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Arts & Entertainment

Art Institute show is a history lesson on the school's mark on art, entertainment

| Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010

The Art Institute of Pittsburgh is as much a part of the fabric of this city as is any of its other academic institutions, yet its impact is international.

The Art Institutes' 46 schools in the United States and Canada have become one of the largest providers of post-secondary, career-oriented education in the world.

That's a long way from October 1921 and what started out as nine students in one room of the Fulton Building, Downtown. Then dubbed the "Artist's League of Pittsburgh" by school founder, Willis Dresdale Shook (1894-1983).

Since then, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh -- which it was renamed less than two years later -- has grown to a community of more than 13,000 students and alumni of more than 55,000 making their mark on the art, design, advertising, motion picture, entertainment, business, fashion, and culinary industries worldwide.

"Portraits of the Past" opened in the school's lobby gallery to celebrate that fact. Featuring original art, vintage photographs, films and memorabilia, it not only celebrates the past 88 year history of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, but the launch of a new book of the same title by Jacquelyn Felix Fisher, a member of the faculty, and E. W. Goodman, college librarian.

While the book lays out a detailed history of the institution, the exhibit displays the accomplishments of its many students, faculty, and illustrious alumni, along with a good measure of outrageous memories that define the school's unmistakable essence and personality.

Fisher and Goodman compiled photographs from historic archives, and personal collections of alumni, faculty and staff. Their project is a gift to the students of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, with the authors' and college's proceeds to benefit the Education Management Corp. Education Foundation, a nonprofit foundation for student scholarships.

Perhaps the most curious and deserved nod in the exhibit is to Shook, who taught at the school until 1962.

An Orientalia buff, Shook's portrait commands center stage in the exhibit and is complete with items from his collection of oriental culture. Painted in 1934 by Vincent Nesbert, onetime dean of the school, it is accentuated with the original coat, and the silver and bronze censer that is painted in the upper right corner.

Nesbert, who is perhaps best known for the impressive murals he painted for the Allegheny County Court House, titled "Justice," "Peace" and "Industry," inspired students during his long career at the school from the 1930s through the 1960s.

There are several original oils by Shook on display, such as "Woman Descending a Staircase: A Study in Perspective" (1940), a painting of his wife Elizabeth in their Sewickley home, which Shook used in the classroom to teach perspective.

There's even a bust of Shook by legendary Pittsburgh sculptor Frank Vittor, who taught at the school in the 1920s. He sculpted the bust of Shook in 1923.

Born in Italy, Vittor studied in Paris under Rodin, came to the United States in 1906 and to Pittsburgh in 1917. Vittor became known for his busts of famous men including Presidents Roosevelt, Wilson and Coolidge; Mark Twain; and John Brashear. His many Pittsburgh sculptures and memorials include the Christopher Columbus statue in Schenley Park.

The exhibit includes a number of pieces by influential faculty and students through the years.

There's an oil painting by Austrian-born painter Henry Koerner (1915-1991), one the most celebrated artists in Pittsburgh history, who joined the school as a member of faculty in 1952, and a caricature portrait of comedian Imogene Coca painted for the Pittsburgh Press TV Graphic by caricaturist and onetime school president John Johns (1921-2006), a 1940 graduate of the school.

And there's a fashion illustration by Inez Hall (1933-2001), who began her career as a fashion-illustration instructor at the school in 1971 after working as a fashion and accessory artist for Gimbels, Horne's, Rosenbaum's and Bogg's and Buhl.

Curiously, there are even a few sports-related items that are quite telling about the school's history, including a collection of Art Institute of Pittsburgh basketball uniforms.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the school was part of a competitive inter-collegiate basketball league with other Pittsburgh area schools. Coach Les Lockerman led the team through a series of victories in the private-school league, including the 1972-73 championship, the trophy for which is displayed next to the uniforms.

But perhaps most intriguing of all is "The 75th Anniversary Time Capsule" from 1996. Authors Fisher and Goodman had trouble identifying the location of the time capsule and were curious about its contents. A student discovered it in the elevator shaft and the authors opened it to write about its contents.

The capsule tube was fabricated by the Industrial Design department and filled with newspaper clippings, 75th anniversary ephemera, creative-industry publications, newsletters, photographs, a class roster and various items representing the technology of the time, including a SyQuest disk and computer hard drive.

In a way, this exhibit is its own time capsule but on a much greater scale, offering an amazing look into the history of one of Pittsburgh's most unique arts institutions.

Additional Information:

'Portraits of the Past'

What: An exhibition of art, vintage photographs, films and memorabilia celebrating the history of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

When: Through Jan. 21. Hours: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays.

Where: Art Institute of Pittsburgh, 420 Boulevard of the Allies, Downtown

Details: 412-291-6200

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