Artists aim to revive Mt. Pleasant Township landmark
Shawn Ronzio's evolution as an artist is deeply influenced by his experience growing up among the abandoned factories, mills and coke ovens located near his hometown of Dawson in Fayette County.
“I grew up around these hulking visual structures which stood over a time long forgotten,” said Ronzio, 39. “That post-industrial imagery made a real impression on me as an artist.”
So much so that Ronzio and his business partner, Vermont native Meagan Tooley, in 2011 bought another colossal monument to the local coal and coke era — the Standard Union Supply Co. — along North Diamond Street in Mt. Pleasant Township.
Since then, the pair has diligently labored to renovate the two-story, 1800s-era brick structure.
“We have been working on the warehouse for two years to get it to an operational point,” Ronzio said.
The duo's vision is to fashion the facility for use as a creative and useful environment for artists to meet, create and display their work, share knowledge through professionally taught classes, and hold events all under the moniker the Standard Union Art & Supply Company.
“What we've done there in the time we've been here is a wonderful thing, but we're still in the works of getting this place in motion,” he said.
Artist's journey comes full circle
Since 2007, Ronzio has been employed full-time as an instructor for Tom Savini's Special Make-up Effects Program, which offers students an associate's degree in specialized business, at the Douglas Education Center in Monessen.
Savini is a legendary special effects master whose work can be seen in many motion pictures including “Friday the 13th,” “Dawn of the Dead” and “Creepshow.”
A 1992 Connellsville Area graduate, Ronzio set out with bold ambition to make his own mark in the medium.
“I have studied my craft all my life, and I have been practicing and working in this journey for 25 years,” he said.
In 1995, Ronzio graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh with a degree in industrial design technology.
In 2000, he moved west and spent the next seven years working in the special effects industry in Los Angeles on such movies as “House of 1,000 Corpses,” “Slither,” “Spiderman II,” and “Spiderman III” and “Chronicles Riddick.”
“I specialized in mold-making, prosthetics, set design and props,” he said.
In 2007, Ronzio returned home and was eventually hired at the Savini program.
“This area really is the wellspring of creation for me,” he said.
While traveling through the area a few years later, Ronzio spotted the Standard Union Supply Co. and he knew he'd found a space to carry out the next chapter of his artistic evolution.
“I saw the building was for sale, and when I saw the size of it, I knew it was what I was looking for,” he said. “Working for the studios out west, you know all you need is space and knowledge; here we have that.”
Owners craft a vision for the future
Ronzio said he and Tooley, a graduate of the Savini program, hope to open the front of the building's interior for art exhibits by spring.
Eventually, the partners aim to develop the rest of the interior to provide spaces for performance art and professional development, and production of all forms of art specializing in special makeup effects and fabrication for film, stage and the general public.
“We're definitely looking to be a part of the community, as well,” Tooley said.
With that in mind, the partners wrote, designed and built the Haunted Hillside this past fall for the Hillside Orchard off of Deer field Lane on State Route 819 and plan to bring the event back again.
“We're in the concept stage for this fall as we speak,” Ronzio said.
In addition, Ronzio and Tooley have requisitioned the aid of some his former students — Nathan Lucci, Nic Parks and Cody Ruch — and for an all-volunteer project involving the production of puppets for use in the staging of “Little Shop of Horrors” to be performed by students at Mt. Pleasant Area Junior-Senior High School in March.
“Everything we are doing for that production is all-volunteer, and we're very happy to be able to help them,” Ronzio said. “We are going to create this product at nothing short of movie quality.”
Both Parks and Ruch affirmed they are happy to help a teacher who they agreed made a positive impact on their development.
“Shawn really stuck out as one of my favorite, go-to teachers, even after I graduated,” Ruch said. “Even after I graduated (in 2011), we've always had the kind of relationship where I can talk with him and get advice from him.”
Parks added that the insights Ronzio possesses based on his professional background make him invaluable.
“(Shawn) helped me know a lot about this business. As far as working with him in the future, I'd definitely be willing,” he said.
Cultural trust offers a hand
Cassandra Vivian, president of the Mt. Pleasant Cultural Trust, is leading an effort to advise Ronzio and Tooley in their efforts to develop the historic facility.
“When the trust first started out, we had several projects we set out to complete, including the establishment of a local arts center,” Vivian said.
The purchase of the building by Ronzio and Tooley and their goals dovetail nicely with the trust's own objectives, she said.
“All we are going to be are advisors; it's their project, and it's their financing,” Vivian said.
By month's end, Vivian said, a historic preservationist from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission will tour the building with trust members before visiting the area of Standard Shaft.
“(The preservationist) is coming out primarily to view this building and to give some guidance to the work they're doing so they know what not to take down and what keep in place to preserve its historical integrity,” she said. “But (Ronzio and Tooley) will ultimately decide if they want the building to have historical status.”
As a photographer and a writer in her own right, Vivian said she has a personal stock in the development of a local artistic outlet.
“It makes me triply excited at the prospect of having a place to display my own art work,” she said.
Both Ronzio and Tooley expressed enthusiasm at what's to come regarding their endeavors.
“It's just a great time to create,” Ronzio said. “We've set the kindling, we've seen the spark, now we're watching it catch flame and go from there.”
For more information, visit the company's Facebook page under Standard Union Art & Supply Co.
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.