were you?
Mary: Just a little past 20. I had never really heard about abortion. My sisters, when they got pregnant, they got married. My mother admitted to jumping off a couple of tables, and trying to fall down stairs, but she said, “If a pregnancy is good, it’s going to be good.” Abortion wasn’t anything I had ever heard about, except whispers about somebody dying or some awful thing happening to them. I trusted the person [I was involved with] because he was very sophisticated, very wise in the ways of the world. He told me he knew a good, safe place in Youngstown, Ohio.
KE: Did you consider abortion as an option only after he suggested it?
Mary: Exactly. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and there wasn’t any place like [Women’s Health Services] to come and talk about my options. So, trusting his judgment, and trusting his ability to know what the accepted norms were, I went to Youngstown with him and his friend, the contact person, to this classic scene of a house. I think it may have been the same house in the book Back Rooms, because there’s one story about a woman from Cleveland who goes to Youngstown for an abortion. When I read that, I kept thinking, “I would like to find this woman,” because I don’t remember all that happened to me, and I feel like if I could find her I could fill in the blanks.
[When I went to the house], this doctor was an old man, and there was gambling going on in the front room. There were the three of us, and they left me; I don’t know where they went. I went into this room, which I don’t remember a whole lot about. There was a table. There was a calendar on the wall with the year of my birth, 20 years ago. When I saw the calendar I was sure I was going to die. It was like some prophecy. I was so very frightened, I’m not sure where reality left off, because I don’t remember anything. I don’t remember that man touching me.
KE: Were you anesthetized?
Mary: I don’t think so, but I don’t know. I remember him telling me, “You’re going to experience a lot of pain. Don’t worry about it, just take some aspirin and stay quiet.” Don’t tell anybody was the message I got.
We drove back to Pittsburgh and I had a roommate. She really stayed with me through this whole thing, through the pain and the hemorrhaging. I remember Leigh coming into my room and saying, “You’ve got to let me call your mother. You’ve got to let me call the doctor. You’ve got to let me take you to the emergency room.” And I remember saying, “I can’t, Leigh. They’ll put me in jail. I’ll be all right.”
So rather than go to jail and admit I had broken the law, I was ready to die. I was convinced I was going to. But good girls don’t go to jail; good girls don’t get pregnant; good girls certainly don’t go to Youngstown, Ohio and have illegal abortions. So I toughed it out.
Finally the hemorrhaging stopped and I managed to go back to work for a while. Then I had this terrible infection and I smelled so bad. So I thought, “Well, I can go to a doctor because there’s an infection.” I still wouldn’t tell him I had had an illegal abortion. He tested me for venereal disease and said, “You don’t have venereal disease, but we need to put you in the hospital. You’re very anemic. If you lose any more blood, you’re going to have to be admitted immediately. We’re going to have to give you transfusions.”
[But] I went back to work, and I started to hemorrhage again. [This time] I was admitted to the hospital and had several blood transfusions, had my D&C*, and then I remember my doctor bending over my bed and saying, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I started to cry and said, “I thought you’d lock me in jail.” And he said, “I would have taken care of you. You should have told me.”
KE: You had no way of knowing who was going to be hostile and who wasn’t?
Mary: No, absolutely not. I thought, you break the law, you go to jail, period. So I went on with my life, sort of pushing it back. I never told anyone except my roommate. I got married in 1961 and I tried for a number of years to get pregnant and I never could. But in 1968 I adopted my daughter Tracy, and I don’t feel any lack of having children because I’ve got Tracy.
KE: How long after your abortion did it take you to get you back on your feet, physically and emotionally?
Mary: This whole procedure, from getting pregnant to being in the hospital and the D&C, was a four- or five-month period. Then, like everybody else, I thought, “Oh, I’m never having sex with anybody ever again.” I truly did repress it, the whole idea that it happened to me. I just put it out of my mind.
