Tin Can Pole Art

tin can lid painted with heart and text "I love you Pittsburgh. Goodbye." nailed to telephone pole. Pittsburgh, PA

“I love you Pittsburgh. Goodbye.” Lawrenceville

Such a lovely farewell kiss. The severed lid from a steel can–it looks like it was from one of the big 28-ouncers like you get tomatoes in–tacked into the rough wood of a Lawrenceville telephone pole. Painted onto the flat surface is a decorative white heart with the simple, touching message I love you Pittsburgh, Goodbye.

Less romantic, hypochondriac Orbit readers may get hung up on the totem as a sharp-edged breeding ground for tetanus–but don’t fall for it. The anonymous artist has left this Easter egg high enough off the street and applied it securely to the pole in a way that no one will be injured, unless they’re really trying. On the contrary, this little rusting love letter may just save a life.

abstract painting on unrolled steel can with message "We gave this place our best shot and no matter what happens now ... it was worth it & we made this work.", Pittsburgh, PA

“We gave this place our best shot and no matter what happens now … it was worth it & we made this work.” Shadyside

rusted tin can with painting of a skull, nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

skull can, Oakland

Someone’s out there, taking those most lethal occupants of the recycling bin and having a fine time dismantling the component parts, flattening them into two-dimensional work surfaces, and turning the little pieces into cryptic pictograms and coded messages, hidden-in-plain-sight curios and tiny objects d’art.

You may have walked by some of these a hundred times and never noticed. At just a couple inches wide, the little artworks are especially well-camouflaged against the deep brown tarred wood of the telephone poles they’re displayed upon, quite often out of eye level at the peak of arms’ reach.

tin can flattened and painted, nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

A Friday night “to-do” list: love, anarchy, the devil, and a martini, Bloomfield

Cut tin can painted with text and nailed to telephone pole. Text reads "Back then, if it exploded, we laughed", Pittsburgh, PA

“Back then, if it exploded, we laughed”, Shadyside

Whether we’re talking about one lone assailant or a whole gang of tin candidates is anyone’s guess. Besides a few name-like tags [J.A.K.; KYT; Nick (damn); Leroy…are these real people?] there is no attribution here to work from.

That said, many of these specimens have common elements. First, let’s just start with the genre. It’s a niche market, for sure–ex-food container nailed to telephone pole. Second, there’s proximity–all the ones we’ve encountered are in the same one or two square miles between East End neighborhoods Shadyside, Bloomfield, Garfield, and Lawrenceville.

Most importantly, though, the apparent paint pens, handwriting, style of dotted lines, arrows, and indecipherable messages is even more precise. Several of the tiny artworks contain the same iconography of a glowing martini glass, heart, anarchy circle-A, and devil figure.

small painting on steel can of devil with the text "I choose...", Pittsburgh, PA

“I choose…”, Shadyside

small painting on steel can with text "to follow my heart...up the mountain, or...", Pittsburgh, PA

“to follow my heart…up the mountain, or…”, Shadyside

There are some definite outliers in the field. Another large can lid spotted in Shadyside is painted with a night scene featuring a blue river valley between green fields and trees (below). The original pastoral feel has now been accidentally transformed into a scarier, menacing landscape as seasons of rust creep through to the surface. It’s also worth noting that this lid was attached with a pair of Phillips-head screws rather than the full-perimeter flat tacks we found on the other pieces.

painting on steel can lid of night landscape, Pittsburgh, PA

night scene with river, trees, and green grass, Shadyside

tin can lid painted with text "Me vs. Time, KYT, '02" nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“Me vs. Time”, Garfield

Lastly, there’s even a sub-genre to this already arch form. In a couple places, we came across the big steel can lids with their flared attachment edges and gaping mouth holes that make them look like absurd anthropomorphized flowers. We imagine these come from five- or ten-gallon bulk-size containers of asphalt sealant or roofing tar–but haven’t actually ID’d them yet.

It’s a considerably larger canvas to work from. The wider-than-the-pole size likewise shouts out at the passer-by, where a soup can is more of a whisper. I’m not sure these two examples (below) tell us much about the form, other than we like the possibilities and we’d love to see more of them in action, out in the wild.

round metal lid painted with long string of text nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“You spin me right round…”, Duck Hollow

cardboard "Clarence the Bird ... Make the World Beautiful" artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

big lid painting [plus Clarence], Friendship

Out on the Tiles: Bill Miller, Lord of Linoleum

linoleum collage artwork depicting a steel mill with city in the distance by Bill Miller

“Steal Mill”*

The image is burned into the DNA of America. Even if you were too young to experience it as it happened, you’ll recognize the figure kneeling on a wide campus footpath. The young woman’s arms are extended to either side and her mouth is agape in what may either be a cry for help, scream of rage, or wail of mourning–perhaps all three. Around her, dazed college students seem to have lost all mooring on reality. Laying face-down on the hard concrete is one of the four slain victims of the 1970 Kent State massacre.

linoleum assemblage artwork representing Kent State massacre, 1970 by artist Bill Miller

“Eager Children Cry”, 2010*

This version, however, is different. The black-and-white photo you’re familiar with now appears in a vibrant array of colors–green fields and bright scarlet classroom buildings, blue jeans and red blood. Also, the layers don’t stand still. Rich, swirling grass seems to be in turbulent sea motion under each of the participants; clothing is alive with texture; every detail–hair, shadows, sidewalk–has an optical illusion-like quality that manages to be both flat and with an inverted depth that places any figure on just about any plane, if you look at it the right way.

artwork of woman's face made from cut linoleum by artist Bill Miller

PABCO woman

When we bought the house, the two rooms of Chez Orbit‘s top floor were covered in a pair of space-age “boomerang modern” mid-century designs completely out-of-place in a 19th century brick row house. The linoleum–a pattern with colorful geometric curved squares intersecting and overlapping all manner of sci-fi cubes, circles, and squiggles–had been installed way back in 1955. Yellowed back pages of The Pittsburgh Press from that year formed a thin barrier between the pine floor boards and the unrolled, wall-to-wall tile and served to precisely date the installation. The linoleum had some scuffs and tears for sure, but the material held up.

