Bugging Out to Schaefer’s Auto Art

large outdoor sculpture of yellow and black flying insect made with recycled parts

“The Bumblebee,” one of a dozen large sculptures created from recycled parts at Schaefer’s Auto Art, Erie.

A giant bumblebee, the size of a garbage truck, is perched and ready to strike. Canted forward on bent legs, two enormous antennae reach out into the thick air. A conical stinger stands alert like a warning beacon. From this vantage point it could plug directly into the telephone wires running overhead.

The big bee is a work of art living in the green grass of a large private yard. Its head is made from the fore-section of an old Saab; the thorax looks like the tumbler from a cement mixer. Spindly legs, delicate wings, and all the insect’s other features have been similarly fashioned from junkyard effluvia. It’s one of a dozen or so works at Schaefer’s Auto Art.

outdoor sculpture of fantasy flying machine created with recycled parts

flying machine

sculpture of giant multicolor spider with Volkswagen Beetle as the body

“The Spider”

It’s a stretch to consider the city of Erie within Pittsburgh’s orbit. Lying a hundred miles due north of us, “The Flagship City” is well outside the about-an-hour’s-drive metric we usually use for such classification and it has a history and population great enough to warrant its own speculative, hyper-local blog of regional ephemera.

That said, especially this time of year, Pittsburghers of many persuasions routinely find themselves trundling up I-79 to sink bare feet into the closest patch of warm, sun-soaked beach sand available, make the long loop around Presque Isle, get some Greek sauce at a dinor (sic.), and gaze out across the great lake. Orbit staff, in need of the safest of getaways in this summer of isolation, are no exception.

large outdoor sculpture of a rocket made recycled parts

“The Rocket”

sculpture of man created with auto parts

“Automan”

The next time you’re headed on that Lake Erie trip, get hip to this kindly tip. Mere minutes from the interstate highway is a magical space well worth the slight detour. On an enormous front yard, just outside Erie city limits in McKean Township, is a sculpture garden/outsider artist environ of fantasy flying machines and movie monster creatures, a welcoming “auto man” and evil eye-in-the-sky tree robot.

They’re all the work of one Richard Shaefer who, the web site informs us, “is an Erie native who first became interested in ‘auto art’ in 1988. He utilizes welding and fabricating techniques and basic automotive knowledge learned from his father.”

sculpture of dinosaur with two heads made from recycled auto parts

“The Two-Headed Dinosaur”

sculpture of cannon made from wagon parts and bowling balls

patriotic cannon

Schaefer’s Auto Art is clearly a work-in-progress–and hopefully it always will be. While the big front yard/display area has a dozen or so final, completed works, it runs directly into a collection of other … source material? works-in-progress? A motorcycle sits atop a tall elevated pole that must have at one time held a billboard or seen-from-the-highway road sign. The front halves of two 1970s-era Lincoln Continentals have been fused together, but not yet decorated or placed into the collection. An older pickup truck appears to be in cold storage, just waiting for the Schaefer treatment.

mailbox painted with insects and the words "The Buzz Box"

The Buzz Box

sculpture of robot-like orb hanging from tall pine tree

tree robot/eye in the sky

The finished pieces are a hoot. They’re fun, imaginative, and glow with their creator’s unique vision. The collage of junkyard auto parts and bound-for-the-scrap heap metal bits and bobs have been granted an incredible new life no one would have expected. Together, they paint a fantasy portrait of the world that’s equal parts Godzilla and Buck Rogers, Dr. Seuss and Willy Wonka.

Needless to say, Schaefer’s Auto Art is well worth the day trip. You’ll probably be headed up that way soon enough.

two 1970s Lincoln Continental front ends joined together to make a single art car

“Two-Face” Lincoln Continental and motorcycle-on-a-pole

sculpture of man's head made from car parts

Automan (detail)


Getting there: Schaefer’s Auto Art is at 3705 Hershey Road in Erie, PA, 16506. Note that this is a large front yard of a private home and while guests are encouraged and invited to visit the artwork, one should respect the private property. Parking is available via a small pull-off area right in front on Hershey Road. Don’t use or block the private driveway.

