Pain’t That America: The Front Yard Patriotism of Gary Thumberg

brick house with many handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

Little America: Thumberg house, 3rd Street, Beaver, PA

It’s a cliché, sure, but you can’t miss it.

No, the sweet, pre-war two-story brick home would look a lot like many others found in Pittsburgh’s down-river boroughs but for the wealth–some might say overload–of red, white, and blue homemade patriotic holiday displays that fill every inch of its front, side, and rear yard space. Together, they lift this house from small town charmer to an explosion of full-on Yankee Doodle Dandydom.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

Beaver, PA. A picture-perfect embodiment of quaint. The town’s wide streets, stately manors, well-groomed lawns, and fancy boutiques look more country posh than the (ex-)industry brownfields and empty storefronts of almost all its Ohio Valley neighbors[1]. But it’s a pleasant, accessible, middle-class midwestern posh, rather than its harder-to-take New England old money cousin.

There was long bit about taking a bike from Monaca to Rochester and then here to Beaver, but our editor told us to cut the crap. Suffice to say, there are a bunch of interesting things in town and River Road is both aptly-named and bicycle-perfect. If you take it almost all the way around and then back to the main drag, your ride-around will conclude up on 3rd Street with the great homemade holiday decorations of Gary Thumberg.

Gary Thumberg with his handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

Gary Thumberg by his alley cannon and flags

Some of the displays may be what you’re expecting. There are dozens of eagles, their wings spread in majestic mid-flight glory and bodies brightly marked like sports jerseys. A couple of them have been framed in lumpy ovals to appear as if in an official seal. Uncle Sam is here–the red, white, and blue literally oozing out of him–as are many, many American flags in different sizes and variants.

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations including flags, eagles, and star flowers, Beaver, PA

side of Thumberg’s house with flags, eagles, and star flowers

In The Orbit‘s annual Independence Day post, we mused about why it’s so difficult for homemade flag-painters to get the 50-star count right. On this matter, we need to eat some Corvus brachyrhynchos (that’s all-American crow).

With so many homemade flags created by the same two hands, it’s exciting to see the umpteen different expressions that Gary Thumberg has come up with. For sure: flags that are near the exact design you’ll see flying above the courthouse are featured in the yard. But so are seven-striped models of minimalism, gestural two-star tree-hangers, and reverse-color mind-benders.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

In addition to these familiar forms, the lawn display also includes some other interesting takes on America’s favorite color scheme.

Thumberg attacks the most effervescent of holiday imagery in his captured-in-time fireworks explosions. These wooden cut-outs–complete with smoke trails and star blasts–are repeated several times with different paint jobs. The image is perhaps Thumberg’s most impressionistic form–a daring move to represent so much motion and light, sound and fury in two dimensions, staked in grass.

handmade wood cut fireworks lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

fireworks

The most unique of Thumberg’s choices has to be a large teddy bear form that appears multiple times around the property[2]. How these relate to the declaration of independence, we don’t know–and didn’t think to ask at the time–but we’ll go with it. The bears are standing up for America with no identifiable facial markings and just the vertical red/white/blue stripes of the season. A human-sized teddy bear is out front riding a (real, decommissioned) bicycle.

handmade wood cut teddy bear lawn decoration on bicycle, Beaver, PA

show me what democracy looks like: patriotic teddy bear on bicycle

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations including teddy bear, fireworks, and Uncle Sam, Beaver, PA

patriotic teddy bear, fireworks, Uncle Sam

You’d think the 4th would be enough, but Gary Thumberg is holiday crazy. Independence Day is just one of four annual occasions that prompt the sixty-something year-old Thumberg to shuffle the contents of his storage shed/workshop/garage–taking in the previous event’s decor and prepping for the next.

