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Born of Fire

| Sunday, June 11, 2006

From the I-beams that hold up the Empire State Building to the great expanse of girders and steel rope that is the Golden Gate Bridge, Pennsylvania steel built the backbone of America and played a supporting role in much of American history.

More than a century ago, 350 mills lit the night skies of Western Pennsylvania. Throughout the 20th century, Pittsburgh became known nationwide as "the steel city" and Western Pennsylvania as a whole continued to dominate American steelmaking well into the latter half of the century.

Gone is the heyday of steelmaking that made this city and region what it is today, but the memory lives on. It's sparked yet again, this time by a most magnificent exhibition, "Born of Fire," that opens today at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.

At the core of the exhibition: "The Valley of Work," The Westmoreland's complete collection of more than 140 paintings, prints and photographs that document Pittsburgh's steel heritage, which is presented in its entirety for the first time.

Previous visitors might know parts of the collection as seen in the Barclay Gallery, otherwise known as "the library" on the museum's first floor. Now arranged in the temporary exhibitions galleries on the third floor, this vast array of artistic interpretations depicts glorious scenes of industry, and the life that existed around them. The artwork ranges in date from 1851 to contemporary times. Altogether, the works flesh out the human story of Southwestern Pennsylvania's Big Steel Era with a sense of immediacy and palpability like nothing else.

Some highlights of the collection on display:

  • "Industrial Scene, Pittsburgh" (1928), a large oil on canvas by Aaron Harry Gorson (1872-1933), perhaps the best known painter of Pittsburgh steel mills at night.

  • "Train in Panther Hollow" (circa 1925), a lush, pictorial-style photograph by Hew Charles Torrance (1859-1931), a former employee of Carnegie Steel.

  • "Allegheny River, Pittsburgh" (circa 1923), an oil painting by Hayley Lever (1876-1958), one of the most widely exhibited artists in New York City in the early 20th century and a hugely influential instructor at the Art Students League from 1919-1931.

  • "The House on the Hill" (1937), the only known lithograph by Morris Behr Kirshenbaum (1918-2003), founder and director of the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh.

  • "Steel Valley" (circa 1925) by Otto Kuhler (1894-1976), a massive oil on canvas that depicts a hot sun desperately trying to penetrate a blackened, smoke-filled sky.

The latter, donated to the museum in 2004 by Tribune-Review publisher Richard Scaife, "is the largest painting by Otto Kuhler we know of," says Westmoreland Museum of American Art curator Barbara Jones.

Of all the artists represented, by far the most work on display is by Kuhler, a prolific artist and industrial designer best known for designing the classic Art Deco locomotive, the Milwaukee Road Hiawatha -- 21 pieces in all ranging from watercolors of steel mill interiors to a portfolio of five etchings that depict locomotive production titled "The Iron Horse in the Making."

"He was a real master of all mediums," Jones says. "We've got watercolors, etchings, paintings, gouaches. It seemed whatever he picked up, he could make it into a work of art."

In many ways, Kuhler's work reflects an intense and passionate interest in industry that was shared by many of his contemporaries, regardless of whether they lived in Pittsburgh.

Jones says that even though most of the artists represented, such as Kuhler and Gorson, lived in Pittsburgh at one point, several nationally prominent artists, such as Lever, were struck by the sight of "pillars of smoke" by day and "pillars of fire" at night when visiting the city.

Working in diverse styles, they painted what they saw: huge iron and steel mills lining the banks of Pittsburgh's three rivers; railroad tracks and yards; coke works and other industrial facilities; bridges and barges; giant lifelike moving cranes bearing kettles of molten steel.

Looking over paintings and prints by prominent American artists such as Ernest Lawson (1873-1939), Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), William Gropper (1897-1977), Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) and Walter E. Baum (1884-1956), it is little wonder that these dramatic industrial landscapes inspired them.

"These artists found beauty and drama in the spectacle that was going on around them," Jones says. "When they saw the river in a golden-yellow color, the smoke and the fire -- this was a 24-hour operation. People talked about how it looked like it was nighttime during the day and how the city looked like it was on fire because of all the furnaces and converters continuously firing."

More than just an art exhibition, "Born of Fire" also tells the story of industrialization through a book that catalogs the collection and includes essays by Jones and others, a CD of songs about the region by The NewLanders, and "Born of Fire: How Pittsburgh Built a Nation," a 60-minute documentary film co-produced by the Westmoreland Museum and award-winning producer Bill Mosher, that features visits to operating steel mills, views of the Southwestern Pennsylvania region, interviews with historians, art historians and former steelworkers.

The documentary will be displayed on a monitor in the gallery at noon every Thursday and at 2 p.m. Sundays throughout the run of the exhibition.

In addition, the exhibition is augmented with a number of artifacts collected from the mills, courtesy of Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in Homestead, an organization that promotes the rich industrial heritage of Southwestern Pennsylvania through its interpretive and educational programming, preservation efforts and community outreach.

They range from an actual workman's locker that once stood in the Duquesne Works, now on display at the entrance to the exhibition, to tongs, clogs, a lunch bucket and other personal effects hung or displayed throughout the entire exhibition. Including, poignantly enough, a small piece taken off the end of the last I-beam produced at the Homestead Steel Works.

Related events

  • Born of Fire Family Celebration , including scavenger hunts and guided tours, noon today. Free. Tim Hartman, a performer for the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, will entertain families as Joe Magarac: Man of Steel at 2 p.m. followed by book signing of "Born of Fire: The Valley of Work" with curator Barbara Jones at 3 p.m.

  • Brown Bag Lecture: Ronald Baraff, director of museum collections and archives, Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in Homestead, will discuss ways Rivers of Steel promotes the rich industrial heritage of Southwestern Pennsylvania, noon Wednesday. Free. A docent-guided tour of the exhibition will follow at 1 p.m.

  • Pittsburgh: A City and Region Born of Fire: Dr. Edward Muller, professor of history and director of urban studies, University of Pittsburgh; and Dr. Joel Tarr, professor of history and policy, Carnegie Mellon University -- both contributors to the museum's publication "Born of Fire: The Valley of Work" -- will discuss how the industrial revolution affected Pittsburgh, followed by a book signing. 7 p.m. Thursday. Free.

  • Industry in Art -- Pittsburgh, 1812 to 1920: Rina Youngner, author of the new book "Industry in Art," will discuss how the industrial revolution affected Pittsburgh. 7 p.m. June 22. Free. A book signing will follow the lecture.

  • Artists Talk: Join artists Mark Perrott, Bob Qualters and Cynthia Cooley for a lecture and presentation on the work they have created about our region's industrial history, 7 p.m. June 29. Free.

  • Brown Bag Lecture and Bus Trip to Rivers of Steel , beginning with a guided tour through the "Born of Fire" exhibition, attendees will have a boxed lunch on the ride to Pittsburgh. They will be joined by Jan Dofner, director of communications, Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, who will guide a tour of the historic Bost Building and Pump House, where one can view the Carrie Blast Furnace. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. July 19. $30; $25 for members. Reservations necessary. 724-837-1500, ext. 10.

  • Jam Session with The NewLanders: Join the musical group The NewLanders and other Pittsburgh-area singer-songwriters as they perform their compositions, followed by a question-and-answer session in which visitors can share stories about our region, 7 p.m. July 20. Free.

  • Steelworkers: A Conversation -- Retired steelworkers and Westmoreland Museum volunteers Bernie Lynch and Bob Kendra will discuss what life was like working in the steel mills of our region, noon July 26. A docent-guided tour of the exhibition will follow at 1 p.m. Free.

  • Gallery Tour of Born of Fire: The Valley of Work -- Curator Barbara Jones will conduct a tour of the exhibition in which she will discuss the museum's scenes of industry collection and the diversity of stylistic approaches artists chose to interpret their subject. A book signing will follow the lecture, 7 p.m. Aug. 3. Free.

  • HOMESTEAD 1892: What Legacy• David Demarest, emeritus professor of English, Carnegie Mellon University, will give an illustrated talk about the rise and fall of the world's most famous steel mill: the Homestead Steel Works, noon Aug. 9. Free.

    Additional Information:

    'Born of Fire: The Valley of Work'

    What: The human story of steel as told through art, song, and history

    When: Through Sept. 3. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; until 9 p.m. Thursdays

    Admission: $3; free for age 11 or younger

    Where: Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 221 N. Main St., Greensburg

    Details: 724-837-1500 or www.wmuseumaa.org

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