Live, Worship, Eye-Pop: In Bellevue, Anonymous Welcome Art

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue’s *other* welcome sign, Ohio River Boulevard

A quick blast of psychedelic color might be all you get. From the corner of the eye, a riot of blue and purple swirls, orange and yellow stripes, irregular, jagged boxes. Maybe you don’t see it at all, but just sense something alien and alive at the side of the road. Blink and you’ll miss it, the tired phrase goes–but it’s absolutely true in this case.

Bellevue. The old, down-river trolley suburb prides itself on its community, faith, and bargain retail. So much so, the borough’s most salient feature is a giant, glowing, boomerang modern entrance sign proudly announcing these civic strengths.

So it was no small surprise to discover Bellevue’s other, more humble, and completely anonymous welcome marker.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue welcome art [detail]: windmill, church, apartments

The piece appears to be entirely created from recycled parts. A section of fencing forms the supporting backdrop. It is painted like an impressionist aurora borealis the good citizens of Bellevue are unlikely to witness in real life. Attached to the wooden slats are a haphazard collection of scrap wood, snipped tin, and other assorted bits and bobs. Some have been spray painted through crude stencils; others are just rough, raw lumber.

It’s loose, for sure, but there’s no mistaking the composition as a street-level view of a small town. The specifics are really up to the beholder, but it’s safe to say the artwork could easily represent Lincoln Avenue, Bellevue’s main street, just a couple blocks up the hill.

The town’s live / worship / shop principles are represented in multi-story apartment buildings, a pair of cross-and-steeple churches–even a taco shop. A factory-looking structure, well off the main drag, down by the river, might be ALCOSAN. I don’t know that Bellevue actually has a windmill, but there’s one of those here, too.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue welcome art [detail]: apartment buildings, taco shop, church

Heading outbound/westward on Ohio River Boulevard, one leaves the city as s/he crosses the little unnamed bridge over Jack’s Run. Within the length of a couple blocks, the Bellevue sprawl–a collection of fast food joints, no-tell motels, and oddball old-school holdouts–comes into view.

It is exactly at this point–when one is least expecting it, but perhaps most in need of it–where the colorful blitz of this alternate, wordless Welcome to Bellevue flashes by through the passenger-side window. I’m telling you now: you might encounter it this way–but you won’t actually experience it at 40 miles an hour.

Park the car. Better yet, get to it Orbit style: it’s a terrific, easy bicycle ride from anywhere in Pittsburgh. [Just don’t try to ride on the highway!] Get up close, sit on a stump, and let the passing big rigs rustle your hair, Bellevue-style.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Water’s edge: ALCOSAN possibly?

There’s no information provided with Bellevue’s welcome art, no signature to decipher on the back. It exists on an improbable tiny dirt lot right along busy Rt. 65. So we don’t know who created and placed the artwork or what the motivation was. It’s unlikely borough elders would commission something this folksy–and they’d probably have installed it in a more central spot if they had–but that’s just a guess.

So here, in a total void of facts, is where we lean on pure speculation. It feels very much like the work of someone who just loves his or her borough. Enough to take the time to create a heavy, wall-sized tribute to the town, truck it down to a miniature vacant lot, and hoist the piece up on a set of tree stumps for passing motorists to glimpse as they whiz by.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

In context: Bellevue’s welcome art along Ohio River Boulevard

The artist may want to supply townsfolk with a pleasant image as they arrive home from work in the city. Perhaps it was actually a commissioned job from the owner of one of the nearby houses or businesses. Maybe someone just had a spousal ultimatum to get the damn thing off the porch.

Regardless, we like to think the artist was hoping some visitor might actually slow down and take a deeper look–maybe even bicycle all the way out just to see it. It’s not every day you run across a terrific little public objet d’art installed in a dirt lot next to Discount Tire Center, but it should be, and it can be. That is, if you take the time to live, worship, and/or eye-pop in Bellevue.

Black-and-Gold: Just for the Hel-o-met

1950 Willys Jeepster decorated in tribute to the Pittsburgh Steelers

“The Helmet,” Ray Kasunick’s 1950 Willys Jeepster Steelermobile

The hood ornament is a six inch goal post. It’s planted right where it ought to be, just past the end zone of the white-lined football field spread across the hood of the car. Side mirrors are housed inside enameled half footballs and you’ll find bottle openers mounted on each of the rear fenders. A polished, functioning pony keg is bracketed to the back bumper.

