Weed and See: The “Adjutant” Murals and Riverwalk Cleanup

Adjutant mural, downtown Pittsburgh river walk

They leapt right out, wheels in full motion, from a bicycle seat all the way across the river. There, beneath the on-ramp to the Fort Duquesne Bridge, along the thick concrete barrier walls by Gateway Center, stretches a new(ish) blocks-long mural (or series of murals, whichever way you see it). Even from a significant distance and shaded by the ramp structure above, the painting reads as a great collection of wild flora. It begged for further investigation so we legged it up over the bridge, around the park, and down to the river’s edge.

View of downtown Pittsburgh and the Allegheny River from the North Side with Adjutant murals visible under the Fort Duquesne Bridge ramp

In context: the new river walk murals, under the Fort Duquesne Bridge ramp, from the North Shore

Pittsburgh Orbit has spilled its share of virtual ink looking backwards. We’ve devoted an entire series of “Orbit obits” to things that aren’t there any more and when you fetishize ghost houses and ghost signs and graffiti as much as we do, well, you’re not really thinking about your future.

So we thought we’d start 2016 off right with a fresh-faced forward-looking story on something new to us and nearly brand new to Pittsburgh: this terrific blocks-long series of murals decorating the Allegheny side of the downtown riverwalk.

Adjutant mural detail, downtown Pittsburgh river walk

The murals are actually half a year old at this point, making this blogger wonder where the hell was I? Though he’s bragging about eagle-eying the paintings on this ride, he had to have been down this stretch of riverbank dozens of times without ever seeing them, nor did we catch any coverage in the local news last summer. So let this post be another reminder to get out there and keep the peepers scanning!

Though entirely uncredited at the site (as far as I could tell), The Orbit can Google with the best of them. The giant piece is the vision of artist Kim Beck and titled Adjutant (a fancy word pulled from a Henry David Thoreau quote). A team of some 150 volunteers organized by Riverlife Pittsburgh executed the work during the Three Rivers Arts Festival last June. Two blog posts on the Riverlife site give all the pertinent background and details [see links below].

Adjutant mural, downtown Pittsburgh river walk

If you ever used this section of the riverwalk–the stretch that runs between the northeast corner of Point State Park and the slender Allegheny Riverfront Park that picks up around the Clemente (née Sixth Street) Bridge–you don’t likely remember it for its charms. The passageway was perfectly utile and never felt dangerous (at least in daylight), but walking or bicycling through always seemed like traveling where one wasn’t supposed to–fairly lawless and designed to dock giant barges, not facilitate pedestrian traffic. Corners under the bridge often contained the sleeping bags, tarps, and cardboard boxes of the population that lived down there. Discarded liquor bottles, beer cans, and snack wrappers pointed to late night boozers and early morning fishermen who hung out under its private, protected shelter.

So the project to create the 850-foot (approximately three to four city blocks) mural is both a very welcome beautification of an extremely cold, hard, and dark urban space and also seems to be a wholesale cleanup effort to make the passageway a truly inviting link between the parks on either end.

Adjutant mural of Canada thistle under Fort Duquesne Bridge ramp, Pittsburgh, PA

Not only was this stretch scrubbed for the mural’s creation during the arts festival, but it amazingly seems to have stayed that way some six months on. The pedestrian section of the walk is remarkably litter-free and either Pittsburgh’s taggers have decided to leave these walls alone or the city’s graffiti removal crew does spot-on repair work (I’d bank on the former).

That’s all great, but “cleaning up” part of a city is always a loaded term–especially when it involves human beings. As nice and inviting as the new space is, we can’t help but think about those who were displaced (we assume?) in its transition. We’ve noticed homeless camps pushing farther out from town in a way that suggests you have to go that far to not get hassled by the man. We inadvertently ran into one such group in the Christmas Under the Bridge piece a couple weeks back.

Adjutant mural, downtown Pittsburgh river walk

The murals are large-scale depictions of common weeds that appear along Pittsburgh’s riverbanks, rendered in the lean palette of black, white, and a couple shades of gray. Artist Kim Beck informed us that the palette was dictated by the commissioning agency. They look great, but we can’t help but think the addition of some real color would warm the space up considerably and “pop” dramatically against the drab surroundings. That said, we’ll take what we can get, and this is a big improvement on the visual space.

Pittsburgh Orbit’s Pennsylvania wildlife consultant and resident deep woodsman Tim Tomon came down from the trees long enough to identify dandelion, goldenrod, mulberry, pearly everlasting, thistle, wild peppergrass, and wood sorrel among the silhouetted weeds.