In 1972 or ’73, I picked up a copy of Ms.Magazine; a number of celebrities who had had illegal abortions were listed. I can still remember crying and reading. It was very important to me that I had tapped into a whole group of people who had had the same experience I did.
KE: The man you were involved with, was he a support for you?
Mary: No. If he had been, and not been worried about himself, he would have picked me up in his arms and carried me to the emergency room. But he didn’t do that. He came [to my apartment] and looked at me and looked at Leigh and said, “Is she gonna be all right?” and left.
Women are such strong creatures, though. Lots of other women did exactly what I did. We all managed to live through it and we all managed to go back to work, back to school, or whatever. It’s unbelievable how brave women are.
When people ask me whether the anti-choice people in front of our clinic make any women change their minds, I say, “Absolutely not. Women used to risk their lives to terminate an unplanned pregnancy.” Anybody who is going to change her mind about having an abortion will do it here in the privacy of the counseling session. And that often happens.
KE: Do you at all regret your decision to have an abortion?
Mary: The decision at that time was entirely appropriate. I wasn’t ready to be a parent and I couldn’t have handled it financially or emotionally. It was a good decision; I just wish it could have been done in the safety of a clinic with proper counseling, and proper care.
KE: How do you think your life would be now if you hadn’t made that decision?
Mary: I know that in 1958, having an illegitimate child was not accepted the way it is now. But how my life would have turned out, I really don’t know. It’s just one of those mysteries. I’m satisfied with the way my life turned out.
KE: Does your experience as a young woman have a lot to do with your working at Women’s Health Services?
Mary: Absolutely. Walking through that recovery room and seeing somebody have their blood pressure taken, seeing the counseling rooms filled up during counseling sessions, somebody else getting a pat on the cheek—I couldn’t get that kind of care, but other women are getting it now. That makes it all right.
KE: What message would you send to young women about this issue?
Mary: I think young women have got to realize what the broader agenda of the anti-choice movement is. They want to eliminate certain kinds of birth control, like the pill—low-dosage birth control pills act as an abortifacient and they also want to get rid of abortion.
Women have made greater strides since 1973 than in any time in their history. It’s no mistake that the anti-choice forces want to take away reproductive freedom for women, because if you don’t have reproductive freedom, you can’t really think about becoming a lawyer, becoming a doctor. When you have control over your body, you have control over your life. That’s what young women need to understand. It’s not about abortion. It’s about power over women’s lives.
* D&C: A dilation and curettage procedure, also called a D&C, is a surgical procedure in which the cervix (lower, narrow part of the uterus) is dilated (expanded) so that the uterine lining (endometrium) can be scraped with a curette (spoon-shaped instrument) to remove abnormal tissues.
If one is ever to meet a giant in real life, let it be like this. Big John greets every new visitor with a friendly smile. John’s big arms spread out to cradle four old-school brown paper sacks brimming with groceries. If that wasn’t enough, the great grocer is animal lover, to boot—we know this from the pro-pets messages printed on the shopping bags and his apron’s message Never eat anyone who had a mother.
At thirty feet tall (just guessing here) Big John is a fiberglass cast statue/advertisement for a retailer that we’ll assume no longer requires his services. The problem isn’t John—he’s in excellent shape. The large form is remarkably free of cracks or dings and the paint job—including that text on the bags and apron—is crisp and detailed.
Colossus is not a word we generally hear in its plural form. Heck, we don’t even use the noun that much; its adjective gets most of the attention. Encountering a single giant is a rare enough occasion, how often does one experience two? or three?
Keep going. Unger, West Virginia has a tiny human population—I’ll bet it numbers in the hundreds—but when it comes to giants, that’s another story.
Unger, an unincorporated rural community just one mile from (regular) Virginia’s northernmost point, likely has the most per-capita giants in the country. They all live on the grounds of an old farmhouse along Winchester Grade Road. Collectively, they’re known as The Farnham Colossi.
The colossi come in many forms—human and otherwise—that spread around three sides of the property. There’s a giant apple painted with a faded mural of apple-harvesting, a colorful crab poised high in the sky, Yogi Bear’s supporting players, and a soaring pterodactyl that flies above a purple barn.