What you’ll notice first, however, is the enormous dome-like roof. In every way–from the rounded ear-protecting extensions, windshield eye cutout, face mask, and team logos*–it is a Steelers football helmet fit for a giant.

grill and hood of 1950s era Willy's Jeepster decorated in tribute to the Pittsburgh Steelers

Goal post ornament perfectly placed for the hood football field

“The Helmet,” Ray Kasunick’s ultimate Steelermobile, came about by a series of chance events.

The Willys-Overland Motors Company ceased to exist more than 50 years ago. Their convertible Jeepster model was produced for just three years, between 1948 and 1950. In the world of classic cars, the Jeepster is a rare breed.

It’s not every day that you inherit three of them all at once. But that’s exactly what happened when an old friend of Kasunick’s moved out-of-state and couldn’t take his trio of classic Willys carcasses with him. So Ray ended up with the lot. Having already resuscitated a pair of pre-war Fords into slick, chopped hot rods, Kasunick seemed like an ideal candidate to bring one of the Jeepsters back to life.

detail of 1950s era Willy's Jeepster showing "HELMET" personalized license plate and mounted bottle opener

The Helmet’s personalized license plate and one of two rear fender mounted bottle openers

By this point, Kasunick’s friend Joe Grimm had converted a mid-60s Plymouth Belvedere into a certified black-and-gold flag-waving Steelermobile. Seen in an undated photograph, the two-tone paint job cleverly outlines the boxy squared-off shapes of the Plymouth. The car’s crowning glory, quite literally, was an oversized Steelers helmet placed squarely at the center of the roof.

The die was cast, the gauntlet thrown down. Kasunick and a small crew of friends spent the next couple years filling his North Hills garage/workshop with paint fumes and bent steel, wood frames and blown fiberglass. The Helmet was on.

two classic cars decorated in tribute of the Pittsburgh Steelers

The Helmet with one its inspirations–Joe Grimm’s mid-60s Plymouth Belvedere Steelersmobile [photo courtesy of Ray and Kathi Kasunick]

Rehabbing an old car from bare metal is plenty of work all on its own. Constructing a high-concept, functioning, street-legal football helmet roof is quite another challenge.

Kasunick, working with his friend Ed Staley, created the form from arched quarter-inch steel rod, chicken wire, foam rubber, and finally a blown-on fiberglass shell. The rough black surface comes from pickup truck bed liner. Paint job details for the Steelers logo and football field on the hood were applied by a very steady, dedicated hand.

polished half beer keg mounted onto back bumper of car painted in tribute to Pittsburgh Steelers

Rear bumper working keg/cooler

The rest of the features–including two rear seats from Three Rivers Stadium, team-specific interior fabric upholstery, and a football-shaped translucent rear window–all fell into place, friends chipping in where they could. The split football side mirrors come from a donated trophy, cut in half and bracketed to the window frames.

A number of the design elements–most notably the shiny keg, but also the twin Penn Pilsner tap handles on the front bumper, mounted bottle openers, and inside door decorations–all point to Kasunick’s past life. If the name is familiar, you probably remember Kasunick’s eponymous beer distributor on East Street, Northside. He recently retired after forty years in the business.

roof of Kasunick Steeler car signed by Frenchy Fuqua

“I’ll never tell.” The Helmet signed by #33 Frenchy Fuqua

Today, Ray and his wife Kathi enjoy taking The Helmet out–to games, to car cruises, and tailgate parties–often including nursing or retirement homes. “Anywhere it can bring a smile to someone’s face,” Kasunick says.

So far, The Helmet has been signed by one Dynasty-era Steeler, Frenchy Fuqua, who included the teaser “I’ll never tell.” Michigan native Fuqua reportedly told the couple, “I need a picture with you to show them how you do it back in Detroit.” The Kasunicks would love to get additional Steelers to autograph The Helmet.

two seats from Three Rivers Stadium used as back seats in a Steelers tribute car

The Helmet’s back seats came from Three Rivers Stadium. Its rear window is a translucent football.

