'History Inspires' new Fort Pitt exhibit
It's a rare and treasured opportunity when contemporary culture crosses paths with history, but that's just what visitors to Fort Pitt Museum in Point State Park have been getting all month with the exhibit “History Inspires.”
Organized by Megan Shalonis, customer-service associate at the museum, the exhibit is on display in William Pitt hall, located on the first floor near the entrance. It features the work of 10 local contemporary artists who have drawn inspiration from the 18th-century history of Western Pennsylvania.
“Everyone could use artistic license,” Shalonis says. “There were no real boundaries for them. Any medium, any idea was OK, as long as they ran it by me first.”
Some pieces are literal interpretations, such as Amber Kear's portrait of Chief Cornplanter (1740-1836) and Jen Brinkle's portrait of Half King Tanacharison (1700-54), both American Indian leaders who played pivotal roles in the French and Indian War.
But most are more abstract interpretations, which still have their roots in local history, and some in more ways and time periods than one.
Take, for example, “That's It,” a colorful light sculpture by Ron Copeland of Lawrenceville, which is one of the first pieces visitors will come to.
Copeland is one of the few who was involved in the first “History Inspires” exhibit. His piece studied and imagined the multiple forts that had been built and rebuilt at the Point and their eventual material contribution to the small town that would become the city of Pittsburgh.
“For this year's exhibition, I wanted to take a looser perspective on the idea of the term ‘Fort Pitt,' ” Copeland says. “While I knew I wanted to focus on creating a text-heavy piece, I recalled the designs of the Fort Pitt Brewing Co. in the early to mid-1900s.”
To that end, he created “That's It,” which is an internally lit sculpture made from reclaimed signage and assorted plastics that incorporates the logo of the Fort Pitt Brewing Co.
“I find their branding to be elegant and of the times, which relates seamlessly to the visual past that inspires my work,” Copeland says. “I also am intrigued by the use of the Block House as their graphic imagery. I personally prefer the geometric, functional footprint of the actual Fort Pitt, but I can also appreciate the recognizable site of the Block House.”
Like Copeland's piece, which represents more than one historical period, so does the work of Dan Burfield of McDonald, Washington County. His piece, “The Rise of the Whiskey Rebellion,” not only calls to mind the late-18th-century uprising of Western Pennsylvania farmers against the federal government over the tax on whiskey, but also the mid-20th-century pinball craze.
It features a large print of Gen. George Washington wheat-pasted onto two cabinet sides of a pinball machine that Burfield joined with flipper buttons at the top.
“Washington marched 13,000 troops to the western colonies in order to enforce the tax. It was a ridiculous flex of power,” Burfield says.
In this piece, Washington salutes the nation as his horse tramples barrels of whiskey. Above him waves the flag of the rebellion, ultimately won in 1801.
“I've been working with a newer style,” says Burfield, whose current work always involves recycling pinball machines into art. “This street-art-inspired work was lot of fun. In 1993, I started as a graffiti artist and was quickly caught and arrested for vandalism. It ended up costing me thousands of dollars in restitution. This style is beautiful, and using my own canvas means complete creative and legal control.”
Welcome additions to an exhibit filled with a wide variety of interesting takes on local historical subjects are historically accurate illustrations of French and Indian War regiments by George Gaadt of Sewickley, panels from a comic book about the French and Indian War by Thom Delair of Bloomfield and a hand-painted “Sampler” that calls to mind the embroidery samplers of long ago by Steph Neary of Friendship.
But perhaps the most locally focused is the work of Ryder Henry of East Liberty, whose “Block House and Environs, 1893” is a miniature re-creation in painted cardboard of what the Block House just outside the museum looked like in the late 19th century.
Henry says the idea to create the model was Shalonis' idea.
“She suggested a model of the Block House at the time when it was inhabited,” he says. “Some paintings and photos from the 19th century show the progression of the Block House from military outpost to quaint farmhouse to the rambling dilapidated tenement which is documented in a photograph from 1893. That's the one I chose to model, the Block House in 1893, the last time anyone lived there.
“After that, the surrounding area was redeveloped for industrial purposes. All the subsequent photos and paintings show basically the same thing as today, a historical site, the oldest remaining freestanding structure in Pittsburgh.”
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.