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Artists create a portal to Pittsburgh's past

| Saturday, June 23, 2012, 2:39 p.m.
'End of the Day' by Christine Swann  at Gallery Werner at Mansions on Fifth Hotel on Friday June 15, 2012.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
'End of the Day' by Christine Swann at Gallery Werner at Mansions on Fifth Hotel on Friday June 15, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

If you've always wonder what life was like in Pittsburgh back in its heyday, then you can do no better than visit Galerie Werner's latest exhibit “Beauty and the Beast: Figures & Faces in Pittsburgh's Industrial Landscape.”

Tucked into the hallowed halls of a venerable Fifth Avenue mansion built in 1906 and recently renovated into a boutique hotel, dozens of watercolors, pastel and oil paintings by four local female artists make up this unique exhibit that, in its own way, serves as a portal to the past.

The artists, all of whom are from the Pittsburgh area, made a concerted effort to capture Pittsburgh's past and yet paint it in a “whole new light,” says gallery owner Melanie Werner. Plus, Werner says, the focus of the exhibit isn't just on the city, but the artists themselves.

“We wanted to showcase the range of their work,” she says. “It's their vision of the industrial landscape, capitalizing on what they do best, which is faces and figures.”

Sewickley artist Claire Hardy decided to focus on painting figures in industrial landscapes and began searching for photos of similar ilk in the archives of the Carnegie Museum of Art.

“Even though I introduced some color, all of my paintings are based on old black-and-white photographs I found in the archives,” Hardy says. “I was inspired by those and combined them with a few (contemporary images) to create a more atmospheric feel.”

Paintings like “Pouring Heat” and “The Pour” both have figures working in the intense glow of steelmaking furnaces, made all the more palpable through the application of thick passages of oil paint.

“I built it up in several layers to get the texture that you see,” Hardy says of the paintings, which all have an “old-world” quality about them.

The same can be said of “J & L at Dusk,” “Full Tilt, Wheeling-Pitt,” and “Mills at Night,” which flank the fireplace in the library of the manse-turned-hotel. They, too, have a haunting, heavy industrial feel thanks to lots of texture and contrast.

“I was drawn to photos that had a lot of smoke and sky, darks and lights,” Hardy says, citing Aaron Gorson (1872-1933), Pittsburgh's painter of steel mills from the first half of the 20th century, as a major influence.

“I just really relate to how he described being in those settings,” Hardy says. “This haunting dark and light contrast. The flares of the blast furnaces being the focal point, which has drawn me into an abstract form of painting, building up an atmosphere.”

For Dormont watercolorist Jeannie McGuire, painting from vintage photographs has been the mainstay of her work for more than a decade. So, when it came time to create works for this show, she decided to search through the online archives of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area (www.riversofsteel.com) in Homestead.

Pointing to “Heavy Load,” a large, sumptuous watercolor of coal miners in a cart at the start of their day, she says, “I was trying to get across the feeling of the day- to-day of going down into the mine, and their lunch pails, being their sustenance, somehow, ironically, becoming a heavy load.”

In “Andrew and Louise (Navigating),” McGuire has captured the emotion of a moment in which Andrew Carnegie and his wife, Louise, were leaving St. George's Episcopal Church at the funeral of John Bigelow in New York City in 1911.

“The photo has a lot of people leaving the church,” McGuire says, “but I wanted to capture Louise, as she was, very intent on finding her ride, finding her way out of the crowd. It was just my feeling, so I tried to give that energy that she is moving off. Andrew is following in tow, but he has this very serious look. I wanted to make him look like himself — he was a very deep person.”

Peggi Habets of Bethel Park says her natural inclination to paint people caused her to focus on the people and neighborhoods surrounding the steel mills, specifically the porches.

“My family grew up in neighborhoods very similar to those, so it makes sense that I was drawn to them,” she says. “The more crooked and worn a building is, the more beauty I find in it.”

Using black-and-white archival photos from the University of Pittsburgh as her source, Habets re-worked and re-designed the images until each one communicated what she wanted to say about each subject.

For example, in her watercolor “My Castle,” Habets captured the diversity and bustling life of the neighborhoods surrounding the steel mills in the mid 1900s. Perched high atop a hill overlooking the mills, “My Castle” offers a view of a private refuge from the belching smoke and wailing shift sirens. From a distance, the steel mills are softened and muted, and the rooftops dot the landscape with colorful, geometric shapes.

In “Waiting,” a watercolor of children on the porch of a tenement house, she says, “What drew me to this image was the crisp, white dress, tentative smile and direct stare. I felt it embodied a youthful hope for an uncertain future.”

Unlike the other artists, Christine Swann of Baden says she had decided early on not to use historical references, but rather her own photographs and memories. A watercolor portrait of her late father, “Lost Knowledge” is a quintessential example. “My dad was in the mills for years, and there was a lot of bad things and jobs lost over the years, so I just couldn't bring myself to glorify that time in Pittsburgh in any way,” she says.

Swann says of her father: “He had jumped from mill to mill, running the computer systems that ran the blast furnaces. He met with a lot of resistance to change and improving the mills. As a result, a lot of people lost their jobs. There was a lot of bitterness there.

“The painting depicts him turning his back on the mills,” Swann says, “Or rather, they turned their back on him. He was let go, and two furnaces in Braddock were shut down. The painting is also a thought of mine on how many older men are out there with a vast store of knowledge that is not applicable anymore. So my take was in the workers now and how they relate to the things they built or the industry around them and who they are.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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