Italian native commits Pittsburgh to memory through art

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Guglielmo Botter loves this city. A native of Italy, he hails from Treviso, 20 miles outside of Venice. But he hopes to move here one day with his family, as soon as he finds a position as an architect.

That's why, last summer, Botter decided to fly to Pittsburgh with his family to understand the way of life in the U.S. His mother, Lyu, lived here from 1946 to 1963, the year she returned to Italy to marry Memi Botter, Guglielmo's father.

Botter's mother was a well-known painter in the city, and Guglielmo, who is going to publish her biography soon, decided to visit her relatives as well as a few familiar places, which he decided to draw on the spot.

“Because I love this city and I would like to live here, I decided to learn more about it, walking around with my ink pen and sketch book, looking to the less-known views and corners instead of the usual scenes,” Botter says. “I looked for the most interesting perspectives and details in every place I drew. My father told me that if you draw a place, you understand and remember it forever. If you make a photograph, you put it away and forget.”

Now, more than two dozen drawings by Botter line the walls at Gallerie Chiz in Shadyside in the exhibit titled “Architectural Perspectives: Places and Planes.” Together, they form Botter's memory of the place he wishes to soon call home.

Botter says he usually takes his ink pen and sketchbook with him during his travels, “to fix places and memories in my mind.”

“Since I was very young, I drew my birth city of Treviso and I am still doing that today,” Botter says. “When I came to Pittsburgh, I enjoyed to stop on my way to make some sketches of streets, buildings, bridges because this is my story.”

As an architect and an artist, Botter says he was fascinated by the intricate and unusual views and corners of the city and found that Pittsburgh offers a “very special opportunity to satisfy my curiosity.”

That's why unusual views of such ordinary places as the Fort Pitt Bridge or the Sacred Heart Parish in Shadyside offer different perspectives than what most of us are used to seeing.

“I inherited from my father's family the respect and the appreciation of the art and architecture of the Middle Ages and beyond, because they were, for generations, art and fresco restorers,” Botter says. “Then I met the modern architecture during my study at the University in Venice.”

For these reasons, Botter says, he especially appreciates the mix of both the old and the new in the architecture here, which is why visitors will find drawings like “Allegheny County Court House and Old Jail,” which features the famous building designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, hanging right alongside the construction site that currently comprises “The Tower at PNC Plaza.”

“Here in Pittsburgh, I can find old and new living together happily wherever I look,” he says. “The simple line of my drawings, I believe, can mitigate some of the discordant aspects of the city's architecture.”

Then, there are the drawings of the alleyways and side streets that make up the rest of the city as Botter saw it, such as “Houses on Berenton Street,” which depicts a neighborhood in Polish Hill.

“I tried to also give dignity to the back streets, parking lots, railroad tracks, ramps and of course cars because they are part of the landscape,” he says.

Botter says his goal is to expand his work in Pittsburgh, once he finally gets here. “I want to produce drawings, maps of the city and to one day create an illustrated guide of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania as I already did for Treviso,” he says. And no doubt, he will.

Also on display in the center of the gallery is the work of Ben Saks of Garfield who creates model airplanes that weigh as much as a dollar bill out of thin balsa wood and extremely thin polyester film (0.5 micron thickness).

Saks says it was a challenge to display his airplanes in the gallery. “The planes are fragile and very light, and could easily be broken from people walking too fast, or the HVAC system turning on,” he says. So, “I designed hanging ‘harnesses' to hold the planes, yet allow them to move with the air currents and not break.”

The planes actually fly in very large buildings, for 30 to 40 minutes, powered only by a rubber band. “I knew this was not an option for the gallery, so I decided that hanging the planes was the best way to safely display them,” Saks says.

Saks also displays sculptures, which he made from similar materials. He says they were motivated by his desire to create new forms with the same materials and techniques that he uses for the airplanes.

“I was interested in the way the film reflects light,” he says. “Its color changes, shimmering and, at times, becoming completely invisible.”

Looking at Saks' sculptures “Tricostae” and “Octricostae,” which look lighter than air, its easy to see that the work was influenced by materials and processes only.

“In my airplane-building, my process is heavily based on plans which have been previously designed,” Saks says. “I am more interested in a process driven by materials and tools. So, for the sculptures, I did no sketching, I designed them as I made them and let the material determine what was possible. This way of working allows me to make intuitive decisions and experiment more freely.”

The unusual combination, that of architectural rendering and model making, is not so unusual, as this is a very structure oriented exhibition. And if either is of your interest, one will no doubt inform the other.

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

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