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

Art Opening: Garage Door Murals

garage door murals of giant cat head and abstract lines and stars, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Garages, man. The mythological backyard birthplaces of great art and invention–from Thomas Edison making light bulbs to The Kingsmen banging out those three chords to Steve Jobs and “The Woz” inventing Pac-Man (or whatever they did).

While little structures to park your car in exist everywhere, there is something quintessentially and uniquely American about the garage. Our obsession with the automobile, along with the affluence to afford the extra real estate–let alone, the sport SUV–and America’s young history, unencumbered by precious Medieval ruins, ancient bazaars, or sacred bones–makes all land fallow ground for building home for our cars.

While the three-bedroom split-level house with its integrated two-car garage has become synonymous with twentieth-century suburbia, there are plenty of interesting alleyway garages serving retail storefronts, row houses, and gingerbread Victorians all over the city. It is this collision of circumstances that, uh, opens the door (sorry) to great garage murals.

garage door covered with plywood painted with colorful bridge and hills, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

Mural painted on garage door of man on motorcycle with the Pittsburgh skyline behind him and a banner reading "Gone but not Forgotten"

Gone but not forgotten, Homewood

Some of these many retractable, roll-up doors have been gloriously decorated with large-form artwork. That makes perfect sense–the garage door is such a nice, big canvas–sixty square feet at the minimum; much much more when you get into two-car widths and double-door arrangements. Plus, the street- (or, more often, alley-) facing arrangement guarantees an audience of neighbors, scavengers, and garbage collectors as they trundle down the hill, possibly to or from their own garages.

garage door mural of heart and flowers with text "Bienvenidos a Brookline", Pittsburgh, PA

Bienvenidos a Brookline, Brookline

colorful abstract mural on garage, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship

It’s an interesting opportunity. Most property owners don’t paint such wild, loose scenes on the exterior brick and stucco walls of the main house. But the garage seems to have a different set of rules–no one considers it sacred space, crucial to the visual integrity of the home. The neighborhood may look like Peyton Place from the street, but it’s Dazed and Confused in the back alley.

mural of colorful furry cartoon character painted on garage door, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

garage door painted with crowd of people, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

garage door opening covered in plywood and stenciled with birds and birdcages, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship [1]

brick wall over former garage painted with elaborate tag, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

An interesting sub-genre of the garage door mural shows up in these artifacts from a long-over radio station contest around pop group ‘N Sync. I was unable to locate any mentions of this on the computer Internet, but from our small sample size, it looks like participants were required to paint a garage door in tribute to both the singers and [defunct radio station] B-94, with the names of on-air personalities John, Dave, Bubba, Shelley and band members spelled-out. The one from Aliquippa (below) is particularly great for its crude renderings of Justin, Lance, J.C., and the gang.

garage door painted by fans of N*Sync for radio contest, Aliquippa, PA

B-94 ‘N Sync mural, Aliquippa [2]

The B-94/’N Sync murals would make a great subject for its own post, but we have no confidence we’ll ever see any more of these. [If you know of any, hook us up!] The contest probably ran right around 2001 at the height of ‘N Sync’s popularity and while it may have had many teenagers decorating the family car park back then, turn-of-the-millennia middle/high school students are now in their 30s and should have moved out of the house by now. We imagine even the most supportive and/or nostalgic parents took the opportunity to whitewash over these alley-facing memories.

garage door painted for radio station content as tribute to N*Sync, Munhall, PA

B-94 ‘N Sync mural, Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]


[1] Given the quantity of both the stenciled bird and birdcage images around town, this particular artwork was likely not created by the property owner–nor is it a full mural. Regardless, it’s still garage door art, so we included it here.
[2] Shelley’s name is partially-covered in plywood and otherwise faded/worn away in the bottom row of panels.

The Over-the-Wall Club: A Winter Meeting

weathered brick and sheet metal factory wall, Etna, PA

factory, Etna

Every inch of the wall tells a story. Consider just the thick steel doors, rusted so far that a firey red is bleeding through the darker brown surface as if the earth’s crust was finally giving way to its molten core. Miscreants have scratched their tags and in-jokes into its surface and an off-the-shelf safety placard warns us about what we already know–DANGER lies on the other side.

Surrounding this lone entry point are a patchwork of industrial building materials: brick of a couple shades, cinderblock, concrete, sheet metal, corrugated fiberglass, PVC pipe, blue light bulbs suspended in a strand, and thick, high-voltage electrical wire.

