A rearing horse bucks at the sight of a beautiful woman through a rail car’s passenger window. High school sports fans celebrate championships of the Tarentum Redcats and Highland Rams. A pair of bonnet-wearing homesteaders share an emotional goodbye with a departing Union soldier headed off to war. Mercantile goods are unloaded from a flat-bottom riverboat to the R. McAyeal General Store. A Vietnam veteran dances with a mysterious one-armed monochrome man.
These very public Norman Rockwell by-way-of David Lynch scenes come to us from the dedicated hands–and seriously overworked paintbrush–of one Wally Sommer. They all play out upriver, over the bridge, and downtown, in Tarentum.
The history of Tarentum–from the native Shawnee Indians on undeveloped Allegheny River banks to present-day football fans tailgating before a Steelers game–is chronicled in an amazing right-to-left time-traveling mural spanning the equivalent of an entire city block in the Allegheny Valley borough’s downtown.
The long concrete retaining wall has been painted in one epic, continuous 180-foot scene that takes the spectator through more than two hundred years of borough history. Starting with native Americans in unspoiled lush summer lea, the viewer is taken on a multi-century journey through colonial-era mercantile settlement, Tarentum’s industrial heyday, connections to U.S. war efforts, social change, famous natives, leisure, and business.
That this magnum opus was created by just one person–an unpaid, 61-year-old (at the time) volunteer who “runs a family-owned auto repair shop” at that–is pretty incredible. A 2010 TribLive article profiles the work of Sommer as he was still currently one year into the painting process. At that point, the artist estimated he’d already put 500 hours into the massive work, hoping to finish another six months later. [No word on when the piece was actually completed.]
Sommer may be an amateur painter, but he’s clearly got both talent and technique. Sure, there are some funny proportions and odd angles, the backgrounds get a little splotchy when you get in close and there’s a John Kane-like flatness to some of the larger scenes. Overall, though, it’s really quite an impressive feat that stands up against similar pieces by “real” artists and rewards close looks at the many tiny details Sommer has included.
The thematic device of a single multi-use train spanning a couple hundred years of local history was not without its bearing in immediate reality. Tarentum Borough, twenty miles northeast of downtown Pittsburgh, is bisected by prominent east-west train tracks that parallel the river and separate the town into distinct sections. Below are river flats with most of the commercial and industrial buildings. Above the tracks are largely residential slopes full of single-family detached homes, schools, and churches. The retaining wall-turned-history mural is just below East 6th Ave. and directly behind the old 1913 downtown depot, now home to JG’s Tarentum Station Grille.
You won’t find a passenger train that stops in Tarentum anymore (sigh), but as a freight route, the tracks that parallel the Allegheny River still get plenty of daily use. Tarentum, like many of its sister riverfront (ex-)factory towns, has “seen better days”. According to Wikipedia, the town’s current population of 4,500 is less than half its peak in the 1940s. So it’s easy to see why a large public artwork that celebrates a history of making things, winning wars, and establishing a nation would be appealing. But it’s also encouraging that this spirit still persists in the work of Wally Sommer. There’s no comparable mural project in, say, Clairton or Ambridge or right across the river in New Kensington.
This blogger has opined on both the virtues and perils of large, public artworks in these virtual pages before. Unlike the Sewickley Speakeasy or Images or Rankin, however, Tarentum’s mural really feels built to last. It won’t take the daily roadside abuse of the former and we imagine a more invested maintenance plan than the latter. It also has the feel of a real we’re-all-in-this-together town centerpiece that will be watched-over, respected, and loved. Seven years on, the painting still looks fresh, vibrant, and as alive as the day Sommer finally laid down his brush. So far, no teenager with a can of spray paint has defiled the piece. Let’s hope it stays that way.
 We suspect the dancing partner is a fellow veteran of a more recent desert war–Kuwait, Iraq, or Afghanistan–but it is unclear from the painted depiction.
 The Big Steel era of the mural was sadly in heavy shade on the super sunny day we visited, so we chose not to include any of the substandard photos from this section.