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”.

More Time for the Skyline

Art installation of Pittsburgh skyline as large cut-outs with black and white patterns projected on them

Spirit Lounge Pittsburgh 200th Birthday Celebration

Back in January, we posed the question is the Pittsburgh skyline that distinct? No definitive conclusion was achieved but it became clear that we’re dealing with an extremely popular subject. In only the few months since, we’ve seen new examples of the same profile appear over and over–in art, in industry, in history. Here are The Orbit’s favorites:

Spirit Lounge‘s 200th birthday party for the city was an orgy of Pittsburgh in-joke goofballery. The flashing, multi-color downtown skyline diorama looked great in all of its phases, but especially this high-contrast, two-tone number (above)–amazingly with just one building’s profiles caught on the bias. Hats off to whoever put this great display together.

Airbrush painting of the Pittsburgh skyline seen from the North Side

Warhola Recycling, North Side

Warhola Recycling would have to include a North Sider’s view of the city. The big touch points are all there: PPG, Fifth Avenue Place, Point State Park and its fountain–even one of the party boats on the river. This mural, airbrushed on the big steel doors on the side the building, is a great example of the skyline potentially popping up just about anywhere.

fantasy skyline with various Pittsburgh elements included

Energy Innovation Center (former Connelly Technical Institute), Hill District, c. 1930

The depiction of Pittsburgh in this arched doorway mural from the old Connelly Technical Institute is terrific in a number of ways. First, it’s just very much of its time–a pseudo-realistic depiction of the city in full industrial might: a place of buildings reaching to the skies, bridges that can ford any span, industry cranking out…stuff, and glorious rolling green hills as far as the eye can see.

But it’s also a perspective that doesn’t actually exist–and never did. The painting is a fantasy view of Pittsburgh combining real-life entities (downtown’s Gulf Tower, the Panther Hollow Bridge in Oakland, steel mills, farmland) plucked out of their actual habitats and re-combined in a close-shouldered collision. It’s like a regional greatest hits album that lacks any cohesive flow, but still sells because it’s got all the good stuff people want to hear.

city skyline painted on concrete tennis practice wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Garland Parklet, East Liberty

This skyline, painted graffiti-style in a park in East Liberty, is almost so abstract that we can’t count it–it could be Anytown (O.K. any city), U.S.A. There’s no recognizable Gulf Tower or U.S. Steel Building, but the central point is arguably Fifth Avenue Place’s giant hypodermic needle. They’ve also got a generic bridge in there, though it doesn’t really look like any of the “three sisters” suspension bridges. In any case, this blogger thinks it counts. Plus, it ended up on the backstop of a tennis practice wall in East Liberty, which is a pretty neat place to turn up a city mural.

Pittsburgh skyline mural painted on cinderblock building

Red Star Ironworks, Millvale

Excuse the weird cropping here, but there was a glass block window and a competing mural to work around. The entire front of Red Star Ironworks’ Millvale workshop has been painted as a giant tribute to big dudes working with hot steel. The split pair of Pittsburgh skylines that bookend the mural are really just a decorative afterthought. But they’re still there, and you won’t have any trouble picking out the now-familiar key players.

mural on brick wall including the downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Mural, Art All Night 2016, Lawrenceville

We could have filled an entire post–maybe several–with depictions of downtown Pittsburgh entered into this year’s (or any year’s) Art All Night. But we went with the one that will go down with the ship: a mural painted directly on the brick wall of the 39th Street Arsenal Terminal building that ain’t long for this world. New condos await, right there at the foot of the 40th Street Bridge, but they’re not going to make it into this skyline.

Murals of the Sewickley Speakeasy

disintegrating mural from Sewickley Speakeasy, Sewickley, PA

Waiter

Nothing lasts forever, we know this. This is especially true of art, which is produced in much greater quantity than there is demand, often in fragile formats and up to extremely subjective taste and value judgement. But to have one’s canvas get dusty in the basement or torn in a move has got to be a wholly different experience than watching the slow-motion disintegration of something as large and inescapable as a giant public mural right along a major thoroughfare where passers-by literally can’t miss it.

disintegrating mural from Sewickley Speakeasy, Sewickley, PA

George Gershwin

The Murals of the Sewickley Speakeasy have a lot going against them, at least in terms of longevity. First, they’ve got to deal with an inhospitable Western Pennsylvania climate–drastic temperature fluctuations, dense humidity, snow, ice, sleet, rain, and, yes, occasional bright sunshine. Then, they’ve been painted on a retaining wall holding back a steep incline. The hillside runoff alone, leaching through the concrete, would likely separate paint from surface material in short order. Add to this the wall’s position, mere feet from busy Route 65, which must receive plenty of kicked-up salt, exhaust, and road debris.

disintegrating mural from Sewickley Speakeasy, Sewickley, PA

W.C. Fields

Given all that, maybe it’s no surprise the murals have weathered so severely in not even twenty years. We don’t know what they looked like when the paint was fresh, but even with an obvious nostalgia theme in mind, dollars to doughnuts they didn’t have the washed-out, sepia-toned color you’ll find today–and that’s where you can still make out an image at all. On large stretches of the seven mural sections, great amounts of the underlying paint and nearly all of the recognizable figures are gone.

disintegrating mural from Sewickley Speakeasy, Sewickley, PA

Greta Garbo

What’s left, though, is beautiful and tragic. I’m sure when the owners of the Sewickley Speakeasy commissioned these pieces they set out for an inviting, mood-setting series of vignettes to invoke not just the conviviality of any great nightspot, but certainly also the high-style/wink-and-nod underground romanticism of Jazz Age urban life–a place where some of America’s greatest musicians and movie stars mixed with politicians, bootleggers, flappers, and toe-tappers (not to mention the penciled-in family members of the bar’s owner).

Some of that still shines through the cracks, but mostly we get ghosts–fractured, fallen apart, and disappearing into clouds of base primer and bare concrete. In some cases, the remaining images are astonishing. George Gershwin, still nearly intact but soot-covered enough to look as in black face, sits at an invisible piano. W.C. Fields, with cocked top hat and great drunkard’s schnoz, is clearly identifiable against a blitzed-out snowstorm of fragmented paint chips. All smiles, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Pittsburgh’s-own Lena Horne still look like they’re having fun, oblivious to the dust storm blowing in fast*.

disintegrating mural from Sewickley Speakeasy, Sewickley, PA

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, piano player

The Orbit reached out to August Vernon, the artist who painted the murals back in 1999, but either he doesn’t want to talk to us or he really doesn’t check his email. From what we can tell, Vernon continues to paint large-scale murals, but now from a home base in a warmer, sunnier climate (either Florida or South Carolina–his web site lists both). The artist’s changes in latitude have likely put grimy Route 65 and the Sewickley Speakeasy murals far in his pastel-colored rearview mirror. That’s too bad, as we really wanted to know what the experience is like to see such an epic project fall into this nether state and what the outlook is like for a working artist who must confront this potential deterioration on a daily basis. We’d also love to get his memories on creating the Speakeasy murals.

At this point it seems unlikely we’ll hear from Vernon, and if so, that’s something he shares with his most famous characters. We’ll never know the real Clara Bow, or Rudolf Valentino, or Bette Davis. The world was left with their films, and we’ve got Vernon’s painted tributes–at least, until they’re gone with the wind.

disintegrating mural from Sewickley Speakeasy, Sewickley, PA

Clara Bow, Al Capone and friends


* Help identifying some of these characters from an entry on pghmurals.com based on a 1999 Post Gazette article by Barbara Cloud.

 

Valentine’s Day Hearts

graffiti on brick wall of dozens of small hearts above a row of commercial trash bins, Pittsburgh, PA

Flying hearts (or maybe just flying flies) and trash bins, Oakland

Hearts. They’re just about everywhere this time of year, right? In shop windows, taped to cubicle nameplates, iced into bakery desserts, crocheted in red yarn and pinned on comfy sweaters. But try to find a real one–O.K., not a real real one, but an un-store bought/handmade/interesting representation of a heart–it ain’t so easy. There are some of them out on the street, though.