There is but a single design detail committed for its aesthetics. Within one of the red brick surfaces, the mason has crafted an off-bias diamond that interrupts the stacked pattern in the gentlest of ways. Otherwise, this place is all business.

roofline with several commercial buildings, Charleroi, PA

roofline, Charleroi

If you’re tired of writing, the old wisdom goes, then you’re tired of living.

For The Over-the-Wall Club, there’s a similar mantra: if you’re tired of walls, then you’re really just tired of seeing. Put those eyes away–into a box in the bottom drawer, or send them off to the thrift shop so someone else can use them at a cut-rate price.

When last we met, the Over-the-Wall Club was pondering that old stand-by of the Dumpty clan, what’s on the other side? But let’s not ignore the trees for the forest. What’s right here in front of us may actually be the more interesting subject. Just because it’s blocking the view of those other things we think we’d rather be looking at doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

brick wall painted green and aqua with homemade address sign, Pittsburgh, PA

row house apartments, Oakland

Walls. America loves talking about them, and–gosh darn it–Mexico loves building them…at least, that’s what we’re told. But try to convince the federal government to put up a two-tone, aqua-on-lime green splotchy brick wall along the Rio Grande and see how far it gets you. In fairness, it’s a color scheme that maybe even Enrique Peña Nieto might get behind–but we still doubt he’s going to pull out the nation’s wallet any time soon.

alley wall with ghost signs and many materials, Butler, PA

ghost signs, ghost windows, ghost paint job, Butler

Another entry in the wall-as-modern art category. This geometric bricolage of styles and materials in a Butler alleyway competes with Etna’s factory row (above) in sheer density of visual stimuli. Two different mid-century Firestone Tires ads have ghosted themselves almost out of readability against a field of brick and stone, tin and particle board, paint and ash. If you can’t imagine a century’s worth of narratives playing out against this scenery, you’re not trying very hard.

tiled wall with cross and mountain, Pittsburgh, PA

ex-church, West End

If these walls could talk, they say–but some do! How does a former house of worship manage to preserve its midcentury terra cotta Jetsons cross and mount with but a few cracks and crumbles and still shed the loose bricks around it like tears at a funeral? I know, I know–it’s God’s way, or something like that, but there may be an equally fascinating or boringly prosaic reason. No matter how much church we go–or skip–we’ll probably never know.

facade of building with shadows of telephone pole and wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Industri l Engi & S p ly, Homewood

It’s the stories, man–the stories. The letters probably just fell off all on their own, but someone made a very conscious decision to block in those windows and repaint just one section in a warm, sun-baked yellow-orange that makes the whole mundane façade look like a poor man’s Mark Rothko. The criss-crossing shadows of a strong wooden utility pole and warped telephone lines decorate in the most abstract of ways.

interior of cinderblock warehouse with shadows of roof structure, Pittsburgh, PA

roofless warehouse, Strip District

Maybe there’s a set of parallel shadows that dance across the suddenly-exposed wall surfaces and make the whole scene light up like special effects at a discotheque or fancy lighting in a theatrical production. How many precious moments do we have before this old warehouse either gets a new roof or has the cinderblock walls felled to clear the lot? We can only wonder.

mural on outside retaining wall of fish and sunset, Penn Hills, PA

retaining wall mural, Penn Hills

…But that’s what The Over-the-Wall Club does best, wonderWhat’s on the other side? Sure. But also how did we get right where we are? And how can we stay just like this forever? If only it were that easy.

Until next time, we’ll see you over-, under-, roundabout-, and upside-the-wall.


See also:“The Over-the-Wall Club” (Pittsburgh Orbit, April 12, 2015)

Go On and Take a Free Ride: The Tarentum History Mural

mural of rail car with famous natives of Tarentum, PA

famous Tarentum natives: Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, Henry Marie Brackenridge, Capt. J.B. Ford, “Uncle Billy” Smith, Sam Kier, and J.W. Hemphill

A rearing horse bucks at the sight of a beautiful woman through a rail car’s passenger window. High school sports fans celebrate championships of the Tarentum Redcats and Highland Rams. A pair of bonnet-wearing homesteaders share an emotional goodbye with a departing Union soldier headed off to war. Mercantile goods are unloaded from a flat-bottom riverboat to the R. McAyeal General Store. A Vietnam veteran dances with a mysterious one-armed monochrome man[1].

These very public Norman Rockwell by-way-of David Lynch scenes come to us from the dedicated hands–and seriously overworked paintbrush–of one Wally Sommer. They all play out upriver, over the bridge, and downtown, in Tarentum.

mural detail of high school students with banner reading "Redcats basketball champs '67 '68", Tarentum, PA

Redcats basketball fans

mural detail of Vietnam War veterans dancing and "Welcome to RAM LAND" sign, Tarentum, PA

Welcome to RAM LAND, dancing vets

The history of Tarentum–from the native Shawnee Indians on undeveloped Allegheny River banks to present-day football fans tailgating before a Steelers game–is chronicled in an amazing right-to-left time-traveling mural spanning the equivalent of an entire city block in the Allegheny Valley borough’s downtown.

The long concrete retaining wall has been painted in one epic, continuous 180-foot scene that takes the spectator through more than two hundred years of borough history. Starting with native Americans in unspoiled lush summer lea, the viewer is taken on a multi-century journey through colonial-era mercantile settlement, Tarentum’s industrial heyday[2], connections to U.S. war efforts, social change, famous natives, leisure, and business.

mural of army tank on train car with soldiers, sailors, and WACs on train station platform, Tarentum, PA

Tarentum’s contribution toward World War II

mural detail of World War II WACs, Tarentum, PA

WACs

That this magnum opus was created by just one person–an unpaid, 61-year-old (at the time) volunteer who “runs a family-owned auto repair shop” at that–is pretty incredible. A 2010 TribLive article profiles the work of Sommer as he was still currently one year into the painting process. At that point, the artist estimated he’d already put 500 hours into the massive work, hoping to finish another six months later. [No word on when the piece was actually completed.]

Sommer may be an amateur painter, but he’s clearly got both talent and technique. Sure, there are some funny proportions and odd angles, the backgrounds get a little splotchy when you get in close and there’s a John Kane-like flatness to some of the larger scenes. Overall, though, it’s really quite an impressive feat that stands up against similar pieces by “real” artists and rewards close looks at the many tiny details Sommer has included.

mural of native Americans with land that would become Tarentum, PA

(Shawnee?) natives of lower Allegheny River

mural detail of two men in Pittsburgh Steelers team jerseys, Tarentum, PA

Steelers fans

The thematic device of a single multi-use train spanning a couple hundred years of local history was not without its bearing in immediate reality. Tarentum Borough, twenty miles northeast of downtown Pittsburgh, is bisected by prominent east-west train tracks that parallel the river and separate the town into distinct sections. Below are river flats with most of the commercial and industrial buildings. Above the tracks are largely residential slopes full of single-family detached homes, schools, and churches. The retaining wall-turned-history mural is just below East 6th Ave. and directly behind the old 1913 downtown depot, now home to JG’s Tarentum Station Grille.

mural detail of 19th century rail worker and draft horse in field, Tarentum, PA

rail worker and draft horse

mural detail of soldier reading letter and sailor waiting at Tarentum, PA train station

soldier and sailor at Tarentum station

You won’t find a passenger train that stops in Tarentum anymore (sigh), but as a freight route, the tracks that parallel the Allegheny River still get plenty of daily use. Tarentum, like many of its sister riverfront (ex-)factory towns, has “seen better days”. According to Wikipedia, the town’s current population of 4,500 is less than half its peak in the 1940s[3]. So it’s easy to see why a large public artwork that celebrates a history of making things, winning wars, and establishing a nation would be appealing. But it’s also encouraging that this spirit still persists in the work of Wally Sommer. There’s no comparable mural project in, say, Clairton or Ambridge or right across the river in New Kensington.

mural of early American settlement with general store, farmers, and river boat, Tarentum, PA

early mercantile Tarentum general store and river boat

mural detail of Pittsburgh Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins logos, Tarentum, PA

Pittsburgh sports and the hardhat-wearing fans who love them

This blogger has opined on both the virtues and perils of large, public artworks in these virtual pages before. Unlike the Sewickley Speakeasy or Images or Rankin, however, Tarentum’s mural really feels built to last. It won’t take the daily roadside abuse of the former and we imagine a more invested maintenance plan than the latter. It also has the feel of a real we’re-all-in-this-together town centerpiece that will be watched-over, respected, and loved. Seven years on, the painting still looks fresh, vibrant, and as alive as the day Sommer finally laid down his brush. So far, no teenager with a can of spray paint has defiled the piece. Let’s hope it stays that way.

mural detail of Union army soldier with two women in Victorian dress at Tarentum, PA train station

Union soldier leaving from Tarentum Station

mural detail of train car windows showing man with A-1 Rental equipment, Highlands High School students, fraternal organization logos, Tarentum, PA

(present-day) mural sponsors, businesses, and civic groups are well-represented: A-1 Rental, Highlands High School, fraternal organizations


[1] We suspect the dancing partner is a fellow veteran of a more recent desert war–Kuwait, Iraq, or Afghanistan–but it is unclear from the painted depiction.
[2] The Big Steel era of the mural was sadly in heavy shade on the super sunny day we visited, so we chose not to include any of the substandard photos from this section.
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarentum,_Pennsylvania#Demographics

Water’s Gone Cold: An Elegy for Tea Bags

brick wall painted with logo for Tea Bags bar, Pittsburgh, PA

Side wall of Tea Bags with logo/mural (and painted-over tag line), Lawrenceville

Once, I’m told by my lifelong Lawrenceville neighbor, Butler Street included a bar whose sign advertised No TV, but a fight every night. Mark claims the message was no exaggeration–just pure statement of fact. That space is now V3 personal (fancy) pizzas. There’s still no television, but it’s doubtful there’s an equal amount of trouble.

Another friend talks about a saloon in Michigan called The Home Bar, so named because “no matter what you did, you can always come back”. The Home Bar is apparently still around, allowing Kalamazoo’s citizenry back in some thirty years on.

Tea Bags bar logo of anthropomorphized tea bag with sunglasses and toothy grin, Pittsburgh, PA

Advertising one’s establishment as a source of a certain amount of calamity seems like a strange business model, but it obviously works…enough.

Always in hot water has been Tea Bags goofy salacious tag line for at least a couple decades. It used to be featured in big scrolling letters under the rest of the bar’s alley side mural, but was sadly painted over a few years ago*. The slogan remains etched into the custom behind-the-bar mirrors, but they won’t last long…and you probably can’t get in to see them anyway.

The Main Street Lawrenceville/Bloomfield corner bar has yelled its final last call, packed up its Cherry Master machine, green bar stools, large jars of alcohol-soaked cherries, and loaded them into a box truck directed to who-knows-where. The process to transfer Tea Bags liquor license to new owners is well underway.

mirror behind bar with "Tea Bags - Always in Hot Water" logo, Pittsburgh, PA

A well-stocked bar: soaked cherries, potato chips, Handi-wipes, paper plates.

The new, yet-to-be-named business taking over the space [assuming all the paperwork goes through] will be a fair departure from Tea Bags’ nuts-and-bolts no-frills corner bar. From Bloomfield Development Corp.’s posting of the business plan:

“The bar/restaurant is a price friendly location for those who seek educated bar-man ship (sic.) and well crafted cocktails, with an approachable yet notable beer selection, and easy yet technique driven menu items. Pop culture, art, music and skateboarding nuances will account for the subtle design details to create an easy feeling atmosphere that is appreciated by the local 25-35 age range.”

man and woman at bar with bartender looking on, Tea Bags, Pittsburgh, PA

Looks like somebody’s in hot water! The kind of typical skateboarding Millenials who will inevitably gravitate to the new bar’s “easy-feeling atmosphere”.

Call this blogger an old, non-skateboarding fuddy duddy**, but it’s painful to see oneself demographically excluded from a new place in the neighborhood before they’ve even selected a name.

It’s becoming a sad, repeated refrain–even right here in the virtual pages of Pittsburgh Orbit. The old place catering to every(wo)man closes from declining business or gets bought-out or someone just retires. The new owners want to get them some of that Google and Uber dough. Why eke out a living on dollar Jello shots when you charge six bucks for an I.P.A. and ten for a hamburger? It makes economic sense–if you can sell it–but feels like a little part of the city is dying with every one of these upsell transitions.

