Thin Blue Line: Millvale’s “Watermark”

blue line painted on cement support for highway, Millvale, PA

“Watermark” (detail), Route 28 underpass, Millvale

The thin blue line is painted on sidewalks and bridge supports, climbs up onto brick walls and relaxes in the park. It’s also broken into sections, appearing to duck into storm drains, slip down side-streets, and leap across intersections.

Like a giant spool of yarn knocked to the floor, unwound, and batted about by mischievous cats, you’re likely to come across Watermark somewhere in the middle and wonder what’s going on. The piece–part large-format public artwork and part community-engagement project–is doing its thing right now, in Millvale.

blue line painted in front of Millvale Upholstery, Millvale, PA

Millvale Upholstery, Grant Ave.

The line follows a loose path and it’s no hurry to get anywhere. It starts, or maybe it ends–your choice–at the big concrete support for the north end of the 40th Street Bridge in Millvale’s Riverfront Park. From there, it winds a jagged, herky-jerky route out along the jersey barrier retaining wall by the park’s bicycle trail, crosses the town’s busiest intersection, and winds its way up through the Grant Avenue business district. The long blue strand finally concludes in a glorious, unruly tangle in the little Grant Avenue Pocket Park at the top of the street.

blue line painted on jersey barrier retaining wall, Millvale, PA

Millvale Riverfront Park

The Watermark line is around two-thirds of a mile long, as the crow flies, and has the good sense to meander through much of downtown, effectively becoming a guide to a sort-of Tour d’Millvale. Along the way, it winds past Cousin’s Lounge, the upholstery shop, library, and Yetter’s Candy.

This record fiend can’t visit Millvale without poking his black plastic-sniffing schnoz into Attic Records, but the blue line decided to skip to the other side of street to avoid such temptation. Clearly not into model railroading or macaroons, the end of the line happens just before rounding the corner to Esther’s Hobby Shop and Jean Marc’s French bakery.

blue line painted on sidewalk, Millvale, PA

Grant Ave. sidewalk

Watermark is the work of Ann Tarantino, one of six artists participating in Neighborhood Allies’ Temporary Public Art Pilot. Tarantino tells us the goal of the piece is to “connect the community to water–to link the riverfront to the rest of town.” The GAPP park, along with other buildings in downtown Millvale, was built right on top of the Girty’s Run stream that can be seen flowing through its raised concrete flood walls both above and below the business district. Its influence is felt–if not expressly stated–by the shape, color, and general direction of the blue line.

blue line painted on sidewalk in front of Scott's Barber Shop, Millvale, PA

Scott’s Barber Shop, Grant Ave.

It’s a tall order, connecting Millvale town to its riverfront. Anyone who’s ever attempted to negotiate the ugly six point intersection where Grant and E. Ohio join the Route 28 on-ramps as either pedestrian or cyclist knows how harrowing the experience can be. Will a thin, painted line actually get riverfront bicycle-riders and cookout cornhole-tossers up to Panza Gallery or happy hour beer-drinkers down to the river? This blogger could only guess…but it got him to follow the trail all the way, just to see where it would go.

blue line painted on brick walk, Millvale, PA

Sheridan Street

The project is not yet complete. Tarantino informs us the blue line itself will still have some more painting and “connectivity” points added, but the major additions will be descriptive signage at both ends and an installation/”final experience” to be installed in the GAPP park. The Orbit will have to wait to check that out just like everyone else, but we were teased that it will involve both sound and light and should be installed later this Fall.

blue line painted on sidewalk in front of Healy Hahn Funeral Home, Millvale, PA

Healy Hahn Funeral Home, Grant Ave.

We talked to a few folks sitting on front stoops along Grant Ave. during an otherwise entirely vacant, bright sunny Labor Day holiday and it’s obvious the explanatory signage will be a benefit. “What does it mean?” said one befuddled hanger-out. His buddy: “It don’t mean nothin’.”

Unlike these critics, however, The Orbit is perfectly happy to live in a world without all the answers and can therefore take a more piqued approach to the abstract project. After a couple visits now, we find the loose, playful, follow-the-blue-line curiosity to be appealing on a number of fronts and begs several enticing questions: Where is it going? Who did this? Why is it here?

blue line painted on asphalt parking lot, Millvale, PA

parking lot, Grant Ave.

