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The Smoke Has Cleared

The Smoke Has Cleared

The Smoke Has Cleared

June/July 2014 issue of American Craft magazine
Andy Warhol Seventh Street Bridge Yarn Bomb

In conjunction with the “Fiberart International” 2013 show, a community group carried out yarn-bombing on a grand scale on the Andy Warhol/Seventh Street Bridge. Photo: Annette Sandberg

A new generation of makers rises from Steel City soot.

In the late 1990s, many of Pittsburgh’s buildings were still blackened by decades of soot from the steel mills, and city leaders bemoaned a “brain drain,” as young adults left the city, taking their energy with them. The tide began to turn early in the new century, with a quiet cultural and economic renaissance, and by 2011, The Economist ranked Pittsburgh the United States’ “Most Livable City,” while National Geographic Traveler put the Steel City on its 2012 list
of must-see places. The burgeoning art and craft culture has had a great deal to do with these shifting perceptions.

“Younger people are coming to the city,” says ceramist Edward Eberle, “because of its affordability.” Eberle, whose porcelain vessels, bearing mythology-inspired drawings in black terra sigillata (porcelain slip), are in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, himself left the city for eight years, but returned in the mid-1970s. Besides family, the landscape was a significant draw for him, especially the rolling hills and river, Eberle says.

The city’s three rivers – the Allegheny and Monongahela, which meet and form the Ohio – and its hundreds of bridges are fundamental to its identity, but Pittsburgh is also known as a city of neighborhoods.

Bloomfield, Garfield, Lawrenceville
Eberle identifies three contiguous neighborhoods – Bloomfield, Garfield, and Lawrenceville – as hot spots for young artists.

With its sweet hanging baskets and whitewashed porch swing, Tugboat Printshop, in a three-story residence in Lawrenceville owned by Valerie Lueth and Paul Roden, offers no outward indication of the exquisite collaborative woodcuts produced inside. Here, Lueth and Roden create original, limited-edition prints and commissioned works, such as their 2011 posters for the art-rock band the Decemberists. Lueth and Roden moved to Pittsburgh in 2006 after earning degrees in printmaking from the University of South Dakota. What drew them to the city was “the blue-collar vibe, the charming views of hillsides densely packed with row houses and bridges and rivers, the easy walkability within a growing cultural scene, the quick drives to innumerable other metropolitan areas, and the affordable cost of living.”

The Pittsburgh Glass Center stands nearby. It opened in 2001, although the idea had been germinating since the 1990s, when glass artists Kathleen Mulcahy and Ron Desmett envisioned a public-access art center.

“They’d seen how the power of art drove economic revitalization in decaying neighborhoods in New York City and northern New Jersey,” says PGC’s executive director Heather McElwee, a glass artist transplanted from Detroit. Since the center’s opening, more than 25,000 students have studied there under more than 30 celebrated artists-in-residence, including Walter Lieberman, Dante Marioni, and Benjamin Moore. The center’s Hodge Gallery features the work of local, national, and international glass artists.

Along Penn Avenue, arts organizations have filled previously vacant storefronts, boosting the area’s creative momentum. Assemble offers arts-and-technology crossover workshops; the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, a green-energy arts center, has classes and exhibitions; ModernFormations Gallery and Most Wanted Fine Art both have exhibition and performance spaces.

The East End: Shadyside, Highland Park, and Squirrel Hill
In Shadyside, Morgan Contemporary Glass Gallery features a rotating display of works by more than 250 glass artists, including Christina Bothwell and Jason Chakravarty. Owner Amy Morgan, who came from New Jersey to study at nearby Chatham College, opened the gallery in 1997. The city’s friendly nature drives its creative expansion, she says: “It’s a very welcoming community, and artists have always fared well here – psychologically, socially, and economically.”

Next door, Gallerie Chiz, whose façade features a mirrored mosaic by local artist Laura Jean McLaughlin, opened in its current location in 1996, when owner Ellen Chisdes Neuberg, herself a painter, turned the old Shadyside Laundry into a gallery space. (The gallery had been open for a year before she moved it.) She features an eclectic mix of 2D works, jewelry, ceramics, glass, wood, furniture, and fiber. “I feel that the art scene in Pittsburgh is forever evolving – changing, getting better, getting more difficult – depending on a huge amount of factors, with the economy being paramount,” says Neuberg. “Gallerie Chiz is surviving because I am a stubborn old broad who is an incurable optimist.”

Loving what she does also brought Cut & Sew Studio’s Catherine Batcho back to Pittsburgh from her job in the New York fashion industry, where she worked for Liz Claiborne and New York & Company. Batcho credits her mom with the idea of opening a sewing studio that offers classes and studio space to the public. “Teaching is such a rewarding experience,” Batcho says, “and teaching something I truly love is even better.”

Teaching is also a revitalizing force at Union Project. Located in the former Union Baptist Church, a group of young artists rescued the abandoned stone structure in 2001 and converted it into a community center and ceramics co-op. UP offers adult ceramics workshops and children’s ceramics summer camps. In 2011, with the hands-on help of about 200 local residents, UP was able to finish repairing all 155 of the church’s stained glass windows, a collective DIY project on an enormous scale.