3-story brick building with Tea Bags bar on first floor, Pittsburgh, PA

Not an optical illusion: Tea Bags trapezoidal shape

This blogger won’t claim to have been a regular at the bar [so maybe I’m part of the problem!] but he’s slanted a few in its smoky, natural light-defying confines over the years. Along with Wilson’s Pharmacy, Sunoco, and the 54C, Tea Bags has been the most constant presence in the general Penn & Main crossroads for the last twenty years. I must have walked, ridden, and driven past the bar thousands of times by now–pretty much every single day. Even with that frequency, seeing the big-toothed grin on the sunglasses-wearing anthropomorphized tea bag never fails to bring a smile.

If it were up to Pittsburgh Orbit, we’d extract the entire Woolslayer Way mural wall and preserve it forever in a sacred, public place–just like Romare Bearden’s glorious “Pittsburgh Memories” mosaic in the Gateway Plaza T station.

That probably won’t happen, though. So take a little advice from us and get thee over to Main Street to check out Tea Bags’ smiling tea bags while you still can. The water’s cooling down mighty fast.

mural detail of anthropomorphized tea bag wearing sunglasses and with wide toothy grin, Tea Bags bar, Pittsburgh, PA

Grinning tea bag logo (detail)


* The reason is unknown, but we assume graffiti cover-up as the likely explanation.
** Not to mention grammar snob. Whoever wrote this business plan needs to learn how to deploy a hyphen correctly!

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?

Rankin Amateurs

faded mural with a mixed group of people in front of elementary school, Rankin, PA

Rankin Elementary: home of tomorrow’s professionals and today’s friendly aliens

Two of the friendliest alien lifeforms one is likely to encounter wave hello from the distance. Welcome to Rankin! they seem to suggest. The creatures’ giant insectoid bodies are as large as the glass entry doors of an elementary school, comical color-coordinated antennae bob from their big-eyed heads.

In front are a panoply of the borough’s truly fine citizens: a physician, the mayor, 4-H club members, their advisor, and one sullen teenager*. In the background, Old Glory waves spectacularly as a perpetual rainbow gilds the perfectly blue sky.

fading mural with businessman and exterior of Dipcraft Mfg. Co., Rankin, PA

Businessman, Dipcraft Mfg. Co.

It’s one of the Images of Rankin, a series of four large murals** created by artist Connie Merriman along with a dozen Woodland Hills high school students. The paintings pay tribute to positive community members in Rankin through posed group portraits with backdrops of notable borough locations. The set turns twenty this year.

The images decorate an otherwise drab, high cement retaining wall half-way between, and parallel-to 2nd Ave. (aka Rankin Blvd., below) and 3rd Ave. (above). They form the backdrop to a small parklet with a wooden gazebo/bandstand at the north end.

fading mural with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, Rankin, PA

The ladies and gentlemen of Rankin

Rankin Borough has had a rough few decades. The giant U.S. Steel mill along the river stopped producing in the late 1970s and it never had the business district that neighboring Swissvale (to the north) and Braddock (south) have. Today, its unruly collection of squat row houses, frame worker homes, and newer (but not new) apartment terraces have clearly had their share of wear and tear.

But there’s a lot of pride in these paintings that celebrate the people in the neighborhood that are (or, at least, were, in 1996) still fighting for it–a councilwoman, president of the CDC, members of the Rankin Christian Center, a businessman, a community organizer. Like Alfred Hitchcock before them, the 4-H Club members took the opportunity to paint themselves into Rankin’s history.

fading mural of kids hanging out, Rankin, PA

Youth of Rankin: watch out for that weed!

Back in March, we covered the tragic and beautiful deterioration of the murals of the Sewickley Speakeasy. Many of the thoughts from that post could be restated here, but there are some notable differences. Where the Speakeasy paintings suffered from paint flaking and water seepage, the Rankin murals are more intact, but have been substantially sun-bleached and overtaken by nature.

In both cases, the artists’ work is skilled and recognizable–I bet everyone in town could name the figures portrayed. That said, these ain’t Rembrandt. There’s a delightful amateur quality that’s somewhere between folk/outsider art and thrift store chic. The trees look like cartoon backdrops and perspectives are distorted; hands are formed like stiff mannequin parts and people tilt awkwardly as if magnetically drawn. And then there are those overly-excited bug-like aliens…

Retaining wall with murals, Rankin, PA

In context: retaining wall with the Rankin murals


* All mural subject identification comes from the very informative entry at pghmurals.com
** The paintings are actually on OSB mounted to the wall, so they probably aren’t technically “murals”.