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