Allison Park artist mines past for inspiration
Two weeks ago, Angelo Ciotti returned to his Allison Park home from China after three weeks spent in Fushan. In his bags, he carried chunks of coal and coal dust gathered in the mines there. Not exactly souvenirs, the coal is revered by Ciotti, just the same, and the trip to Fushan, which is not exactly a tourist town, was an important journey, nonetheless.
Since then, Ciotti, 69, has been busy filling his days making artwork with the coal and coal dust. While in Fushan, as the guest of a longtime architect friend, he made 20 paintings, taking two home, and leaving the rest there.
“All of the pieces are about China and are dedicated to September 16, 1932, when the Japanese were occupying Fushan. That's when the coal miners started rebelling. The Japanese killed something like 12,000 men, women and children,” Ciotti says about the pieces, all of which are titled “Why?” “In many philosophies there is always one word, why? These pieces are all about the event, which is why I titled them ‘Why?' ”
Mining the mines
Coal, or more specifically coal-mining stories, have been the subject of Ciotti's art for decades now. He live in Allison Park, behind the Tuscan Inn, where he grew up, a lump of coal's throw from the back end of the Wildwood mine, where as a child at night he would see the sky above glow red from the burning slag. Coal, it seems, has always been in the artist's blood.
Locally, Ciotti has spent hours upon hours searching coal-mining sites in towns like Windber and Russelton, and the former site of the Wildwood coal mine, looking for artifacts to include in his artwork.
A quick glance around his studio reveals sculptures and assemblage pieces crafted from rusted coal shovels, barrels and other pieces of scrap metal used in the mining process. Under a tarp to one side of the studio are more than 200 “paintings” Ciotti created on the theme of black lung alone. “That's a slow death. You suffocate,” Ciotti says.
Most of them are covered with “acid mine sludge” Ciotti collected at Windber and Wildwood. In a recently completed work, “The Last Supper at Wildwood Coalmine,” the artist covered a framed print of Leonardo da Vinci's “Last Supper” he found discarded behind an office park with the material, adding a rusted-out rim from a metal can as a stand-in for a halo above where Jesus' head would typically be.
Many of the pieces relate specifically to stories he's heard, or the stories the things he finds tell. “The thing that excites me most is going to the mines and finding these objects, these rocks, all these pieces. Because everything on Earth has energy and they all tell a story,” Ciotti says. “There are so many stories about people who suffered.”
Ciotti says that whenever he visits a mining town, he always makes a point of talking with local miners, especially the retired ones.
“I want to know and meet these miners,” he says. “I go in the evening to the local bar, and I talk to retired miners. And the stories are unreal. A miner told me, and he's not the only one, that the first question a foreman would ask whenever there was a mine explosion was, ‘Did the donkey die?,' because the mine company had to pay for the donkey. But if 20 men died, they could be easily replaced in the morning. That's how it was the 1920s and '30s in these small mining towns.”
Now, Ciotti says, “They're going through the same thing in China that we went through at the turn-of-the-century well into the 1930s.”
Coal dust and wanderlust
Ciotti began travelling to China in 1990. A year earlier, while an instructor at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh where he taught for 35 years, he was asked to escort a group of Chinese designers around Pittsburgh.
“I took them to Kaufmann's and various places around town to show them Pittsburgh's architecture, design and products,” he recalls. “I also brought them out to my house.
“Several of them were architects interested in interior design,” Ciotti says. “And they took an interest in my house, which they thought had perfect feng shui.”
Subsequently, Ciotti was asked to come to Beijing to lecture in 1990 at the National Academy of Arts and Design. “I lectured on my mine-reclamation projects, which they found really interesting,” Ciotti says. “And then, all of a sudden, I was invited back to give a workshop the following year. It was to be in a coal mine. But the bureaucracy went on and on, and it fell through.”
However, in 1991 he returned on his own, anyway. “I did a workshop in Tiananmen Square. I didn't know what to do with (the students) since I didn't have a coal mine, so I said let's create something green because there is nothing green there.”