Hopefully having the answers to some of these in the convenient electronic format in front of them now won’t dampen our readers’ interest in checking out Watermark for themselves. If so, that would be a shame. The way to see the piece is on your feet, walking the cement and brick sidewalks of Millvale, headed for some of P&G’s mind-melting, Michelle Obama-approved hotcakes or a piece of Dutch apple pie from the legendary hands of Frank Ruzomberka at the Grant Bar.

Is Watermark great art? I don’t know about that. But it’s a simple, low-tech (at least, until we get that sound and vision experience), and effective conversation-starter. We think it also succeeds at making any side-walker or stoop-sitter both active participant in and art critic of an odd little curio traipsing through their borough. Those are interesting challenges to rise to and we had a fine time chasing its long blue tail.

blue line painted in front of Wild at Heart Body Arts, Millvale, PA

Wild at Heart Body Arts / Tattoo, Grant Ave.

Love it or hate it, the whole thing will disappear in 2019. Watermark, like the other Neighborhood Allies projects in this series, is temporary. It is scheduled to have just a two-year lifespan. Tarantino tells us the line was created with a type of paint that can be rinsed with a cleaning solution and power-washed away like it was never there at all.

blue line painted on cement of Grant Avenue Pocket Park, Millvale, PA

Grant Avenue Pocket Park

Watermark is a project sponsored by Neighbor Allies’ Temporary Public Art Pilot and the Office of Public Art. It is funded by Heinz Endowments and Hillman Foundation and supported by community-based organizations Millvale Community Development Corporation, Millvale Community Library, and the Society to Preserve the Murals of Maxo Vanka.

Tarantino will continue to update news of the project at her website. You can follow her on Instagram at @anntarantino.

Vex Ed: A Contest for a New Pittsburgh City Flag!

flag of the City of Pittsburgh

(Current) flag of the City of Pittsburgh. Can we do better?

The flag–any flag–should be a glorious, triumphant emblem that trumpets the twin messages this is who we are and you’re here now. It’s raised high above government buildings and hangs formally inside legal chambers. And–if you get it right–the public takes the flag into their own hands.

With a good flag, loyalists adopt its design as their own–flying it freely from front porches and attaching plastic decals of it to windows and bumpers; they paint it on garage doors and wear it in the form of track suits. Kindergarten teachers will instruct young patriots in the art of creating facsimiles from finger paint and popsicle sticks.

American flag made from recycled wood, Apollo, PA

No one makes these for the city flag. Homemade 28-star American flag, Apollo

When we talk about the flag of the City of Pittsburgh, we’re clearly not at this level of either fandom or familiarity. Do you know anyone not named “the mayor” who owns a Pittsburgh city flag? Do you ever see it flown in your neighbors’ yards or waved at public events the way people hoist the rainbow flag, Steelers banner, or the Jolly Roger? If we hadn’t included the image Pittsburgh’s flag [above] would you even be able to describe what it looks like?

My guess is you’ll answer no to each of these questions–and that’s a shame. Pittsburghers love their city and we should have a city flag we’re equally proud of.

flag pole with miniature flags of Italy, USA, and Pittsburgh

Hey: somebody’s flying it! Flags of Italy, USA, and Pittsburgh, Panther Hollow

So what’s wrong with the flag we have? Let’s start with the colors. In Pittsburgh, we accept high-contrast black and gold as natural bedfellows–like french fries and ketchup, or french fries and sandwich meat, or french fries and salad greens. The extra addition, however, of the blue and white detail in the central checkerboard crest is what really sends this palette from reckless driving into fatal collision. Nowhere should these four colors intersect–not even in Cleveland.

While the background black/gold/black vertical sections are a nice, simple, bold presence, they’re directly at odds with the completely useless design-by-committee noise in the middle of the flag. Here, a cartoonish tri-turreted castle–looking like the packaging for a child’s play set–awkwardly either floats above or balances tenuously atop the curlicue formality of the city crest.

detail of the center design in Pittsburgh's city flag including three-tower castle and crest with eagles and blue-and-white checkerboard

Detail: “A triple-towered castle masoned Argent” and “a fess chequay Argent et Azure, between three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed and inverted”

Putting aside questions about why the City of Pittsburgh is represented by a medieval European-style fortress, its pairing with an embellished coat-of-arms inherited from William Pitt is particularly dissonant. [These are referred to as “a triple-towered castle masoned Argent” and “a fess chequay Argent et Azure, between three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed and inverted,” respectively.]

