Budget Christo: The Woodwell Street Streamers

house decorated with colored streamers

An electric aqua-blue shaft of light shoots from the heavens, down through thick tree tops, and ricochets from short rods pounded into the earth. The visible energy is focused and transformed back to a tree trunk, a brick pillar, a front porch fixture. Down the block, a full spectrum of color blasts overhead, making direct contact with a low hedge at the front of another house. The phenomenon continues up and down the street and around the corner–reconfigured, alternately arranged, and impressively coordinated so that no two homes appear at all similar.

In each case, the colored lines have the magical quality of both rays of light, frozen into fixed, timeless position, but also fluttering ever so slightly in the soft breeze as to trick the eye into seeing a bewildering array of subtle hues from even a single one of these mass-extruded plastic streamers.

house front yard decorated with colored streamers

Woodwell Street is a single, long residential block in North Squirrel Hill. Its tidy array of pre-war four squares and arts & crafts double houses are reliably well-maintained with groomed, flowers-a-poppin’ front yards and neighbors intensely tending to their hedge rows and raised vegetable gardens. The number of Bernie for PresidentAll Are Welcome Here, and Black Lives Matter yard signs says much about the demographics of its residents. [Whether any black lives actually, you know, own property here is a separate question.]

house decorated with colored streamers

The phrase keeping up with the Joneses has such a derogatory slant, but feels applicable here. One imagines the arrival of a new Prius or enameled 24″ Weber as front-page news on a street as uniformly kempt and free-of-strife as Woodwell. Neighbors appear loathe to allow the green grass any more than three inches in height before a regularly-scheduled haircut; there is neither peeling paint nor discarded litter anywhere to be seen. Good luck finding a statue of Mary.

So the introduction of bright plastic colors, freeform conceptual art, and public expression–if only within a tight set of coordinated parameters–seems like it must represent some kind of seismic shift in the community landscape of Woodwell Street. Each household must ask the inevitable existential question: are we traditionalists or are we with the color revolution?

house front yard decorated with colored streamers

“Surreal environmental installation artist” Christo passed away on May 31 at the age of 84. The Woodwell Street streamers were well under way by this point, so at best, we can consider these works a prescient or coincidental tribute to the artist who, along with his wife and creative partner Jeanne-Claude, achieved fame by creating elaborate, grand-scale works redecorating nature. The two covered an island in pink polypropylene, ran fabric fencing into the ocean, and constructed 7,500 safron-colored gates throughout New York’s Central Park in the dead of winter, among many other projects.

house decorated with colored streamers

While it’s tempting to title an article with the cheeky name Anti-Christo, that would do both the lawn decorators of Squirrel Hill and the namesake a disservice. These pieces are imaginative, fun, and achieve exactly what Christo and Jeanne-Claude were after: they get the visitor to look at both the built environment and the flora that surrounds it in new and different ways. They also manage to achieve that with the cheapest and most accessible of materials. For this, we’re going with Budget Christo.

tree decorated with colored streamers

While any time is the right time for fun walkabout/drive-by public art, it seems especially appropriate right now. We all want to get out and there’s nowhere to go; we all want to help out and that means staying home. By creating a no-contact, anyone-can-join-in open air art environment, the Woodwell Street neighbors have taken the challenge and created something beautiful from it. [Editor’s note: see last week’s story on Remly Way, the “Alleyway of Magical Delights,” for a similar but different project.]

Needless to say, Woodwell Street is looking good right now and the streamer houses are really something special and well worth a visit. By its very nature, this a temporary installation at best, so take the opportunity and walk on by.

house decorated with colored streamers

house front garden decorated with colored streamers

Getting there: Woodwell Street runs between Dallas and Barnsdale in north Squirrel Hill. You’ll find most of the streamer-decorated properties there, but also make sure to check out the neighboring, parallel streets Ridgeville and Kinsman, where there are more.

Thanks to Orbit reader and inveterate neighborhood walker Lisa Valentino for the tip on this fine project.

tree decorated with colored streamers

Walk This Way: Jeremy Raymer’s One-Man Arts District

mural of Andy Warhol and peeled pink banana by artist Jeremy Raymer

Peel slowly. Warhol/electric banana mural by Jeremy Raymer, Mulberry Way, Lawrenceville

We can still go for a walk.

