Nothing lasts forever, we know this. This is especially true of art, which is produced in much greater quantity than there is demand, often in fragile formats and up to extremely subjective taste and value judgement. But to have one’s canvas get dusty in the basement or torn in a move has got to be a wholly different experience than watching the slow-motion disintegration of something as large and inescapable as a giant public mural right along a major thoroughfare where passers-by literally can’t miss it.
The Murals of the Sewickley Speakeasy have a lot going against them, at least in terms of longevity. First, they’ve got to deal with an inhospitable Western Pennsylvania climate–drastic temperature fluctuations, dense humidity, snow, ice, sleet, rain, and, yes, occasional bright sunshine. Then, they’ve been painted on a retaining wall holding back a steep incline. The hillside runoff alone, leaching through the concrete, would likely separate paint from surface material in short order. Add to this the wall’s position, mere feet from busy Route 65, which must receive plenty of kicked-up salt, exhaust, and road debris.
Given all that, maybe it’s no surprise the murals have weathered so severely in not even twenty years. We don’t know what they looked like when the paint was fresh, but even with an obvious nostalgia theme in mind, dollars to doughnuts they didn’t have the washed-out, sepia-toned color you’ll find today–and that’s where you can still make out an image at all. On large stretches of the seven mural sections, great amounts of the underlying paint and nearly all of the recognizable figures are gone.
What’s left, though, is beautiful and tragic. I’m sure when the owners of the Sewickley Speakeasy commissioned these pieces they set out for an inviting, mood-setting series of vignettes to invoke not just the conviviality of any great nightspot, but certainly also the high-style/wink-and-nod underground romanticism of Jazz Age urban life–a place where some of America’s greatest musicians and movie stars mixed with politicians, bootleggers, flappers, and toe-tappers (not to mention the penciled-in family members of the bar’s owner).
Some of that still shines through the cracks, but mostly we get ghosts–fractured, fallen apart, and disappearing into clouds of base primer and bare concrete. In some cases, the remaining images are astonishing. George Gershwin, still nearly intact but soot-covered enough to look as in black face, sits at an invisible piano. W.C. Fields, with cocked top hat and great drunkard’s schnoz, is clearly identifiable against a blitzed-out snowstorm of fragmented paint chips. All smiles, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Pittsburgh’s-own Lena Horne still look like they’re having fun, oblivious to the dust storm blowing in fast*.
The Orbit reached out to August Vernon, the artist who painted the murals back in 1999, but either he doesn’t want to talk to us or he really doesn’t check his email. From what we can tell, Vernon continues to paint large-scale murals, but now from a home base in a warmer, sunnier climate (either Florida or South Carolina–his web site lists both). The artist’s changes in latitude have likely put grimy Route 65 and the Sewickley Speakeasy murals far in his pastel-colored rearview mirror. That’s too bad, as we really wanted to know what the experience is like to see such an epic project fall into this nether state and what the outlook is like for a working artist who must confront this potential deterioration on a daily basis. We’d also love to get his memories on creating the Speakeasy murals.
At this point it seems unlikely we’ll hear from Vernon, and if so, that’s something he shares with his most famous characters. We’ll never know the real Clara Bow, or Rudolf Valentino, or Bette Davis. The world was left with their films, and we’ve got Vernon’s painted tributes–at least, until they’re gone with the wind.
* Help identifying some of these characters from an entry on pghmurals.com based on a 1999 Post Gazette article by Barbara Cloud.