When we finally decided to work on the third-floor space, this can’t-throw-anything-away blogger dutifully held onto both the Jetsons-style floor covering and the innocuous news of the day for way longer than he had any reason to. Why? Well, the linoleum just seemed really cool and somebody should do something interesting with it.

artist Bill Miller holding his linoleum portrait of George Harrison in his Pittsburgh art studio

Bill Miller (with linoleum portrait of George Harrison) in his North Point Breeze studio

That somebody, we found out way too late, is Bill Miller and for the last twenty-some years he’s been slicing and peeling, tearing and rearranging the nation’s discarded high-performance floor covering into a terrific body of artwork.

Both pastoral and industrial, historic and fantastic, Miller’s (re-)use of the material manages to look both backward and forward, to be sentimental and transcendental, to be both calming and unnerving. It’s sprung from the artist’s imagination and–like the take on Kent State–totally reverent to a real, shared history of America in the 20th Century.

collection of small artworks on Bill Miller's studio wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Studio wall with Donald Trump portrait

“I count on the material to be exciting,” Miller says, “for the linoleum to feed the work.”

The linoleum is exciting. Surrounded by heaped cardboard box-loads, piles stacked from the floor, and work tables full of sliced bits and bobs, Bill Miller’s North Point Breeze studio has a hundred attics’ worth of somebody-else’s memories just waiting to move from the floor and up onto the wall.

There are geometric mid-century designs like the ones we used to have upstairs, along with wood grains, ersatz Oriental carpets, floral arrangements, psychedelic swirls, and designs for children’s playrooms. The particulate from a century’s worth of disintegrating linoleum peppers the air as a dozen different simultaneously-in-process artworks lay on work tables waiting for their next addition on the road to doneness.

in-process linoleum collage artwork by Bill Miller

untitled / in-process studio piece

Don’t worry, though–it’s all natural, non-toxic stuff. Linoleum is made from linseed oil applied to a burlap or canvas backing. The flooring had its run from the late 1800s through the mid-20th century when cheaper, more durable vinyl took over the market. Miller doesn’t mess around with PVC. “Only the old stuff–pre-World War 2,” he says.

Given the age, you’d think there would be a dwindling supply of (re-)usable material out there, but that hasn’t been the case. Just like our top floor, Pittsburgh–and the rest of America–is chock full of old houses with stores of linoleum still in use and gradually getting removed as young whippersnappers move into those old houses and fix them up. “Getting the material out of people’s homes is really powerful,” Miller says, “people have a real connection to the linoleum.”

linoleum artwork depicting the sinking of the Titanic by Bill Miller

“Titanic”, 2014

As one might expect, there are certain colors, shapes, and patterns that either don’t exist or just don’t show up that often in the recycled linoleum supply. True black is particularly rare, Miller says, and he almost never comes across purple.

Other patterns speak to Miller immediately. “The material is part of the composition,” he says. A speckled red and blue on an off-white background was so obviously birch tree bark that it had only one purpose. Looking at it now, laid out on on a work table and (nearly) fully-composed, it’s hard to imagine what the raw piece looked like before it got trimmed down to tree trunks–it’s just so perfect in its final composition.

artwork of forest scene featuring birch trees made from cut linoleum by artist Bill Miller

untitled/in-process (birch trees)

… and then there’s the rock-and-roll. This interview got majorly side-tracked when both parties started geeking out on record shopping, music fandom, Bob Dylan’s radio show, The dBs, and Sonic Youth.

This is only really relevant because Miller is very obviously a huge music fan who fulfilled a personal dream in hooking-up with the Frank Zappa estate to produce album cover artwork for two of the musician’s posthumous releases. The live compilation LP Finer Moments (Zappa, 2012) and spoken-word/congressional testimony CD Congress Shall Make No Law… (Zappa, 2010) both feature Miller’s renderings of Frank Zappa created specifically for each of the records: one, early ’70s Zappa, long-haired and smoking; the other, mid-’80s suit-and-tied, talking with the press.

Miller has converted linoleum into numerous tributes to music icons including The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, David Bowie, Maybelle Carter, Hank Williams, and Brian Eno. Among the collectors of his work are musicians Neko Case, Dave Matthews, and The Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit.

Album cover for Frank Zappa "Finer Moments" LP, artwork by Bill Miller

Frank Zappa, “Finer Moments” LP, album cover artwork by Bill Miller*

Frank Zappa, "Congress Shall Make No Law..." CD with album cover artwork by Bill Miller

Frank Zappa, “Congress Shall Make No Law…” CD, album cover artwork by Bill Miller*

Oh, there’s a lot more that could be said. There are Miller’s depictions of American history in the form of Abraham Lincoln, the sinking of the Titanic, landing on the moon, and the Kennedy assassination, along with more conceptual/impressionist pieces around urban/industrial life and personal reminiscences of his childhood and family life growing up in Cleveland…but that’s something for another story.

It would be great to end this piece with an invitation to view Miller’s work at an upcoming show, but…he’s got nothing scheduled for Pittsburgh in 2018 (sigh). For now, we’ll just say that Bill Miller’s inclusions in the 2016 Re:NEW Festival/DRAP Art show were a major revelation. We’re so glad we were able to track him down and that he took the time to welcome us up to his studio and into the linosphere.