With a holiday every season [Halloween, Christmas, and Easter are the others] and the weeks of work it takes him to remove the old, bring out the new, patch, paint, and repair any trouble spots, and finally lay out and line up everything for display, the decorations are a (nearly) full-time side occupation.

handmade wood cut eagles lawn decorations in back yard, Beaver, PA

back yard eagles and flags

The family came to this house on 3rd Street over 40 years ago, and Gary’s passion for holiday decoration goes back almost as long. The painted plywood decorations are all cut out by Thumberg with a jigsaw using various paper patterns or templates. From here, they’re sanded, painted, and hammered into the ground. The majority of the display is saved, stored, and brought back out again each year, but Gary tries to add one or two new pieces each season. Neighbors have gotten into the act by donating lights, wood, paint, and brushes.

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decoration of red, white, and blue Snoopy, Beaver, PA

Snoopy

The Thumbergs–Gary lives with his lovely 87-year-old mother Doris–want you to stop by and see Gary’s work. A guest book out front encourages visitors to sign in and leave their thoughts. Doris has volumes of past years’ entries with signees coming from every state in the country and all over the world.

Catching this blogger photographing the side of his house, Gary came out to say hello and led me around, acting as tour guide to the full display, which extends into the back yard and out to the alley. Then I got invited into the house, phone numbers were exchanged, and we were invited back.

We will be back–for sure. We’ll see you guys at Halloween, if not sooner.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag


[1] Yes, Sewickley is the other obvious exception.
[2] We weren’t sure what these shapes actually are, but Gary Thumberg confirmed them as teddy bears.

Go On and Take a Free Ride: The Tarentum History Mural

mural of rail car with famous natives of Tarentum, PA

famous Tarentum natives: Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, Henry Marie Brackenridge, Capt. J.B. Ford, “Uncle Billy” Smith, Sam Kier, and J.W. Hemphill

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[1].

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.

mural detail of high school students with banner reading "Redcats basketball champs '67 '68", Tarentum, PA

Redcats basketball fans

mural detail of Vietnam War veterans dancing and "Welcome to RAM LAND" sign, Tarentum, PA

Welcome to RAM LAND, dancing vets

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[2], connections to U.S. war efforts, social change, famous natives, leisure, and business.

mural of army tank on train car with soldiers, sailors, and WACs on train station platform, Tarentum, PA

Tarentum’s contribution toward World War II

mural detail of World War II WACs, Tarentum, PA

WACs

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.

mural of native Americans with land that would become Tarentum, PA

(Shawnee?) natives of lower Allegheny River

mural detail of two men in Pittsburgh Steelers team jerseys, Tarentum, PA

Steelers fans

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.

mural detail of 19th century rail worker and draft horse in field, Tarentum, PA

rail worker and draft horse

mural detail of soldier reading letter and sailor waiting at Tarentum, PA train station

soldier and sailor at Tarentum station

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[3]. 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.

mural of early American settlement with general store, farmers, and river boat, Tarentum, PA

early mercantile Tarentum general store and river boat

mural detail of Pittsburgh Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins logos, Tarentum, PA

Pittsburgh sports and the hardhat-wearing fans who love them

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.

mural detail of Union army soldier with two women in Victorian dress at Tarentum, PA train station

Union soldier leaving from Tarentum Station

mural detail of train car windows showing man with A-1 Rental equipment, Highlands High School students, fraternal organization logos, Tarentum, PA

(present-day) mural sponsors, businesses, and civic groups are well-represented: A-1 Rental, Highlands High School, fraternal organizations


[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarentum,_Pennsylvania#Demographics

Going Postal: Cap Man Fever

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #8, Schenley Plaza

The ball cap is cocked high, resting on the back of the head at a jaunty just-off-center angle. Its bill is pure black, minus a small rectangular label on the inside brim. When you can see the man’s eyes, they stare directly back with a cold, dispassionate expression. More often, though, they’re shrouded in the heavy shadows cast by his supraorbital ridge.

Cap Man–our name for this anonymous figure–is the subject of a series of tiny artworks currently on view for a limited time* in the general vicinity of Craig Street and Forbes Avenue in Oakland. You’re going to have to work a little to find them.

portrait of man with eyes closed wearing a baseball cap drawn on US postal service mail label and stuck to blue free paper box, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #1, Forbes Ave.

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #2, Craig Street

Both the medium and presentation for the Cap Man portraits are as DIY and proletariat as they come–thick black felt tip ink drawn on repurposed U.S. Postal Service “228” priority mail labels. The little stickers have been peeled off and applied haphazardly to a free publication bin, an electrical box, street poles, and–clearly the venue of choice–the back sides of metal street signs.

Cap Man’s creator certainly isn’t the first to use this medium. Alternately going by the general term sticker art or the more specific postal slaps, you’ll see similar pieces littering mailboxes and light poles all over the city and (apparently) across the country. Typically, though, they’re filled with either bright big-lettered tags that look like studies for future spray paint work or blunt messages like the series of FUCK TRUMP stickers around town. The Cap Man original ink portraits are something a little more interesting.

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #3, Craig Street

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #4, Bellefield Ave.

We don’t know who this person is–either artist or subject. It’s probably safe to assume, though, that the two are one in the same–self-portraits of a young man on the move. The angle of the image seems to suggest the artist is working from a lap-held mirror, or (more likely) his phone.

A theory: The proximity of where the stickers have been left suggests the possibility the perpetrator is riding the bus to Oakland, getting off at Fifth & Craig (or thereabouts), and then tagging the first bare surface he or she encounters on the ensuing walk down Craig Street and around the corner, heading toward the museum maybe, or Pitt.

In this scenario, the drawings may even be inked right there in the aft seats of the 54C or the 93A, a daily discipline perfect for the 10-minute hands-free commute. The shaky nature of this workspace would also help to explain why a couple of the portraits are clearly off–as if the otherwise competent hand that drew them was jostled mid-stroke…but this may just be a romantic pipe dream from a blogger who reads too many detective stories.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #5, Forbes Ave.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #6, Forbes Ave.

Let’s face it: ball caps look pretty dumb on anyone who’s not either twelve years old or actively playing baseball at that moment. That said, we’re glad Cap Man has given his stark two-tone/big negative space portraits something distinctive to, uh, hang his hat on. As a visual element, it makes his head stand out, provides structure, and frames the top of the drawings. It also provides a nice thematic grouping for the current exhibition in Oakland.

We suspect Cap Man’s old-school selfies aren’t the only street-facing work of this artist. Bloomfield is currently host to another pretty distinct series of postal slaps that look like they may have come from the very same hands. That, however, is a subject for another post on another day. Until then, a tip of the hat to you, Cap Man, it’s been a good time finding your tiny pictures.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #7, Forbes Ave.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #8 (detail), Schenley Plaza


* Limited, but unspecified: sunlight, rain, or graffiti cleanup efforts will eventually claim these pieces.

Easter Special: You Can’t Make an Omelet Without Finding Some Eggs

baby doll painted gold and hanging from telephone wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby, Lawrenceville

Matched ceramic salt and pepper shakers, ruby glass, bobbleheads, Hummel figurines, cookie jars–people collect all kinds of goofy stuff. Bakelite AM radios, Santas, and state plates, World’s Fair trinkets and glass insulators from telegraph lines. David from our West Coast rival Portland Orbit has some unique collections: cans of knock-off Dr. Pepper, eyeglass stems found on the street, other peoples’ grocery lists.

Easter may come only once a year, but every day can be the Orbiteer’s figurative egg hunt–which is really just the primordial collecting impulse–and it doesn’t cost a penny or take up any room on your shelves. Spotting is a lifelong and year-round habit: take the alley, poke behind the bushes, look down at the pavement and up in the telephone wires. [Oh, Golden Babies, how we pray we haven’t seen the last of you!]