On Fifth Avenue, where multi-level apartment buildings stand between residential palaces of the gilded age, sits the ochre-yellow mansion housing the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. A regular rotation of exhibitions appears on the building’s first and second floors, along with an expansive gift shop presenting the work of local craftspeople. The building’s third floor includes a spacious weaving studio, complete with gorgeous yarns and a variety of looms, where members of the public can take classes.

More evidence of a thriving fiber arts community: 2013’s Knit the Bridge project, an official yarn-bombing, held in conjunction with the “Fiberart International” triennial juried exhibition. From August 12 to September 6, a mélange of colorful knitwork blanketed the Andy Warhol/Seventh Street Bridge. Cosette Cornelius-Bates, a full-time fiber artist
and author who took part in the project, runs Cosymakes Studio in Squirrel Hill. Cornelius-Bates spins, dyes, and recycles yarn for both sale and personal use. She shares her space with Yoga Matrika, and, with yoga studio owner Sharon Rudyk, offers combination yoga and knitting workshops.

It’s impossible to speak of Pittsburgh without mentioning the name Carnegie. The Carnegie art and natural history museums (right) share the lovely Beaux-Arts building with Carnegie Music Hall and Carnegie Library’s main branch. Their art museum’s craft and decorative arts collection has continued to grow since the 1980s, thanks to regular acquisitions inaugurated by former curators Phillip M. Johnston, Sarah Nichols, and Jason Busch.

In 2011, the museum reopened the renovated Balcony Gallery especially for a rotating display of the collection, which includes pieces by Beatrice Wood, Viola Frey, and Brent Kee Young.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust began its quarterly Gallery Crawls 10 years ago, in an effort to reverse the business district’s after-work exodus. Galleries include Future Tenant, run by Carnegie Mellon University arts administration students, Wood Street, 707 Penn, 709 Penn, and SPACE, presenting work by local, national, and internationally renowned artists.

Downtown is also home to Handmade Arcade, an annual indie craft fair. While the event started in 2004 with about 30 vendors on the upper floor of a reuse and recycling warehouse, it has expanded so much that it’s now held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Last year the event included some 150 vendors and 8,000 to 9,000 attendees, says co-founder Elizabeth Clare Prince.

The South Side
Just off East Carson Street is the Brew House Association, an artist co-operative founded in 1991 in the former Duquesne Brewery building. The first floor houses SPACE 101, a gallery with vaulted ceilings, cement floors, and loft-worthy whitewashed brick walls; the upper levels house artists’ live-in studios.

Several blocks over is Fireborn Studios, owned by husband-and-wife ceramists Daniel Vito and Donna Hetrick. Hetrick teaches high school ceramics; Vito creates new work
and manages the gallery, which is attached to the studio and home. The storefront gallery represents more than 50 artists in addition to Fireborn’s own production. “I have seen the standards for craft in Pittsburgh rise dramatically over the last 20 years,” says Vito, who has been making pottery since 1972. “High-quality design, craftsmanship, beauty, color – all are a must. Knowledgeable buyers want it all. Pittsburgh demands more.”

The Strip
Along Penn Avenue between 11th and 33rd streets, among the Strip’s butchers, fishmongers, coffee roasters, wine merchants, and ethnic groceries, is Penn Avenue Pottery,
a working studio-gallery, complete with wheels and gas kilns behind its showroom. Originally an Italian grocery, the studio was opened by ceramist Bill Foglia in 1978; it has be-come the main gallery for Foglia, Tracey Donoughe, Mike Gwaltney, Gary Pletsch, and Valda Cox.

Close by, the Society for Contemporary Craft often features exhibitions that explore significant social issues, presenting them for discussion through craft artists’ provocative creations, such as those in the recent show “ENOUGH Violence: Artists Speak Out.” SCC also offers classes in dyeing, jewelry fabrication, woodworking, even paper-felting. SCC’s shop presents works by hundreds of artists from around the nation.

The North Side
On Sandusky Street, close to PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Andy Warhol Museum features a revolving permanent collection, with thousands of Warhol works – including sculpture, books and wallpaper, and a bevy of Time Capsules (scrapbooks, knickknacks, press clippings and other ephemera from the artist’s life). Not far away, the Mattress Factory, named for the building’s original use, began as an artist co-op in the 1970s and has since become a premier venue for site-specific installations, attracting prominent international artists such as Damien Hirst and Tony Oursler.

The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild was founded in the late 1960s by ceramist Bill Strickland in a row house in the Mexican War Streets district, before moving to an impressive new building in 1986. MCG and its adjoining Bidwell Training Center offer courses in ceramics, design, photography, and digital art. 

Within the North Side’s Brighton Heights neighborhood stands the home-studio of freelance graphic designer and assemblage artist Randie Snow, whose intricate, reliquary-style assemblages are carried by Gallerie Chiz. “I think it’s amazing what’s happened,” Snow says of Pittsburgh’s revival.

“We’re on a steady incline. Before, when the steel industry was dying, we felt it as a depression in the ad agencies, everywhere. It was like a brown field. But now, that field is full of sunflowers.”

There’s just no better image for the region’s transformation than that.

Savannah Schroll Guz is an author and mixed-media artist who splits her time between Pittsburgh and West Virginia.