To see more of Bill Miller’s linoleum artwork, check out his web site billmillerart.com, or follow him on Instagram at @billmillerart.


* Photos courtesy of Bill Miller / billmillerart.com. All other photos by Pittsburgh Orbit.

The Orbit 2017 Year in Review

Handmade wooden sign with arrow reading "Neighbor is a Thief" with choir member lawn ornaments missing heads, Ross Township, PA

“Neighbor is a Thief” sign, the headless choir, and a whole lot more in Bill Ansell’s Ross Township Christmas display

Stodgy Orbit editors still prefer the old-school train wreck. It’s clear, though, that with the change in political administration America has officially moved-on from this tired railroad-age metaphor to the more immediate (if ultimately less tragic) dumpster fire. Maybe this was this was year our fears moved from the cataclysmically abstract and right into the alley behind the house.

Yeah, 2017 was a mess. The “hyper-local” Orbit focus didn’t really cross paths with either presidential politics* or #metoo, but it’s interesting that our most-read stories of 2017 trade in their own form of controversy, despair, and isolation. Of course, these themes are always current.

Anyway, as is our year-end tradition, below are lists of the most-read Orbit stories of 2017 along with some “editor’s favorites” from the bottom of the list.

 

The Hits

1. Ansell Regrettal: A Ross Township Donnybrook (March 6, 2016)

Santa Claus lawn ornament with protest signs against Ross Township leadership

Merry Christmas from Ross Township

That’s right. The Orbit‘s #1 story for 2017 was published in 2016–early 2016, at that. Maybe it’s because we’ve had not one, but two Christmas seasons since this one first ran, or maybe it’s just that people can’t get enough of the heartbreaking and terrifying tale of Ross Township’s Bill Ansell–a man who just wanted to spread his love of Christmas until his neighbors and the township shut him down. Then his thoughts turned from giving to killing.

2. Into the Forgotten: Clairton’s Ghost Neighborhood (Feb. 22, 2017)

abandoned house with spray-painted graffiti "Into the forgotten", Clairton, PA

A house on Lincoln Way, Clairton

Lincoln Way was a quiet dead-end street of pre-war single-family homes until the groundwork for an expansion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway sacrificed the little hollow neighborhood to connect the highway to Rt. 837. What’s left is a sad, vacant, and fascinating stretch of former homes now in various purgatory states between dilapidation and demolition.

3. A Graveyard for Gravestones (May 9, 2017)

dismantled mausoleum in unruly pile, Pittsburgh, PA

The graveyard for grave stones

Where do grave stones go to die? One tends to think that the carved granite and marble markers for cemetery plots will be there forever–but that’s not always the case. Headstones are removed and replaced for all sorts of reasons and they end up here, in the cemetery’s work yard for ultimate processing and disposal.

We got into a lot of trouble over this one with neighbors coming up with some wild theories about what’s going on in there. Ultimately, though, it became a great teachable moment for some of the behind-the-scenes, nuts-and-bolts business of cemeteries.

4. The Front (and Back) Yard Marys of Bloomfield, Part 2 (May 19, 2017)

statuette of Mary in grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary, Ella Street, Bloomfield

A post-long mea culpa on the false assumption that we’d located every (street-visible) Front Yard Mary in Bloomfield with our first go-around. This one includes another sizable handful of Her Blessedness peering back at us through chainlink fence and alley walls. What can we say? The Orbit loves Mary!

5. Water’s Gone Cold: An Elegy for Tea Bag’s (Feb. 12, 2017)

brick wall painted with logo for Tea Bags bar, Pittsburgh, PA

(Former) side wall of Tea Bags with logo/mural, Lawrenceville

Tea Bags grinning, sunglasses-wearing logo, painted on the visible side of its brick building in Lawrenceville/Bloomfield has been a constant neighborhood presence for the last several decades. That all ended at the beginning of the year when the dive bar went the way of Michalski’s and A.J.’s, Salak’s and Ed’s.

By all reports, Tina’s (which just opened in the same space after a lengthy renovation) looks like a pretty nice place with an old-school record-playing jukebox and windows that  actually let customers see daylight from inside the bar. We hope to get there soon. They’ve also amazingly left the old Tea Bags logo/mural on the outside–repainting everything else–so hats off to Tina’s!

6. “Wild Animal” on the Loose in Bloomfield! (Feb. 28, 2017)

"Wild Animal" art piece made from construction cones and panoramic photographs

Anonymous “Wild Animal” artwork, Edmund Street, Bloomfield

A brilliant, surprise piece of elaborate street art arrived on little Edmund Street in the middle of winter. Despite being right up against the Bloomfield PNC Bank branch, no one disturbed the tableau of a road cone-formed wild cat emerging from a photographed forest for nearly a week. We still don’t know who created Wild Animal (no attribution was left), but we’d love to find out.

 

The Sleepers

If there can be six hits this year, there can be six sleepers too…right? Sure. Like past years-in-review, here are some stories from the last twelve months that didn’t get the level of attention  like the ones above. Our editors thought these stories deserved a second shot at getting a first look.

Mondo Menorah! Menorahmobile Models Measured (Jan. 10)

mini van with rooftop menorah and "Happy Chanukah" banner, Pittsburgh, PA

Our attempt to cover the bicycle menorah parade this year fell victim to an untimely arctic blast and a (likely-related) participation dropout from the riders. We’ll get them next year (hopefully)!

In lieu, we can throw in this plug for The Orbit‘s coverage of Chabad’s 2016 Grand Menorah Parade in which our writers got acquainted with the array of options available for those who wish to sport a car top, light-up menorah for the family minivan. They come both commercially-available and also in a uniquely-Pittsburgh painted PVC pipe design.

