Painter documents city sections, visiting each in alphabetical order
The city of Pittsburgh has been Lawrenceville painter Ron Donoughe's muse for the past 25 years. He's painted its neighborhoods, in sunshine and foul weather, nearly every week since moving to the city in 1979 from his hometown of Loretto, Cambria County.
“But, in some ways, I've felt that there was more to know, that I could dig deeper,” he says. “There were places I haven't seen, people I haven't met and paintings that were waiting to be painted.”
So, last July, after seeing an old map of the city at an antique map gallery, he decided to embark on a unique project.
“From looking at that old map, I learned there were 90 neighborhoods. So, I decided I wanted to paint each one alphabetically,” he says.
Now, having recently completed paintings in Shadyside, Sheraden and Squirrel Hill, he is on target to complete the project by early July.
Standing in his studio, which he has occupied for the past 15 years, the smell of fresh paint is palpable. The recently completed painting, “Sheraden, Bergman Street,” rests on a table, among many others.
It features the William Sheraden Homestead, the oldest and first house built (circa 1857) in the western city neighborhood of Sheraden.
“It is useful to look at the Wikipedia page before I journey to a neighborhood,” Donoughe says. “In this case, I read about the original homestead of William Sheraden, who bought 122 acres to farm.
“His grandson was a botanist and grew two sycamore trees together to form an incredible arch in front of the house. I thought, ‘OK. this sounds pretty interesting,' so off I went. And there it was on Bergman Street, even better than I had imagined.”
Donoughe says the morning he was there to paint, “folks kept stopping by to tell me that it is often photographed and how it is a Sheraden landmark.”
“It felt like I was documenting a piece of Pittsburgh history,” he says. “Some folks even apologized for walking in front of the house while I was working. That says a lot about a neighborhood.”
Donoughe says when you plant yourself in a neighborhood, you never know what's going to happen.
“You might be totally embraced, you might be totally ignored. Someone might offer you a glass of water,” he says. “Some places were scary, but I would explain why I was there and ask what is here and what is unique about their neighborhood.”
That's how he came to paint “Dornbush Street, East Hills,” which depicts a massive set of steps unfolding down a steep hill.
“During the painting process, I met Brian, a friendly guy, who actually knew where my hometown of Loretto was located,” Donoughe says. “We chatted for quite some time as he described his family business, now in its third generation. He said, ‘You really nailed it.' Meaning he liked what I did. This is Dornbush street, right off Frankstown.”
Another standout piece is “Ken's Donut House, Crafton Heights,” which many West Enders will recognize by its colorful sign that simply reads “Donuts” on the side of a cotton-candy-colored building on Steuben Street.
After meeting Ken, the owner, he says, “He loves what he does and probably could be a motivational speaker.”
Another person he met that made an impact was Dennis, a homeless man living in an abandoned lot between two houses in the Bluff area, near Duquesne University.
“He was a homeless person who lived between these houses in a dog cage,” Donoughe says. “He was a drug addict, and actually one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. He offered me blessings. He grew up on this block of the Bluff. We had a nice chat, and he told me the history of the neighborhood.”
Donoughe says his ultimate plan for this series is to assemble an exhibit of these paintings, which will be on display next year at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and possibly create another book similar to his “Essence of Pittsburgh” which was published in 2006 by the center.
But, ultimately, he says, “I'm hoping we can find a public space that can keep them altogether with corresponding captions for each neighborhood.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.