Neon sign of a red heart with green bands surrounding from a tattoo parlour, Pittsburgh, PA

Tattoo parlour neon sign, South Side

Love is a great thing, right? If so, why is Valentine’s Day such a loathsome event? [To call this a “holiday” is a major stretch.] It’s contrived from no clear history, crassly commercial, and oozes sickeningly forced sentimentality. No major shopping event between Christmas and Easter? Let’s sell some candy in February! Oh, and pink is just the worst, most nauseating color. This open-to-all-other-hues blogger shudders just thinking about it.

Valentine’s Day seems almost diabolically created to make single people feel bad and puts a lot of couples into a weird state of obligatory self-congratulation. Dear, I don’t subscribe to the man’s holiday, but I also don’t want you to think I don’t care. Being in a good relationship can be terrific, but it ain’t great every single day, and maybe it doesn’t just happen to be firing on February 14 each year–but you wouldn’t know it from the full tables at fancy restaurants and stacks of Whitman’s samplers at Rite-Aid.

Mural of human heart on cinderblock wall by Jeremy Raymer, Pittsburgh, PA

Mural by Jeremy Raymer, Lawrenceville

The heart is a strange symbol for love–although maybe not any more peculiar than anything else we (humans) might have selected. A heaving, involuntary muscle that looks terrifyingly freaky when we actually see a real one going at it. O.R. nurses and surgeons must get used to the sight, but I doubt this blogger ever would. The simplified, symmetric, cartoon representation we’ve adopted doesn’t look anything like a real human heart. If it did, we’d have to find another symbol for the emotion.

spray painted heart stencil

Spray paint/stencil, Bigelow Blvd. pedestrian overpass, Polish Hill

All this belly-aching, but valentines (the physical tokens of affection, not the day) can be pretty darn swell. Fold some paper, cut out some letters, whip out the glue stick.They’re probably one of the few ways (some) people still keep up their craft chops post-elementary school. Mrs. The Orbit never fails to deliver particularly creative, wonderful, and wacky inventions. [She could teach a class!] At least, we hope some other people still hand make theirs, or does everybody just buy a card at the drug store now? Well, if you do, don’t–it’s fun to make your own, it’s a really terrific gesture, and everyone likes to have something, uh, from the heart.

Heart-shaped gravestone, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

They called him “Teddy Bear” (maybe). Heart-shaped gravestone, Highwood Cemetery

A Fine Time for the Skyline

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

Is the Pittsburgh skyline that distinct? This blogger wouldn’t have thought so, but it kept turning up, rendered by hand, in a variety of locales. The image is an interesting choice, especially for some obvious small time players. It’s there on a shuttered candy shop, a no-longer-serving Chinese restaurant, and a tribute to a fallen motorcyclist. [Note to self: cancel appointment to have Pittsburgh skyline tattooed across midriff.]

The iconography seems well established. Each representation features PPG’s signature spiked towers, the giant hypodermic needle that locates Fifth Avenue Place, and the taller-than-them-all monolith of the USX (née U.S. Steel) tower. Optional other inclusions are the fountain at Point State Park, the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne bridges, Oxford Centre’s very ’80s lopped cube, and the Kopper’s/Gulf Tower art deco two-fer.

Mural of a spirit blowing glass above the Pittsburgh skyline at Gallery G Glass, Pittsburgh, PA

Gallery G Glass, Bloomfield

The loose outline of a great glass-blowing water spirit floats weightlessly in front of a rough depiction of downtown’s tall buildings. It looks like Matisse, as rendered by a precocious fifth-grader. This lanky figure seems to spring from a Smurfs-like version of the Point State Park fountain. Earth, air, fire, and water: all the elements are there. The mural pictured here is actually just one half of a set–its nearly-identical twin faces the other direction and sits just on the other side of Gallery G’s front entryway on Liberty Ave.