Today, whether you’re a committed church-going, brunch-eating Easter reveler or full-on dance-naked-by-the-bonfire pagan, we celebrate some of the Orbit‘s favorite any-time/all-year-long city egg hunt targets.

protractor glued to metal driving barrier, Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh protractor, Allegheny River Trail, Millvale

Pittsburgh Protractors are the easy money, chump change, fish-in-a-barrel of local urban collecting. In that way, though, they’re a great entry point–the gateway drug–to hardcore egg hunting. Either way, you have to respect the work of the protractor perpetrator(s) and we couldn’t not include the protractors in the list. There are just so damn many of the little plastic doo-dads glued all over the place that if you’re in bicycle-accessible city limits and keep your blinkers open, you’ll probably spot a few even if you’re not really trying.

ghost sign for "Arsenal Brand Meat Products" painted on side of brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign: Arsenal Brand Meat Products, Hill District

Sal’s MeatsHipCo BatteriesMother’s Best FlourOwl Cigar. Who are these vendors and what is the business arrangement that traded a (presumably) single payment into a long-after-life of marketing products that may no longer be purchased?

The hand-painted, brick wall advertising of yesteryear was all put out of business (we assume) by the arrival of big, purpose-built billboards with their larger display areas, darkness-defying flood lights, targeted sight lines, and monthly rates. That’s part of what makes so-called ghost signs so enjoyable for the egg hunter: it’s pretty obvious that there won’t be any more of them[1], and what’s left is often fading fast.

brass marker showing the 46.0 high water mark for the March 18, 1936 flood of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

1936 flood marker, Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown

Waaaay back when, the very first story committed to these virtual pages concerned a cryptic message painted around two faces of an old brick building in Manchester. That [SPOILER ALERT!] turned to be a marker for the most famous rising of the waters in Pittsburgh’s history–the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day flood.

We’ve found a handful more of them around downtown and on the North Side, but surprisingly few considering the immensity of the event and the age of our building stock. That just makes the hunt all that much sweeter when we zero in on previously unseen prey.

Mary statuette in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Front yard Mary and grotto, Arlington

The blessed mother, hands spread with her palms open in a welcoming embrace or–far less often–the pietà image of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus or holding the once-and-future as a baby [see above]. Whichever way we encounter the statuary, this is Front Yard Mary [even if she’s in the side or back yard] and we’ll take her any way we can get her.

There are so many Marys out there that we’ve got separate future features planned for South Oakland, Homestead, and the South Side Slopes (at least), which hardly makes Mary the most difficult egg to hunt. That said, this is ostensibly an Easter feature…

painting of woman with three eyes by Clohn Art, wheatpasted to wood, Pittsburgh, PA

Clohn Art, Downtown

Clohn Art is the nom de plume–or perhaps nom de paintbrush–of one John Lee, whose crude extra-eyed men, women, and animal paintings are executed on the placemats of Chinese restaurants and unfurled brown paper bags. They’re found wheatpasted at construction sites, alley walls, and, in at least one case, a rusty bus shelter in Homestead.

Wherever we happen to see the artist’s distinctive little paintings, they always pop off the wall surface and bring a twisted smile to our merely two-eyed faces. Mr. Lee declined The Orbit‘s request for a feature interview [John: we’re still interested!] so we’re left to troll the back streets, hoping to grab another of those rarest of eggs: a fresh, new Clohn to nestle in the wicker basket.

teddy bear and plastic flowers left on curbside, Pittsburgh, PA

Reasonably happy-looking sad toy, Fairywood

Like some mangy old teddy bear, dropped casually from a toddler’s stroller and forced to spend purgatory face-down in the weedy berm, Al Hoff brought the concept of “sad toys” into this blogger’s life and then cruelly left us by the side of the road to fend for ourselves.

Stuffed animals with their fur matted, flattened, and filthy; a basketball, punctured and concave in an oily culvert; doll parts dismembered and jettisoned like the work of a Lilliputian serial killer. So much pathos in such tiny candy-colored doses! It’s almost too much to bear…almost. But when we find them–and these are truly both the most random and the most reliable, renewable resource of today’s eggs–we can’t help but bag them.

outline of previously-existing "ghost house" against larger brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house, North Side

Ghost houses–the imprint of one, now-extinct building upon its still-extant neighbor–is hardly a concept unique to Pittsburgh, but we’ve got the perfect environmental conditions to produce them here. Older building stock constructed right up against each other in a previous era when the density supported a pedestrian-based workforce, coupled with decades of “benign neglect” that demolished many–some falling all on their own–and landlords caring little about fixing-up the weird negative spaces on their vacant lot-facing windowless walls.

