Exhibit shows Plum artist's role as inadvertent historian

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, May 3, 2014, 8:26 p.m.

Painter Cynthia Cooley of Plum is known for her paintings of Pittsburgh's hillside neighborhoods and industrial valleys, often contrasted with the changing Downtown skyline.

But in her most recent exhibit, “Cynthia Cooley: Pittsburgh Evolves — Looking Back, Looking Forward,” on display at Borelli-Edwards Galleries in Lawrenceville, Cooley contrasts nearly all of her new works, 26 in all, with images of previous paintings of the same sites she created years ago.

For example, a photo of a painting from 1976 of Rialto Street — one of the city's steepest, located next to Herr's Island — crowded with houses is pinned next a painting completed earlier this year depicting the same scene, but as it is today. Only some of the stone wall remains, and the street was closed for months during Route 28 construction.

“I wanted to find some of the places I painted years ago, and see how I felt about the changes,” Cooley says. “Sometimes it was depressing, and sometimes it was great.”

Cooley was the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts 1989 Artist of the Year and named a “Master Artist” by the center in 1998. She received the Distinguished Career Achievement Award from her alma mater, Lawrence University, in 1997. She has had 50 individual exhibits in eight states, with 1,900 works in collections throughout the world. Her work can be found in a number of public collections, including the Carnegie Museum of Art; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg; Pennsylvania State Museum, Harrisburg; and the University of Pittsburgh.

Combining strong design, vibrant colors and evocative textures, Cooley's style of painterly realism conveys powerful and memorable images, either in watercolor or acrylic.

Cooley says that, since moving here from Boston in 1964, she has always loved exploring the city, looking for places she'd like to paint. “I try to make paintings from places that many people never go to, like the Rankin Bridge, where I saw the Edgar Thomson Works across the river from the Kennywood roller coasters way up on the opposite hill,” she says.

One of the largest paintings in the show, Cooley's contemporary depiction of Edgar Thomson Works is contrasted with her painting of the same site created in 1992. However, the earlier version, with its big blast furnaces, features a sky filled with lots more smoke.

For the painting “Herr's Island,” Cooley went to the 31st Street Bridge when it was closed and stepped around the construction to see the lovely quiet back channel. “When I painted it in 1983, the bridge was still a railroad bridge, not a bike trail,” Cooley says.

Looking at the earlier work, one can see the bridge, which plays a prominent role in the composition. In regard to this obviously notable difference, Cooley says, “I want viewers to take a closer look at our landscape and think about how the built environment has evolved.”

In “Head of the Ohio,” which was painted from photos taken from the vantage point of a little visited park in Arlington, Cooley depicts all the new North Side development, which has replaced numerous warehouses and the old Three Rivers Stadium. In the foreground is the new soccer field, just left of Station Square on the South Side. “I guess I want to encourage viewers to have a discussion on these changes,” Cooley says.

“Troy Hill” is another example, which Cooley painted from the vantage point of the back of a building on the river at 22nd Street, “looking through a lot of trees in my way,” she says.

“I've painted Troy Hill a lot,” Cooley says. “The remarkable church domes, now gone, and the row houses above, hardly changed.” In this case, the most obvious absence is that of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, which was razed in January 2013 to make way for the widening of Route 28.

Among her many steel-mill pieces on display, Cooley says, “I think ‘Quiet Mon' speaks for itself. ... It's lucky to have a remnant of the former mill without all the pollution from the former huge mill, which covered the now empty long river bank when I painted it in 1991.”

This isn't the first time Cooley has challenged herself with such an ambitious project. In 1992, she had a show at the former Bird in the Hand Gallery in Sewickley called “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” with paintings from the Mon Valley as it was being torn down.

“I have become an unintended historian,” she says. And so she has.

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

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