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Point Park exhibit celebrates steel heritage

| Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011
Susan Wagner, "Tribute to the Steelworker," bronze

Pittsburgh's history may have been forged in steel, but a new exhibit Point Park University displays that history in ink, paint, plaster, bronze and photography.

"Rivers of Steel at Point Park University" features 25 works -- paintings, lithographs, photographs and sculptures -- that each in its own way celebrates Pittsburgh's rich industrial heritage.

The exhibit was organized by Pittsburgh art collector and health care entrepreneur John Tomayko, who is a member of the Point Park University board of trustees. For the exhibit, Tomayko partnered with Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, a nonprofit organization located in Homestead focused on preserving the legacy of Big Steel in our region. Many of the works on display come from the organization's collection.

Tomayko says that, in many ways, the exhibit mirrors the history of the steel industry in Pittsburgh. "The earliest piece in the show is a lithograph by Edwin Rowe titled 'Great Battle of Homestead,' " he says. "It chronicles the Homestead strike of 1892."

The print, which is from the Rivers of Steel collection, contains multiple scenes depicting the arrival of the Pinkerton guards, who approached the Homestead Steel Works via barge to stop unionized workers from striking against Carnegie Steel Co.

Next to it hangs a portrait of Andrew Carnegie, which is framed with Carnegie's autograph. "Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum, took a liking to this when he saw it, because it is the same portrait Warhol used to make his painting of Carnegie," Tomayko says.

Aaron Henry Gorson, a Lithuanian immigrant who lived and painted in Pittsburgh between 1903 and 1921, became famous for his nocturnal views of Pittsburgh's steel mills billowing smoke, ash and fire into the night air.

The exhibit includes two classic works by Gorson. They include "Pittsburgh Mills and Barges at Night," (no date) on loan from the collection of the Duquesne Club, and "Industrial Scene, Pittsburgh" (1928), which is on loan from the University Art Gallery of the University of Pittsburgh. Both were painted from Gorson's favorite vantage point, which was looking from the Hot Metal Bridge toward the Jones & Laughlin Steel Mill on the Monongahela River.

Of course, Gorson wasn't the only artist to paint steel mills throughout the region. Another was John Shryock, a native of Maryland who moved to Pittsburgh in 1946.

Like Gorson, Shryock is represented in this exhibit by two steel mill paintings, one of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Mill from 1974 and another of a coal barge approaching an unidentified mill from 1975. Both come from the collection of Rivers of Steel.

From the best known to the nearly unidentifiable, the exhibit also includes a curious composition dating to 1952 by an artist known only as E. Stonquiet. An untitled work from the Rivers of Steel collection, it offers a worm's eye view of the inside of a steel plant combined with a twisting, twirling cityscape featuring various skyscrapers. A small painting in comparison to most on view, it will likely be a cause for pause in this exhibit, just to take notice of the many details contained within.

Another showstopper is Frank Vittor's "Study For Point Park Fountain," a 3-foot-tall plaster model that Vittor submitted for a design competition in 1951 .

Vittor's design was for a 100-foot statue that depicted Joe Magarac, the allegorical steelworker, standing between two crucibles spouting water into a third crucible at his feet. "This really would have been something to see, had it been chosen," Tomayko says. The model is housed in the Rivers of Steel collection.

Though there are many works of historical importance in this exhibit, at least half of what is on display is by contemporary artists. You wouldn't know it by looking at Ron Donoughe's "Company House." The Lawrenceville artist painted it in the dark and brooding Ashcan style popularized in the beginning decades of the 20th century in this country.

The same can be said of Susan Wagner's small bronze figure "Tribute to the Steelworker," which looks very much like it's of the same early-20th-century era. Wagner is the sculptor who created the Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski statues that surround PNC Park.

Then, there is Holly Wayne's "When the Smoke Clears," which is an assemblage piece that could easily be described as a steam-punk version of a steel mill. It is a bas-relief picture of a mill comprised of cast-off machine parts and copper tubing. It's a curious inclusion as well, being of no particular reference to anything local. But it holds its own in this gallery full of Pittsburgh steel-themed pieces.

Photographs of local steel mills by Mark Perrott and the late Clyde Hare make up the remainder of the exhibit. Most are from the 1980s, when the steel industry was waning here, but they cap this exhibit nicely. Making for a fitting tribute to the steel industry in Pittsburgh.

Additional Information:

'Rivers of Steel at Point Park University'

What: An exhibit of paintings, lithographs, photographs and sculptures celebrating Pittsburgh's rich industrial heritage

When: Through March 15, 2012. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Admission: Free

Where: Point Park University's Lawrence Hall, located at the corner of Wood Street and Boulevard of the Allies, Downtown

Details: 412-392-8008

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