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Rankin's Carrie Deer sculpture inspires restoration efforts, events

| Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, 8:55 p.m.
Ronald Baraff, director of Museum Collections & Archives at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, talks about efforts to restore 'The Carrie Deer' at the Carrie Furnaces in Rankin.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Ronald Baraff, director of Museum Collections & Archives at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, talks about efforts to restore 'The Carrie Deer' at the Carrie Furnaces in Rankin.

When seven artists convened at a defunct iron mill and erected a 40-foot-tall sculpture as ode to the former occupant, they thought it might last a month. A year would be extraordinary.

They never imagined nearly two decades later, it would still stand — and inspire a community effort to save it from deterioration.

The Carrie Deer, created in 1997 from found materials at the blast furnace plant in Rankin, serves as both a symbol of man's interaction with nature and the rebirth that shaped the region during both Carrie Furnace's heyday and now. On Aug. 16, Rivers of Steel Heritage Area will host an event to launch a Kickstarter campaign aimed at restoring the deer.

“It's one of my favorite things I've ever done,” says Liz Hammond, of Swisshelm Park, one of the contributing artists. “With this guerilla type of art, you don't expect it to have a long life. It's been amazing that's it's been able to take on a whole other life.”

The Rivers of Steel event will feature food, music, dance and special-guest hosts actor David Conrad and WQED's Rick Sebak. It will include the first public screening of the Carrie Deer documentary, directed by Sharon Brown and produced by Brown and Rivers of Steel, which explores the collaboration, inspiration and experimentation that led to the sculpture's creation.

“It was an opportunity to get everybody together to talk about what happened and why: why then, why here and why it's still here,” says Ron Baraff, director of museums and archives at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

The Carrie Blast Furnaces nos. 6 and 7 at the former U.S. Steel Homestead Works produced iron from 1907 to 1978. It sold to Park Corporation in 1988, then to the county in 2005. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

The Carrie Deer emerged from a group of artists inspired by the vacancy and resulting natural growth at the Carrie Furnace site. They worked every Sunday for a year, eluding interlopers and authorities by hiking to the site with limited tools and keeping their project hidden from the outside world.

Over the past 17 years, the deer has weathered wicked winters and escaped vandals, yet the structure has slumped slightly to the left, and the head has drooped several feet. The only thing keeping it together is wire ties now held only by rust, and the roof it sits atop is collapsing.

“It was built solid, but not built to stand the test of time,” Baraff says.

Repairs will include a cradle to support the structure's weight and reinforcement of the vertical supports, which should take about $5,000. Other goals include stabilizing the building and constructing a new roof. Cost to complete all the goals is $20,000, Baraff says.

Rivers of Steel solicited input from the original artists for all restoration plans. The project is part of a larger, multifaceted plan to restore the entire Carrie Furnace site and increase awareness about its history. Plans include installation of solar panels to provide power for the site and to light it as “the monument it deserves to be,” Baraff says. He envisions the space hosting more events in addition to the tours already offered.

Many of the Carrie Deer artists went on to form the Pittsburgh Industrial Arts Co-op, a collective that collaborates on sculpture and site-specific installations. They offer an apprentice program for high-school students.

For many of the artists, the deer remains a source of great pride.

“The piece is unlike anything I've ever worked on,” says artist Tim Kaulen of Polish Hill. “I don't know that I'll ever feel that sense of accomplishment and camaraderie again.”

Kaulen calls Rivers of Steel's celebration of the piece “as epic as our initial commitment.”

“It's unbelievable — the idea that Rivers of Steel as caretakers and owners of the site recognize the value in that work, and that it's become integral to the plans for restoration is the hugest compliment,” Kaulen says. “I never imagined this would be a reality.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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