Mister Fifteen Hamburger Man, a rotund chef proudly hoisting a burger, stands in a large lawn with a circular ring of cast concrete statuary. Behind him is a mini roller coaster with one set of cars containing The Simpsons family, another a set of carnival clown game figures.
The whole thing’s a gas, but the attraction for many will be the exquisite pair of muffler men at Farnham. One is a legit muffler-holding mechanic with a Midas crown, the other appears in full lumberjack flannel, beard, and toque (but no Paul Bunyan axe).
Uniroyal Gal is the Mr. Pibb to Muffler Man’s more name-brand Dr. Pepper. She’s here too, wearing an electric purple bikini and go-go boots. Uniroyal Gal left the tire on the car, this time.
Both Atlas Obscura and Roadside America have very fine entries on the history of The Farnham Colossi and the couple who seated them all here together, so we’ll not repeat those basic facts.
What we will say is that this part roadside attraction, part open-air museum of the dying history of the highway is a lovely place to visit when one finds him- or herself in the greater Berkeley Springs/Winchester/Cacapon State Park area of West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. Where else can one so easily walk among giants?
Red on red. Firey hot, turbulent, scraped, and streaked—the glowing red of the insides of the eyelids after staring at the sun. The world is a dangerous place and we need only this background riot of warm orange-reds, seen-better-days pale pinks, and muddy maroons to remind us of it.
At the center of the oil painting is a woman’s face in ashen pale blues. Her expression is neutral—one could read anything from bored to sad, sleepy, desperate, or haunted into it. The woman’s eyes, though—enlarged, swirling balls of red—make her look transfixed, hypnotized, zombiefied.
Draped atop the figure is surreal cloak in another raft of deep reds. The head of a hound—looking very much alive, minus its lower jaw—with attached forelimbs morphs into a full body covering.
“I’ve never been accused of making myself look too pretty in a painting,” says Annie Heisey of her self-portraits, “And I’m OK with that.”
I am too. “Protector” and its sister self-portrait “Sacrifice” (below) both draw their power from the vulnerability of their subject—her imperfections and fragility. I’ve written in these very e-pages about carrying a lifetime membership in the Fancy Brain Club. I’d offer up these two paintings as Exhibits A and B in the defense of art as an expression of that which words cannot fully describe. Both are featured in Heisey’s current show Uncharted Waters at Curio Cool.
Looking at these two arresting paintings, I immediately identified with the experience. When you’re in the hole, the world feels like that big wall of discordant reds. In this state, a person is always just one misaligned action away from squeezing that delicate starling just a little too tight.
“Like everyone during the pandemic, I was paying more attention to my mental health,” says Annie Heisey about “Protector” and its faithful-companion-as-emotional-shield metaphor. Heisey has two large boxers, one of whom very much acts as a security guard against any perceived threat. “She’s so brave in a lot of ways I wish I was,” Heisey says, “I like the shamanistic idea of wearing animal skins as a protective layer between me and the world.”
“Sacrifice” was inspired by a stained glass image included in this past winter’s Victorian Radicals show at the Frick Art Museum. In it, a woman clutches a bird to her chest in a way Heisey echoes in her self-portrait. “Sometimes I lash out at people,” Heisey says of her painting and the moods that inspired it, “When that happens, I wonder if I kill the things I love?”
If you’re familiar with Annie Heisey’s work, you know the magical children (that’s our term). The artist has four recurring youths—the children of her sister and a friend—who appear in states of blissed-out innocence and spellbound wonder throughout many of Heisey’s paintings in both the current show and past.
Often shirtless and alone, the kids are vulnerable in a way that’s hard to not to see as in-peril by our current awareness of stranger danger. Around these children swirl glowing lights and winsome creatures. It’s a rosy-eyed nostalgia for a childhood that may or may not have ever existed for anyone.
