Local artist talks at Peters library program about his work, life

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Artist Robert Qualters was born in McKeesport, raised in Clairton and lived in a host of other places. But it was to the region of his birth that he eventually returned for good in 1968, to spend more than a half a century capturing on canvas Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, landmarks and historic structures in his vibrant and colorful style.

Mr. Qualters, who was named Artist of the Year in 1985 by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, turned 80 March 13. The occasion was marked by the launch of a book, "Robert Qualters: Autobiographical Mythologies," by Vicky A. Clark, who was curator of a recent retrospective exhibition of his work at the center.

Last week, Mr. Qualters brought his erudite yet down-to-earth speaking style to an audience of about 35 at the Peters Township Public Library. Most of the images he showed and discussed are included in the book, which is a compilation of 80 of the artist’s color images from early childhood sketches to recent autobiographical paintings. 

Open to questions from the audience during his entire talk, Mr. Qualters was asked about his penchant for adding volleys of images in his paintings. In response, he acknowledged his fondness for the works of Renaissance Dutch painter Pieter Brueghel The Elder, known for filling his canvasses with minute detailed imagery.

"I have horror vacui, a horror of leaving even the smallest segment of my work vacant." he said. "In my paintings, I work over and over and never know when I’m finished. Mies van der Rohe is famous for his saying that ‘less is more,’ but I like more is more. Life is short, and I like to pack as much into my paintings as I can."

He began his talk by showing one of his screen prints that both captures his homage to artists who preceded him and his penchant for depicting local landmarks.

"Vermeer Painting" includes the Union Trust Building as a setting, plus depictions of Picasso and Mickey Mouse nestled among a barrage of forms and figures and snippets of poems by Yeats and others.

"A Letter to Saskia" shows Rembrandt at the blast house in the Edgar Thomson Works with added text taken entirely from a letter Rembrandt wrote to his wife.

Another work, "Penn Station Rotunda," illustrates the artist's belief that art is all about storytelling. In the work, Mr. Qualters shows himself as a 19-year-old, duffel bag bulging over his shoulder, coming home by train from basic training in Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

"In the work, I wanted to create a sense of wonder," he said.

Another piece goes back even further, to when he was an eighth-grader enrolled in art classes at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. On the way to and from class, he was drawn to a billboard in Downtown Pittsburgh showing an ad for Camel cigarettes that included mechanically produced smoke rings. The ad gets center stage in a work titled "Smoker."

In his talk, Mr. Qualters acknowledged his fondness for creating atmospheric skies and showed as an example "Panther Hollow Bridge," an Oakland landmark in which the gray-blue sky is dotted by three dozen or so fluttering leaves. Another work, "Rainy Day in Homestead," said to be Ms. Clark’s favorite Qualters’ work, includes a series of painted diagonal slashes that represent rain, a technique the artist said he learned from Japanese printmaker, Hiroshige.

Mr. Qualters also mentioned two teachers who had an impact on his work. While attending art classes at what was then known as the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University, he encountered Robert Lepper, a professor who influenced him by his "open-mindedness and respect for students."

In 1956, he left Pittsburgh for Oakland, Calif., where he enrolled in the California College of Arts and Crafts and came under the influence of abstractionist Richard Diebenkorn and joined the circle of artists known as the Bay Area Figurative Painters.

"It was in Oakland that, at the age of 26, I first realized that I was a particular type of artist," he said.

One member of the audience was the artist’s sister, Priscilla, who confirmed that her brother played the artist from a very early age.

"He drew on everything he could get his hands on, even the walls," she said. "One day, father went to look up a phone number in the directory and saw that Bob had gotten into that as well. ‘Robert,' he scolded, 'not the phone book, too.’ "

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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