This combination creates chalk and cheese design elements that not only have nothing to do with each other and are scaled in odd proportion, but look like they were rendered by entirely different hands. Mercifully, there isn’t any text to not be able to read in the crest, but from any distance I dare you to find anyone who can make out those “eagle-fronted bezants” flapping in the breeze.

Less is more. Same flag, less crap.

Less is more. The same flag, without the crap.

Pittsburgh Orbit will never advertise itself as a design shop, but even without the background and very limited fake-Photoshop skills, the simple removal of the junk in this flag’s trunk–that being the ridiculous castle and crest–seems like an enormous win. We’d fly that thing off the H.M.S. Orbit with pride. Further streamlined down to the bare minimum square of one each black and gold halves may be even better.

flag of the City of Pittsburgh with center details removed and reduced to two vertical black/gold sections

Even less is even more…maybe. Two-tone black/gold square.

Something clearly needs to be done around here. There were grandiose plans: a design contest! with celebrity judges! a big-reveal gala event! we could even pitch it to the city! Meetings were taken with, you know, a media partner and real designers. But…ah, hell–that’s a lot of work and you try finding a local expert in vexillology. Heck, just try pronouncing it!

All that said, the simple goal remains to come up with a banner that Pittsburghers will recognize, identify with, and fly proudly from their eves and stitch to the seats of their pants.

SO, here’s where you, dear reader and creative acquaintances of dear reader, come in. We’d love to see your submissions for a redesigned flag for the City of Pittsburgh. This blogger has no idea whether The Orbit‘s audience would support such an effort, but we’re crossing fingers and, like Casey Kasem, keeping our feet on the ground, and reaching for the stars.

Submissions

  • Submit a .jpg image of reasonable quality (let’s say at least 800 px wide) via email to pittsburghorbit [at] gmail [dot] com. Please include “Pittsburgh flag” in the subject line along with your name and contact information in the body of the message.
  • We’re not going to attach a lot of rules to this except that the work must be your own and original; you can pick whatever colors, aspect ratio, level of visual complexity, etc. Goofy/joke entries are entirely encouraged.
  • By submitting to the contest, you grant Pittsburgh Orbit permission to publish your design in a future post. Entrants will, of course, be credited and retain full rights to their work. Pittsburgh Orbit reserves the right to not publish submissions that it considers offensive, ugly, or just plain dumb.
  • Prize: There’s no monetary prize, but there are more ways to measure victory than with a calculator–and we can have more than one winner. We’ll feature the best submissions in future posts along with discussions with the artists/designers. Hopefully we’ll get enough good/unique entries to have a legit show IRL or print a book or something–but that will have to remain TBD for the time being.
  • Deadline: Sunday, October 1. So don’t sleep on it! Get those noodles cookin’ and send us a flag!
proposed flag with gold planet on black field with text "ORBIT"

Hey, it’s an option!


Background/further study:

This Way Out: Arrow Collecting

yellow arrow painted on weathered plywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Esplen

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.*

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"Service & Parts" sign painted in shape of an arrow on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Service & Parts, Manchester

day-glo green arrow painted on dumpster, Pittsburgh, PA

dumpster arrow, Shadyside

Oh, how much simpler life would be if we all just had a little more clear direction. Go that way. Do this thing. It’ll all be O.K.

The arrow is likely the boldest, simplest, and most direct (in a couple different definitions of the word) of visual statements; it is this magic voice from above. Where to go, what choices exist, how to find our way in the world. Without the arrow, we’d all be lost…literally.

tile building facade with number 223 and arrow directing around the back, Homestead, PA

Have you seen the back? 223, Homestead

ghost sign for former La Salle Electric, Pittsburgh, PA

Office this way / Pick-up that way. Former La Salle Electric building (now demolished), Manchester

Constructed with your choice of just three simple lines or as the beefier triangle + rectangle, the form is geometry at its most basic, graphic design boiled down to the last essential elements, universal in both meaning and comprehension. Go that way.

It’s also visually arresting. For such a simple shape, the arrow represents both incredible movement and a certain level of violence. It’s based on–and named after–the form of a projectile weapon, after all. Conflict is inevitable when the point of the spear impacts its target. The inherent tension in this implied collision charges every depiction of the mighty arrow.

detail of arrow painted on the wing of an airplane

airplane arrow, Boeing 737

arrow painted on white brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

East Liberty

In a news week dominated by talk around the president’s embrace of Nazis, the alt-right, and his no-teleprompter invention of an “alt-left”, we thought it’d be as good a time as any to seek a little clear direction. [For the record, The Orbit has always considered itself alt-down-and-out.]