To spend any time with these paintings is to see there’s a real darkness beneath all those twinkling fireflies and carefree days at the lake.
In “Fathoms” (photo at top) a girl in a bathing suit wades in knee-deep water as glowing lights dance in the air above. It’s a lovely painting, but it’s no glamor portrait. The girl’s head is awkwardly cropped out of the frame and the vantage point is of someone standing on the shore—the subject clearly not aware of whoever may be watching. The subtlety of this perspective gives the artwork an off-kilter sensation where the girl is not the focus one might expect. Instead the viewer is left to complete a penciled-in narrative with only the slightest of details available.
A youth dressed in black from neck to ankle dangles from a tree limb in full autumn splendor. The image likely comes from a playful real life experience, but in Heisey’s “The Gingko Tree,” (above) the figure is set against a pitch black background with the disturbed rustle of falling leaves. With the child’s face and upper torso obscured by yellow foliage, it’s hard not to worry that something more sinister is afoot.
Heisey describes her own childhood as “idyllic,” but wants the paintings to speak to a cautionary reality for children at this tender age. “I want to say to them, ‘This is how you are now—before you grow up. But bad things are going to happen, just like they do for everyone.'”
Heisey has had her own bad things to deal with. The triple whammy of depression, PTSD, and a recent diagnosis of ADHD all make their way into the artwork. Heisey’s painting “The Butterflies Will Drink Your Tears” (above) is an attempt to render the ping-pong attention leaps of the latter as fluttering creatures, beautiful but uncontrollable.
“All the (magical children) paintings are self-portraits,” Heisey says, “A lot of artists use big ideas or philosophy as the basis for their art. My (reference) folder is my brain. All of my paintings are things that happened in my life.”
It doesn’t take Carl Jung to connect the dots between adult-grade trauma and wanting to revisit the safe innocence of an idealized youth—”Big time,” Heisey says of the relationship. Understanding this informs each painting with a depth way beyond its gorgeous palette and economical just enough composition.
Amazingly, being a realist painter in the twenty-first century is to be way out-of-step with the art world. Go to the next Carnegie International and I guarantee you’ll see plenty of broken chairs, paint-splattered mattresses, and grainy photographs of eddying mud pools—all served with academic prose that seems designed to make anyone without an MFA hate the art world. Oil portraits that reach deep into souls of everyday people? Notsomuch.
What Annie Heisey achieves with her artwork is daring and exciting. By taking her immense skill as a realist painter and then abstracting color and composition, removing excess detail, and creating space for the viewer to participate by filling in the blanks, we’re invited on a tantalizing journey that takes us from the mundane to the sublime, from the wrinkles of the face to the interior of the mind. Can’t ask for much more than that.
Uncharted Waters, Annie Heisey’s current show, is up now through the end of the month at Curio Cool, 113 North Main Street, Zelienople.
The Tasmanian Devil—all sinister fangs, seething anger, and whirling destruction—seems an odd candidate for the kind of precision work required for automotive repair. But there he is—crazy eyes, giant jaw agape, and squeezed tube of toothpaste body—clutching a box socket in one hand and a crescent wrench in the other on the brick wall of TNT Monster Mechanic in Beaver Falls.
Taz, as the popular Looney Tunes character is sometimes known, has a well-documented following that way outreaches the limited run of his original short cartoons. He’s a famously popular pop icon who exists in a sweet spot between lovable cartoon character and hyper-masculine bad boy who acts first and thinks … never. The podcast Decoder Ring did a terrific episode on tattoos that talked about Taz’ stranglehold on the upper arms of young men. Some of those biceps work on cars.
Auto repair shops are, almost always, structures of pure utilitarian economy. Typically constructed of brick or cinder block and lit by big fluorescent shop lights, they often contain no windows aside from what comes through the office door, garage openings, and the occasional glass block. This leaves a lot of exterior wall space available for decoration.