Beck’s re-casting of weeds as giant expressions of beauty is certainly an exciting and inviting vision for this just-recently prettified stretch of town. The bright green of the real weeds that peek out from the cracks between foot surface and retaining wall are the only elements of color one sees (save for the bright yellow bridge deck above). Both serve as sweet reminders that a “weed” is purely a situational notion. These all look pretty good to me.

Adjutant mural, downtown Pittsburgh river walk

Sources/more info:

The Meadville PennDOT Road Sign Sculptures, Part 2: The Flower Garden

flower sculpture made from one way and stop roadsigns, Meadville, PA

Back in July, we ran a piece on the PennDOT road sign sculptures in Meadville, just up the highway from Pittsburgh. That post detailed the quarter-mile-long fence/mural that stretches down Route 322 and forms the majority of the immense sculptural project on the property of the local highway maintenance yard.

But not all of it. There is so much art in the PennDOT project that we decided to break the story in two parts, with this second post dedicated to the gorgeous flower garden that sits at the corner of Rt. 322 and Mercer Pike/Rt. 102.

flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

It’s interesting that with all its financial backing and oversight, the brand new Whitney Museum was not sited at a location with Sheetz and Dairy Queen franchises on opposing corners. Worry not: no such oversight was committed in Meadville. Why, if the Crawford County art connoisseur and gastronomist wanted both an order of Sheetz’ Pretzel Meltz or Shnack Wrapz paired with a DQ Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Smash Blizzard Treat, well, she’d be all set, wouldn’t she? And what if her old man had a hankering for one of Sheetz Cold Subz or Saladz, washed down with an original Orange Julius? You know he could find that too–hopefully with room for a Peanut Buster Parfait.

flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

In their present form the flowers look like the work of some combination between Dr. Seuss and Dr. Jekyll. All fantasy shapes and riveted steel; eye-popping iridescent reflectors and crudely cut welded metal. These photos may or may not accurately represent the scale of these pieces, so let’s just say this tall blogger was dwarfed by even the shortest of the flowers which easily topped-out at ceiling height.

silhouette of the underside of flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

Trying to figure out which particular specimins the sculptures may represent–or even if they’re modeled on reality–led this blogger down the rabbit hole of Pennsylvania flower identification. Where’s cub reporter Tim when you need him? I won’t claim we came away with any clear IDs, but we’ve got our suspicions.

flower sculpture made from highway detour roadsigns, Meadville, PA

We’re pretty sure we located sweet wakerobin (Trillium vaseyi) in the garden, [note to self: consider “Sweet Wakerobin” for next band name] maybe a sunflower, but, we realized pretty quick that trying to match bent steel that reads Boy Scout Troup 254 to a nature guide is a fool’s errand. Maybe we could put some real scouts to work, you know, scouting actual local flora against these art flowers. Or maybe we should just sit back back with our M.T.O. Chicken Stripz and enjoy the scenery.

flower sculpture made from highway speed limit and direction roadsigns, Meadville, PA

Like the best art, the Meadville PennDOT sculptures are equal parts wonder and inspiration. How did they do that? at the same time as I want to do that! And I truly would love to do that. Maybe all it would take is a pair of tin snips, a couple trips to Construction Junction, and box of Band-Aids. Oh, and that pesky basement cleanout.

flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

 

The Twin Sycamores of Sheraden

Two sycamore trees trained and grafted together to form an archway over an entrance sidewalk

The twin sycamores of Sheraden

Magic.  Here at the Orbit we like all kinds of things: art and music and food and history, but above all, the world-weary blogger is looking for magic.  We found a neat little dose of it on a side street in Sheraden.

There, flanking the front walk to a very old frame house, are two great sycamore trees, trained up and over the walk to form a beautiful archway portico, and then ultimately grafted together into one united, very tall and healthy trunk that extends way beyond the top of the house.

Two sycamore trees trained and grafted together to form an archway over an entrance sidewalk

A 1999 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story on the trees explains that they were grown by one William S. Bockstoce, a Sheraden banker and horticulturalist who lived with his wife in the home until their deaths in the 1960s.  Bockstoce is also credited with cross-breeding tulips and roses that persisted on the property (at least up to the story’s writing–we may need to check back in the spring) and contributing to scholarly research on peonies.  The then-current owners of the home estimated that the sycamores were started some time around 1940.  I don’t know how long sycamores live, but here’s hoping this conjoined pair has another seventy-five years in them.