No matter where you stand on boofing, ralphing, summer skiing, and the devil’s triangle, it’s been a rough week all around. It feels a little like the whole country got beat up and no one’s recovered yet. So it’s probably a little pollyanna to focus on sports fandom when there are much more important national discussions going on.

But one of the great things about sport is its ability to unify in a way few other things do [the weather, maybe? is it Friday yet?]. Not everyone likes professional football–and there’s a lot to take issue with–but every type of person does. In this time of such great division, the simplicity of one antique car, lovingly turned into a fantastic, goofy game-day oddity feels like just what we need. Why? Well, just for the hel-o-met.

Ray and Kathi Kasunick in front of their 1950s era Willy's Jeepster painted in tribute to the Pittsburgh Steelers

Ray and Kathi Kasunick in the home garage where The Helmet was built, North Hills


* Yes, The Helmet (the car) has Steelers logos on both sides; the team has the unique helmet design where the logo only appears on one side. The Orbit failed to ask Kasunick about this design decision, but it looks great.

Black-and-Gold: To the House! Steelers Structures

brick building with trophies in the window painted gold with black trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers dojo: Martial Arts Against Street Violence, Homewood

To paraphrase a well-trod cliché, if you build it, they will paint it black and gold.

What’s the point of owning your own diner, butcher shop, or martial arts studio if you can’t serve up those eggs and home fries or break lumber with your bare feet in a building faithfully decked-out in the home team colors? Firing the boss and doing what you want is the American dream! And just like those other local goals–one for the thumb, cracking open a six-pack, and, yes, stairway to seven–dreams really do come true*.

Today, for the start of the 2018 campaign, The Orbit salutes the über-fans who’ve gathered up brushes and tarps to decorate the façades of storefronts and residential exteriors in tribute to their favorite professional football team. Collectively, we’re calling these Steelers structures.

retail storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers storefront: Lawrenceville

empty retail storefront with cutout of Pittsburgh Steelers football player, McKeesport, PA

Steelers storefront: McKeesport

diner storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers diner: O’Leary’s, Southside

Sign for Cutty's Candy Store that includes the Pittsburgh skyline and a version of the Steelers logo with the word "Cutty" added

Steelers sweet shop: Cutty’s Candy Store, Homewood

retail storefront painted black and gold, Homestead, PA

Steelers snack shop: S&S Food Mart, Homestead

exterior of Ray's Barber Shop, Pittsburgh, with two homemade Steelers emblems

Steelers barber shop: Ray’s, Shadeland

storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers dojo: Three Rivers Martial Arts, Brookline

There are plenty of Steelers bars out there–pretty much every decent-sized American city has one (or more). Why, from Mugs ‘n Jugs in Clearwater, Florida to The Peanut Farm in Anchorage, Alaska, there will be no problem with Pittsburgh ex-pats catching the exploits of Antonio, Juju, and the gang any time soon. [There’s a semi-complete list up at SteerersBars.com.]

But if your local tavern runs the Steelers games on flat screen and imports a case of Iron City Beer for homesick fans, know they’re just doing the bare minimum. Real Steelers bars call to you from the street, wearing their own form of black-and-gold uniform or come bemuraled in crude renderings of trademark-safe generic football players frolicking on the gridiron.

brick building with first floor bar exterior painted black and gold, Brownsville, PA

Steelers bar: Brownsville

black tavern door with gold trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers bar: Gametime Tavern, Spring Garden

exterior of roadhouse bar painted black and gold, McKeesport, PA

Steelers roadhouse: Mellon’s Pub, McKeesport

The fully-committed football fan doesn’t just enjoy a couple dozen games a year. No no no. He or she wants to live football–through the long, cold off season, the extended draft weekend, mini-camp, and boring preseason exhibitions.

One can literally inhabit the football lifestyle in a full-on Steelers house. Why fool around? Let’s go foundation-to-roofline in black-and-gold! The house will pop from the snow and bare trees in winter; in the fall, you’ll be conveniently camouflaged in your game-day jersey.

house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers house: South Side Slopes

row house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers row house: Lawrenceville

Not every homeowner is willing to go all-in on the black-and-gold, which leads to phenomena of the Steelers porch. This very much feels like a keep-the-peace compromise between one super fan and the rest of his or her (but who are we kidding? it’s probably his) family. That, or said supporter just didn’t want to do the hazardous second- and third-floor work on the extension ladder.

