Artist Cyril Assad has left his mark with fanciful murals at Oakmont Carnegie Library
Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series that features Alle-Kiski Valley residents and the notable things they do.
It’s been a while since Oakmont artist Cyril Assad had to pick up a paint brush or do design work, but his creations live on at the Oakmont Carnegie Library and department stores across the country.
“It requires a lot of focus, which does relax me in a way,” he said about painting. “It takes my mind off other things. I’m more interested in composition and color and bringing about an affect.”
The Carnegie Mellon University grad created several 7-foot-by-6-foot murals for the library’s children’s section depicting scenes from “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Peter Pan,” “Moby Dick,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
Each painting is accompanied by 3D characters made by Assad’s friend and fellow designer, William Farrell.
The Cheshire Cat from “Alice in Wonderland” is perched on a branch at the entrance. They were unveiled in February 2012.
“I looked at the library and it’s very traditional,” Assad said. “It had dominant chandeliers and was very formal. I wanted the artwork to have its own strength and not conflict with that.”
Children’s librarian Karen Crowell said the artwork is a great addition to the library and patrons love it.
“They look like they’ve always been here,” Crowell said about the paintings. “They really are conversation starters. We asked when Cy did it that he not do the Disney versions. That he really looked at the literature and checked out the books and made sure they were his own rendition of the classic pieces. They’re really amazing.”
The paintings were just an example of Assad’s many contributions to building designs.
Assad’s love of art began at a very young age. He would watch his father, Mike, as he painted historic and biblical images and picked up a few pointers, as if by osmosis.
“I think it just came natural,” Assad said. “I just liked to paint. It wasn’t like he was trying to teach me anything. He wasn’t concerned about being a good artist as much as he was feeding the family. That was back in the old days.”
Assad, 83, grew up in Donora and graduated from what was Donora High School in 1953. He did the yearbook’s artwork. Donora and Monongahela school districts merged into today’s Ringgold School District.
Assad would go on to study industrial and interior design and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from CMU.
He worked for Flannery Design and designed department stores for Joseph Horne Co. and Kaufmann’s.
Assad recalled a meeting with Horne’s executives in the 1960s as a real turning point in his career.
As people were focused on the Pittsburgh Pirates winning the World Series, Assad was sketching store interiors.
“I showed them my drawings, and from that point on it was easy sledding,” he said. “(They) recommended me to all the other department stores as part of the chain, and I got work on a regular basis.”
As Assad’s workload grew, so did his ambitions. He would launch his own business, Cy Assad Design, and help develop shopping centers and other stores in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, Arizona and many other states. He was even selected to design shops in Montreal and Toronto, Canada.
“Every store has an attitude,” Assad said. “Horne’s was a traditional store that kind of leaned toward older people. Kaufmann’s was younger, bigger. … They’re high-end so materials would be better, a little more sophisticated. Walmart is busy.”
Assad designed a men’s clothing store in Paris and was instrumental in designing San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) public transportation system as well as a similar train system in Chicago.
When he wasn’t on the road, Assad was in the classroom. He taught industrial design at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for about 20 years.
Assad married Judy Salay and they moved to Oakmont in 1965. The pair were together for decades and had two children before her passing about 25 years ago at age 50.
They met at a pizza shop in Belle Vernon where she lived at the time. Assad said he helped her start her car and she agreed to a date in return. He attempted to get a second date and was originally rejected. She agreed to see him again about a year later via mail.
“I’m dating someone else and was comfortable, when in Easter I get a card,” Assad said. “She says, ‘I can’t stop thinking about you.’ It hit me like a ton of bricks. I hadn’t seen her for a year. I called her back immediately.
“Her family was very high-end, and I was the lower end. I must have made a better impression than I thought. We got married about three months after that.
“I feel bad for the other girl.”
Assad retired from design a decade ago but occasionally puts pencil to paper for fun.
“At 83, I’m not looking for work,” Assad said. “It would either take a good looking female or a hell of a lot of money to make me get off my (rear end).”
Assad has a simple message for burgeoning artists/designers:
“Be focused and work hard,” he said. “A lot of times, people don’t want to do that. It always pays off. Most people that are ambitious should know that.”
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter .