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Aaronel deRoy Gruber's toy story

| Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010

For those who have never set foot in a museum of modern art, Aaronel deRoy Gruber's 1960s era home by architect Tasso Katselas is an inspiring place to educate a beginner.

Witness the abstract steel sculpture —Aaronel's own — that flanks the front door (it's one of many around the grounds). Once inside, pay special attention to the colorful abstract paintings she created, her decadent photographs and numerous motorized Plexiglas pieces — each as colorful as their counterparts on the wall — that dot the living area. A life-size man, composed and shaped completely from ordinary items — a baseball bat, a softball, a hammer — keeps guard from his perch on a rocking chair.

"Isn't he adorable," says Aaronel affectionately.

At 92, she has spent many years being celebrated for these works of art. That she was from an era when a woman — a mother of three and a homemaker didn't often succeed in the fickle art world makes it all the more extraordinary. "I was in New York in 1964 with my sculptures and my paintings and women had a hard time in those days," she acknowledges. "People would buy the men's work and ignore the women's."

Yet, for all her accolades, she still has a lesser known collection that she cherishes — her toys.

The toys are intriguing to her "because they are so magical," she says. Arranged and displayed just as carefully as her art pieces, they sit in a special room of her multi-storied home. In one corner is a pre-Mickey-Mouse-era rodent band; in another, Flash Gordon rides his red rocket ship. With the aid of Dan Mohan, who helps Aaronel record and photograph the toys, she points out the more meaningful pieces. Many of them are tin and, when wound up, release the tinkly, happy music of another era.

A graduate of Carnegie Mellon when it was Carnegie Institute of Technology, Aaronel's interest in toys started at a young age. However, her hobby took a backseat while she was raising her family and forging a career. But once she had more time, Aaronel's love of toys of her youth returned. This time around, though, the toys she remembered were not as readily available.

"I just had little toys," she explains. "When I got older I wanted to buy them back and they were not around. I decided I would find them."

And find them she did. In between her art shows, some in this state, some further across the country, she began seeking out and collecting the toys. One of her best finds is the Marx Merrymakers.

She points to a postcard from a museum in New Mexico that features the very same mouse band that individually plays the violin, drums and piano. However, the New Mexico version is missing the halo piece that introduces the band, making Aaronel's Merrymakers all the more special.

Another unique piece is the Wolverine made "Zilotone." A mechanical wonder from the 1930s, the little marvel plays six musical discs, including Yankee Doodle and Farmer in the Dell. Once you choose a record, a maestro dressed as a harlequin taps out the tune on his steel bars.

Compared to today's computer-animated toys, they are very low-tech, yet each piece has an appealing innocence that isn't lost on Aaronel.

Nor was it lost on her three children, now adults with children and even grandchildren of their own. Her daughter Jamie, a successful entertainer and producer in New York, has always loved the toys, as does Aaronel's husband, Irv, a retired steel industry insider who helped her begin her career in creating steel sculptures.

"He supports me in doing it," she says. "He likes them, too." '

While her art is part of the permanent collections at the Butler Institute of American Art, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art, The Smithsonian Institution and several others, her toys will one day be in a museum as well. Aaronel says Westmoreland Museum has expressed an interest in her toys, as has the Children's Museum on the North Side.

AARONEL DEROY GRUBER

A legend in the art world known for her mastery of abstract expressionist painting, sculpture and photography, Aaronel deRoy Gruber (named for her Uncle Aaron) has been making art for nearly seven decades.

Over the years, she has distinguished herself both nationally and in the Pittsburgh art community with numerous national and international exhibitions at The Frick Art Museum, The Pittsburgh Center for the Arts — where she was named the Artist of the Year in 1981, The Carnegie Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C and many more. Her work is included in more than 800 public and private collections.

Last year, the Silver Eye Center for Photography featured a retrospective of her work entitled The Analytical Eye: Photographs by Aaronel deRoy Gruber. The event showcased her images ranging from picturesque panoramas of landscapes to industrial views of steel mills. Many of her photographs can be found in museums and corporate art collections throughout the country.

In 2009, she was the subject of a documentary by Kenneth Love, who has produced documentaries on the works of Teenie Harris and Frank Lloyd Wright. Entitled Aaronel deRoy Gruber: A Life in Art, the film celebrates her life and art by interweaving interviews with friends, family, experts and the artist herself. It debuted in the auditorium of the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Today, Aaronel deRoy Gruber continues to participate in art exhibitions with no signs of slowing down.

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