Also: this story can’t help but remind us of the terrific Meadville Penn-DOT road sign sculptures. They are right on the way to Erie and make a great two-fer auto(-related) art road trip to points north.

Let’s Get Small: Big Ideas, Tiny Doors

tiny candy shop by Anne Mundell

If you arrived in Pittsburgh in the 1980s or ’90s, the narrow storefront at the corner of Liberty Ave. and Tito Way (neé 8th Street) held a second downtown outpost of The Original Oyster House. Such was the popularity of their fried fish sandwich, breaded oysters, and buttermilk chaser that the business could sustain multiple restaurants mere blocks from each other. The Oyster House left Liberty Ave. some time in the early oughts; the space is a Crazy Mocha coffee shop today.

A generation earlier, 801 Liberty Ave. was a sweets shop. The Internet offers very little information on Dimling’s Candy, but it appears the local company was big enough in the 1950s to purchase competitor Reymer Brothers[1], whose massive 1906 Romanesque factory building still stands Uptown. A ghost sign in the back alley, complete with the “It’s Fresher” tag line, shows us that the Liberty and 8th retail space previously held one of Dimling’s stores. The company was out of business by 1969. Candyrama, the multi-location heir to the downtown sugar market, is gone now too. Sigh.

All that said, for a very limited time you can relive the magic as a little–and I mean tiny–candy shop has opened its single door right on the backside of the former Dimling’s space, directly under the old painted sign. Technicolor lollipops and psychedelic swirling goodies are literally spilling out of the entrance, down the steps, and into the street below. They’re yours to enjoy … just don’t handle the merchandise.

in context: ghost sign for former Dimling’s Candy Shop with Anne Mundell’s tiny candy shop door at bottom right

“My door is a tribute to the different kinds of candy, real and metaphorical, that have passed through that alley,” writes Anne Mundell, CMU Professor of Scenic Design and the artist who created the candy shop for Tiny Doors PGH.

“There’s also a tribute to the theater and to how all things coexist on that corner. The candy spilling out hopefully suggests that the whole building behind it is filled with candy and we’re only seeing a tiny corner of it. The rats making off with candy are there to imply a darker side.”[2]

Mundell’s little candy shop is one of three “tiny doors” created for this year’s Three Rivers Arts Festival in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (on whose property all three doors are attached). The others, created by artists Sarah Zeffiro and Sasha Schwartz, are just around the corner at the Trust Arts Education Center (805-807 Liberty Ave.) and on the Theater Square Parking Garage (655 Penn Ave.).

“Pittsburgh is Color” technicolor dream door by Sarah Zeffiro, Liberty Ave.

Tiny Doors PGH was conceived by Stephen Santa; this is its first installation. “I come from a theater background as I’m a theater director. I’ve always been obsessed with the set models that designers create for me,” writes Santa, “It’s like being a kid again, moving the small parts around in the model. I also love playing with scale and this project does just that.”

“There is a tiny door revolution happening as many doors are popping up in cities around the country, most notably in Atlanta. I saw the success these doors were having in other cities and being born and raised in Pittsburgh, I’m always brainstorming ways to make our city a better place, and I knew this project could bring happiness and curiosity to our residents. I pitched the idea to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, they loved it and were on board.”

tiny house entrance by Sasha Schwartz, Penn Ave.

The tiny doors are a great project satisfying all manner of urbano-curiosa: art and architecture, history and exploration, humor and little things. Longtime Orbit readers know we also love an egg hunt. Our only greedy wish is that Santa had been able to sign up another dozen artists for more doors.[3]

Whether or not we’d have gotten all of Anne Mundell’s references to ghosts of the theater, the evolution of downtown Pittsburgh, and Liberty Avenue’s red light past is questionable. But if a piece of public art can make you stop in your tracks, get down on your knees, and squint through a tiny window door into a (literal) candy-colored dreamscape, someone’s doing something right.

