The Next Page / 'The Lost Pittsburgh School': a project
Novelist STEWART O'NAN tells a Pittsburgh story: Rebel artists who battled to prove that their decaying city was a place of consequence
July 31, 2011 4:00 AM
Untitled, 14th and Smallman
By Stewart O'Nan
For several generations, being a Pittsburgher was like living with a ghost. In the national consciousness, Pittsburgh was a joke, another rundown Rust Belt town, a destination inconceivable to those on the coasts. As David Byrne famously sang of rural America, "I wouldn't live there if you paid me."
Pittsburghers who had to buy their groceries and raise their children couldn't be so blithe. The jobs were gone and the town they knew was bleeding out. The mills stood empty, the great machine sheds abandoned to pigeons, and then, at the stroke of a pen, flattened, the lots by the Mon graded, fenced black fields where nothing grew.
This was George Romero's Land of the Dead, victim of industry greed and parochialism, and the world was content to share that view. Move along, nothing to see here.
The Lost Pittsburgh School project
This project pays tribute to a group of artists about whom little has been said. Like laborers on the wrong end of a strike or soldiers lost in an uneven battle, they were swept from the local ledger.
I came across remnants of their work during the past decade, sifting through gallery back bins, wandering the last of Pittsburgh's undeveloped industrial brown spaces, listening in bars. Preserved in the closets and memory of art lovers such as Ellen Neuberg, Richard Parsakian and Pat McCardle, they were a dream come true for someone who believes that the story of post-industrial America has never been well and truly told, who believes that a mountainous economic tragedy and its lessons are being sifted away into the cultural landscape.
Now, at this point, it must be said that, while the artwork of The Lost Pittsburgh School is real, the artists featured on this page are not. Joseph Barkoczi, Ryan Avedissian, Pamela Luwderowski, The Skids Crews and other members of the school are imagined exemplars of an era, vehicles to help us reconceive what is art, and what is Pittsburgh.
This project barely mentions a large cadre of flesh-and-blood artists who have based their work and lives in this region for 40-plus years. They have hewed a story out of Pittsburgh's roller coaster history that is at once parochial and lean, yet epic and rich as any corner of the country's imagination.
Marie Kelly, Charles Jackson, Bob Knepper, Jerry Kaplan, Ed Eberle, Thad Mosley, Bud Gibbons, Helen Worsing and, more recently, Jim Dugas, Craig Marcus, John Fobes, Ron Donoghue, Kevin Kutz ... the list goes on. Although they've had numerous gallery shows and have made a living here, they've not been given their proper due. I apologize that it is not given in the pages of The Lost Pittsburgh School.
For over 30 years, the city that made the weapons which defeated the Confederacy, the Kaiser and then the Nazis, that provided the steel for all the cars from Detroit and the beams for the Chrysler and the Empire State Buildings, that gave the world Gertrude Stein, Billy Strayhorn and Andy Warhol -- the city that endlessly inspired W. Eugene Smith -- was known exclusively as the home of a football team. Except to those who lived here, and even to many of them, the city itself was invisible.
In those underground years, the artists of what has been dubbed The Lost Pittsburgh School took on the project of self-definition, glorying in the radical changes to the city's landscape. The work is a nearly unfiltered reflection of the moment. Decay and chaos rule.
It's no coincidence that both Joe Barkoczi and Brad Demm- ler, the two best-known of the group, feature Time and Ruin, as if that sad combination were the only beauty left here. For James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. For William Faulkner's Quentin Compson, the past wasn't dead; it wasn't even past.
The Pittsburgh School struggled with that same strange inheritance. Here was the great economic heart of America, stilled and cooling. Steve Nied's studies echo the still lifes of the Flemish masters, except, instead of pheasants or apples, his subjects are carburetors and automatic transmissions. Even the neo-monuments of the 1877 Strike Collective mimic and mock the heroic cenotaphs deposited around town by Messrs. Mellon, Carnegie and Frick.
What's striking about the "Lost" Pittsburgh School is just how much of their work is found, as if the city were filled with art objects, if only one opened one's eyes. The debris of the great machine is everywhere.
While Allison von Westerberg's assemblages bring it into the studio for more considered viewing, Ereni Bariekis and Wil Smithammer capture it in situ, while Gil Dugita improves on his discoveries, using drab buildings around the Golden Triangle as his canvas.
Harry McCrady's topiaries were found art of another kind, reminding Pittsburghers that nature, the ultimate avatar of Chaos, would eventually reclaim everything, while the ephemeral performance art of Pam Luwderowski, much of it performed without any audience, was present only briefly yet available for anyone to discover by chance, just as the work of The Skid Crews, produced communally in secret to be stumbled on by random passers-by and then erased by the authorities, provided a necessary antidote to what local art lovers at the time were being treated to: the monolithic museum retrospective of Masterpieces by the Great Artist.
