Exhibit shows Plum artist's role as inadvertent historian
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.