Like many of the other ova that occupy our oculi, ghost houses are special because–like a petrified forest, or the career of Steve Guttenberg–they’re the result of such a peculiar series of historic events, circumstances, and (non-)actions over a great period of time that we’ll likely not encounter the same perfect storm here again.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Clarence the Bird pole art, Bloomfield

With Clarence the Bird, the egg hunt changes parameters. Like picking up pawpaws, where there’s one of his handmade, ink-on-cardboard Make the World Beautiful instances, there tend to be a lot. Find a Clarence and you can safely spread out–looking up and down at the adjacent-blocks’ neighboring telephone poles and bulletin boards–and you’ll likely spot more.

So far [to our knowledge], Clarence has stuck to the greater Lawrenceville-Bloomfield-Garfield-Friendship portion of the East End, but that may just be where we’ve crossed paths with his big wings and pointy beak. I’m sure if we do see his trail elsewhere, we’ll see it everywhere.

poems of The Dirty Poet taped to a lamp post, Pittsburgh, PA

Poems of The Dirty Poet, Oakland

To call locating the telephone pole and street lamp verse of The Dirty Poet “egg hunt” material is a little bit of a stretch. His Dirtiness (yes: the writer is a he) wants the short, dittoed poems he authors to be read, after all. They’ve been taped and stapled at eye level on prominent foot traffic corners for just that purpose.

Regardless, it’s still neat to run across the prickly prose and lurid lines of the Bard of the Backstreets, knowing that one is literally standing in the creator’s footprints, inhaling his boozy breath, and shimmering in what’s left of his groovy vibes. To you, Whitman of the walkways, Dickinson of the downtown, Angelou of the who are you? may we always encounter your offspring sunny side up.

Toynbee Tile reading "Toynbee Idea in movie '2001' resurrect dead on planet Jupiter"

Toynbee Tile (no longer present), Downtown

It almost feels like cheating to include the so-called Toynbee Tiles in the list–we ran a feature on the House of Hades tiles just last week. But when you get lucky enough to spot one of the remaining, legit, first-generation street pieces, well, it’s a good day indeed.

As we reported, it is The Orbit‘s conclusion that none of these still exist in metro Pittsburgh and we’re left with a pair of ersatz Hell-bound tributes. But you never know! What does Easter–and, by association, spring–offer but the arrival of new hope, possibility, and opportunity. It is a new season: the sun is shining, birds are chirping, and flowers are popping with their tiny blasts of color across late winter’s gray-brown backdrop. Go out there and get you some eggs!


[1] There are, however, several efforts out there to restore/repaint old ghost signs as new mural projects. There’s a big one on Penn Avenue in Garfield and several in Braddock that we know of.

Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles

Street art "Toynbee tile" reading "House of Hades, one man versus American media in society: 2012", Pittsburgh, PA

Pennies for your paranoid thoughts. House of Hades tile #1, Blvd. of the Allies at Market St., Downtown.

The style is exactly the same: linoleum tile, constructed in reverse, and embedded as mosaic into a tar base that is applied directly to road surface. Ultimately, the piece will fuse with street macadam given enough over-rolling traffic to force it into the pavement. Arch messages are cut into rough block capital letters and have a familiar cryptic apocalyptic tone with phrases like House of Hades and Media must be reduced to ash in society.

We know these–they’re the so-called “Toynbee Tiles”…right? The (very literal) street art/paranoia phenomenon has emanated from center city Philadelphia outward for several decades now. They’ve been featured in their own investigative documentary film [Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2012)], and–at least at one time–decorated a bunch of streets in the Golden Triangle.