Hold the Cheese: A Pi Day Salute to Ghost Pizza (March 14)

neon sign reading "IZZA" (the letter "P" is burnt out), Natrona Heights, PA

unknown pizzeria, Natrona Heights

It was a novel way to recognize “Pi Day.” Everyone loves pizza and Pittsburghers really love pizza. But even with that favorable business climate, not every pizza shop manages to survive. The unique landscape of many former pizzerias plus general vacancy leads to an ideal climate for what we call ghost pizza–the leftover signage, iconography, and architecture of independent pizza shops that are now shuttered.

Pain’t That America: The Front Yard Patriotism of Gary Thumberg (July 16)

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

One of Gary Thumberg’s many homemade American flags

Gary Thumberg is holiday crazy. Four times a year, he pulls out elaborate sets of homemade lawn decorations that cover the front, side, and rear yards of the Beaver Township home he lives in with his mother. We happened to run into him right around Independence Day, so we were treated to red, white, and blue American flags, eagles, crests, and bombs bursting in air. We sadly missed the Halloween display and we’ll have to hustle to catch Christmas. Learn from our mistakes and catch up with the Fourth of July.

The Orbit’s Summer Vacation Part 1: Considering Portland and Part 2: Coming Home (Sept. 24/Oct. 1)

two men wearing black-and-gold kilts and Steelers jerseys at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

Steelers fans at a pre-game, Heinz Field

Eight days vacation in lauded, lampooned, and local/organic Portland, Oregon was the prompt for a pair of posts on a bunch of nuts-and-bolts city things they’re doing right out there and a follow-up coming-home love letter to what we love about Pittsburgh.

An Urban Hike: William Street, Mount Washington (Oct. 22)

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

View downtown and the Smithfield Street Bridge from William Street, Mount Washington

We didn’t cover as many nature stories/tales of the city steps this year, but this was a good one. Little William Street snakes down the side of Mount Washington in a way that both rewards the hiker with several terrific views of downtown and a heady dose of that uniquely Pittsburgh sensation of being way out in the woods when you’re still right in the middle of the city.

James P. Leaf Mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery (Nov. 5)

James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Colonel James P. Leaf mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery

There’s an old saw that if you haven’t had a “Geraldo moment,” then you’re not blogging. The Leaf Mausoleum was ours. There’s just got to be a great story behind the nutty collection of  rocks assembled to entomb Beaver County civil engineer James P.  Leaf, but after a year of searching, we couldn’t figure anything out.

Regardless, it was still a fascinating construction to go dig around for, observe in a couple different seasons, and ponder on the hows and whys–plus, you’re right across the street from Gary Thumberg’s house! Let us know if you figure something out.


* A notable exception would be our post-inauguration piece “On Making America Great … Again” (Pittsburgh Orbit, Feb. 19, 2017).

A Four-Point Program for Snow-Shoveling Scofflaws

large Queen Anne-style house with snow-covered sidewalks, Pittsburgh, PA

Such a pretty house! It’s a shame the owners can’t afford a show shovel. Harriet Street at Fairmount/Roup, Friendship.

Winter. Whether it’s a pox for the seasonally-depressed, a brief, rosy-cheeked window into Yankee fortitude, or a no-questions-asked excuse to stay inside, drink hot chocolate, and watch British detective shows is up to the individual. Regardless–and despite the last two years’ near complete absence of winter–you’re going to have to deal with it sometime.

For the record, The Orbit has no problem with the season. Sure: it’s cold and it’s dreary, but there’s a lot to recommend it too. In any case, the worst thing about winter is undoubtably its potential for calamity. When trodden-on sidewalk snow turns to ice, a simple walk to the bus stop or coffee shop becomes a death-defying task. This no-so-balanced pedestrian has personally twisted ankles, thrown out hips, and landed plenty of (quite literal) pains in the ass on uncleared ice. There’s basically been at least one of these painful falls every year of my life.

Twisters Ice Cream shop with snow-covered sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

This ice is neither gourmet nor Italian. Twisters: you don’t get to take the season off–clean up your act! Bloomfield.

But it need not be this way! If just one person from every household simply pulled out the snow shovel and put in ten or twenty minutes at the appropriate times, the city’s sidewalks would exist in a perpetual walk-friendly state–it’s not that hard. We live in a climate that gets snow–we all know it’s coming. Shovel it once just after the snow stops falling, maybe throw on some rock salt, and nature will take care of the rest…until the next snowfall.

Plenty of people do a great, diligent job, but it is remarkable how many households refuse to make any effort in cleaning their walks. This is far from a mere nuisance, irritant, or old-guy “get off my yard” rant–it’s an extremely dangerous public health situation. Every year, people die from falls on ice and they sure as heck break a lot of bones and twist a lot of joints. Older neighbors and people with disabilities are especially at risk.

large brick Victorian house with snow-covered sidewalks, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship, maybe. Caring about fellow human beings, not so much. Evaline Street at Harriet, Friendship.

This year, The Orbit is fighting back–and we hope you do too. Here is the Four-Point Program for Snow-Shoveling Scofflaws we’ll be implementing this season:

1. We’re watching you.

This blogger doesn’t stop walking when it gets cold, nor does he let a little snow get in his way. But, as mentioned above, it does become a huge hassle when the walks aren’t cleared and sidewalks turn to ice.

I’ll have my little notebook and an adequate pen that writes in sub-freezing temperatures. Addresses, dates, and a record of failure to clean walkways will be recorded. If you try: you’re off the hook. No shoveling: you’re in the book.