Either way, these awkward “business inside, party on the porch” houses get much respect…but probably not from the home decorati.

frame house with black-and-gold porch, Beaver Falls, PA

Steelers porch: Beaver Falls

house with brick porch painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers porch: East Liberty

house front painted Steelers gold with black trim, Sharpsburg, PA

Steelers porch: Sharpsburg

Ma won’t even let you paint the porch? Well, there’s still an opportunity for a Steelers garage out back or around the side. The industrious football fan  can decorate a two-car shed in a bye-week afternoon. (Or even more time if his buddies “help”.) There’s no ladder work involved and they’ll look great housing your Steelermobile.

older 2-car garage with doors painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers garage: Spring Hill

2-car garage painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers garage: South Side Slopes

At this point, the casual Orbit reader may justifiably assume Steelers structures exist only in the spheres of retail storefronts, watering holes, and home improvement.

And you’d be wrong again! Make no mistake: you’ll have no problem locating the region’s favorite color scheme on factory buildings, car lots, and at least one (former) secret society.

ornamental dome painted black and gold on Dipcraft Manufacturing Company building, Rankin, PA

Steelers dome: Dipcraft Mfg. Co., Rankin

small masonry building painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers used car lot: Lawrenceville

brick building with cinderblock doorway painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers ex-secret society: Pythian Temple, Hill District

For those wishing to further pursue additional Orbit coverage of Steelers fandom, see also:


* No, a seventh Super Bowl win has not come to Pittsburgh…yet.

The Over-the-Wall Club: Mon Valley Mondrian

brick wall with many styles and paint colors, Clairton, PA

Composition in Four Quadrants, Large Avenue, Clairton

One needn’t be an art connoisseur to recognize Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black. The 1929 oil-on-canvas painting is a simple geometric abstraction consisting of heavy black lines separating different-sized rectangular spaces. The three primary colors make cameo appearances, but the vast majority of the canvas is plain white.

Even if you don’t know this particular artwork, the piece is typical of Mondrian’s late-career shift that would define him. The easy-to-imitate style would be nicked for everything from textiles to housewares to TV game show sets; we still see plenty of it today. Three years ago, the original Composition No. III sold at auction for a record $50.6 million dollars[1].

Piet Mondrian's painting "Composition No. III, with-Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black"

Piet Mondrian, “Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black,” 1929

You can buy a three-bedroom home in the City of Clairton, around 15 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 30 thousand dollars[2]. Clairton’s story is a familiar one to its sister (ex-)mill towns in the Monongahela Valley–a boom for the first half of the 20th century following the massive growth of the steel industry, gradual exodus to the suburbs as families bought cars and became more mobile, then the steep decline with the collapse of Big Steel in the ’80s. Today, Clairton’s population is around a third of its peak in the 1950s[3].

That’s left a lot of vacant real estate. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the sale price of this one little artwork–Composition III is just 20 inches, square–every for-sale property in Clairton could be purchased, many times over[4].

cinderblock wall painted red and blue with a white stripe, Clairton, PA

Lavender over Dark Red with White Stripe, Stewart Alley, Clairton

minimal abstract painting "Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray)" by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko, “Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray),” 1961

While it’s unlikely anyone in Clairton owns an original Mondrian, the fine residents of the “City of Prayer” have a trick up their collective sleeve–they just have to look out the window or walk down the block. There, for public view on the side streets and little alleyways, is an accidental, but absolutely spot-on survey of 20th century modern art.