These are–take your pick—strange, scary, stressful, uncertain, even apocalyptic times. But we all know a daily dose of leg-stretching and fresh-air-breathing is crucial to both our physical and mental health during even the best of days. Make no exception now; you need those things more than ever.

The daily constitutional also happens to be one of the few things we can still do–outside of the home–that is just as freely available now as it was a month ago, before the plague set in.

mural of cartoon horse wearing suit by artist Jeremy Raymer

Log! Mulberry Way

Don’t look for any streets signs marking Raymer Way; you won’t find it on any maps. That’s just our name for it. But there exists a three-block stretch of lower Lawrenceville that fully deserves one of those ceremonial placards, like the zoo’s One Wild Place or Amazing Kids Way in Squirrel Hill.

It’s there, on two long stretches of Mulberry Way, an alley running parallel with Butler Street, plus another short block of 35th Street, where rock-and-roll mural artist Jeremy Raymer has created a one-man, open air arts district. It’s yours for the perusing any time there’s enough daylight to read the (often very dark) wall surfaces–and you won’t encounter enough other people to worry about social distancing.

identical brick row houses, one with elaborate mural across the entire front, Pittsburgh, PA

The house that started it all. Chez Ray, 35th Street

Jeremy Raymer, over email, describes the evolving process:

The entire thing started from the previous owner of the warehouse at 35th and Charlotte seeing me painting my house [across the street] and asking if I wanted to paint on his warehouse. I said yes and started covering the [35th Street] side with the heart, eyes, and Hedy Lamarr murals first, then wanting more space and moving into the [Mulberry Way] alley.

Once this was covered I did want more space, so a few months back, I approached the owner of Morcilla and asked about doing a small piece on the alley entry to the restaurant, so I did that and then I wanted to see about more space, so I approached the Perlora warehouse and after a little bit of convincing (from me and some of their employees who are fans), they agreed to give me free reign on the alley portion of their warehouse. The initial intent was just a practice space for me and its just organically grown into what it is now.

mural of man's face on service entry to restaurant

David (?), Morcilla back entrance, Mulberry Way

If you’ve spent any time in Lawrenceville, the Strip District, or central North Side, you know Raymer’s work. Think of the giant image of (super hero) Magneto along AAA Scrap Metal’s Penn Avenue building and fence, the full wall Roberto Clemente on Verdetto’s Bar in Spring Garden, or the big Deutschtown Sasquatch. There are also a ton of smaller pieces–of sports figures, wild animals, and art references–that turn up on commercial storefronts, restaurant interiors, and pocket parks around the city.

If those are the final, big marquee commissioned pieces, Raymer Way is the sketch pad, the studies and scribbles. “I am basically allowed to do whatever I please,” Raymer says of his agreement with the Lawrenceville property owners, “I am given permission, but no sponsorship and it has all been on my accord and at my own cost.”

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

Purple heart, 35th Street

Raymer’s murals fall clearly in the world of pop art. They’re big, over-saturated with electric color, using spray paint–the medium of choice for street art–that often has a certain airbrushed quality, and focus on subject matter around celebrity, movie characters, cartoons, and visual puns. He also has a particular affinity for the color purple.

At their best, Raymer has an incredibly deft hand and soft touch with a can of Krylon. He’s got a great color sense for what’s going to pop from a cinderblock wall or read through the roll-up mechanism of a retail security door. His portraits of real people are arresting, vivid, and fill the walls with an obvious holistic vision that treats the space as a broad canvas to be considered in toto. Raymer’s goofier stuff shows that he’s got a sense of humor and doesn’t take any of this too seriously–something altogether missing from so many artists.

Jeremy Raymer mural on cement block wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Purple Hedy Lamarr, 35th Street

mural of large mouth in purple by artist Jeremy Raymer

Big purple mouth, 35th Street

mural of man's face by artist Jeremy Raymer

Purpleish man, Mulberry Way

mural of purple witch painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Purple witch, Mulberry Way

mural of purple bunny by artist Jeremy Raymer

Big purple bunny, Mulberry Way

mural of block of blue cheese painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Blue cheese blues, Mulberry Way

Now, I’ll be the first to say I don’t love all of Raymer’s murals. Do we really need wall-sized portraits of the green Ghostbusters slime monster, Simpsons characters, or–sorry, Star Wars fans–Yoda? A matched pair of Buffalo chicken wings with a halo is kind of funny … kind of.

