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Art & Museums

'Art of Facts' features 50 new works interpreting rich history of Western Pa.

| Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
'Pittsburgh is Spelled with 'H'” by Nora Thompson
'Pittsburgh is Spelled with 'H'” by Nora Thompson
'Peregrines of Pittsburgh' by Danielle Amiano
'Peregrines of Pittsburgh' by Danielle Amiano
'H.J. Heinz: Horseradish Farmer' by Rick Antolic
'H.J. Heinz: Horseradish Farmer' by Rick Antolic
'A Courageous Tale' by Vince Ornato
'A Courageous Tale' by Vince Ornato
'Serendipity Portal' by Mark Bender
'Serendipity Portal' by Mark Bender

Currently on display at the Senator John Heinz History Center, the exhibition “Art of Facts | Uncovering Pittsburgh Stories” uncovers some interesting nuggets of history relative to the region.

It features more than 50 new works of art by members of the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators — the second largest group of illustrators in the U.S. — that together interpret the rich history of Western Pennsylvania in a new and engaging way.

Anne Madarasz, the center's chief historian, says the charge to the society's membership was to interpret the region's history through illustration — to research and discover some lesser known stories and create art based on those stories.

“So, the show is definitely focused on these nuggets from the past that captivated and inspired the artists,” she says.

Madarasz served as a juror and then helped the group organize and interpret the exhibit.

“I really enjoyed the process,” she says. “As someone who spends their work life bringing stories of the past to life and trying to find ways to make them engaging and relevant, it was great to see this show come together.”

Even Madarasz says she learned about a few stories she didn't know before and, “I appreciated seeing what interested this group, and how the artist's individual style worked to enhance the storytelling.”

Country watched drama unfold

For example, in May 1978, Pittsburgh ironworker Ralph Winner's legs were pinned under steel from the demolition of the Brady Street Bridge. Two hundred feet in the air, in the rain, with no safety belts, morphine was administered to him by the city's new paramedic unit.

In severe pain, Winner cut away steel with an acetylene torch to free one leg. The country watched on national television while resident doctor, Joseph Young (in Pittsburgh for only one week), amputated the other leg.

Engineers had warned that the bridge could fall at any moment, due to the prior demolition attempt. The ordeal took over five hours. No one else was hurt.

Vince Ornato's painting “A Courageous Tale” honors Winner and the medical personnel, firefighters and police involved in the courageous effort. Winner died in April 2016 at age 87.

“My industrial paintings, in general, are intending to honor the workers and families who built the Pittsburgh area, and the country, with their hands,” says Ornato, who lives in the Deutschtown neighborhood in Pittsburgh's North Side.

“I was working as an ironworker at Shippingport in 1978, years before getting into art, when this incident took place. This accident never left my consciousness, because contemplating Ralph's pain during the moment of amputation had such a strong impact on me. With this painting, I was able to finally express this, and further honor the workers who have to do the dirty and risky jobs that raise the living standard for the rest of us.”

Wide-eyed peregrines

With its colorful flashing (and forecasting) lights, the Gulf Tower is an iconic Pittsburgh landmark. That colorful skycraper top is home to peregrine falcons.

Dormont artist Danielle Amiano's “Peregrines of Pittsburgh” focuses on the birds of prey that live high atop the Gulf Tower.

Peregrines were the first species protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1974.

“They were a victim of the pesticide DDT, which caused the shell of the peregrines' eggs to be very thin,” Amiano explains. “A recovery program was born in 1970, and DDT was banned.

Peregrines have not fully recovered in Pennsylvania and remain on the endangered species list.”

The management of the Gulf Tower was the first to allow the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to construct two man-made nests on an upper balcony of the tower in 1991. The peregrines took to these nests instantly, and the Gulf Tower remains one of the most productive nesting sites in Pennsylvania. The National Aviary has a falcon cam set up on these nests 24 hours a day.

“When you think of a city you think of traffic, skyscrapers and concrete,” Amiano says. “I wanted my piece to evoke a feeling of softness and stillness not usually associated in an urban environment.”

Heinz and horseradish

The name H.J. Heinz is not only on the museum, but so synonymous with his ketchup, that most people aren't aware that his enormously successful food industry didn't start with ketchup; it began with horseradish.

Long before there was Heinz Ketchup, there was Heinz Horseradish. H.J. Heinz began his food business in 1889 by growing horseradish on his father's farm in Sharpsburg, using his mother's recipe for the final product.

He formed a company with his friend L. Clarence Noble and called it Heinz Noble & Company, which processed and sold horseradish.

Rick Antolic of Lawrenceville brings that forgotten fact to life with his oil painting “H.J. Heinz: Horseradish Farmer.”

As Antolic points out, initially, Heinz's horseradish business was beginning to experience a moderate degree of success locally, but outside forces, such as a national economic crash, put a halt to that success, and he went out of business. But he came back a year later with his horseradish again, along with a few other condiments, including ketchup.

“The important aspect of Heinz's story is that old cliché, ‘If at first you don't succeed, try and try again.' In that respect, Heinz's story is not that much different from other success stories,” Antolic says. “They had failures, setbacks and obstacles (sometimes out of their control) that kept them down ­— for awhile. But they didn't give up. They were disciplined enough to push forward.”

“Heinz didn't start with a business degree out of college; he started his business working the fields, with sweat and toil. He knew his product inside and out,” Antolic says. “He was involved with every aspect of it, from planting the crop to selling the final product. He learned the business part of it as he went along. His story is one of determination.”

“I want the viewer to look at my painting of Heinz as a young horseradish farmer and consider that your own journey to success may not happen the way you envisioned it; but the main ingredient to your success is your own determination.”

Holiday nostalgia

Mark Bender lives in Mt. Lebanon, but he grew up in Indiana, Pa., which is widely known as the “Christmas tree capital of the world.” In fact, The National Christmas Tree Growers Association was founded in Indiana in 1957.

His digital artwork “Serendipity Portal” is a nod to this. It's a piece he originally created for the cover of Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine.

Bender, who teaches art at Chatham University, says, “I always tell my students that an illustration needs to be an eye-catching visual, but reward that viewer that's willing to stick around with content and a clever story. I've had the pleasure of collaborating on a number of covers for Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine over the past six years, and we always try to meet that challenge.”

“Every city has Christmas trees tied to the family's cruiser roofs around the holidays, but the Point's Portal Bridge gave me the opportunity to tell that story with a Pittsburgh twist. That chance occurrence of real trees juxtaposed to the Point's artificial tree gave me that moment in time.”

It has an “H”

Finally, Nora Thompson of Latrobe tells the tale of why “Pittsburgh is Spelled with ‘H' ” in colored pencil.

On Dec. 23, 1891, in their attempt to standardize the spelling of place names, the U.S. States Board of Geographic Names removed the “H” at the end of “Pittsburgh,” which had been in place for more than 100 years. Local citizens, lead by Postmaster William Hamilton Davis, began a campaign to restore the missing letter. On July 19, 1911, a special meeting of the board concluded that reinstatement of the letter was warranted, and the announcement of the change ran three days later, on July 22, in the Gazette Times.

“I've explained to a number of people from out of town that the ‘H' wasn't just added on; it had been taken away first,” Thompson says. “I wanted to create an illustration showing several aspects of the story, of the ‘H' having been taken away, of it being returned, and how important having it back was to the people who fought for it. I thought the Keystone Cops would be appropriate for a story coming out of Pennsylvania.”

Many more engaging works fill this exhibition, making for an enlightening journey through our region's history, and a visually pleasing one at that.

Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic.

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