Greater Latrobe Senior High School art collection has a story all its own
When Barbara Jones, chief curator at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, goes looking for a painting by an artist from this region to fill a gap in a planned exhibit, she'll oftentimes check with the Greater Latrobe School District to see if there is an appropriate piece in their “Special Art Collection.”
Finding works of art by locals in a collection spanning nearly 80 years is not a problem. One only need walk the halls of Greater Latrobe Senior High School to see the more than 200 paintings (as well as a few photographs and pieces of sculpture) that make up the collection, which is on display year round.
“When you look at these you can almost pick out the, year that they were painted,” Jones says. “There are Depression-era pieces that you know were done in the '30s and '40s. There are the war pictures that relate to World War II. And then there are abstract pieces for which you know they were created in the 1950s. They really are telling of the period in which they were made. Some of them are not, but a lot of them are.”
Every year since 1936, students of the high school have selected for purchase a work or two by a Western Pennsylvania artist for the school's art collection. The works come from large group exhibits like the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh's annual exhibition and the annual regional juried art exhibition of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, and they are paid for with money raised by the students themselves.
Though the collection now contains many valuable works of art, the real value, says Barbara Nakles, chair of the school district's Art Conservation Trust, is in the story of the collection, which began during the Great Depression.
“The art teacher, Mary Martha Himler, was very worried that her students never saw or experienced modern art,” Nakles says. “The nearest museum was the Carnegie, and they could not get there. Because of the Great Depression, there were no field trips. So, she borrowed a lot of the paintings from the Associated Artists shows and brought them out here to the old high school and presented them to the students as an assembly.”
For the assembly, the social-studies teacher, Jim Beatty, arranged for the display of the works, and Himler spoke about the paintings. For most of those students, this was the only course in art appreciation they would ever have.
Nakles says it was Beatty, who also was the student council advisor. who decided that student council should raise money to purchase a few of the works and keep them at the school so that students could have original art to see on a continual basis.
“To make it even more interesting, he showed paintings to the students, and the entire student body voted that first year, choosing two pieces that they could purchase and keep,” Nakles says.
Nakles, who studied with Himler as a member of the class of 1952, says, “Those things have been done ever since. It's student-chosen, and student-paid-for.”
The first two paintings the students purchased in 1936 were “Blossom Time” by Martha M. Morgan and “Deserted Farm” by Clarence McWilliams. Both are pictures telling of the times in which they were created. The former depicts a bucolic farm setting, and the latter is a painting of a dilapidated barn that represented the country during the Depression. The works were displayed in the halls of the high school where students lived with them daily, much as they do to this day.
Today, a walk through the hallways reveals, as Jones says, “a slice of the times.” Just some of the painting include:
• “The Soldier's Prayer” by Earl Holdren, a graduate of Carnegie Institute of Technology and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Acquired in 1944, it features a beleaguered soldier on his knees in a foxhole, looking upward to the heavens for consolation. An emotionally charged work, it won the artist the Christian Walter Memorial Prize in the Associated Artists annual exhibition of that same year.
• “Life” by artist Constantine G. Kosak, a Russian immigrant, Greek Orthodox iconographer and onetime Kaufmann's display designer. Acquired in 1953, the work is considered the artist's “magnum opus,” painted toward the end of his life, before he died of cancer.
• “My Neighbor,” by Latrobe artist Kathy Rafferty, a 1967 graduate of the high school. Acquired in 2004, it is an iconic portrait of Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.” Also a graduate of Greater Latrobe High School (1946), Rogers was president of the student council and editor of the Latrobean, the school yearbook.
• “New Florence Power Plant” by William M. Hoffman Jr., another graduate of the high school (1951). After spending 33 years teaching art at Rutgers University, where he was appointed chairman of the art department three times, Hoffman has retired to life in Ligonier. This painting was acquired in 2007, when the trust honored him and his wife for their commitment to the arts and education at the 2007 Greater Latrobe School District Art Gala.
“The art here isn't just for display,” Nakles says. “The social studies teachers use it to relate to their classes. The English teachers send the students out into the halls to pick a painting and write a descriptive paragraph or poem about it. And, of course, the art department sends students out to look at the paintings and draw something from them.”
One thing visitors will no doubt notice is that, even though the works line the busy hallways of the high school, each is protected under glass. Their protection, and, in some cases, their conservation, would not be possible if not for the district's Art Conservation Trust. The trust was formed in 1991 to insure that the vision of Himler and Beatty would continue.
“In the early 1990s, we realized somebody had to care for the collection. Mr. Beatty was 90 years old, and he came to my husband, Ned, who was the solicitor for the school district, and he said, ‘You have to do something or this is all going to deteriorate,” Nakles says. “So, Ned formed the Art Conservation Trust with the mission to care for the works and to promote creativity in all forms.”
Along with conservation, the trust documents the collection and maintains an archive for the use of students and researchers. The trust raised $166,000 to do all this and more through the Preserve the Vision campaign, which was completed in June 2011. This successful fundraising effort, which exceeded the trust's initial goal of raising $150,000, was made possible through generous local foundation grants, numerous individual gifts and from support from other groups such as the Rotary Club of Latrobe.
Nakles says that, thanks to this effort, all works will be evaluated over the next several years and will receive the necessary conservation treatments and be digitally photographed. In addition, historical documents in the archives will be scanned so that they will be available to students and others researching the collection.
“The collection is used in many different ways, and the new digital files will stimulate even more uses,” she says.
Nakles says that community ownership is the distinguishing characteristic that defines the continuation of the “Special Art Collection” and all that has resulted from it. “This little community out here supports it,” she says. “We raise the money for the ongoing conservation, which is quite expensive, with an art gala we hold every year. It's always the first Thursday in November. About 500 come every year. And they all have a real sense of ownership and dedication to the collection.”
Also an artist, Beatty once said that one of the proudest moments of his life was when the students voted to add his painting, “Greywing Manor,” to the collection. It hangs in the Center for Student Creativity entranceway.
Located in the senior-high complex, the Center for Student Creativity was funded by the Art Conservation Trust, back in 2000, when the high school was renovated. The trust raised $1.7 million from foundations, corporations and generous individual donors for its creation. This money was used, after the school district constructed the shell of the facility in 2000, to finish the interior and completely equip the center with state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment and furnishings.
The center is managed by a full-time director, Jessica Golden, who coordinates all activities and events.
“Almost every student in the high school participates in programs here,” Golden says. “For example, this year we were able to host our fall play here in this space. There were five performances, with 150 attendees for each. It was a sell-out. We would never be able to get that size of an audience in our auditorium.”
Golden says that a number of community groups meet at the center after school hours. “The community helped build it, so we are happy to open it up to them,” she says.
“The center really offers us a wonderful way to connect to the community,” Golden says. “So often you hear of people graduating from a school and never returning. Here, that isn't the case. Whether people come to the art gala, a musical, a film, we want them to feel welcome, because it's everyone's school.”
As for the art collection, Nakles says that, up until two years ago, there was none other like it in the country. “We were the only collection in the entire country that was student chosen, student paid for and that hangs where the students live with it every single day.”
Now there is another similar collection, the Woodland High School Art Trust in Woodlands, Texas, founded by Ray Mt. Joy and his wife, Pam. Mt. Joy is a member of the Greater Latrobe High School class of 1963.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.