Stewart Alley, just a block or two from the center of town, has a dead ringer for Mark Rothko’s soft-form, two-color ambient abstractions. Clairton’s version is rendered in deep red and light purple on the cinderblock wall of a commercial backside. The artist has upped the ante with a jaunty high-level racing stripe just under the roofline.

brick with layers of "ghost signs" overlapping, Clairton, PA

Treat Yourself to the Best, Waddell Avenue, Clairton

mixed media/collage artwork by Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, “Magician,” 1959

Just a couple blocks away and across a grassy vacant lot, sits the long side wall of an empty retail storefront. The wall features a riot of overlapping ghost advertisements–for Gold Medal Flour, some kind of tobacco, and others faded beyond recognition. The drywall and peg board from an ex-next-door neighbor are included in the collage, as is the yellow after-market siding protecting the apartment residences above. [Note: not all of this made it into the photo detail.]

Together, the life-imitating-art-imitating-life tableau made up a composition that spoke to the mixed-media/assemblage work of Robert Rauschenberg. Here, some stray, recycled text; there, paint smears, crumpled forms, jagged angles, and overlapping imagery.

exterior wall built in multiple styles of brick and cinderblock, Clairton, PA

Komposition von mehreren Mauerwerk (Composition of Multiple Masonry), Miller Avenue, Clairton

Karl Peter Röhl's geometric abstraction "Komposition mit Ruhendem Quadrat"

Karl Peter Röhl, “Komposition mit Ruhendem Quadrat (Composition with Resting Square),” 1924

Nearby, a wall so exquisite it quite figuratively took our breath away. Four interlocking, independent types of masonry–six patterns when you add in the squeeze of mortar and one stray white square–form such a simple, perfectly-balanced arrangement that it’s hard to fathom how the wall could have ended up that way by chance…or maybe it didn’t?

An older garage on Large Avenue features unique multi-tiered depth around its single, truck-sized garage door, a weathered two-tone paint job, and a bricked-over window that inserts an unexpected vertical box into the façade. That shape plays against the stair step drama of the doorway for a feeling that’s both harmonic and unresolved, balanced and weighted all wrong.

brick wall with worn paint job in several different levels, Clairton, PA

Five Layers, Large Avenue, Clairton

Jasper Johns stacked painting "Three Flags"

Jasper Johns, “Three Flags,” 1958

The Over-the-Wall Club held the latest of its infrequent, haphazard meetings in Clairton and we couldn’t have selected a finer set of public verticals. The small city has been through a lot, and contrary to the old saw, these walls do talk. They speak volumes, in fact, on growth and change, weather and time, industrial might and D.I.Y. ingenuity.

Sure, walking into a nice brand new construction brings a bunch of modern amenities and the rehab and reuse of older buildings is terrific. But there’s so much…not world history, but the people’s history in an old wall that often gets lost when the paint rollers and drop cloths come out.

brick wall with handmade "no drugs" painting on wood, Clairton, PA

No Drugs, Mulberry Alley, Clairton

Burgoyne Diller's geometric abstraction "Second Theme"

Burgoyne Diller, “Second Theme,” 1949

Sometimes club members–like faithful parishioners waiting on the Rapture–get hung up on what’s on the other side. Clairton’s walls tell us to look right here, right now, at the intense beauty we can see in front of our eyes without going anywhere. We can reach out and touch it without the tantalizing prospect of a jackpot lottery payout or taking out a loan on the house. And it makes us value the moment–if history is any guide, these will be gone before you know it.

In fact, old Clairton is coming down hard and fast. An entire block of the St. Clair Avenue main drag has been torn down and planted with fresh grass seed since the last time we were in town. The Treat Yourself to the Best ghost sign was only exposed from a similar pair of demolitions on Miller Avenue. You’ve only got a limited window on these lovely old time-worn and tale-telling walls before they’ll either be meeting the paint brush (hopefully) or, more likely, the wrecking ball (sigh). Consider it your one shot at a traveling exhibit. Take the opportunity to see it and say goodbye while you still can.

10-speed bicycle leans against a weathered cinderblock wall, Clairton, PA

10-Speed (The Orbitmobile), Stewart Alley, Clairton

minimalist painting "Series #14 (White)" by Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman, “Series #14 (White),” 2004


[1] Source: https://www.christies.com/features/In-The-Saleroom-Piet-Mondrians-Composition-No-III-6090-3.aspx
[2] Source: https://www.zillow.com/clairton-pa/
[3] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clairton,_Pennsylvania#Demographics
[4] The irony of Clairton is that it still hosts one of the few operating mills in the region: U.S. Steel’s massive Clairton Coke Works dominates the entire curling riverfront downhill from all parts of town. It’s a cliché, but if you’re anywhere in the area you can’t miss it.