The three tiny doors will be up through the end of July; get yourself down there to see them while you can.


[1] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reymer_Brothers_Candy_Factory
[2] That darker side is legit: by the time we got there, it seems someone had already made off with the rats. A subsequent report is that the door itself was stolen. This is why we can’t have tiny things!
[3] He wants to! Per Santa: “I’m certainly open to people, businesses, or artists reaching out with their concepts or location ideas for doors. To connect please write to me on Instagram @tinydoorspgh.”

Street / Art [or] The Street as Art: Serially Accumulated Mural (Masonry #9)

concrete sections of road stacked neatly in a pile, Harmar, PA

Sky / wall / earth, “Serially Accumulated Mural (Masonry #9)”, Rt. 28, Harmar

What happens when things “go away”? Isn’t a wall just a road in another form? How can we replace the very ground beneath our feet?

Serially Accumulated Mural (Masonry #9)*, the awesome deconstructed and reconstructed public installation artwork just outside of town asks these questions, and many more. The sculpture, consisting of hundreds–perhaps thousands–of four- to eight-foot sections of decommissioned highway is spread over several acres of barren berm within the graceful curl of a Route 28 on-ramp. Road is lifted into the blue sky and lets the participant view it alternately as both compact, well-ordered stacks and chaotic, post-catastrophe fallen landscape.

concrete sections of road stacked neatly in a pile, Harmar, PA

The viewer will inevitably first encounter the piece from a distance, likely traveling at high speed. Its huge mass and gentle shape echo the rolling hills of the Allegheny Valley in which it resides. In fact, were it not for its treeless surface, the installation might be mistaken for merely another mound of earth, another hill rising up from the river.

But to approach the work as it really must be seen–up close, on foot, with time to wander, poke, and explore–is to experience the tremendous weight (quite literal, that) of our built environment. One imagines a skyscraper collapsed, an entire small town collected and swept in the corner, a border wall separating the righteous from “bad hombres” who seek to breech its crevasses in a bloodthirsty quest for our dollars and our women.

top view of giant pile of road sections, Harmar, PA

Atop the piece, [access points are provided at the participant’s own caution] it is a different story entirely. The ordered, neatly stacked piles of Masonry‘s south end contrast with the topsy-turvy, patchwork firmament of its expanse. The structure is unmistakably formed of ex-roadway–the omnipresent worn yellow center lines and fine-textured concrete surface give that away. It forces us to confront the disorientation of disaster. This, the artwork suggests, is what the big one feels like…if we’re lucky enough to still be here when the earth stops shaking.

Like Duchamp’s Fountain before it, visitors to Serially will never mistake where they are or what they’re looking at. But with a world bent, flat lanes severed, split, and tumbled, and the rushing highway traffic reminding us of exactly where these raw materials came from, we’re asked to look deeply at the disposable nature of the most durable of goods. If 10-inch thick, rebar-enforced concrete can be discarded by the side of the road with the same casualness as a paper coffee cup or flicked cigarette butt, what chance have we in this world?

detail of broken road sections showing painted yellow line, Harmar, PA

The Orbit has eaten its hat more than once over the suggestion of locating the ultimate street art. First, it was the tantalizing Toynbee Tiles of Smithfield Street (R.I.P.), the artwork embedded directly into the macadam, fused by the force of the traffic that overruns each of the tiles. But then we got tipped off to another PennDOT collaboration–the road sign murals up in Meadville.

Finally, it seemed like the crown was clearly taken by the Howard Street Line Painting Tests. How could you get more “street art” than painting directly on the street, with street-painting equipment, performed by the Department of Public Works road crews?