“I was out of town,” and “I had the flu,” and “I don’t own a snow shovel” are not acceptable excuses. This is why God invented teenagers. If you physically cannot do the work (or just don’t want to), there are always plenty of neighborhood snow-day youths roaming the streets, shovels and salt in hand, looking to make a buck. Flag one down and you’ll have semi-reliable snow service until he or she heads off to college. Likewise, if you have elderly or infirm neighbors, make the effort to help them clear their walks. The city’s “Snow Angels” program helps pair volunteers with homeowners for exactly this purpose.

large brick house with snow-covered sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

House on the hill, snow on the sidewalk. Winebiddle Street, Friendship.

2. You’ve been served.

Lest anyone think snow shoveling is merely the neighborly thing to do, rest assured it is absolutely the law of the land (err…the city). As officially stated in the City of Pittsburgh Snow Removal Ordinance:

§ 419.03 REMOVAL OF SNOW AND ICE

Every tenant, occupant or owner having the care or charge of any land or building fronting on any street in the city, where there is a sidewalk paved with concrete, brick, stone or other material shall, within twenty-four (24) hours after the fall of any snow or sleet, or the accumulation of ice caused by freezing rainfall, cause the same to be removed from the sidewalk.

To this end, I have prepared a handbill that contains the pertinent citation details and will be carrying a stack of these wherever I go. The guilty will receive a letter of justice they’ll not soon forget!

large brick house with snow-covered sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

Winebiddle, whine-a-lot. Friendship.

3. I’m calling your ass in.

The city’s 311 Response Center exists “to help with any non-emergency City of Pittsburgh concerns.” Believe you me, they’ll be getting an earful–or perhaps an In Box full–from this tax-payer! Like Ol’ Saint Nick, we’ll be recording who’s been naughty. Unlike Santa, however, we don’t deal in coal–we’ll just go straight to the po-po. I’m going to be that pest that lets 311 know every snow-dodging ne’er-do-well and feet-dragging layabout on my beat. We’ll see if you can’t clean your walk after that first citation comes in, Jack.

snow-covered sidewalk in front of brick house in Pittsburgh, PA

“No sidewalk parking.” Apparently no sidewalk walking, either. This serial offender on Main Street has not shoveled snow from his or her sidewalks in the last 17 years. Lawrenceville

4. Public shaming.

Just in case the response to that 311 call is either slow, unheeded, or ineffectual, the “nuclear option” is to do what the Internet does best: public shame! Now, normally I’m against this brand of hot-headed anonymous vengeance, but desperate times call for desperate measures–we’re dealing with people’s lives, here! It’s time to get on the neighborhood NextDoor group and flyer the telephone poles. Heck, maybe we’ll get a big billboard on Bigelow Boulevard like Billie Nardozzi! Let’s all hope it doesn’t come to that.

large brick house with snow-covered sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

Shady/side, snowy/walk. Bayard Street, Shadyside

A note on the photographs: These pictures were all taken the same day, Friday, Dec. 15, roughly 48 hours after our first real snow the previous Wednesday. It wasn’t a big one and was followed-up by a warming up melt-away over the weekend, so everybody’s getting off clean…this time. The weather may not be so cooperative with our next snow, so consider this a warning.

Black-and-Gold: Steelermobiles

car painted gold with black trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Type B: Heinz Field

PANTONE: PMS 1235 C. The bright color is undeniably in the yellow family, but it’s a deep-hued, bold, traffic-stopping yellow. It appears in street lane markers and yells loudest when you really need to pay attention. It’s also rich and warm with a lot of orange–not like those namby-pamby lemon yellows, canaries, and daisies.

Around here, the color is better known as Steelers gold (never “yellow”) and an outsized portion of Pittsburgh’s motorists have special-ordered it from car dealers, then washed, buffed, and shined it in their driveways to preserve maximum luster.

Collectively, these vehicles are Steelermobiles and there exist three distinct categories of dedication.

black SUV decorated with Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates stickers

Type A: Strip District

black and gold SUV with Pittsburgh Steelers logo

Type A: South Side

Type A: Certified Steelermobiles

The prototypic, incontestable, four-wheeled Steeler machine. These are black-and-gold hot rods, pickups, and sport utility vehicles so clearly decorated for Steeler fandom there can be no confusion or argument to the mission of their decoration. These cars exist to win professional football championships–or, at least to convey die-hard Steeler fans to the region’s purveyors of malted beverages, jalapeño poppers, and loaded nacho platters.

To fit this category, the vehicle must be fully painted in the Steelers black-and-gold color scheme. Typically there’s a base coat of one with significant detail accents in the other. These often take the form of sporty racing stripes to reinforce the athleticism of the Durango or PT Cruiser.

Additionally, the owner needs to have decorated his or her ride with the team name, insignia, and/or other after-market über-fan branding in a (semi-)permanent fashion. Those clip-on game day window flag attachments ain’t going cut it.

black and gold Hummer in front of single-family frame houses, Arnold, PA

Type B: Arnold

black and gold Ford Mustang in front of gray wall, Arnold, PA

Type B: Arnold

Type B: Black-and-Gold Road Warriors

These vehicles are almost entirely of the Steeler gold color, but with enough black detail work that we can assume the color selection was no coincidence. They must also be outfitted with Pennsylvania plates and be located in metro Pittsburgh or be spotted in one of the Heinz Field parking lots. Otherwise, it just starts to get too iffy.