Here then, are some fine area examples of that most noble of graphic forms: the arrow. May you all get where you’re going.

white arrow painted on brown brick and cinderblock wall, McKeesport, PA

Down and out in McKeesport

sign for brewery entrance with directional arrow painted on bridge support, Pittsburgh, PA

Brewery Entrance, Lawrenceville

red brick house shaped like an arrow, Pittsburgh, PA

arrow house, West End

ghost sign for former Penn Bowling Lanes, Pittsburgh, PA

Penn Bowling Lanes, Downtown

red arrow painted on exterior column, Pittsburgh, PA

Manchester

ghost sign on former hardware store, Pittsburgh, PA

multiple arrow ghost sign: Home Improvement Needs, “The Contractor’s Department Store”, Hill District

detail of store entrance with arrow shape, Etna, PA

store entrance arrow, Etna

former school bus in field of wildflowers painted to advertise F&V Fireworks, Enon Valley, PA

F&V Fireworks, Enon Valley, PA


* Yes, someone needs to enlighten Mr. de Saint-Exupery that it may be she who is making the design decisions.

Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles, Part 2

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades “Toynbee Tile” #4 (detail), Blvd. of the Allies, downtown

A cautionary tale: Whenever one thinks she or he has reached the end of the metaphorical line and is dangling by the very last fibers above the abyss, know that if you’re successfully converting oxygen to carbon dioxide, you’ve still got a fighting chance. Heck, maybe one day we’ll finally get the high-quality hemp rope N.O.R.M.L. promised us back in the ’90s.

Just a few months back, we bagged what we thought were the very last “Toynbee tiles” in Pittsburgh. Those two little street artworks, both found on Blvd. of the Allies downtown, are actually courtesy of the equally-mysterious House of Hades, which is believed to be either copycat or super-fan, depending on one’s viewpoint. [Our handful of “real” Toynbee tiles are, sadly, long gone.]

linoleum art of city scene at night, imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

city at night tile (detail), Blvd. of the Allies, downtown

And so, as we said in that post, that was all she seemed to write…err, carve into linoleum and press into the street.

But (yes: there’s always a big but) how wrong a blogger can be! Within mere blocks of those two specimens, we encountered yet another pair of wayward street tiles–apparently from the very same hands. The first of these is on Smithfield Street, right before the bridge; the other just around the corner and up a block on the Boulevard (at Cherry Way).

The former (we’re calling it House of Hades tile #3) includes the exact same message as tile #1 from the previous post: House of Hades / One man versus American media in society ‘2012. This one also has the added ominous zinger To punish them all.

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades tile #3, Smithfield Street at First Ave.

Tile #4 is a little more difficult to parse. The Toynbee half of it contains what we’ve come to recognize as a naked lady’s shapely gam across the top (there was probably a right leg to go with this left, but it’s gone now), plus some of the familiar big headline text: House of Hades / The resurrection of Toynbee’s idea in society ‘2012. It also contains an extra stanza in relative fine print with the disturbing message I must work harder to punish these butchers for all that they’ve done.

The most unusual thing about #4, though, has to be that it’s also immediately abutting/overlapping yet another linoleum street tile of an entirely different mood and design. This one, vertical in composition with rounded corners, features a night scene in one-point perspective of a car driving toward a stylized big city skyline [notably not Pittsburgh]. A crescent moon hangs overhead against the star-speckled black sky.

It’s probably safe to say this nightscape is not the work of either the Toynbee or House of Hades folks. Aside from the medium itself, it just has none of the tell-tale style elements or apocalyptic messaging. That said, it sure is curious that the two ended up where they did. With all the available, naked pavement out there, how do two road tiles lie nearly right on top of each other? Can’t we all get along!

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

The full scene. House of Hades tile #4/nighttime city scene, Blvd. of the Allies at Cherry Way

Are these really the last of the Toynbee (inspired) tiles in Pittsburgh? We sure hope that isn’t the case and we’ll not make the mistake of trying to declare such a truth again. Fool me twice, as they say.

Plus, like that desperate hero watching the fraying strands of her lifeline unspool from its anchor above, we like to think there’s a little more life left in these streets and–with it now legal in 30 states–hemp is on the way. We haven’t given up just yet.


See also: Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles: (Pittsburgh Orbit, April 9, 2017)

Going Postal: Rogues Gallery

portraits of naked women holding their breasts drawn on US postal service mail labels and stuck to steel light pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Mail-order brides, Bloomfield

Tiny one-of-a-kind artworks decorate a bus shelter, steel light poles, a cross-walk signal, and the back sides of street signs. Pictured on them are the faces of fading-from-memory pop culture figures, a couple buxom babes, and a kind of high school outsider iconography we hope is never lost. More than any other subject, though, are the bad guys.

The little ink portraits, drawn in heavy black felt tip on repurposed U.S. Postal Service “228” sticky-back shipping labels, are never signed. That said, the common medium, subjects, style, and presentation locale, lead us to believe they’re all the work of a single actor. The fact that new pieces just stopped all at once earlier this year suggests the artist has moved-on–either to other media or, more likely, literally out of the greater Bloomfield-Oakland area where all these examples were spotted.

"mug shot" portrait of man holding arrest sign drawn on US postal service mail label and stuck to glass bus shelter, Pittsburgh, PA

Mug shot, Bloomfield

portraits of criminals drawn on US postal service mail label and stuck to glass bus shelter, Pittsburgh, PA

Rogues gallery, Bloomfield

We don’t know who did these, but we’ve watched enough Luther and The Fall to consider ourselves well-prepped for psychological profiling. The subject matter here–kitschy demi-celebrities Gary Coleman, Rodney Dangerfield, and Moe from the Three Stooges, the skull-and-headphones of a Hot Topic silk screen, and criminal anti-heroes like Al Capone and David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz–just feels a little too on-the-nose to deny. We’re definitely making an assumption, but this is the work of young man.

postal label with ink artwork of skull wearing headphones, Pittsburgh, PA

Skull & headphones, Oakland

portrait of person with head in hands drawn on US postal service mail label and stuck to glass bus shelter, Pittsburgh, PA

Head in hands, Bloomfield

The other thing we’ve got on this theory is “Cap Man“. Our story on the string of (apparent) self-portraits committed in awfully-similar medium and style ran earlier this year. In that, we saw the same “postal slaps”–also penned in black Sharpie, stuck to street signs in the vicinity of Craig & Forbes–very close to all of the Oakland specimens here. The Cap Man drawings, however, are not based on previously-published photos, but rather appear to be self-portraits of a young, white, ballcap-wearing male.

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of Rodney Dangerfield, Pittsburgh, PA

Rappin’ Rodney Dangerfield, Oakland

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of Gary Coleman, Pittsburgh, PA

Whatchutalkinbout, Orbit? Gary Coleman, Oakland

What became of Cap Man? In the earlier piece, we theorized that he’s a bus rider, taking the 54C from Bloomfield to Oakland–perhaps even drawing his portraits right there in the back seats, his telephone and Google Images as visual reference, one-a-day on the short 10-minute ride.

If so, his destination was likely central Oakland and Studentland, U.S.A. If so, he’s got umpteen different explanations for taking his big markers home for the summer and allowing the post office to restock its supply of blank shipping labels. Maybe–just maybe–Cap Man will return for another season of infrastructure decoration in the fall.

drawing of Moe from the Three Stooges on US Postal Service address label stuck to bus stop sign, Pittsburgh, PA

Moe, Bloomfield

faded US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of Moe from the "Three Stooges", Pittsburgh, PA

Faded Moe, Oakland

mail label graffiti, Pittsburgh, PA

likely copycat, Oakland

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of smiling woman, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghosting postal: woman (partial), Oakland

 

The Serpentine Similar: Prop Rocks and Flood Stones

river stones labeled with peoples names and ages, Pittsburgh, PA

This is one obscure rock group. The Serpentine stones.

A most unique thing to find in the dirt. Twenty-some river stones, each inscribed with a person’s name, age, and mystery glyph. The collection is carefully laid out so all the written-on surfaces are upright, readable, and may be consumed from a single vantage point. Like the work of a patio builder, the flat stones have been arranged to interconnect gracefully with a minimum of negative space, but also just barely touching so as to avoid any awkward overlap.