But let me say this: I have tremendous respect for anyone who goes out there and does their thing and gets this much stuff done, over and over again. To spend one’s free time–not to mention money–on materials, in negotiating with landlords, and decorating the alley backsides of anonymous buildings, is a tremendous gift to Lawrenceville and the city at large.

… and that gift is yours, whenever you’re ready to take that walk.

mural of Yoda painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Hrmmm, on walls he paints. Yoda, Mulberry Way

mural of green monster by artist Jeremy Raymer

Bustin’ makes me feel good! Mulberry Way

mural of chicken wings with an angel's halo painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Chicken wings/halo, Mulberry Way

mural by Jeremy Raymer including a heart with keyhole and key

The key to your heart, Mulberry Way

mural of multicolor skull by artist Jeremy Raymer

Skull, Mulberry Way

Getting there: The Raymer Way murals are on Mulberry Way, lower Lawrenceville, between 34th and 36th Streets, as well as 35th Street, between Mulberry Way and Charlotte Street. There are plenty of other Raymer murals in near walking distance throughout Lawrenceville and The Strip District. There’s even a map of locations on his web site.


Follow Jeremy Raymer on Instagram at @jeremyMraymer or @raymerarttours. For contact information and a map of his Pittsburgh murals, see jmraymer.com.

Related: see also “An Orbit Obit: Where the Buffalo Roamed,” Pittsburgh Orbit, Dec. 12, 2015.

Live, Worship, Eye-Pop: In Bellevue, Anonymous Welcome Art

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue’s *other* welcome sign, Ohio River Boulevard

A quick blast of psychedelic color might be all you get. From the corner of the eye, a riot of blue and purple swirls, orange and yellow stripes, irregular, jagged boxes. Maybe you don’t see it at all, but just sense something alien and alive at the side of the road. Blink and you’ll miss it, the tired phrase goes–but it’s absolutely true in this case.

Bellevue. The old, down-river trolley suburb prides itself on its community, faith, and bargain retail. So much so, the borough’s most salient feature is a giant, glowing, boomerang modern entrance sign proudly announcing these civic strengths.

So it was no small surprise to discover Bellevue’s other, more humble, and completely anonymous welcome marker.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue welcome art [detail]: windmill, church, apartments

The piece appears to be entirely created from recycled parts. A section of fencing forms the supporting backdrop. It is painted like an impressionist aurora borealis the good citizens of Bellevue are unlikely to witness in real life. Attached to the wooden slats are a haphazard collection of scrap wood, snipped tin, and other assorted bits and bobs. Some have been spray painted through crude stencils; others are just rough, raw lumber.

It’s loose, for sure, but there’s no mistaking the composition as a street-level view of a small town. The specifics are really up to the beholder, but it’s safe to say the artwork could easily represent Lincoln Avenue, Bellevue’s main street, just a couple blocks up the hill.

The town’s live / worship / shop principles are represented in multi-story apartment buildings, a pair of cross-and-steeple churches–even a taco shop. A factory-looking structure, well off the main drag, down by the river, might be ALCOSAN. I don’t know that Bellevue actually has a windmill, but there’s one of those here, too.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue welcome art [detail]: apartment buildings, taco shop, church

Heading outbound/westward on Ohio River Boulevard, one leaves the city as s/he crosses the little unnamed bridge over Jack’s Run. Within the length of a couple blocks, the Bellevue sprawl–a collection of fast food joints, no-tell motels, and oddball old-school holdouts–comes into view.

It is exactly at this point–when one is least expecting it, but perhaps most in need of it–where the colorful blitz of this alternate, wordless Welcome to Bellevue flashes by through the passenger-side window. I’m telling you now: you might encounter it this way–but you won’t actually experience it at 40 miles an hour.

Park the car. Better yet, get to it Orbit style: it’s a terrific, easy bicycle ride from anywhere in Pittsburgh. [Just don’t try to ride on the highway!] Get up close, sit on a stump, and let the passing big rigs rustle your hair, Bellevue-style.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Water’s edge: ALCOSAN possibly?

There’s no information provided with Bellevue’s welcome art, no signature to decipher on the back. It exists on an improbable tiny dirt lot right along busy Rt. 65. So we don’t know who created and placed the artwork or what the motivation was. It’s unlikely borough elders would commission something this folksy–and they’d probably have installed it in a more central spot if they had–but that’s just a guess.

