At Three Rivers Arts Festival, Pittsburgh is the subject

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Make a journey Downtown to the Three Rivers Arts Festival, in search of a work of art, and something quickly becomes clear.

You're standing in it.

The cityscape has been photographed, painted and pointillated. It is printed on paper. It is mounted on aluminum. It is matted and framed, available for cash or credit. A Pittsburgh piece of art is ready to hang in your Pittsburgh home.

Among the more than 300 artists who operate booths during the 10-day annual arts festival, the medium may vary widely, but walk through the vendors' tents and the subject repeats itself, again and again: Pittsburgh.

"I think that it's a good source of inspiration for the artists that are here," said Laura Domencic, director of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

Inspiration, yes, and also a source of income. Several artists interviewed at the arts festival said Pittsburgh art is a particularly good seller at this artists' market and in this Pittsburgh market, where the buyers range from young professionals looking to decorate a new home, to retiring baby boomers nostalgic for the Pittsburgh where they grew up to people who have left the city or know someone who has.

It is not terribly common for an art show to include a large amount of art featuring the city where the show is taking place, said Joe Halbrucker, general manager for Sunshine Artist in Orlando, Fla., a trade publication for art and craft shows. Although, he said, art shows in New England, for example, tend to have a preponderance of lighthouse art, and shows in Florida have more that is beach related.

But if artists see that a certain type of subject -- the Pittsburgh landscape, in this case -- is selling well, they will stick with it.

"If that's what's making them money, then that's what they're going to focus on," Mr. Halbrucker said.

Alexander Patho of Indiana Township realized the potential of Pittsburgh art years ago. An artist and photographer, Mr. Patho arrived here from Hungary in 1982. With two children and a mortgage, he needed to focus on something people would buy. The city became his concept.

"I thought this is the best subject for selling photographs," he said.

And it has been. He's been photographing Pittsburgh -- its bridges, Downtown and the Point, buildings such as the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland, for 25 years now -- with his most popular pieces being his depictions of Pittsburgh's Point at night, from the vantage point of the West End Overlook.

Mary Lois Verilla of Penn Hills was painting flowers and snow scenes when one of her friends suggested she paint Pittsburgh. Forty years later, she has become known as "the lady who paints Pittsburgh," her work often focusing on the city's past, its old steel mills and trolleys. During the arts festival, she said, her booth is consistently crowded.

For Angelo Casciotti of Eighty Four, this was his first year at the festival. He has trained his camera on Pittsburgh scenes including the Downtown landscape, Heinz Field and the inclines up Mount Washington, printing the infrared images he produces on aluminum.

About a decade ago, Dusty and Val Scott, a husband-and-wife Burgettstown couple, switched from photographing blues concerts to photographing Pittsburgh, images they've found sell well even at art shows in cities such as Harrisburg and Cleveland.

"There's a lot of expatriates everywhere that miss the city," Mr. Scott said.

That includes Mary Jo Spector. Now living in Tallahassee, Fla., she was born and raised in Pittsburgh and her parents still live here, so this week she is visiting family and selling her art at the festival.

One of her more popular pieces is a view of the Point from Mount Washington using pointillism, in which tiny dots of color create an impressionist image. She has created a view of Pittsburgh's skyline from PNC Park using the same technique.

"You do those things that you know Pittsburghers love," she said.

That has been the mantra for many years of Nevin Robinson of Highland Park, whose pen and ink illustrations of famous Pittsburgh scenes can be found in offices and homes throughout Pittsburgh. Mr. Robinson, who operates a kiosk in Station Square, was not participating in this year's arts festival, though he has many times in the past.

"I try to find out what people want," he said, and then he draws that, so much of his work is of Pittsburgh's Point, its inclines and its stadiums.

But all this self-referential art does beg the questions:

Is Pittsburgh just a municipal version of Narcissus, that figure in Greek mythology who loved to gaze upon himself? Or is the pride Pittsburghers have for their skyline justified?

Earlier this week, Mr. Robinson, displaying his recent depictions of Pittsburgh's skyline, reflected on the first time he drew it. It was many decades ago when, as a 12-year-old, he entered a contest hosted by the Smithsonian Institution in which students were asked to draw the city where they lived.

In the national contest, his Pittsburgh skyline won first place.

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This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: First Published June 14, 2013 8:00 PM


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