It was a dreary, cool, rainy day when The Orbit crew pulled off the highway for some high art and a bag of Combos. We’d describe the weather as very un-summer-like, except it was very much in keeping with this particular summer. This cool-weather-lover is certainly not complaining–give him forty-five degrees and drizzling and you’ll find one happy blogger chortling to himself as he types. That said, we were hoping for a break in the rain long enough to photograph one particular roadside curiosity, and were granted that particular wish.
An hour-and-a-half due north of Pittsburgh lies Meadville, the seat of Crawford County. This smallish town is the unlikely host of an immense collection of sculptures, all in connection with and displayed by the local Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”) maintenance yard.
According to PennDOT, the fence/mural project and its adjunct flower garden (more about that, later) were conceived by Allegheny College art professor Amara Geffen and Jack Molke, former Crawford County maintenance manager. The actual work was executed both by Allegheny College art students and the local PennDOT workers. It began back in 2001, but continued over many years until the entire maintenance yard fence was covered.
The mural depicts life in Crawford County highlighting annual events such as the Thurston Balloon Classic and the Crawford County Fair. Local community landmarks such as the Crawford County Courthouse, Conneaut Lake Park, and Allegheny College’s Bentley Hall highlight the scene. The project depicts life in Crawford County with farm scenes, seasonal scenes and downtown Meadville buildings.
What no set of photographs will accurately depict is the sheer immensity of this piece. The fence is well over human height and probably reaches up to ten or twelve feet. It stretches some 1,200 feet (approx. a quarter mile) down Route 322 and around the corner. The fence is at once a single continuous piece and also dozens of distinct interlocking sections that each bleed into one another.
There are broad strokes like rolling Crawford County hillsides and a series of sections devoted to (downtown Meadville?) storefronts. But the detail on the pieces is terrific with little touches that play with the recycled signage and “Easter egg” details that you’d never catch if you just did a drive-by.
For all these reasons, it’s really worth parking and taking a walk down the full length of the fence and back. Then, like all great art experiences, you can cross the highway to Sheetz for some M.T.O. and group reflection.
Are the sculptures worth a trip from Pittsburgh? They’re pretty great, and no set of photographs is really going to do them justice, so we’d have to say yes. That said, combine them with the next time you’re heading to Erie, or Conneaut Lake, or are just making a run to Meadville’s own Voodoo Brewery and you’ll have yourself a fine combo for your Combos.
Getting there: The PennDOT building and maintenance yard is on Rt. 322, literally just a minute (maybe a half mile?) from the Meadville exit off I-79. The sculptures leap out at you and go on for a quarter mile so you really “can’t miss it.”