Type B Steelersmobiles won’t, however, have the explicit labeling that’s required to be A-1 prime. We imagine that’s where a lot of spouses have drawn the line. Honey, you can have the bright yellow color, one might say, but you don’t get to put your football stickers all over my brand new Grand Cherokee. If only congress could achieve this level of compromise.

black and gold vehicle, Pittsburgh, PA

Type C: Friendship

convertible Volkswagen Beetle painted gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Type C: Steelers Beetle, Bloomfield

Type C: Goldenrods

The vaguest of the bunch. Type C Steelermobiles are painted predominantly in our old friend PANTONE 1235, but with no other identifying visual. In any other metropolis, the lollygagging ne’er-do-well spotting this vehicle on the street would simply remark on its garish electric orange-yellow paint job and move along. But in metro Pittsburgh, that particular color takes on a very special meaning.

This one brings up all sorts of psychological questions. Did the owners of these vehicles choose the color simply because they like bright yellow? Or instead because they’re die-hard football fans? Would they consider themselves in the category of the former, yet be subconsciously swayed to the latter by the pure osmosis of Mike Tomlin’s juju? It’s a heady subject, indeed.

black and gold Smart car, Pittsburgh, PA

Type B: Mendelson “Steeler Heaven” mobile, East Liberty

Smart car painted black and gold for A-1 Transit, Pittsburgh, PA

Type A: [Steelers logos on other side], East Liberty

As we know, correlation is not causation. Also, there are plenty of gold/yellow cars owned by people outside of Allegheny County who couldn’t give a damn about professional football. Some will dispute this whole theory. It’s a pretty weak frame to hang an investigation on, sure, but hear this blogger out.

The sheer volume of local cars and trucks tricked-out in electric Steeler gold makes this a phenomenon worth our attention. The dozen or so photos collected here are but the tip of the iceberg–there are so many Steelermobiles around town that we simply stopped bagging them after a while due to the incredible overload of options.

black and gold sport utility vehicle, Pittsburgh, PA

Type B: Lawrenceville

Ford Mustang painted gold with "Serious Issues" decal, Pittsburgh, PA

Type C: “Serious Issues 2”, East Liberty

Gone are the days (sigh) where the true faithful hand-painted their pop-up campers and shaggin’ wagons in team colors for the Sunday ritual. [Yes: we’re doing our best to collect these as we see them, but they’re few and far between.]

Like the players on the field, the bleacher crowd has moved on to a whole other level of box seat business professionalism now–factory-perfect paint jobs, mass-market team-official decals, license plate holders, and trailer hitch covers. Like punk rock apparel sold in chain stores at the mall, the fans have come out of the closet and parallel-parked their fleet of high-gloss war machinery right out front for everyone to see it.

black and gold pickup truck, Pittsburgh, PA

Type B: Lawrenceville

gold pickup truck, Pittsburgh, PA

Type C: Lawrenceville

Ram pickup painted in Pittsburgh Steelers black and gold

Type A: [with “Lord of the Rings” license plate frame and team logo trailer hitch] Bloomfield

Jeep painted gold with black details and Steelers decals, Hyde Park, PA

Type A: Hyde Park, PA

Jeep painted gold with black convertible top

Type C: Route 28, headed south

Jeep painted gold with black convertible top, Pittsburgh, PA

Type C: Bloomfield

front grill of a 1970's Cadillac with "DUBL YOI" Virginia license plate

Type B: DUBL YOI [Tribute to late former Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope], Schenley Park

All Rite Now: Simeon Larivonovoff, Painter of Icons

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff holding a glowing icon of the Arcangel Michael

“An icon is a prayer in color. It is a window to paradise that shows you how to be transfigured.” Simeon Larivonovoff with icon of “golden hair” Archangel Michael

Waaaay longer than most of us can conceive of. Longer than the United States of America has existed; earlier than the Europeans landing at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock; a hundred years before Columbus was born–let alone sailed the ocean blue.

Six hundred and fifty-nine years. That’s how long the continuous line of Russian icon painters goes back. For seven centuries, the ancient devotional practice of creating highly-formal prayer paintings has been passed from father to son [yes: they have all been men]. That uninterrupted legacy may come to an end here, in Pittsburgh, with Simeon Larivonovoff.

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff sitting on a bed with a small dog on his knee

“You don’t mix cabbage with peas.” Simeon with one of his “doggies” in his bedroom/workroom.

A blast of sensations–I’ll warn you they’re not all pleasant–will arrive early and often. Visiting Simeon’s modest Polish Hill home begins with the raucous barking of his six dogs which completely nullifies any need for a doorbell. Simeon refers to these pooches with the diminutive “my doggies” or “my puppies,” even though they’re all full grown–several in a very big way. At least one member of the pack will be a constant companion–on the lap, by his side in the garden, or taken out on a leash sporting a jaunty kerchief as companion on Simeon’s frequent walks over the Bloomfield Bridge to the Shur-Save, or up Liberty Avenue.

The musky smell of animal fur–there are also a pair of house cats–mixes with the splinters of unfinished wood floors, stiff knotted area rugs, furniture polish, and antique brass. But it is the evocative omnipresent flicker of lamp light refracted through glowing cut glass and its partner aroma of smoking paraffin oil that will color your memory hours, days–weeks even–after departing. It may also be the best analog for Simeon’s world.

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff lighting oil lamp

“Electric light is not needed,” Simeon lighting one of the dozens of oil lamps that light his home

The well-meaning speculative journalist faces a challenge photographing inside Simeon’s home. “Electric light is not needed,” he says while igniting the wick of an ornate, retractable, ceiling-mounted oil lamp–one of dozens of different models throughout the house–“these [lamps] are not in today’s society.”

Simeon is a member of the Russian Orthodox “Old Believers”–a sect of Greek Orthodoxy that preserves church practices going back to the 1600s, along with many of the lifestyle habits that go with it. “We pray in a pure 17th century style, before reform. We are non-conformists,” Simeon says. He further describes the group as “The Amish of Russian Orthodox.” The analogy–right down to the long beards and rejection of (most) modern technology–is pretty apt. On life in the 21st century: “I deal with the world, but I’m not influenced by it.”

