The Blight Stuff: Nathan Van Patter’s “Bound by Blight”

Artist Nathan Van Patter with a sculpture of moving truck holding an entire deconstructed house
Artist Nathan Van Patter with his sculpture Moving Day 15104

We know it when we see it. And if you live in Pittsburgh, you see it all the time.

Sure, a drive through the East End can feel like there’s a new Legoland condo going up on every block and us old-timers will prattle on about the travesty of cranky old dive bars and red sauce Italian joints turning over into foo foo artisanal dining experiences with curated wine programs—but it’s really not that way everywhere. Huge swaths of Pittsburgh aren’t seeing any new investment; real estate values have barely budged; vacant lots and condemned properties way outnumber lived-in homes.

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of dilapidated house
North Braddock House 6

That reality gets a whole lot more obvious as soon as you head up or down any of the rivers. To most outsiders, (ex-)industry towns like Monessen and Clairton, New Kensington and Ambridge are the very picture of Rust Belt devastation. These are places where the mill shut down 40 years ago and took most of the people who lived there with it. Nature reclaims whatever is left untended and ultimately the wrecking ball will finish the job.

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of dilapidated house
North Braddock House 2

“I don’t know if there’s a perfect word to describe it,” says artist Nathan Van Patter, whose current show Bound by Blight is an honest, loving, powerful meditation on life in another post-industrial borough, North Braddock.

“I chose the word bound because it has two meanings,” Van Patter says, “It means to be stuck—which is how a lot people in places like North Braddock find themselves. But it also has this other meaning of being bound together—people working to solve these kinds of problems as a community.”

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter featuring clock, sunshine over house, housing tower, police car, and ambulance
The Nights Are Too Big

Those dual themes—the weight of life in a crumbling physical landscape and the joy of that same life in a community where neighbors, bound together, truly look out for each other—inhabit every artwork in Van Patter’s terrific collection, even the ones in outer space.

Seeing the show, we experience enough of the hard stuff to get it. But Van Patter, who moved to North Braddock with his wife and kids four years ago, isn’t interested in “ruin porn.” The show is also full of the many many good things he’s experienced as a resident—a wall of portraits for various neighbors and community members, the metal shop and barber, sunflowers and urban farms, the big North Braddock sky.

painting/sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of blue sky with clouds painted on cracked wooden boards
North Braddock Sky #2 (Cracked Sky)
portrait painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of woman with houses running around his head
Lisa
portrait painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of man with houses running around his head
Sean

Van Patter works in a medium we might call pictorial painted sculpture. You could also turn that around and say they’re paintings on wood constructions with sculptural elements. Van Patter just calls them paintings.

The pieces are literally rough—built on irregularly sized wooden boards with chips of rough cedar glued into place to approximate wood siding and stone, crumpled metal and bushy trees. The Orbit‘s photographs included here—or any photographs of Van Patter’s work—won’t do the 3-D elements justice, so we encourage the reader to see them IRL. (More about that below.)

The awkward chunkiness of the medium gives every artwork depth and texture, sure, but more importantly the fantastic quality that while we’re looking at real life subject matter—abandoned houses, police cars, utility poles—the scenes are distorted, dream-like, impressionistic.

sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of police car with fences and street signs growing out of it
Community/Police

That fantasy/reality divide runs through the full breadth of the show. Trees, fencing, and street signs jut out from a distorted North Braddock police car in Community/Police (above). Black-winged angels fly in the night sky above a fast food restaurant in the appropriately-named Angels Over Taco Bell (below).

Van Patter imagines an entire deconstructed home, including utility poles and power lines, packed-up and driven away in Moving Day 15104 (top). With The Nights are Too Big (above) an elaborate clock is made atop a grand day/night scene that contrasts the bucolic sunshine and flowers of the former with the symphony of sirens that score the dark night.

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of angels flying over Taco Bell restaurant
Angels Over Taco Bell (with self-portrait at bottom)

Blight is a heavy word. It’s a shorthand for the kind of urban decay that exists pretty much everywhere, but especially in depopulated, neglected areas where all those socioeconomic factors have very real world, visible effects. It’s also an outsider’s term—no one wants to describe where they live as blight.

“Blight, to me, is the combination of physical decay and intentional disinvestment in communities,” Van Patter says, “People know there’s a problem, whether they’d use that term or not … and it’s a word that gets used in community development a lot.”

painting/sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of small metal shop
Studebaker Metals
sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of medieval knight on horseback in grocery store
Grocery Knight

Nathan Van Patter is a humble guy who thankfully doesn’t talk about his work with any level of art school mumbo-jumbo. He didn’t have to go looking for overgrown houses; they’re all real buildings right there in his neighborhood. The portraits are people he sees at borough meetings and his children’s day care. “Every time something bad has happened [in the neighborhood], something really good happens too,” Van Patter says, “I wanted to paint the portraits of people who’ve helped me and my family and are doing positive things for the community.”

Why insert medieval knights in armor on horseback into into several of the pieces? “I just thought it was cool.”