Incisor Edition: Dental Art

mural on brick wall of large tooth with crossed toothbrushes and the sign "Dentistry", Pittsburgh, PA

tooth & cross-brushes: Jeffries, Smith & Associates, North Oakland

Holy molars! Big teeth. Monster teeth. Heck–we’re in Pittsburgh–dinosaur-sized teeth dangle from storefront awnings, appear painted in exaggerated scale on wall advertisements, and light up the night in window-sized neon displays. The teeth often come to life in bizarre anthropomorphized versions of the real thing, complete with goofy smiles [a tooth with teeth!] and little arms bizarrely clutching their own teeth-cleaning tools.

Dental Art is genre you’ll likely not find represented at this year’s upcoming Carnegie International–and that’s a shame. Don’t let its everywhere and everyone populism lull you into thinking a happy, glowing, purple neon molar is anything less than the noblest of public-private art partnerships. Anyone may go in for the crown, but whether you make a bee line for the canines or you’re just bicuspid-curious, we’re all royalty in a realm this rich with tooth display.

neon sign of large tooth with smiley face advertising dentist, Ambridge, PA

Walko Family Denistry, Ambridge

neon sign of large white tooth in blue frame, North Side Dental, Pittsburgh, PA

Northside Dental

Why is dentistry unique among medical fields in advertising via super-sized versions of the body part being treated? We don’t find an equivalent mass of enormous feet outside podiatrists’ offices or giant schnozes at the ear, nose, and throat specialist. Sure, you’ll see some see a pair of big eyeglasses here or there, but optometrists don’t tend to lay out for sculpted, disembodied eyeballs. What gives?

Why, if every neighborhood gastroenterologist and gynecologist had massive public art-sized scale models of the digestive and reproductive systems in front of their buildings, we’d all learn something with a stroll down the sidewalk or drive-by trip to the grocery store. Cardiologists could light up terrific neon hearts, the stop/start blinking lights crudely simulating blood pumping through ventricles. Why is this kind of action only acceptable for dentists? To all the doctors in the Orbit’s readership: how can we make this happen?

large plastic tooth painted gold hanging in front of dentist's office, Pittsburgh, PA

gold tooth with big cavity: Affordable Dentistry, Shadyside

large 3-D sign with large mouth and toothbrush for Select Dental, Millvale, PA

pop-art dentist: Select Dental, Millvale

We can probably answer our own question here. Kids start out terrified of the dentist, and it only goes downhill from there. You think braces are bad? Try getting a double root canal!

As intimidating as a visit to the doctor’s office or hospital clinic can be, there is something about the dentist’s chair that inspires a level a dread like no other (routine) medical procedure. The forced-open mouth, novocaine injected straight into the gums, instruments of torture clinically laid out to aggressively scratch the enamel from our defenseless chompers. And then there’s Hobson’s choice, incisor edition: wintergreen or tutti-fruitti?

Oh, and how about that squeal when the drill is engaged–changing from ear-piercing ultra-high pitch to an oppressive grind as we helplessly watch smoldering tooth shrapnel spray on the protective lenses of all present. The whole experience gives this sometimes sweet tooth the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it.

anthropomorphized smiling tooth with toothbrush and toothpaste from a sign for McKees Rocks Dental, McKees Rocks, PA

this tooth could use a cleaning: McKees Rocks Dental

dental office sign with anthropomorphized tooth holding giant toothbrush, Clairton, PA

David S. Shoaf, DDS, Clairton

So it makes sense in a profession that invokes sheer terror in the minds of a significant portion of its clientele that the conscientious dental professional would do everything in her or his power to lighten the mood. These are not cruel people; we just perceive them that way. Bring on the bright colors, the big smiles, the pop art oversized toothbrush, lips, and pearly whites.

My Oakland-based dentist [no tooth sign, but she gets a pass because the office is in a big building] has some kind of custom, ad-free music channel clearly designed to be as inoffensive and restful as possible. While a doped-up hour with James Taylor, Enya, and John Mayer could be considered its own version of Hell, no one will actually be driven to rage.