That said, Old Believer practices also seem to overlap with that other locally-familiar brand of strict orthodoxy, Judaism. There is a weekly day-long, sundown-to-sundown sabbath in which no work may be done. “To cook a meal, to sew a button…no. A lot of people won’t answer the door on Sunday,” Simeon says of his fellow Old Believers. There is also a Kosher-like diet that forbids many of the same food sources: shellfish, eel, and octopus, pork and blood sausage.

partial icon for St. Praskevia with only the face and hands painted

“We don’t look at icons–they’re looking at us.” St. Praskevia icon (in process)

A visit with Simeon falls somewhere between Sunday school and Psychedelic Shack; as much Waiting for the Sun as waiting for The Son. “An icon is a prayer in color. It is a window to paradise that shows you how to be transfigured,” Simeon says of the goal of his artwork. “You ask the saint to help–you are not an artist, you are the medium.”

Simeon began painting icons at the age of nine, born into the family practice. “My father: you were his student,” Simeon says, “You had to learn a lot–prayers, colors.”

in-process icon of St. Kazanskya by Simeon Larivonovoff

“Our Lady of Kazan”, Kazanskya icon (in process)

There certainly was–and is–a lot to learn. There was the practice of grinding his own paint pigments from natural sources [the tan color in the photographed icons comes from sycamore bark] and learning to read and write in church Slavonic (aka old church Bulgarian) with its 63-character alphabet. Icon painters must have “a library of icons in their head–the mind, heart, and hand are on the same level.”

Iconography follows a strict canonical representation of each saint. “You don’t dare deviate from the form,” says Simeon, “theology does not change.” Small details and colors may be chosen by the individual painter, but, according to Simeon, the main outline of an icon may never be altered between versions, renditions, and artists. Finished icons are never framed because “You cannot put God in a box.”

Certain details are crucial: the relation between forms or seemingly small elements–the number of curls in a beard or an eyebrow raised, finger positions or the clutch of a scroll. “How you portray hands on icons is very important,” says Simeon, “The hand of Daniel is very big to show you the prophesy.”

icon of St. Petrovskya by Simeon Larivonovoff

“An attainable salvation.” Icon of St. Petrovskya

Simeon’s knowledge of Russian church history and the world of iconography runs very very deep. So deep it’s no small challenge for the interviewer to keep up with the artist’s barrage of names, dates, liturgy, and riddle-like koans that densely fill each conversation like the icons that decorate his walls.

In our multiple meetings, I took a bunch of notes from Simeon’s monologues on subjects like St. Sergius Radonezh, sabbath practices, and The Schism. But with bon mots falling like beeswax drips from a prayer candle–“Falling in the mud is one thing, being of the mud is something else” or “An icon is a pilgrimage from one holy place to another…between heaven and earth to see glimpses of paradise” or “We don’t look at icons–they’re looking at us”–well, you should probably go to the history books when you’re really ready to dig in.

wall with dozens of traditional Russian Orthodox icons painted by Simeon Larivonovoff

“The wall of icons are witnesses interceding to God for you.” Simeon’s bedroom/workspace.

Simeon’s own history gets a little murkier. When and why he emigrated to America was dismissed with a wave of the hand, “You don’t mix cabbage with peas.” [I believe this was analogy about religious persecution.] The dates and ages that get thrown around freely are a little squishy, too. That 659 years we mentioned above was a mere 647 years in a previous meeting. The very precise histories of antique oil lamps and furniture? Well, they’re all plausible. An ancient Russian prayer book of psalms or “chants” may or may not be in demand from The Smithsonian.

Regardless, Simeon is absolutely devoted to his craft. “This is the sole reason for my existence–to paint icons,” he says. And paint he has. Simeon estimates he’s painted between three and four thousand icons in his lifetime for an audience both within his local communities and around the world–some devotional, others are private collectors. Now he’s down to creating around 50 a year with eight or ten in process during our meetings. “I’m getting old,” Simeon says.

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff with icon of St. Hodogitria

“You ask the saint to help–you are not an artist, you are the medium.” Simeon with icon of St. Hodogitria, “She who takes you by the hand, she who shows you the way.”

As strict a regimen as Old Rite Russian Orthodoxy seems to this outsider–its denial of compact fluorescents, crab cakes, and rock-n-roll seems like a heavy price for salvation–that’s not the way Simeon sees it. “We are a joyful religion…sunset is a new day beginning,” he says.

It’s a lovely way to look at the world–the early extinguishing of light in these darkest December days as not the trigger for seasonal affective disorder, but rather the beginning of a new possibility. That we are of the mud, transfigured, and on our tip-toes, trying to get one of those glimpses of paradise. Just don’t mix your cabbage with peas.


Bonus material! Back in 2011, local filmmaker Julie Sokolow made a short film of Simeon where you can see the man in motion. The lamp-lighting, dogs, and challenges of shooting in a home without electric light are all there.

Stamp Collecting: Getting Down to Brass Plaques

brass plate embedded in sidewalk concrete advertising Wadsworth Stone & Paving company, Pittsburgh, PA

Wadsworth Stone & Paving Co., Friendship*

Friendship. The little neighborhood–surely one of the smallest in the city by acreage–is full of stately turn-of-the-century homes and an enviable location adjacent to Bloomfield, Garfield, and East Liberty. It’s also home to nice, walkable sidewalks on quiet, tree-lined blocks that are–by Pittsburgh standards–relatively easy on the feet. Bargain grocery shoppers in the East End know Friendship as the neighborhood with two Aldi stores. But to The Orbit, it’s sidewalk stamp Nirvana.