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of medieval knight on horseback
Deer Dragon (detail)

I think it’s cool, too—the whole thing. Nathan Van Patter, working a full-time job and raising a family, has invented his own very personal approach to creating a unique artistic vision. The artwork is both about the world immediately around him and stretches way beyond the Mon Valley—to knights in armor and sailing ships, angels in the night sky and the “Rust Belt futurism” of science-fiction space stations made from buildings right there in Braddock.

Whether those leaky old windows can hold oxygen is debatable, but that I’d like to visit this vision of the future is not. Beam me up, have one of those jousting knights bring the Aldi’s crudité, and let me at that long view coming out of the Ohringer building floating a couple thousand miles off the edge of the Mon River.

painting/sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of science fiction-like space station made from old buildings
Rust Belt futurism: Space Station 15104
sculptures and paintings in large gallery space
Hope on the Mon River and other pieces from Nathan Van Patter’s Bound by Blight show

Bound by Blight is up now at UnSmoke Systems in Braddock. There will be a final opportunity to see the full collection at a closing reception this Saturday, August 20, 6:00-8:00 PM.

UnSmoke is located at 1137 Braddock Ave. in Braddock.

More on Nathan Van Patter at his web site nathanvanpatter.com and/or Instagram @nathanvp_art.

Art/Work: Big Industry Art

mural of abstract steel mills on brick wall, Hill District, Pittsburgh, PA

Mural, Hill District

They’re striking images. Tall stacks belching a blanket of smoke that blacks out the sky. Grim men with lunch pails and work shirts. A cauldron of molten metal is poured against a skyline of towering steel vessels. The tools and symbols of power generation: hydroelectric, relay tower, a key struck by lightening. Three ironworkers team up to hammer a bar of hot steel on an anvil as beams of radiant energy stream out, ostensibly the only light source in an otherwise unlit workshop.

tile mosaic depicting various industry and innovation from commercial building in Bloomfield, Pittsburgh, PA

Mosaic, Bloomfield

Mural of steelworker, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

(light-up) Mural, Downtown

Somewhere between social realism and folk art lies the realm of steel town tributes to the workers and industries that built them. The mills are (almost) all gone–as are the coke plants, glass and aluminum producers, bridge builders and pipe rollers. But you wouldn’t know it from the public art that still exists–and continues to get created anew–all over the place.

The depictions are of landscapes and people that many Americans wouldn’t choose to decorate with: rusting blast furnaces, smoke-spewing chimney stacks, utility infrastructure, big men–and they are almost always men–working hard.

Mural depicting workers with lunch pails emerging through the pedestrian tunnel to PPG's Ford City, PA plant

Mural, Pittsburgh Plate Glass workers, Ford City

Painting of steel mill and workers with metal and neon lights mounted to brick wall, Braddock, PA

Mixed (mural with neon lights and metal sign), Braddock

Much of “new” Pittsburgh would rather not talk about the steel industry. The air has been cleaned-up (sort of*), there’s a workforce teeming in eds, meds, and….TEDs (?) over yesteryears’ union laborers, and–amazingly–we’re getting some amount of national attention on things like quality of life, affordability, and fancy food. Famously down-on-itself Pittsburgh is even starting to believe some of the hype. Civic boosters and young urbanites want to put those big smokestacks and ginormous rolling mills as far as they can in the rearview mirror.

Thankfully, though, there’s a great reverence for the people and industries that built the region. In fairness, there’s also just a lot more visual power and romance to it. It’s hard to imagine similar wall-sized tributes to tech workers, robot engineers, bankers, heart surgeons, or academics. That said, The Orbit has long considered itself the Joe Magarac of blogs**–so if you’ve got some bare bricks, give us a call. Like Norma Desmond, we’re ready for our close-up.

Mural painted on cinderblock wall of iron workers hammering hot steel on an anvil, Red Star Iron Works, Millvale, PA

Mural, Red Star Iron Works, Millvale


* The actual quality of the air is still a mess–you just can’t see the problem quite so obviously any more.
** Or at least the Joe Pesci of blogs. You think this blogger is a clown?

Wheatpaste Roundup

drawing of a pig with the text "Every day is a fresh start" wheatpasted to mail box, Pittsburgh, PA

Shadyside

A drawing, some cut paper–maybe somebody else’s poster. A batch of homemade goo cooked up on the stove. It’s the lowest of tech, but when it works, wheatpaste jumps right off the wall–sometimes quite literally as the rough edges curl up, tears form where property managers have fought to scrape them off, or they inevitably fade and disintegrate in the weather. It’s always a surprise–graffiti, sort-of, but also like weird wallpaper. It looks equally good when it’s fresh and new and also when it’s falling apart. Sometimes they even manage to attract their own after market graffiti.

Enough talking about this one–this blogger will just get on with it. Here’s a batch of recent-ish grabs from around town.

image of hand-drawn telephones wheatpasted to glass bus shelter, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

image of three children wheatpasted to brick wall, Braddock, PA

Braddock

poster of naked man urinating into plant pots with text "Water save reuse treasure" and graffiti "Die yuppie scum!!!", Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

wheatpaste poster of psychedelic eagle with graffiti "Praise God" and "Survival is Political", Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

image of circular saw cutting off fingers with the handwritten text "Everybody makes mistakes", Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

image of man with camera wheatpasted to brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

wheatpaste poster of bare hands holding bullets and pills with the text "Survival is political" and "Combat rations", Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown