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Late McCandless artist's many talents shine in exhibit

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 8:25 p.m.
“Crawford Family Portrait” by Jon C. Crawford
“Mystical Journey” by Jon C. Crawford
“Thutmose III (after Herget)” by Jon C. Crawford
“Circle of Life” by Jon C. Crawford

A painter, sculptor, designer, art restorer, muralist, landscape architect and educator, the late Jon C. Crawford (1952-2012) was a true Renaissance man. But known only to a few friends and family, as well as a few of Pittsburgh's most notable interior designers, he toiled in relative obscurity over his 40-year art career.

“He made a living as an artist. Not a great living. But his work was exceptional,” longtime friend Paul Georg says.

Now, Crawford is getting his due in the form of a solo exhibit, “Jon C. Crawford: Scintillation,” on display at the Frank L. Melega Art Museum in Brownsville, Fayette County.

Featuring 28 paintings, the exhibit showcases a remarkable range, including delicate portraits, expressive abstracts and large, highly detailed historical works, such as “Thutmose III (after Herget),” which depicts Egyptian King Thutmose III, the sixth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, attacking the Syrians.

“It's so varied that it was difficult to hang the show,” says Patrick A. Wick, a friend and collector who commissioned a dozen paintings, including the latter, over the past 30 years.

Many of the paintings Wick owns and has loaned for the exhibit have an Egyptian theme, such as “Temple of Anubis,” which depicts an Egyptian pyramid of polished limestone, surrounded by servants, as it was in the historical period.

All were commissioned to decorate Wick's home in Farmington. “Some paintings he did because he wanted to, but I would say about 70 percent of his paintings were commissioned,” he says.

Rick Schwarz of McCandless commissioned six, beginning with “Circle of Life,” a large, geometric abstract composition in red, orange and tan that Crawford painted in 1982.

“At the time, I bought a house and I needed art, and Jon could create a painting in the colors and style that I wanted,” Schwarz says of the painting, which was influenced by Schwarz's liking of Southwest and Native American designs.

Born in Kennedy, Crawford grew up in McCandless. While in high school, he attended the Tam O'Shanter art classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Oakland, and went on to study commercial art at the Ivy School of Professional Art on the North Side, graduating in 1972. He taught there in the mid-1970s, as well as at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Downtown.

But it was his work for the city's interior designers and decorators that would come to define his career.

“He could do design, but he worked for them as an artist,” Georg says. “The decorators would hire him and have him do finishes.”

Along with collaborating with designers Nachum Golan and the late Mark Christy on projects in homes and hotels in and around the city, he did murals in the homes of Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux and Barbara and Jerry Chait, part owners of Giant Eagle.

Georg says Crawford also excelled at landscape design.

“He did gardens for people, and ponds that were just spectacular,” Georg says. “When I lived in the Mexican War Streets, that yard that he did there rivaled Phipps. It was just unbelievable.”

Georg says the Crawford family home, situated on seven-and-a-half acres in Ingomar, McCandless, was meticulously maintained by Crawford, who lived there with his sister Darlene and mother, Zella, until his death at age 60 of complications from an ulcer.

“It was like a walk through a botanical garden that someone would have on tour,” Georg says of the grounds around the home. “I mean, it was just incredible.”

Crawford was one of five siblings. They are each depicted, along with his parents, in the painting “Crawford Family Portrait” from 1992, which is housed in a frame featuring a delicately painted green-leaf design of Crawford's own creation.

“He referred to it as ‘Happy Land,' because the Crawfords are a little bit nuts,” Georg says of the Crawford homestead. “They are. They are a very artistic family. And they were always arguing and fighting, but they had a great sense of humor.

“He was never very successful (financially),” Georg says of Crawford. “I mean, he had his struggles, but he was incredibly talented.”

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

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