So here, in a total void of facts, is where we lean on pure speculation. It feels very much like the work of someone who just loves his or her borough. Enough to take the time to create a heavy, wall-sized tribute to the town, truck it down to a miniature vacant lot, and hoist the piece up on a set of tree stumps for passing motorists to glimpse as they whiz by.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

In context: Bellevue’s welcome art along Ohio River Boulevard

The artist may want to supply townsfolk with a pleasant image as they arrive home from work in the city. Perhaps it was actually a commissioned job from the owner of one of the nearby houses or businesses. Maybe someone just had a spousal ultimatum to get the damn thing off the porch.

Regardless, we like to think the artist was hoping some visitor might actually slow down and take a deeper look–maybe even bicycle all the way out just to see it. It’s not every day you run across a terrific little public objet d’art installed in a dirt lot next to Discount Tire Center, but it should be, and it can be. That is, if you take the time to live, worship, and/or eye-pop in Bellevue.

Thin Blue Line: Millvale’s “Watermark”

blue line painted on cement support for highway, Millvale, PA

“Watermark” (detail), Route 28 underpass, Millvale

The thin blue line is painted on sidewalks and bridge supports, climbs up onto brick walls and relaxes in the park. It’s also broken into sections, appearing to duck into storm drains, slip down side-streets, and leap across intersections.

Like a giant spool of yarn knocked to the floor, unwound, and batted about by mischievous cats, you’re likely to come across Watermark somewhere in the middle and wonder what’s going on. The piece–part large-format public artwork and part community-engagement project–is doing its thing right now, in Millvale.

blue line painted in front of Millvale Upholstery, Millvale, PA

Millvale Upholstery, Grant Ave.

The line follows a loose path and it’s no hurry to get anywhere. It starts, or maybe it ends–your choice–at the big concrete support for the north end of the 40th Street Bridge in Millvale’s Riverfront Park. From there, it winds a jagged, herky-jerky route out along the jersey barrier retaining wall by the park’s bicycle trail, crosses the town’s busiest intersection, and winds its way up through the Grant Avenue business district. The long blue strand finally concludes in a glorious, unruly tangle in the little Grant Avenue Pocket Park at the top of the street.

blue line painted on jersey barrier retaining wall, Millvale, PA

Millvale Riverfront Park

The Watermark line is around two-thirds of a mile long, as the crow flies, and has the good sense to meander through much of downtown, effectively becoming a guide to a sort-of Tour d’Millvale. Along the way, it winds past Cousin’s Lounge, the upholstery shop, library, and Yetter’s Candy.

This record fiend can’t visit Millvale without poking his black plastic-sniffing schnoz into Attic Records, but the blue line decided to skip to the other side of street to avoid such temptation. Clearly not into model railroading or macaroons, the end of the line happens just before rounding the corner to Esther’s Hobby Shop and Jean Marc’s French bakery.

blue line painted on sidewalk, Millvale, PA

Grant Ave. sidewalk

Watermark is the work of Ann Tarantino, one of six artists participating in Neighborhood Allies’ Temporary Public Art Pilot. Tarantino tells us the goal of the piece is to “connect the community to water–to link the riverfront to the rest of town.” The GAPP park, along with other buildings in downtown Millvale, was built right on top of the Girty’s Run stream that can be seen flowing through its raised concrete flood walls both above and below the business district. Its influence is felt–if not expressly stated–by the shape, color, and general direction of the blue line.

blue line painted on sidewalk in front of Scott's Barber Shop, Millvale, PA

Scott’s Barber Shop, Grant Ave.

It’s a tall order, connecting Millvale town to its riverfront. Anyone who’s ever attempted to negotiate the ugly six point intersection where Grant and E. Ohio join the Route 28 on-ramps as either pedestrian or cyclist knows how harrowing the experience can be. Will a thin, painted line actually get riverfront bicycle-riders and cookout cornhole-tossers up to Panza Gallery or happy hour beer-drinkers down to the river? This blogger could only guess…but it got him to follow the trail all the way, just to see where it would go.

blue line painted on brick walk, Millvale, PA

Sheridan Street

The project is not yet complete. Tarantino informs us the blue line itself will still have some more painting and “connectivity” points added, but the major additions will be descriptive signage at both ends and an installation/”final experience” to be installed in the GAPP park. The Orbit will have to wait to check that out just like everyone else, but we were teased that it will involve both sound and light and should be installed later this Fall.

blue line painted on sidewalk in front of Healy Hahn Funeral Home, Millvale, PA

Healy Hahn Funeral Home, Grant Ave.