As a true underground movement, the Pittsburgh School positioned itself against the status quo, never attempting to breach the academy, let alone gain and then enforce its ascendancy. Its insistence on art for art's sake likely doomed the public aspirations of Dana Navratilova and Ryan Avedissian, the two architects represented. While both were talented and original -- even, some say, visionary -- they shared an uncompromising iconoclasm which didn't mesh with the power brokers Downtown, and both, like The Lost Pittsburgh School itself, soon returned to the obscurity that defined the city.
In the larger Art world, with its powerhouse galleries and eight-figure auctions and overstocked museum gift shops, it might be said that the Pittsburgh School failed. But for a time, these artists, singly and collectively, took on both authorship and ownership of their city against the rest of the world, battling the crippling labels of provincialism and inconsequence which, happily, have largely disappeared.
Like the Fugitives, the Pittsburgh School made their stand, rejecting the cliches laid on them by outsiders, trying to reclaim what was theirs by representing the strange and familiar to reveal something true and real about who we are, hoping that, by the marks they left, what was lost might be saved, and what was forgotten, remembered.
Stewart O'Nanis a writer whose 12th novel, "Emily Alone" (Viking), was published in March. He lives in Edgewood.stewart-onan.com
The Skid Crews, in action.
The Skid Crews
The Skid Crews was more of a movement than a group of particular individuals. In the mid-1970s, borough councils in the Mon Valley began to notice their road maintenance costs rising steadily, mostly due to repairing skid marks.
The McKeesport Eagle looked into it and discovered that "crews" were holding skid-mark competitions. In judging marks for merit, these men would huddle over designs like savants over oracles, or committees of masters over student grad projects, and debate the subtleties of what Cooper tires and a four barrel could achieve.
It was talmudic. It was calligraphic. It was odd.
Joseph Barkoczi (? -- 1972) worked at Wholey's Fish Market in Pittsburgh's Strip District as a handyman, Jack-of-all-trades and fish wrangler. But his specialty was an ability to squeegee any window in one continuous swipe, and at speed. On Saturday mornings, customers would cheer Joe as he went from window to window. When exactly Joe decided to begin using the squeegee with oils or making decorative, abstract panels is unknown, but the Wholey family allowed him to paint on site, again to the delight of passers-by. Paintings? A counterstroke to the American billboard culture? Who can say? Joe rarely talked about it and left no children.
Wholey's left his final panel standing, where it can be seen today at the corner of 14th and Smallman [image at the very top].
Ryan Avedissian: 6th and Penn Garage, Downtown.
Ryan Avedissian (1932-1993), engineer and architect, was tapped to join Pittsburgh's Renaissance I team building infrastructure, roadways, parks and parking. His designs were stellar but his obsession with abstraction got him demoted.
When another architect was awarded a prize by the Allegheny Conference and said such things as "there is no language in which differences between one form of complexity and another can be described with the required rigor and consistency," Avedissian screamed out, "It's called art, you idiot!"
He was fired the next day.
Pam Luwderowski: From Roller Derby Women
From Charleroi in the Mon Valley, where her parents owned and ran a bar/restaurant, the Syrian Inn, Pam Luwderowski (1957 -- ) grew up in the 24-hour world of a steelworkers' drinking establishment. She was/is a locally famous bar rocker, a bassist playing stints with the Pink Cadillacs and the Shins. In her 40s, she began to organize the now wildly successful Women's Short Course Roller Derby League in Western Pennsylvania.
At her best, Pam was whimsical, ebullient, confidently furious, she was everything without apology. But then, regrettably, she felt the need to record all this, to in some sense "privilege" her work, begging the question, did it remain her art (a performance documented) or the art of someone else (the photographer)?
The Lost Pittsburgh School project will be presenting works of art, performances and lectures at UnSmoke Artspace in Braddock.
Unsmoke Artspace is a project of Braddock Redux, which aims to revitalize Braddock by empowering its young people, preserving its structures and providing community space to bring Braddock residents together. It also seeks to entice artists to bring their ideas and talents to Braddock and to consider living there.
The first comprehensive study of the earthworks and conceptual outdoor art movement in 1970s Pittsburgh opens Aug. 6 at UnSmoke Artspace. These events of The Lost Pittsburgh School project are scheduled for the following Saturdays at 7 p.m.
• Stewart O'Nan, novelist
• James Weiss, performance artist and art historian
• Charlie Humphrey, executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers
• Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh City Council member
• Doug Shields, Pittsburgh City Council member
• Charlee Brodsky, documentary photographer and CMU professor
• Jim Daniels, poet and CMU professor
• Alexi Morrissey, artist
• The Halftime String Band
"The Lost Pittsburgh School" book will feature biographies and commentary on 11 artists and two collectives, as well as vivid renderings of their artworks. It will be published by Bessemer Press around mid-October. Check the Unsmoke website for updates.