Someone wanted these totems to be found, to be read, to be thought-about. But they didn’t want to make them too obvious either. Far enough off the bicycle trail, camouflaged against the stone foundation of a bridge support, darkened in the underpass, and dusted with months (years?) worth of grime, we only stumbled across them because there happened to be a new piece of intriguing stencil graffiti just above on the adjacent wall.

river stone painted with white text reading "Raymond Maat", Pittsburgh, PA

Rock star Raymond Maat

From any distance, the only legible names are the big ones out front: Raymond Maat and Viola Sayre. Written in white paint pen, each of names appears on its own, larger, burrito-sized brown stone. Even from several paces, the ink/background contrast was enough to catch this blogger’s ever-roving eye.

The Orbitmobile (Orbicycle?) never goes far without a couple bottles of water and it’s lucky we had them on this day. It would take gently emptying both containers to rinse off the thick layer of blown dirt and dropped bridge debris to get the stones to a point where they were reasonable to read (and photograph). Even so, we still could have used another bottle.

collection of river stones with barely-legible text written on them, Pittsburgh, PA

The collection as it was discovered (pre-rinsed)

It was only getting up close that would reveal the many other details. Henry McCallum (age 11)Catherine Krueger (age 61)Eduard Raven (age 24)Dennis Girvin (age 27), and a dozen or so more like them, each with one of a couple different symbols. Some have what appears to be feather; others an invented rune, shaped like a capital letter U with an extra wavy line bisecting the verticals. Two of the stones simply read unknown.

river stones labeled with peoples names and ages, Pittsburgh, PA

Henry McCallum (age 11), Catherine Krueger (age 61), Philip Piaza (age 19), Eduard Raven (age 24)

And then, there it is! Placed right in the center of the pack, its painted-on text further worn away than the rest of its buddies. A single stone has what appears to be an explanation for this obscure rock group: Victims of the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood.

With that, it seemed so obvious. Stones–likely pulled from the river just feet away and smoothed by its waters–placed just at the riverbank like a sacrificial altar. This spot is well within the flood plain if (and when) the big one ever strikes Pittsburgh again. What a delightful, hidden, reverent memorial to one of worst natural disasters to ever befall the region.

river stone painted with white text reading "Victims of 1936 St. Patrick's Day Flood", Pittsburgh, PA

Victims of 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood

… or is it?

We don’t know what bloggers did before the computer Internet came along, but luckily The Orbit is well-acquainted with The Google Machine and we worked our index fingers to the bone hunt-and-pecking around for info.

It turns out “Raymond Maat”, “Viola Sayre”, and “Seth Jormundgander” (at least) were all characters created for an alternate reality game/immersive theater production called Serpentine put on by Uncumber Theatrics in 2016. It is entirely unclear from Uncumber’s web site what actually happened in the game or how these painted stones may have figured into it–but that’s likely on purpose. I guess you had to be there, man…and we weren’t. [Yes: we have added this one to our lengthy list of life regrets. Readers: if you played/participated in Serpentine we’d love to hear about the experience in the comments.]

river stones labeled with peoples names and ages, Pittsburgh, PA

Seth Jormundgander, James Green (age 65), Dennis Girvin (age 27)

Regardless of whether we got had or had the hadders, we love the fact that Uncumber made the unlikely choice to just leave this elaborate handmade prop right out in the open–hidden in plain sight, as it were. Those of us who might happen across it, scratch our heads, and take the time to think about the plight of poor Roland Mars (age 31) and Nathanial Peterson (age 39) can still get a little contact high off Serpentine‘s medical-grade Maui wowee. Does it matter if real people’s names were used for theatrical sport? What if they were simply invented entirely as color elements to move along the game’s narrative?*

We don’t have the answers to the questions. In the spirit, however, The Orbit has made the decision not to tell our readers any specifics on where to find the Serpentine stones. There are plenty of clues here (and elsewhere) if you want to go looking for them yourself. Or, just go out–anywhere–poke around, and keep the peepers open. Something will come into view soon enough.

river stones painted with white text reading "Nathanial Peterson (age 39)" and "Roland Mars (age 31)", Pittsburgh, PA

Nathanial Peterson (age 39), Roland Mars (age 31)

UPDATE (24 July): Like this blogger’s waistline, the plot has officially thickened. Astute reader–or perhaps, inside operative–“Fourth River Fortean” pointed us to a 1981 Pittsburgh Press article that details the death of one Dennis Girvin (age 27) who “drowned while partying and swimming” in the Allegheny River.


* We were unable to locate an actual list of the victims of the St. Patrick’s Day Flood to compare these names against, nor did Googling the names from the stones reveal any connection to the flood of 1936.

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.