We talked to a few folks sitting on front stoops along Grant Ave. during an otherwise entirely vacant, bright sunny Labor Day holiday and it’s obvious the explanatory signage will be a benefit. “What does it mean?” said one befuddled hanger-out. His buddy: “It don’t mean nothin’.”

Unlike these critics, however, The Orbit is perfectly happy to live in a world without all the answers and can therefore take a more piqued approach to the abstract project. After a couple visits now, we find the loose, playful, follow-the-blue-line curiosity to be appealing on a number of fronts and begs several enticing questions: Where is it going? Who did this? Why is it here?

blue line painted on asphalt parking lot, Millvale, PA

parking lot, Grant Ave.

Hopefully having the answers to some of these in the convenient electronic format in front of them now won’t dampen our readers’ interest in checking out Watermark for themselves. If so, that would be a shame. The way to see the piece is on your feet, walking the cement and brick sidewalks of Millvale, headed for some of P&G’s mind-melting, Michelle Obama-approved hotcakes or a piece of Dutch apple pie from the legendary hands of Frank Ruzomberka at the Grant Bar.

Is Watermark great art? I don’t know about that. But it’s a simple, low-tech (at least, until we get that sound and vision experience), and effective conversation-starter. We think it also succeeds at making any side-walker or stoop-sitter both active participant in and art critic of an odd little curio traipsing through their borough. Those are interesting challenges to rise to and we had a fine time chasing its long blue tail.

blue line painted in front of Wild at Heart Body Arts, Millvale, PA

Wild at Heart Body Arts / Tattoo, Grant Ave.

Love it or hate it, the whole thing will disappear in 2019. Watermark, like the other Neighborhood Allies projects in this series, is temporary. It is scheduled to have just a two-year lifespan. Tarantino tells us the line was created with a type of paint that can be rinsed with a cleaning solution and power-washed away like it was never there at all.

blue line painted on cement of Grant Avenue Pocket Park, Millvale, PA

Grant Avenue Pocket Park

Watermark is a project sponsored by Neighbor Allies’ Temporary Public Art Pilot and the Office of Public Art. It is funded by Heinz Endowments and Hillman Foundation and supported by community-based organizations Millvale Community Development Corporation, Millvale Community Library, and the Society to Preserve the Murals of Maxo Vanka.

Tarantino will continue to update news of the project at her website. You can follow her on Instagram at @anntarantino.

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

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.

 

The Frankenstein Hillside of Woods Run

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

The Frankenstein hillside of Woods Run (detail)

This is about as Pittsburgh as it gets. A steep, nearly vertical, hillside forms a natural boundary between two distinct neighborhoods–Brighton Heights up above and Woods Run down below. Hillside erosion (or the threat thereof) has forced the hand of…someone (the city? industry? private property owners?) to infill cracks and fissures in the bare rock, but they’ve done it in the cheapest, most ramshackle way possible. It’s kind of like creating the goofy colored belt system instead of actually building any new highways–but to solve erosion issues instead of…directional? [The belts certainly do nothing for traffic.] In both cases, The Orbit applauds this philosophy of low-tech, minimally-destructive, infrastructure recycling.

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

Even with the bright morning sun shining on them, it’s a little hard to see what’s going on in these photos. The hill probably reaches fifty or sixty feet above street level at its highest and there are at least a handful of houses that back right up near the top edge. At the base is vacant land (today), but likely held row houses, retail, or small industry buildings back in the day.

Irregularly set into the rock face are a mortared collection of various masonry materials–bricks of all shapes, sizes, and colors, as well as cinderblocks, paving stones, and poured concrete. The overall effect is as if some bygone cheapskate public works director gave the order to “just fill the cracks with whatever you have laying around.”

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

The combination is beautiful, weird, and, yes, looks like the work of a mad scientist, or maybe a mad civil engineer. There’s the very awkward collision of nature and technology–like a brick and stone cyborg, only this one wants to keep loose rock from falling on you instead of hunting you down for crimes you’ll inevitably commit in the future. The spare parts and junk shop chic is something any crazy inventor with a bricklaying hobby would be proud of. The hill’s vertical face is rendered in wonderful 3-D, at points both smooth and jagged, metric and chock-a-block–it gives the whole enterprise this incredible depth and texture. Seeing these on a clear day, in the A.M. (when the eastern sun lights them up), will match any gallery experience. We guarantee it, just like Dr. Frankenstein did.