Street art "Toynbee tile" reading "House of Hades, media must be reduced to ash in society: 2012", Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades tile #2, Blvd. of the Allies at Wood St., Downtown

But…not so fast. For one thing, pretty much every legitimate Toynbee tile in downtown Pittsburgh has vanished from this earth[1]. We chronicled a bunch of these in our stories on The Toynbee Tiles of Smithfield Street and its follow-up Orbit obit to The Last Toynbee Tile on Smithfield Street a year later. The all-things-Toynbee site toynbeeidea.com has a Google map that includes pinpoints for eight different tiles that used to exist on Smithfield, Forbes, Oliver, and Commonweath Place. Under Orbit due diligence, our bicycle- and sidewalk-based researchers criss-crossed downtown and couldn’t locate a single extant tile from this set.

Second, the pair of tiles that arrived on Blvd. of the Allies (photographed here, but not currently on toynbeeidea.com’s map) aren’t strictly “Toynbee”. Whether they’re the work of a copycat, tributes to the original, or just plain doing their own thing (using the same visual language), is a matter of some debate. What’s clear, though, is that these House of Hades tiles have been left by a different crew than the person Resurrect Dead researcher/filmmaker Steve Weinik calls The Toynbee Tiler (“TTT”).

map of downtown Pittsburgh with locations marked for former locations of Toynbee tiles

Red dots mark the former locations of eight Toynbee tiles in downtown Pittsburgh–now all are gone. [map: toynbeeidea.com]

The ominous warning One man versus American media in society certainly comes off as incredibly timely given the current political climate. But in fact these messages go back well before Steve Bannon’s elevation to the White House. Both pieces contain the date 2012. This may or may not be accurate to the time of installation, but that’s around when we first remember tripping across them.

Information on this “House of Hades” is scant. Is it the message or the maker? As these things go, there’s no P.O. box to send your S.A.S.E. into or 800 number to call for a free brochure. ToynbeeIdea.com claims the tiles started appearing in Buffalo some time in the oughts and “look nice, but don’t last long”[2]. That’s not our experience, though. The pair on Boulevard remains nearly perfect five (or more) years on. Of course, we probably don’t have the volume of Philly traffic they’re comparing them to, but it’s still impressive.

street art "Toynbee tile" and buildings of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Regardless, we’ll re-issue that old Orbit saw and simply say, House of Hades–who- or whatever you are–we’re glad somebody’s still out there carving wacky words, spoons, and lady legs into street decoration and we’re glad you dropped enough morsels in downtown Pittsburgh for us to chew on for a while. If it stops us in our tracks–possibly with oncoming travel barreling forward–makes us wonder, and gives the noodle a twist, well, you’re all right by us.

Oh–and one more thing: while The Orbit may technically qualify as part of “the media” [in its loosest, most pathetic usage], please don’t reduce us to ash just yet. We’ve still got some things we want to cover.

street art "Toynbee tile" and buildings of downtown Pittsburgh, PA


[1] That we know of…but The Orbit is pretty sure this is it. If you know of any other remaining Toynbee tiles in the city, please educate us.
[2] http://www.toynbeeidea.com/house-of-hades/

Clarence the Bird Takes Bloomfield! Part 2: A Beautiful Friendship

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Gross

Nevertheless, the bird persisted.

Call the little guy flighty, fragile, scrawny, left-leaning (or, at least, always left-facing), single-minded–heck, even a broken record! Sure, he could stand to put on a few ounces and what’s with that damn flipper-flapping all the time–give it a rest! Whatever you do, though, you’ll not call Clarence the Bird anything less than thorough.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Stack Way

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Choate Way

When last we left the little fellow [Clarence the Bird Takes Bloomfield! Part 1: Millvale and Beyond, Pittsburgh Orbit: March 19], Clarence’s spring fever was in overdrive, nesting his feathers and pointing his beak throughout Bloomfield–down Millvale Ave., in the warren of cattywumpus alley-streets west of Edmond, and up by the Penn Avenue Aldi.