You’ll find all the regular players here: DiBucci, Pucciarelli Brothers, Spano, Baleno–heck, one of the folks from A. Ciriello parks a branded red work truck right out front on Friendship Ave. There’s also a bunch of one-offs, old and new, including the inimitable, no-last-name-needed Jerry [more on these, later]. All this said, where Friendship really walks the walk is in the ultra-rare field of brass sidewalk plaques.

brass plaque for the Wadsworth Stone & Paving Company, Pittsburgh, PA

Wadsworth Stone & Paving Co., Friendship [photo: Paul Schifino]

The computer Internet contains very little information regarding the history of The Wadsworth Stone & Paving Co. In fact, all this Googler could locate was a single historical photo taken on a winter day in 1911 showing the company’s big industrial building on Hamilton Ave. in Larimer.

Regardless, Wadsworth literally left their mark around town in the form of several different designs of brass sidewalk plaques. Friendship is fortunate enough to have no less than three different variants–the most glorious containing the company’s name emanating from a rising sun over rugged mountains, now appearing green from the oxidation of the copper (above). These two markers are of a generation before the term concrete appears to be in common use–the designs are just-the-facts basic, but contain the alluring details describing “silica-barytic stone” in one and “artificial stone” in the other.

brass sidewalk stamp for The Wadsworth Stone & Paving Co., Pittsburgh, PA

The Wadsworth Stone & Paving Co., Friendship

brass plate embedded in sidewalk concrete advertising Rhodes-King & Company, Pittsburgh, PA

Rhodes-King & Co., Friendship

Friendship, of course, does not hold exclusive rights to anything–even in the superlative quaintness of its name. That is, at least, not while Fairywood is still on the map. So we see brass plaques throughout town, just not with the same block-for-block density we get between Baum Blvd. and Penn Ave.

Millvale and Lawrenceville both turn in paired sets of great old-school sidewalk markers. E. Martina’s can be roughly dated with the 1950s-era named telephone exchange Everglade (EV) 1-8022 in the embedded phone number of the plaque’s triumphant shield shape.

brass sidewalk plaque for E. Martina, Contractor, Millvale, PA

E. Martina, Millvale

brass sidewalk plaque for J.A. Hotnich, Millvale, PA

J. A. Hotnich, Millvale [photo: Paul Schifino]

Speaking of dating these plaques (and the sidewalk jobs around them), several of the designs here contain the apparent misprinted city name Pittsburg (sic.)–without the H. That’s no error, though. For a little over twenty years (officially, 1890-1911) the city’s name was changed to this shortened, streamlined spelling.

That would seem to be a pretty clear approximate date for these sidewalks but every source seems to suggest the alternate spelling was used both before 1890 (leading to the initial confusion that required official action) and for several decades after repeal (people can be obstinate). It’s hard to imagine any piece of pavement could last through more than a hundred Pittsburgh winter freeze-thaw cycles…and these may not actually have done so.

brass sidewalk plaque for J.K. Wymard, Pittsburgh, PA

J.K. Wymard Paving, Lawrenceville [photo: Paul Schifino]

round steel sidewalk plaque with letter "G", Pittsburgh, PA

G, Lawrenceville

The mysterious G! This example is such an outlier–it’s steel, not brass and it doesn’t contain any identifiable name or contact info–one almost wonders if it’s actually a marker for a gas line or other underground infrastructure. With that thought in mind, it’s clearly a single embedded piece with no valve opening or other obvious utile function. Maybe someone just wanted to mark a gas line, or maybe “G” just liked to keep things simple.

brass sidewalk plaque for Nick Scotti, Concrete Contr., Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Scotti, Concrete Contr., Oakland

brass sidewalk plaque for Jendoco, Pittsburgh, PA

Jendoco, East Liberty

On the new end of the spectrum come two from Nick Scotti–who we first saw in Larry Kramer’s original sidewalk stamp piece [“Stamp Collecting: More Pittsburgh Easter Eggs, Set in Concrete“, Pittsburgh Orbit, May 5, 2017]–and a much more modern-looking one from a corporate parking lot poured by Jendoco. While these aren’t quite as exciting as a weathered Wadsworth, it’s great to see current contractors keeping up the tradition.

sidewalk mason engraved stone plaque for R. Albright, Pittsburgh, PA

R. Albright, The Run

A few other interesting tidbits. Mason R. Albright created a unique piece the likes of which we’ve not encountered elsewhere. Albright has apparently had his name, phone number, and an installation date etched into stone which was then set into the poured concrete of a sidewalk on Saline Street in The Run (above). It ain’t brass, but it’s still very much of the calling-card plaque variety, so we’re including it here.

Alternately, just one sleepy intersection–the corner of Lytton and Parkman Aves. in the Schenley Farms section of Oakland–has these embedded brass street names oriented for pedestrians. They’re neat, but seem like they would have been part of a larger strategy of infrastructure design that either was never adopted on the wider neighborhood, or (more likely) are the last remnants after other sections of sidewalk were replaced due to damage or the installation of accessible curb cuts, etc. Sadly, we may never know.

brass letters spelling street name Lytton Ave., Pittsburgh, PA

Lytton Ave., Schenley Farms/Oakland

brass letters spelling street name Parkman Ave., Pittsburgh, PA

Parkman Ave., Schenley Farms/Oakland

Many thanks to ace sidewalk-stepper and detail-procurer Paul Schifino with his contributions to this story.


* This same terrific Wadsworth rising-sun-over-mountains plaque has also been spotted in East Liberty and Millvale.