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

Cutty’s Candy Store, Homewood

We loved this combination Pittsburgh portrait/ornate Steelers tribute/Candy Store business sign so much we ganked it for the Orbit masthead. The skyline has all the usual players, but here they’re rendered in a really effective semi-detailed black & white, resting on a set of rococo brass work, and reading brilliantly against the pitch black background. Maybe if Cutty had made the text as easy to read the candy store would still be in business and we could have popped in for some licorice on the ride. That was not to be.

mural of the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh painted on brick wall of former Yen's Gourmet restaurant, Pittsburgh, PA

Yen’s Gourmet (detail), East Liberty

We’re gathering the materials on the inevitable Orbit obit to Yen’s Gourmet (R.I.P.) on Penn Avenue and this one popped-out. The long brick wall that makes up the east-facing side of the building has one continuous mural of a congenial, multicultural East Liberty. Bathed in sunshine, people of all stripes walk the streets, curb their pets, shop, and frolic. There is at least one incongruous wolf (maybe it’s just a husky) with its eyes trained on you, the viewer and its tongue salivating. It is both painful and totally fitting that this portrait will never include the greatest elements of change in a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood that would ultimately send Yen and his $6.95 all-you-can-eat buffet packing*.  Likely the new Ace Hotel does not have such a deal.

Chromos Eyewear sign of a large pair of glasses, with the Pittsburgh skyline in each lens

Chromos Eyewear, Lawrenceville

This is almost certainly the newest skyline around as Chromos only took up shop in Lawrenceville’s tenth ward fairly recently–but how great to keep up the tradition and what an effective use of the idiom! One giant pair of glasses serving as this eyewear shop’s name-free shingle, each with a silhouetted downtown Pittsburgh skyline clearly in view. Real glass allows daylight through the rest of the lenses just like, you know, real glasses. Well done, Chromos.


* Just guessing here: we have no idea why Yen’s Gourmet closed their doors.

 

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:

Murals of the Bloomfield V.F.W.

Detail of mural on the Bloomfield V.F.W. showing returning sailor kissing a nurse

The Kiss

The murals popped-up probably ten or twelve years ago and just like the scenes depicted in them, for Foodland’s (now Shur-Save’s) customers it was like a bomb had dropped in the parking lot.  Seemingly overnight, the nondescript backside of the windowless cinderblock Bloomfield V.F.W. was suddenly transformed into an electric war fantasy where a battleship caricature drifts next to haggard Vietnam G.I.s, a chopper hovers in air support.  World War I-style trench warfare plays out next to a rendering of the famous photo of the V-J Day Times Square kiss.  An evil black stealth bomber soars overhead.

The single large mural covers two sides of the building and features a collection of the most iconic images from each of the last century’s big wars (Korea and Kuwait don’t seem to have made the cut).  The scenes are all John Wayne glory without any of suffering, tragedy, or boredom that the actual veterans inside the post must have experienced.  I suppose that’s to be expected, and yet things can’t have been all that great for every V.F.W. member.

I don’t know when or why the Bloomfield V.F.W. closed, but now that time has passed and the murals have faded and physical structures decayed, they’ve lost at least some of their gun-toting braggadocio and taken on a new air of sadness and absurdity.

Why is the Times Square couple in front of a wall of breaking waves?  Many of the wave crests are literally breaking as the four-foot retaining wall deteriorates under them. Why does the battleship have hundred-yard-long cannons? (Ladies: don’t answer that one.) And why is there a flag-colored curtain exposing the scene as if it is a literal theater of war?

The Vietnam section suffered either a most inept act of vandalism or an unfortunate spill from someone working on the roof. The gas mask-wearing warrior looks out from a trench immediately behind more crashing waves.

I don’t know what will become of the former V.F.W. or its murals and for once I don’t even have a rooting interest either way.  Godspeed.

Detail of mural on the Bloomfield V.F.W. showing battleship with exaggerated cannons

It’s not the size of your cannon…

Detail of mural on the Bloomfield V.F.W. showing Vietnam soldiers and helicopter

“The Shit”: ‘Nam

Detail of mural on the Bloomfield V.F.W. showing World War I trench warfare

Beach/trench warfare