Impressive, for sure, but those sightings were merely the appetizer for the grand buffet that is Clarence’s A Beautiful Friendship campaign.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Ella

tiny paper drawing of Clarence the Bird stapled to tree stump, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship between Ella and Dupont Way

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Dupont Way

From the dense row house heart-of-Bloomfield all the way out to where Friendship Avenue becomes Friendship neighborhood, Clarence has left a bread crumb trail in cardboard and paper stock, fine-tipped ink pen and crude Sharpie. The tiny original artworks have been stapled, tacked, faded, torn, and (I’m sure) disattached and absconded-with. But the pieces still hanging-around–and there are a lot–look great covering (nearly) every single block up and down the long street.

Here then is the latest from The Orbit‘s Clarence Tracker 2000TM logging of Mr. The Bird’s Friendship Avenue activity, starting on the Penn Avenue/Children’s Hospital end and working east as far as South Pacific.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Taylor

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Dryden Way

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Dryden Way

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Pearl

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Pearl

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Edmond

Clarence the Bird original artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship Park

Clarence the Bird original artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Mathilda

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship between Mathilda and Edmond

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Millvale

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship between Winebiddle and Gross

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Winebiddle

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Winebiddle

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Winebiddle (partial)

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Evaline

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Pacific

Note: There are even more Clarence the Bird “droppings” on the eastern end of Friendship Ave., between Pacific and Roup (at least), but the ones we found there were previously reported on in our story Birdwatching: Clarence the Bird Watching [Pittsburgh Orbit: Jan. 5, 2017].

Clarence the Bird Takes Bloomfield! Part 1: Millvale Ave. and Beyond

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

South Pacific Ave.

Talk about a one-track mind! Freakin’ Clarence the Bird–him with his beaky-ass schnoz and big pointed wings looking more like fur than feathers. You try changing out of your gym clothes in that get-up–young fowl are merciless! Ah, Hell–he’ll get over it. All the dude has on his tiny noodle is trying to make the world a little nicer place, and he’s not afraid to tell you that…over and over and over again.

Clarence may be thinking big picture, but he sure follows through by, as they say, acting local. Lately, the little guy has been choosing to spend most of his time in just a short one-mile stretch of Bloomfield and on towards Friendship.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

We first caught wind of his latest pole-tagging spree down at the south end of Millvale Avenue, right by Sonny’s Tavern and the bridge to Oakland. It turns out Clarence was working his way north with almost one occurrence every block up to Dog’n’Burger. A second jag took Ol’ Big Wings down Friendship Avenue, even stopping for a tiny taste of sidewalk stump. (A stump!) Yes, a stump. [We’ll get to Clarence’s full-on assault of Friendship Ave. in part 2.]

There’s not a lot more for this blogger to say, except Clarence: we’re with you, dude. Keep on doing your world-beautiful avian thing. We’ll keep looking out for you and you know The Orbit‘s got your little bird back.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

cardboard Clarence the Bird drawing stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

paper Clarence the Bird drawing stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Torley Street

cardboard Clarence the Bird drawing stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Elk Way

Clarence the Bird drawing stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

State Way & Lima Way [note the bonus back yard Marys!]

Clarence the Bird art on telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Edmond Street

All the wing-flapping and telephone pole loitering must work up a mighty hunger–even a tiny bird’s gotta eat too, right? C. the B. must have the same hankering for foo-foo brunch every other hung-over dog-chewed playboy and day-glow choreographer seems to get. Hey–eating seed is for the birds! Whatever.

We spotted a couple-a-three recent-ish Clarences down on Lawrenceville’s main drag, including a pair of very nice two-color (black-and-white) drawings on brown bag (?) and one of his rare, text-only Make the world beautiful signs. Go ahead and get you another plate off the buffet, Your Birdness–it’s been a busy couple months and this gloomy world could use a fresh coat of paint.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Butler Street

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Butler Street

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Butler Street


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