At Tiananmen Square, Ciotti and the academy's department heads held a competition among the National Academy's students to create green spaces for the famous square. “The judges were me, the translator, teacher and department heads,” he says. “We divide the students into four groups, and gave one of the groups a prize, which was art supplies.”
Since the Tiananmen Square workshop, Ciotti has been invited to submit proposals for public parks projects in locations throughout China. And he has returned nearly every year, either to give lectures at the National Academy, visit friends or both.
Back to basics
As much as home and family have been an integral part of Ciotti's life, so has travel. He did not always live behind the Tuscan Inn. In the early 1960s, an interest in art led him to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he studied graphic design and painting. From there, he went to Rome, where he studied painting and printmaking at the Academia de Belle Arte.
After returning to Pittsburgh to work for a publishing company, he and his wife, Bernadette, settled in the Mexican War Streets. But in 1978, his mother and father suggested that he move with his wife and three young sons back to Allison Park. Ciotti agreed, and soon began turning a small backyard cabin into a unique home that is, in its own way, a work of art.
“The house is 1,000 gardens. I just let things grow,” Ciotti says, while adding chunks of coal and a painting mixture of red slag and coal dust mixed with glue onto the home's unique surface the day we visited.
Made of an industrial grade of spray-foam insulation loosely applied over steel mesh and metal armature, the exterior of the home looks like something the Flintstones would live in. Except for the fact that smack dab in the middle is a 30-foot-tall cone that rises like a teepee in the middle of a rock jungle.
In front of the cone is a pond that has a similar inverted triangle shape that makes up the reservoir that holds the water. “The cone is a triangle reaching for the heavens. It's the male counterpart (of the home). The pond represents a triangle going down. It's the female counterpart.”
The triangular theme is continued throughout the home, most notably on the front door where Ciotti has created five small gardens in the form of triangles that each represents a member of his family, including himself, his wife and three sons, who all grew up there.
“The house itself is an artwork dedicated to the Wildwood Coal Mine,” says Ciotti, pointing out that each entryway inside, as you move from room to room, is made to look like the entrance to a mine.
Keep it simple
Aside from his unique home, years spent teaching at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and his travels to China, Ciotti is best known for his largest public art project to date, “The Feather,” a functional piece of art located on the east side of the neck of Presque Isle State Park in Erie.
Roughly 70 feet long, it's a wooden ramp in the shape of a feather rising 6 feet high to an 18-foot square deck that contains a circular bench. Carved into “The Feather” is a poem about humanity's relationship with nature. Images of various animals are carved into the deck. Visitors are able to stroll onto the ramp, sit on the bench, and view a small cove of the Presque Isle Bay that lies beyond.
Ciotti says when he was awarded the commission in 1996, he didn't know what he was going to build at the site.
“Along the trail there, I walked through high bushes and shrubs and came upon this gorgeous little cove. It was filled with birds and fish and it excited me. And I thought, ‘this is what it should be,' even though I didn't know what it should be. I looked down and there was a feather, a little white feather. And I thought, ‘Perfect! This is what it will be.' I'll use a feather to carry people up over through the trees, over the vegetation, and have a deck to view the bay. The view was the art. The feather is a vehicle to get people to view it.”
Ciotti has since returned to “The Feather,” recently renovating it after it suffered some damage from a hurricane. “It's even better now,” he says, “much more a work of art.”
“I trust my feelings more than my intellect about everything,” he says.
Ciotti says his philosophy about life is that “it's pretty simple.”
“Simplicity is the key,” he says. “Just flow with nature. You don't have to have all of these philosophical ideas that take you into attitudes that can be destructive. One has to answer the right questions. That's why I believe in early civilizations. No matter what civilization you look at, whether it be Mesolithic or Neolithic, the art is by far the most beautiful. As civilizations developed, the art became more decorative and lost so much. You can see it in China, whereas, now compared to before, things are not as beautiful as they were in the Ming and Qing dynasties.”
Behind the house is a creek called Crouse Run. Over it, Ciotti has built a triangular deck that comes to a point between two trees. “If you stand at the edge, it feels like you're going to fall off, into the creek.
“I like being on the edge,” he says. “I think that if you live on the edge, your life is much richer.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.