Well, as we found out here, I’ll tell you how: you take an actual stretch of roadway right out of the ground, rack it, stack it, and compact it, and then display it to the very travelers who drove across it in its previous life, viewable right out their passenger-side windows as they whiz by. If that doesn’t get your noodle spinning, well, I don’t know what will.

concrete sections of road stacked neatly in a pile, Harmar, PA

Getting there: PennDOT’s Serially Accumulated Mural (Masonry #9) is along Route 28, south-bound, right by the Harmarville on-ramp. As they say, you can’t miss it.


* Charles Rosenblum contributed to this article.

“Wild Animal” on the loose in Bloomfield!

"Wild Animal" art piece made from construction cones and panoramic photographs

Anonymous “Wild Animal” artwork, Edmund Street, Bloomfield

Caught mid-step, body poised, steely eyes focused on unseen prey, its mouth is agape in carnivorous anticipation. The electric day-glow orange creature steps from an autumnal forest scene of tall pines and fallen leaves directly onto the hard concrete of a salt-stained Bloomfield side street walkway.

The animal’s genus is unclear. It has the triangular pointed ears, whiskers, and jowls of a great cat. Maybe it’s the woodland backdrop, but–if it’s not too confusing a metaphor–a fox seems like a dark horse. There could even be a little Billy “Bigmouth” Bass in there, too. The visible screws holding this fellow together give it a major Frankenstein vibe–so it may well be all of the above…and more.

"Wild Animal" art piece made from construction cones and panoramic photographs

Top view with description placard

For a city neighborhood, Bloomfield certainly has its share of wild animals. This blogger has crossed paths with feral dogs and cats, rats and mice, squirrels, chipmunks, and opossums. We’ve spotted wild turkeys as near as Bigelow Blvd., Allegheny Cemetery, and Friendship Ave. Clarence the Bird may or may not be domesticated, but he’s no stranger to these streets.

That said, this particular Wild Animal is something we’ve not seen before. Pittsburgh certainly has a fair amount of exciting street art–and Bloomfield could be considered one of the more likely spots to trip across it–but this piece is no mere wheatpaste poster or stenciled graffiti–it’s a fully-formed one-of-a-kind object d’art of the most remarkable sort.

"Wild Animal" art piece made from construction cones and panoramic photographs

Whoever put Wild Animal together [no attribution is given] didn’t spare any effort in the process. The piece’s large-scale full-color photographic backdrop, freestanding title placard, and deconstructed/reconstructed traffic cone-turned-woodland creature would sit perfectly well in an art museum, gallery, or last year’s terrific DRAP-ART show/Re:NEW Festival.

To deposit such a piece outside on little Edmund Street is a tremendous act of cultural generosity–one that Pittsburghers seem to have largely respected. The artwork has been allowed to remain intact several days into its original placement*. That this much effort was put into a work that could very well be swept up by PNC Bank’s security crew mere hours after drop-off is a strange gift and a great leap of faith. We’re glad we were lucky enough to see it.

Let’s hope this particular wild animal isn’t an endangered species–we’d love to see more of its kind around these parts.

"Wild Animal" art piece made from construction cones and panoramic photographs

In context: the Edmund Street side of PNC Bank’s Bloomfield branch


* By our estimation, Wild Animal was installed some time either Thursday, Feb. 23 or the early hours of Friday, Feb. 24. It was amazingly still in place, untouched, as of press time the following Monday evening.

Get the Gist: The 1917 Manchester Bridge Sculptures

Preserved Manchester Bridge sculptures in their new location near Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA

The Manchester Bridge sculptures in the drifting yellow fog of the Color Run cleanup

Has anybody seen the bridge? Robert Plant asks on Led Zeppelin’s 1973 time-scuttling pseudo-funk jam “The Crunge,” Where’s that confounded bridge? It’s a preposterous rhetorical question–an inside joke, to be sure–but it wasn’t so funny when this blogger found himself in the very literal position of being unable to locate the bridge he was looking for.

To be fair, The Orbit was actually just trying to find some ornamentation–not, you know, an entire bridge. Still, we were on the hunt for three giant bronze sculptures that originally adorned the Manchester Bridge, and are now on display on the North Shore. We had only the most minimal of directions–“near Heinz Field”–but they couldn’t be that hard to find, right?

Well, it took wheeling around the entirety of the stadium, down along the riverfront, and then a befuddled dose of Googling to actually locate the new installation. [Readers: fear not, we’ll make it easier for you–see below.]

Black and white photo of Manchester Bridge in 1918, Pittsburgh, PA

Manchester Bridge as it looked in 1918, the year after the sculptures were added (photo: Wikipedia)

The story goes that the old Manchester Bridge–which spanned the river between the point and where Heinz Field is now–was erected between 1911 and 1915 and then had these sculptures added a couple years later in 1917. When the old bridge was replaced by the much larger Fort Duquesne Bridge in 1969 someone thankfully had the wisdom to put the big bronze decorative pieces in storage instead of the scrap yard.

It’s kind of amazing that now–forty-seven years later–the sculptures should finally move off the shelf to out on the street where everyone can see and enjoy them[1]. The location–in the literal shadow of Heinz Field–seems a little goofy. It’s really only convenient if you happen to already be walking in to a football game or urinating before a Kenny Chesney concert. However, it is within a stone’s throw of where the old Manchester Bridge touched down on the North Side, so in that way it makes pretty good sense.

Detail of frontiersman Christopher Gist from the preserved Manchester Bridge sculptures, Pittsburgh, PA

Frontiersman Christopher Gist (detail)

And what of the sculptures? Well, on one side you’ve got Christopher Gist, the “frontiersman” who mapped the Ohio River valley in the 1750s crouching with musket, buckskin, and one very manly beard. Up close, there’s a deep, dazed look in his eyes and remarkable detail considering how high the piece was suspended above the bridge deck.

Opposite is the figure of Guyasuta, who was also involved in the colonial exploration of the Ohio[2]. The Seneca chief acted as local guide to one George Washington, in his pre-father of the country role as a young officer on a mission to survey what was then The West. Guyasuta’s posture is a near mirror image of Gist: hunkered down on one knee with a weapon at hand (in this case, bow and arrow), ready for action, but not yet drawn.

detail of Chief Guyasuta from the preserved Manchester Bridge sculpture, Pittsburgh, PA

Chief Guyasuta

Between these two figures is an enormous representation of an unfurled banner reading MCMXVII (1917) Manchester Bridge. Below it is a full-on 3-D version of the city crest and seal, complete with its checkerboard pattern (these are blue and white when they appear in color), “three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed,” and “a triple-towered castle masoned Argent.” The seal is very much not the required black-and-gold[3]. Rather, the whole thing has turned the fabulous weird green of oxidized bronze, which looks pretty terrific.

Worth the trip? Certainly, at least if you’re already down on the North Shore walkway, at Heinz Field, or Stage AE for any reason. Or you can just pick up the twofer with the next Color Run cleanup, like we accidentally did. And if you see this wayward blogger gasping in the clouds of technicolor dust, maybe you can show him the way out, just like Gist and Guyasuta.

Manchester Bridge sculpture detail including a triple-towered castle masoned Argent from the seal of the City of Pittsburgh

Detail: the “triple-towered castle masoned Argent” of the seal of the City of Pittsburgh

Getting there: The newly-installed Manchester Bridge sculptures are indeed right by Heinz Field. They’re on North Shore Drive, just about where it meets Art Rooney Ave. (the little ring road around the stadium), in the small greenspace between the gates and Stage AE.


[1] The new installation only includes the sculptures from one end of the bridge. There is another set with different figures (including Joe Magarac!) that was also saved and is yet to be made public.
[2] Gist is presumably the namesake of the tiny cross street in Uptown. Guyasuta also has an un-remarkable eponymous residential road in suburban Fox Chapel. This seems like a bit of rip-off for both explorers when similar colonial-era players Forbes and Braddock got such prominent main drags.
[3] Between looking up Gist, Guyasuta, the Manchester Bridge, clarifying Led Zeppelin lyrics, the city flag and seal, and then definitions for “argent” and “bezant”, this post set some kind of Orbit record for its orgy of Googling obscure minutia[4].
[4] Note: no, we were not Googling “orgy”. That’s for later.

