Artist spends a year painting 90 Pittsburgh neighborhoods
90 neighborhoods pose for their portrait
May 9, 2015 12:00 AM
Artist Ron Donoughe, in his Lawrenceville studio, spent the past year painting 90 local neighborhoods.
These scenes are among the 90 paintings of Pittsburgh neighborhoods by artist Ron Donoughe. His collection will be shown at the Pittsburgh Center of the Arts from Friday through Aug. 9.
Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette
Ron Donoughe works on a painting in West Oakland.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Starting with Allegheny West and ending with Windgap, Ron Donoughe spent a year painting an image of each of Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods. The 9-by-12-inch panels in oil hang in rows on a wall of his Lawrenceville studio.
Some glow in the blazing light of a bare-tree day, some recede into milky summer afternoons. Snow covers the landscape in more than a few.
The artist’s labor of love culminates in a three-month exhibit that opens Friday from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. “90 Pittsburgh Neighborhoods” will include the sale of prints and copies of the book that includes stories and interactions that characterize each scene. The exhibit runs through Aug. 9.
The yearlong experience was more than affirming, Mr. Donoughe said.
“People are passionate about this city, and their enthusiasm has been overwhelming,” he said.
“I had an Indiegogo campaign and was asking for $7,000. I got $21,000 in three hours. I’ve been painting neighborhoods for 20 years, but this project took it to another level.”
Laura Domencic, director of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, said the nature of the project makes for “a great way to celebrate the community during the center’s 70th anniversary.”
She has worked with Mr. Donoughe on previous exhibits and said this one is unique.
“I can’t say I’ve seen an artist do portraits of this type before. He really captures a sense of the temperature, and it’s funny how you react to that physically. That speaks a lot to the power of his work.”
Mr. Donoughe painted one to two panels a week from August 2013 to August 2014, sometimes making return trips.
“I went to Elliott several times,” he said. “Originally, I did a view of the city from Elliott, and someone told me, ‘That’s not Elliott.’”
Elliott in this exhibit is a handsome white house. The plunge down Rialto Street is Troy Hill. A still swimming pool is Brighton Heights. A marina of boats is Chateau. Hillside houses on Lawn Street is South Oakland. Lemington is the steep road and hillside steps of Dornbush Street.
When possible, he alerted people of what he was up to to allay suspicions about a guy standing behind a piece of wood for an hour or more, glancing up and back down, over and over. He worked faster during hours of transient light and shadows, and sometimes people engaged him after he had already committed to a shadow that shifted during the conversation.
That was part of the joy of the whole experience, which was part social experiment, he said: “What happens when an artist shows up on your street?”
On Kincaid Street in Garfield, a very cold morning kept interactions to a minimum. In fact, there was just one, a woman who parted her curtains to look out at him.
“She closed the curtains as our eyes made contact,” he wrote on his blog at http://90pghneighborhoods.tumblr.com/. ”I was hoping she would come out to see the painting of her street and say hello.
“One guy in Spring Hill was upset that I had taken his parking space, but there was no chair out, so how would you know?” he said, referring to Pittsburghers’ habit of using chairs to reserve parking spots.
When viewed as a whole, the 90 panels say Pittsburgh as much as any chair in a street.
Pittsburghers will have fun identifying where in their neighborhoods he set up to paint, from the stately to the humble, from iconic to anonymous — rooftops in stair-step alignment, rowhouses, siding and metal awnings, alleys, hillside houses, houses behind trees, roadways, sculpture, gravestones, vistas.
“People asked me which neighborhood surprised me the most, and I thought it had to be Manchester,” he said. “It is so gorgeous.”
The most spiritually moving experience was painting a city view from St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery in Spring Hill, he said.
In most neighborhoods, Mr. Donoughe attracted the curious, people who were proud that he found their neighborhood worthy of being painted.
In Glen Hazel, several children came out of a recreation center with art supplies and painted beside him. In Frick Park, a dozen middle schoolers came upon him and his easel.
“One of the kids said, ‘This man deserves a round of applause,’ and they all clapped,” Mr. Donoughe said. “It was amazing.”
“Richard, a Vietnam veteran in the West End, asked me to come back and chat and have coffee. Sterling, a super-friendly guy, stopped on his Goldwing motorcycle while I was painting in Fairywood.”
The Crafton Heights painting is of Ken Smith’s Better Maid Donut Co., the recent victim of an errant drive-through. Mr. Donoughe included a video of Mr. Smith on his blog.
“Making doughnuts was his passion,” Mr. Donoughe said. “He could be a motivational speaker.”
Scanning the rows of panels, identifying neighborhoods and explaining why certain scenes appealed to him, he said the texture of the whole is as important as the places.
“This is what I’m afraid of losing,” he said, referring to that quintessential Pittsburgh je ne sais quoi — the look, the feel, the juxtapositions of the built against the landscape, the rust on an awning, a Gothic arch, little windowed boxes with decks hanging off hillsides.
“I’ve been living in this project like a novel,” he said. “I’m sad it’s over.”
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.
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