Most garages are as down-to-basics on the street-facing walls as the buildings that house them are plain … but not all of them. There is a particular phenomenon where mechanics have set down the wrench and picked up the paintbrush (or found others to do so) to elaborately advertise their businesses in ways both humorous and boastful, triumphant and goofy. These murals, 3-D painted cut-outs, and custom airbrush jobs all make up The Art of the Wheel.
Auto Repair artwork is a gift that just keeps giving. There seem to be piston-packing Picassos and revved-up Rembrandts just about everywhere people drive cars. If you’ve got a favorite we didn’t get to (this time), give us a holler and we’ll bag it for the inevitable sequel.
Until then, keep your foot on the gas and your eyes on the garage walls.
* The artwork for Henry’s feels like a clear homage to the over-the-top cartoon hot rod artwork of Ed “Big Daddy” “Rat Fink” Roth … but maybe it’s just coincidence.
** Yes, the mural for Auto Works, featuring the body of a 1960s Ford Mustang, does not include the chassis.
Attend me, hold me in your muscular flowering arms, protect me from throwing any part of myself away.
These words, from self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde, are printed and duplicated—silk-screened, most likely—in an ornate, curlicue typeface and accented by fronds of unknown origin.
The cut-out text is layered atop a riot of dozens, hundreds maybe, of other screen-printed elements. Torn paper with the same couplet printed over and over again; images of skulls and boxers, eyeballs and ghostly figures; photographs cut from magazines bedazzled with after-market patterns and paint jobs.
They’re all part of a new(ish) installation on the North Side that, by its very nature, won’t be around for too long. Just like Ms. Lorde, attend it while you can.
The 400 block of East Ohio Street has seen its fair share of change, even in just the last few years. Google Streetview reminds us the retail storefront at 404 E. Ohio was Ike’s Barber Shop and then Mosley’s Barber Shop until going vacant in 2015. The larger building at the corner was the old Peanutz Bar & Grill, which closed by 2016. In between the two, Alex’s Ice Cream held on longer, but seems to have become a victim of the pandemic lockdown just two years ago.
The most recent time Google documented the street, in August, 2021, it included another interesting detail. 408-410 E. Ohio hosted a large, double-door-sized collage piece on the temporary plywood covering the entrance. This is unmistakably the work of the same artist(s).
As observers, curiosity-seekers, speculators, we naturally look for meaning and theme when a piece this elaborate is exhibited—and there is plenty to work with here, if that’s your bag. Black icons Jack Johnson and Audre Lorde are an obvious entry point as are reverent photos of everyday folks and revolutionaries, updated with kente cloth, polka dots, and leopard skin patterns.
There’s also plenty of grim, foreboding imagery here. The repeated use of skulls, a menacing monster-like figure with its giant jaw agape, what may or may not be a nuclear blast, and the Virgin Mary in a hostage-taker’s ski mask.
We’ll not make the mistake of assigning any specific message to the collection. The artist (or artists)—there is no attribution on any of the pieces that I could find—kept themselves anonymous (although, we have our suspicions). So there’s no one to go to for clarification, which is fine.
Update (March 19, 2022): Following initial publication of this story, Pittsburgh Orbit was informed that the artists involved are Quaishawn Whitlock, Bekezela Mguni, and Darrell Kinsel. The three have a current show called Alchemical, created as part of their residency at AIR: Artists Image Resource on nearby Foreland Street.
Whether we’re supposed to think anything at all about a stirring work, heavy on the iconography, or just enjoy the blast of layered color from a voracious screen-printer cleaning out his or her workspace is missing the point.
Someone created this, and it’s beautiful. It’s also unexpected, fun, head-scratching and gets us out of our heads and into the world. It’ll also be gone before you know it. The wheatpasted paper is already peeling at the corners and between unpredictable Pittsburgh weather and a property manager trying to rent the spaces, the whole thing will disappear before you know it.
Protect me from throwing any part of myself away feels like it might be a way of life for whoever did this. Embrace the piece by holding its visage in your muscular flowering arms, err … thoughts, dreams, and travels.