Mural tells the story of Pittsburgh past and Pittsburgh present

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Doug Cooper draws panoramic murals that dramatize the history and landscape of a place, including works he has created in cities such as Rome, Frankfurt, Germany and Pittsburgh, the artistic mecca of Appalachia.

The largest mural ever created by the Carnegie Mellon University professor, who teaches drawing to architecture students, is at Community House in East Liberty. The $15 million building, opened last October by East End Cooperative Ministry, offers an array of programs to help homeless people, and at-risk youth learn the skills to rebuild their lives.

Mr. Cooper and his wife, Stefani Danes, an architect and fiber artist, worked together on "The Once and Future City," the first time they have collaborated. Ms. Danes, a principal with Perkins Eastman Architects, specializes in sustainable design of communal housing.

Community House mural reflects 'healing of a city'

Douglas Cooper and Stefani Danes collaborated on an enormous floor-to-ceiling mural in the Community House operated by East End Cooperative Ministries in East Liberty. (Video by Nate Guidry; 3/22/2014)

Community House, a two-story, 56,000-square-foot building, is filled with light from many large windows and heated and cooled by geothermal wells. Ms. Danes and more than 80 volunteer quilters made the colorful bedspreads in the residential suites.

The 24- by 44-foot mural covers an entire wall in the building's Great Hall, a venue for meetings and receptions.

"The left side is the starting point of this city and its prior history, giving its back hand to the environment, extracting coal ... making steel, trundling it across the river -- the kind of stuff I have enthusiastically always drawn," Mr. Cooper said.

Ms. Danes focused on "the transformation of Pittsburgh from the old world of the industrial city to the new world, the ecological city in a way that was very abstract. I was developing motifs along the way. That was some of the richness and excitement of working on this project."

The couple's aim was to portray the city's past and future while illustrating ways people can work together to heal the rivers and landscape that were ravaged by heavy industry. Children who live at Community House drew pastel scenes that were collaged into the artwork's foreground.

As you look from left to right, "The mural moves from that kind of a world -- this dark grim city that is, in a sense, destroying the world around it -- to a city in which people gradually start to work together," Mr. Cooper said.

Blast furnaces and the vast arch of a bridge are juxtaposed with vibrantly colored fabric panels. On the right side of the mural, people beautify a vacant lot by planting a garden; a larger group plants a community garden in their neighborhood.

When the couple began work last June, Mr. Cooper said, "We really didn't know, technically, how we would do it. We had a rough diagram that was constantly being modified on the fly as we went. It was a kind of cartoon diagram of how the two pieces would more or less fit."

Mr. Cooper brought home photographs from his studio and the duo considered how compatible the fabric would be with the drawings. Each of the large cloth panels has up to 100 pieces of hand cut pieces of fabric.

"That's why they took a long time to sew together," Ms. Danes said, adding that she often made changes.

"This is very much the way I like to work, exploring relationships among the colors and shapes. I had to keep in mind where I had been. I couldn't keep it all up in front of me in my studio."

The duo often batted ideas back and forth. While he labored in his South Side studio, Ms. Danes worked at the couple's Friendship home, devising a technique to carefully wrap fiber around multidensity fiber board so that it would blend seamlessly into the mural.

Mr. Cooper loved the idea of adding color and abstraction to his work, which, for years, "has really been very literal -- steel mills, roads, cars and trucks."

Like jazz musicians riffing on a musical motif, the couple picked up on each other's visual cues.

"A good example of a theme that originated in my work is the smoke that you see up there. Then Stefani picked it up with ribbons of smoke," he said.

Ms. Danes turned a nine-square, one of the oldest, most traditional quilt patterns, into a street map of East Liberty. "To reinterpret that as a map, I think as an architect."

The artwork contains Mr. Cooper's suggestions for ways to recycle industrial buildings. In Pittsburgh, "we threw away all our heritage of our tremendous factories without using them," he said.

So, an old blast furnace becomes a huge dance venue with people doing the tango; a concrete plant that still operates across from his South Side studio becomes a restaurant.

Children who participated in the summer day camp at Community House drew pastel scenes, and their work was collaged into a frieze in the mural's foreground. While working with the children, Mr. Cooper showed them a series of images to inspire them "to think of trying to represent a world that they envisioned becoming better. They worked as individuals. They had no idea of how it would go together."

The cost of the mural was funded by the Fine Foundation, Phil Hallen and his wife, Katheryn Linduff, and contributions from the capital campaign. Mr. Hallen is president emeritus of the Falk Foundation, and he chaired the capital campaign for Community House.

The artists will be honored tonight at a by invitation only reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Community House is at 6140 Penn Circle North, East Liberty (15206).

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648.

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