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

Getting there: The Frankenstein hillside runs along the dog-legged stretch of Woods Run Ave. between Eckert St. and McClure, right across the street from Mr. Jack’s Neighborhood Bar (“No guns. No knives.”)–just look up. Cyclists will be well aware of this particular patch of road as it’s the primary route from the very end of the river bike trail by the old jail to points west and north.

The French Fry Sculpture: John Raymond Henry’s “Pittsburgh” (in snow)

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

John Raymond Henry’s “Pittsburgh” (aka “The French Fry sculpture”), Frank Curto Park, Polish Hill

To call reaching the awkward Frank Curto Park–on foot, in the snow–a “slog” makes every other legitimate slog seem like mere inconvenience. It’s just two miles from home, but the ascent of the Bloomfield Bridge, up and down through slick Polish Hill back streets, and then the final unpleasant half mile hike along busy Bigelow Boulevard on an uncleaned roadside walkway deserves its own taxonomy for journalistic hardship.

But we’ve had this one on the Orbit‘s big list for some time–and you don’t mess with a blogger’s list! French Fry Sculpture in snow the item reads and that’s what we were after. With this weekend’s first legitimate whitening coinciding with a gloriously obligation-free Saturday, well, the die was cast. We booted-up and made the super slog.

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

Officially titled Pittsburgh, John Raymond Henry‘s giant public art piece is more commonly referred to by locals as “The French Fry Sculpture.” That’s clearly a bit of gentle fun-making, but it’s not undeserved. Aside from the zip code it happens to reside in–and possibly the Aztec gold that echoes the color of the “three sisters” bridges (and others) downtown–there’s just not that much that cries out as any reference point to our fair city.

On the other hand, the long squared-off yellow pieces collide in a cattywampus pile as if tossed directly from roiling oil bath to serving tray by a giant. These can’t help but abstractly resemble a certain delicious deep-fried side dish this city takes with perverse seriousness. Pittsburgh: you’ve been rebranded.

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

According to PittsburghArtPlaces.org, Pittsburgh (the objet d’art) was “created as part of the 1977 Three Rivers Arts Festival Sculpturescape program. The work originally resided at the University of Pittsburgh near the Hillman Library” [before moving to Frank Curto Park the following year].[1]

The piece is very much of its time–and maybe that’s no coincidence. Henry seems to have in part defined that time as he was something a big name in the big public art world for a couple decades, starting in the 1970s. The artist has several dozen such “monumental sculptures” in public parks from Miami to Salt Lake, Washington, D.C. to Sioux City. Why, if you’re a second- or third-tier urban center without “a Henry,” you’ve probably got a lonely patch of grass and some bored public works crews.

Wooden Persephone Project sculpture in snow with John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in background, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

The Orbit remains undecided. The piece has been well-maintained by its owners (the city), but that’s not to say it’s aged gracefully. It has a certain generic modern public art feel and a clumsy scheme that makes one all too aware of its joints. Looking at Henry’s other works (similar in aesthetics and scale, but often more visually successful) this one just feels like it doesn’t hit.

That said, as a blast of high-saturation yellow, it reads well against the lush green of the park in the warmer months, and still pops when surrounded by white snow and bare trees, as we see here. It’s something you can appreciate whizzing by in a car on Bigelow (probably the way most Pittsburghers have experienced it) and still rewards actually stopping in the park and giving it a walk-around. And hell, who doesn’t like french fries?

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA


Note: There ended being a lot more to talk about here than we first expected, including our harrowing egress from the park and the obvious questions Who was Frank Curto? What’s up with this “park” that no one can get to? and What about the wild turkeys that hang out there? It also turns out the space has a number of other public artworks, as well as a art garden project–you just wouldn’t catch any of this through the windshield. We’re going to save all these for a future Orbit story.

Sources:
[1] Pittsburgh Art Places entry for Pittsburghhttp://pittsburghartplaces.org/accounts/view/628
[2] Frank Curto Park wiki entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Curto
[3] John Raymond Henry website: http://johnhenrysculptor.com/