Muffler Man: The Cadet Cowboy

looking up at the giant fiberglass cowboy known as "Sam", Cadet Restaurant, Kittanning, PA

“Sam”, Cadet Restaurant’s giant hamburger-slinging cowboy/muffler man, Kittanning

He’s broad-shouldered, with a square jaw and steely gaze, and he’s bare-handing a burger the size of a doberman en route just for you. Yes, in crisp white shirt and trousers, black boots, and one enormous cowboy hat cocked just so, Big Sam, the resident burger-slinging cowboy/muffler man of The Cadet Restaurant is the waiter of your dreams…or maybe your nightmares.

At 30 feet tall (we’re taking the Cadet’s word on this–but it seems reasonable), Big Sam is, quite literally, head-and-shoulders above the peak of the Cadet Restaurant’s roof. In an era when the neighboring Sheetz signage (and every other modern highway adjunct) is visible from space, it doesn’t seem like Sam could possibly stand out from the other roadside noise. But he’s got a couple things all those other places can only dream of: class and style.

Exterior of the Cadet Restaurant with giant fiberglass cowboy holding a hamburger, Kittanning, PA

Cadet Restaurant, Kittanning

Though there’s absolutely nothing automobile-related about Big Sam (aside from the Cadet’s previous life as a drive-in) he falls into the broad category of giant “muffler men”. Roadside America has a great detailed repository of muffler man info, but the short version is that the original fiberglass mold was built in the early ’60s for a huge Paul Bunyan advertising a restaurant in Flagstaff, Arizona. The arms are positioned as so to hold the famous lumberjack’s big axe.

The same mold was repurposed over the next dozen years for generic working men, Indians, the “happy halfwit”, and, yes, cowboys. Many muffler shops took advantage of both the striking figure and the fixed hand shapes to cradle exhaust systems, hence the nickname.

Side view of giant fiberglass cowboy, Cadet Restaurant, Kittanning, PA

It may get a thumbs-down from Big Sam, but Cadet’s food is qualified to satisfy

Cadet’s history page tells us that Sam was purchased at the Chicago Restaurant Show for $3,900 in 1962 and details a great story of tragedy and redemption for the big guy:

One foggy morning on September 29, 1990, an unsuspecting Ford Bronco pulled into the path of a fully loaded coal truck traveling from Indiana. The Bronco was catapulted into Sam leaving him in shambles for years to come.

Despite many attempts, no one would take on the task of repair. We would find his hat or burger on top of a local school’s flagpole and other various locations. Luckily, we had our own team of students that were always kind enough to locate and extract the missing pieces.

It was over 12 years before our customers were able to help us finally piece him back together. Dave Bish, stepped up and asked if he could try, and try he did. What a beautiful job! He was back on his feet in 2002. It took a full day, a crane and many volunteers.

Cadet restaurant placemat advertisement proclaiming "Home of the 'Poor Boy'"

And what of the food at the Cadet? As diners go, it’s top-notch. The menu features the expected array of greasy breakfasts and burgers/sandwiches/deep-fried platters for lunch and dinner. A handmade sign on wall proclaims the “Poorboy burger” (a double patty with all the fixins) and roast beef as house specialties. This blogger’s only real quibble was a lack of Polish food on the menu [every Pittsburgh-area diner should have pierogies, haluski, and potato pancakes!]–but even Big Sam can’t provide everything.

The Orbit went all Craig Claiborne with repeat visits to the Cadet. On the way up, we had a fantastically Sam-sized blueberry pancake. It’s sort of the yin to Pamela’s crepe-style yang–thick as a book* and large as the plate, but hot, fluffy, and tasty. On the return trip, it was a thoroughly-satisfying chicken biscuit dinner for lunch with a mind-melting piece of rhubarb pie for dessert.

Needless to say, the Cadet is Orbit-approved and recommended. Stop by the next time you’re headed north and give ol’ Sam the hi-de-ho.

rear view of giant fiberglass cowboy, Cadet Restaurant, Kittanning, PA

Big Sam keeping watch over Rt. 422 outside Kittanning

Getting there: Cadet Restaurant is on Route 422-East, just off Route 28 outside Kittanning. Note: you have to awkwardly go through the next-door Sheetz to get there, but you can’t miss it.


* Thick like a paperback novel–not, you know, the dictionary.

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

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

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

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

flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

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

flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

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

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

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

flower sculpture made from highway detour roadsigns, Meadville, PA

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

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

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

flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

 

The Meadville PennDOT Road Sign Sculptures, Part I: The Fence/Mural

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence detail of cow

It was a dreary, cool, rainy day when The Orbit crew pulled off the highway for some high art and a bag of Combos. We’d describe the weather as very un-summer-like, except it was very much in keeping with this particular summer. This cool-weather-lover is certainly not complaining–give him forty-five degrees and drizzling and you’ll find one happy blogger chortling to himself as he types. That said, we were hoping for a break in the rain long enough to photograph one particular roadside curiosity, and were granted that particular wish.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of hot air balloons

Thurston Balloon Classic over Weight Limit Mountain

An hour-and-a-half due north of Pittsburgh lies Meadville, the seat of Crawford County. This smallish town is the unlikely host of an immense collection of sculptures, all in connection with and displayed by the local Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”) maintenance yard.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of barn and silo

Stop barn with Jct silo

According to PennDOT, the fence/mural project and its adjunct flower garden (more about that, later) were conceived by Allegheny College art professor Amara Geffen and Jack Molke, former Crawford County maintenance manager. The actual work was executed both by Allegheny College art students and the local PennDOT workers. It began back in 2001, but continued over many years until the entire maintenance yard fence was covered.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence detail of great blue heron

Great blue heron

From PennDOT:

The mural depicts life in Crawford County highlighting annual events such as the Thurston Balloon Classic and the Crawford County Fair. Local community landmarks such as the Crawford County Courthouse, Conneaut Lake Park, and Allegheny College’s Bentley Hall highlight the scene. The project depicts life in Crawford County with farm scenes, seasonal scenes and downtown Meadville buildings.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of trees

Lane change ahead tree

What no set of photographs will accurately depict is the sheer immensity of this piece. The fence is well over human height and probably reaches up to ten or twelve feet. It stretches some 1,200 feet (approx. a quarter mile) down Route 322 and around the corner. The fence is at once a single continuous piece and also dozens of distinct interlocking sections that each bleed into one another.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of singing cowboy on stage

Singin’ cowboy down at the (railroad) crossroads

There are broad strokes like rolling Crawford County hillsides and a series of sections devoted to (downtown Meadville?) storefronts. But the detail on the pieces is terrific with little touches that play with the recycled signage and “Easter egg” details that you’d never catch if you just did a drive-by.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence house

Bridge outhouse … or Bridge Out house

For all these reasons, it’s really worth parking and taking a walk down the full length of the fence and back. Then, like all great art experiences, you can cross the highway to Sheetz for some M.T.O. and group reflection.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of Canada goose

Baltimore Life/Canada goose

Are the sculptures worth a trip from Pittsburgh? They’re pretty great, and no set of photographs is really going to do them justice, so we’d have to say yes. That said, combine them with the next time you’re heading to Erie, or Conneaut Lake, or are just making a run to Meadville’s own Voodoo Brewery and you’ll have yourself a fine combo for your Combos.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of merry-go-round

Ferris wheel

Getting there: The PennDOT building and maintenance yard is on Rt. 322, literally just a minute (maybe a half mile?) from the Meadville exit off I-79. The sculptures leap out at you and go on for a quarter mile so you really “can’t miss it.”

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of clouds, rain, mountains, and tree

Art imitates life: rainy day scene

 

Frankie Files: Where’d You Go, Joe?

St. Michael Church, Munhall sans statue of Saint Joseph the Worker

St. Michael Church, Munhall sans statue of Saint Joseph the Worker

Superfan-turned-Munhall Bureau Chief Lee Floyd files his first story for The Orbit with a classic Pittsburgh who-done-it? and where-did-it-go? on a great piece of religion-meets-industry history from the former steel capital of the world.


As a tot, I was cruisin’ around Munhall in Cathy (my mother’s third-owner Cordoba) and watching the power lines move like waves with each pole we passed. Suddenly, I exclaimed, “There’s the Statue of Liberty!” Wrong state, wrong artist, wrong blog! I said it, and my family never let me forget it.

While he didn’t create anything quite as well-known as Lady Liberty, Frank Vittor (1888-1968), Italian-born sculptor and artist, has at least 50 works in and around the Pittsburgh area, including the prominent icons of Schenley Park and Bucco Field. The piece that many Steel Valley residents remember most-fondly is the statue of St. Joseph the Worker. High atop St. Michael’s bell tower, he was certainly hard to miss by anyone passing through the area.

Front of St. Michael Church featuring tympanum, figure in a niche, and rose window

Front of St. Michael Church featuring tympanum, figure in a niche, and rose window

The Slovak St. Michael Parish built the eponymous church in 1927. Though adorned with beautiful sculptures and architectural details, it was not until 1967 that the church acquired the statue of St. Joseph the worker for its impressive bell tower.

Six parishes, including St. Michael, merged to become St. Maximilian Kolbe in ’92. Eventually, the building closed beneath him and the statue ended its 44-year lofty exhibition in January 2010. Though he ended up about a mile away at the new home for the St. Max parish, some people may have thought he skipped town. Now I’ve heard that a saint’s feet don’t touch the ground, and while that my technically be true in this case, one could argue that his pedestal shouldn’t either.
Saint Joseph the Worker statue by Frank Vittor

Saint Joseph the Worker by Frank Vittor in its new location at St. Maximilian Kolbe

“After designing a six-foot-tall plaster model, Vittor sent it to the Bruni Foundry in Rome for casting in aluminum and then to the Vatican for a papal blessing by Pope Paul VI. The sculptor viewed this final statue as another permanent tribute to the working man that he so admired. When Vittor passed away two years later, his Saint Joseph the Worker capped a prolific career…” (Iorizzo, Rossi 153)

I can’t think of a better tribute to the working man of Pittsburgh than what appears to be ladles of molten steel dumpin’ dahn on the world with flames shootin’ aht da back. Typically Joe carries a small wooden L-square and a woodworking tool or staff of flowers. In this case, Vittor fitted him with a badass riveted bar of steel and modern working boots. Now you should also roll up your sleeves and get back to work.

Photos and text by Lee Floyd.

St. Joseph the Worker statue detail of steel cauldron

Why the equator is hot


An Orbit side trip: Reading Lee’s piece and seeing the molten steel pour down on the globe, we couldn’t help but think of one of our favorite, beautifully unfortunate corporate identities: Sherwin-Williams Paint’s old “Cover the Earth” image that perversely renders nearly the entire globe dripping with blood red Sherwin-Williams paint, as if this were an ideal world to strive for.

According to the Sherwin-Williams history/timeline, the concept goes back to the 1890’s, so we can’t claim they were biting Frank Vittor (although Frank may well have been aware of Sherwin-Williams). A special side note to this side trip is that “The paint…is not pouring over the North Pole, as we tend to assume, but over Cleveland, Ohio, the center of the paint universe.” No comment.

Sherwin-Williams "Cover the Earth" identity showing a can pouring dripping red paint on the earth

Sherwin-Williams “Cover the Earth” identity

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