What lies ahead may not be fun, these accommodations all seem to say, but we’ll do our best to make it all right. Much respect to all the dentists and all their big teeth.

wooden dentist's sign in the shape of a tooth, Pittsburgh, PA

wooden tooth: South Side Dental Pavilion, Southside

wooden sign for Dr. Petraglia & Associates dentist office, Pittsburgh, PA

ye olde toothe: Dr. Petraglia & Associates, Bloomfield

hanging sign with silver tooth in circle advertising dentist's office, Ambridge, PA

no words needed: Dr. Sooky Arpad, Ambridge

large tooth-shaped sign reading "Premier Family Dentistry welcomes Dr. Broring", Baldwin Borough, PA

Premier Family Dentistry, Baldwin Borough

logo for Munhall Dental of capital letter D intertwined with outline of tooth

Munhall Dental [photo: Lee Floyd]

logo for Merit Dental of a combined bridge and tooth

bridge work, Pittsburgh Oral Surgery, East Liberty

neon sign with tooth shape in dentist's office window, Bridgeville, PA

David Regine, DMD, Bridgeville

Tales of the Trail: The Rutkowski Shoe Memorial

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Township

As memorials go, it’s a strange one. At a small clearing along a bicycle trail sits a rectangular raised plot, bordered by river stones, about the size of a modest backyard garden. The ground is staked with 18 short lengths of white PVC pipe. Each has an article of decommissioned footwear firmly attached, its sole turned toward the sky.

None of the shoes match and they appear to come from a variety of sources. There are women’s dress shoes with chunky heals, rubber-soled trainers, and comfortable sneakers. Though most are adult models, some of the shoes are sized for a small child, while others would fit a still-growing youth. All have been decorated with after-market paint jobs, now disintegrating after years (?) exposed to the elements.

The center of the memorial is a large, engraved stone with the text In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, “Always put your best foot forward.”

green ladies' shoe attached to PVC pipe

Kimberly Rutkowski’s obituary features just the bare minimum information. Her residence was listed as South Fayette, a large suburban township just west of where the memorial lives now. She was survived by a husband and two children. As the stone tells us, Ms. Rutkowski died in January, 2005. She was just 43.

As obituaries tend to do–or not do, as is the case–there is no real personal detail to go on. We don’t know what Ms. Rutkowski cared about or did for fun, what she dreamed of or was made crazy by. We don’t even know what she looked like. But for those of us who never got to meet Kimberly Rutkowski, we can at least share the abstract experience-by-association of putting our best foot forward through the loving, humorous, and thought-provoking memorial in Collier Township.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Panhandle Trail starts or ends (your pick) in Rennerdale, just a few miles past Carnegie. It runs 30 miles due west to the outskirts of Weirton, West Virginia. It’s a lovely, easy ride through gentle, rolling hills, lush full summer overgrowth, and comes replete with all manner of scurrying creatures, circling hawks, babbling brooks, and eye-popping wildflowers.

It also features a number of human-created attractions, including a bunch of small towns and country hamlets the former Pennsylvania Railroad used to serve before the tracks were replaced with trail. Along the way is a former quarry, a congenial bicycle shop, and enough little restaurants to sate trail-generated hunger almost anywhere along the line. Bike-to-beer fanciers will find the newish Helicon Brewery right along the route in Oakdale.

These are all wonderful accompaniments to a thoroughly-enjoyable bicycle trek, but it was the Rutkowski memorial that kept the Orbit office buzzing for days after we finished the ride.

engraved stone with the text "In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, 'Always put your best foot forward'"

“In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, ‘Always put your best foot forward'”

Like all great art, the shoe memorial asks more questions than it answers. Was “always put your best foot forward” such a repeated catch-phrase that Ms. Rutkowski’s friends and/or family needed to take it to the next level? Was the deceased herself in on the design? How and why did the creators select this plot of trailside ground? We just don’t know.

So we’re left to wonder and come up with our own personal interpretations.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

There was a time in this blogger’s early life when 43 would have seemed like a ripe old age. Those days–just like that particular birthday–have long since passed. Forty-three is young! Or, at least, it’s what we think of as middle-aged. We know we’re not owed anything in this life, but in one’s early forties we hope to still have nearly as many tomorrows as we had yesterdays.

So, the next time you find yourself on The Panhandle Trail [yes, make sure there is a next time] take the opportunity to pause for Kimberly Rutkowski and her tribute of second-hand pumps and discarded jogging shoes. We’ve only got so much time on this earth–make sure to not only put your best foot forward, but wear those shoes to the nub when you’re doing it.

memorial with shoes nailed to PVC pipe planted in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Twp.

Getting there: The Panhandle Trail has its own web site with maps and all the relevant information on trailheads and route. The Rutkowski shoe memorial is on the eastern end of the path, between Rennerdale and Oakdale.

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2018

rows of small flags marking surface-level military graves in Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Allegheny Cemetery, Lawrenceville

Independence Day, the most American of holidays. From its origin in the founding of the country to the relentless red, white, and blue seen everywhere on porch rail bunting, matching jogging suits, and strawberry-blueberry desserts. Baseball, mom, apple pie, and yeah, bombs bursting in air–they’re all there–as are the only slightly less-mythologized backyard cookouts and blowout sales at big box retailers.

The flag itself–all fifty stars and thirteen bars of it [or some other random numbers, if you remember last year’s flag roundup] is all over the place and it’s as divisive as ever. These three colors are a glaring mess when you get too much of them in one place and this becomes its own kind of visual metaphor for the confusion and oppression many of us feel when there is just too darn much flag-waving going on.

mural of American soldiers raising flag at Iwo Jima painted on red brick wall of house in Johnstown, PA

Iwo Jima mural, Johnstown

concrete roadside wall painted with American flag, McKees Rocks, PA

fading glory: bicentennial flag, McKees Rocks

Feel free to revolt! Break out the purple, orange, and green ensemble! Turn up the Fela Kuti, Shoukichi Kina, and Sergio Mendes! Put kimchi on that hot dog and dip those French fries in mayonnaise! What is, after all, more American than dissent?

A Prosecco toast may feel revelatory, but there are definitely more productive ways to embrace one’s Americanness. Voting, of course, is also as American as things get. [Sadly, so is not voting.] Do your good deed for the day: get an unregistered voter signed up and on the right track to participating in his or her democracy! SwingLeft offers a really great, clear voter registration guide and Rock the Vote has been a force in registering young voters for decades.

And, sweet Jesus, if you’re reading this and are not already registered to vote, do it for yourself right now. You can register online (at least, if you’re a Pennsylvania resident); it only takes a couple minutes.

American flag draped over large object with cat and cat bowls sitting on top, Pittsburgh, PA

coffin/cat feeder flag, Spring Garden

concrete pylon decorated like the American flag, Coraopolis, PA

VFW, Coraopolis

All that blathering aside and all those misgivings noted, creating representations of the American flag fits right in the pocket of one of The Orbit’s bread-and-butter staples. When (otherwise) non-artists are motivated to pick up brush and paint to get their outer patriot on, the results are almost always interesting. Plus, Independence Day is the most obvious opportunity to run the flag pictures we collect all year.

That’s all we’ve got. Happy Fourth of July, ya’ll.

abandoned storefront with American flag painted on glass, Ambridge, PA

storefront, Ambridge

brick wall painted with American flag mural, Verona, PA

Billy Kay’s, Verona

cinderblock wall with painted American flag, McKees Rocks, PA

laundry/dry cleaners, McKees Rocks

grocery store display of soda pop packaging made to look like a bald eagle

pop art: Giant Eagle giant eagle/American flag, Homestead

mural of American flag on retaining wall along bicycle trail

retaining wall, Montour Trail

American flag made from construction paper

Church of the Assumption, Bellevue

wooden shipping pallet painted like an American flag, Ambridge, PA

The Kowalskys pallet flag, Ambridge

shipping pallet painted like American flag hanging on wooden fence

pallet flag, Stanton Heights [photo: Greg Lagrosa]

homemade American flag decoration leaning against house foundation, Neville Island, PA

Neville Island

musician Weird Paul performing in front of an American flag, Pittsburgh, PA

a real American hero: Weird Paul at the Elks Lodge, North Side