Carrie deer: History through the artist's lens

The sculpture is a 40-foot monument to the mill's demise


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Jim Kapusta thought the molten metal would flow forever, down the runners from the tap hole and into the cinder ladles, where the iron would pool before it crossed the Hot Metal Bridge.

Molten iron made at the Carrie Furnaces, where Mr. Kapusta had worked for 18 years, was sent across the Monongahela River and turned to steel at Homestead, then distributed worldwide. It girds the Empire State Building, Chicago's Sears Tower and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Mo. It coats machinery once used in war.

Now nothing is made at Carrie. Where once seven blast furnaces churned out molten iron at the 35-acre expanse in Rankin, now just two furnaces, timeworn and dotted with graffiti, remain.

The Carrie Deer Project

A group of artists entered the Carrie Furnaces in Rankin and Swissvale, to explore the abandoned iron mill as a potential site for their art. They erected the Carrie Deer out of the remnants of the Blast Furnace Plant. (Video by Isaac Stanley-Becker)

In their midst stands a 40-foot monument to the mill'‍s demise. A patchwork of water pipe, iron tubing, hose and stainless steel juts above the pump house, across from furnace number seven.

"It's looking out like it's on guard," Mr. Kapusta said of the giant stag head, its eyes formed of clumps of black hose. Pipes constitute its inner skeleton. The outer work is a web of thermal lances -- rods that iron workers heated and used to cut through steel and concrete.

When Mr. Kapusta first locked eyes with the scrap deer, it unsettled his memory of his workplace. "It'‍s different," he said. But the sculpture testifies to his changing roles at the mill.

When Carrie shuttered in 1982, and Mr. Kapusta lost his job, it had already been four years since the furnaces produced anything.

"We figured they would eventually come back," said Mr. Kapusta, who will be 69 next month. "When they said it was permanently done for, I said, 'man, what am I going to do now?' Everybody collected their unemployment."

More than 20 years later, he saw an ad in the newspaper seeking former employees of Carrie. The Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp. had taken over stewardship of the property in collaboration with Allegheny County and was looking for people who knew its history -- foremen, furnace helpers, technicians.

Mr. Kapusta had been all three. Born in New Eagle and raised in Finleyville, he signed up with a labor gang right out of high school; for about $8 an hour, he worked whatever shift he was given.

Now he volunteers his time as a tour guide on the site, telling visitors how the equipment worked, how the men acted -- "how things were," Mr. Kapusta said. How Eastern European dialects punctuated conversations in English. How the men cooked meals of smelt and cabbage under the boil pipes.

What Mr. Kapusta found when he answered the ad was that the furnaces were not as he had left them, and the stag staring him down from 40 feet in the air was the clearest example. He found other illustrations of the passage of time in the graffiti etched into the bulbous dust collector and in the green muck accumulating in deep basins across the site.

"To me the deer is nice," he offered. "It'‍s something in which somebody put a lot of time and effort to make."

The deer was never supposed to be there. In 1997, when the furnaces were in the hands of the privately owned Park Corp., a group of local artists entered the site, illegally, with the intention of constructing something from the materials that stayed when industry left: steel tubing, copper ties and wire from electrical conduit. It was a postindustrial playground, an outlet for artists banded together in the Industrial Arts Co-op, some students at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, some dropouts more interested in field work.

Every Sunday for a year, the crew crawled through a hole in the fence, carrying their lunches and a few tools. Without title to the land, they squatted among bins of ore and stockpiles of discarded material, evading security guards as they searched for inspiration.

The artists bore witness to nature's reclamation of the mill, recalled Liz Hammond, one of the deer's creators, scarcely 18 at the time. Tall grasses swallowed up rusted machinery. Turkeys and deer overran the site. They settled on a stag for the sculpture.

Without electricity and using only materials found on-site, they built what Ron Baraff, director of museums and archives for Rivers of Steel, calls "a test of man and nature." The artists, whose seven head shots are posted on the exterior of the pump house, fastened the deer's head on the ground and then lifted it atop the neck using a boat winch.

Echoing Mr. Kapusta'‍s designation of the deer as a guard, Mr. Baraff said the sculpture unlocks the meaning of the mill. "This is the gatekeeper," he said on a recent tour of the furnaces. "If it weren't here, we couldn't have the same kind of approach to the whole space."

He described the approach as "art-centric redevelopment" -- opening a derelict urban space for new sorts of ventures. Sharon Brown, a filmmaker who has produced a documentary about the Carrie deer for Rivers of Steel, said the artists' work harkened back to the grueling mechanical labor of iron smelting: loading and hammering, bending wire and working through the bitter cold and the sweltering heat.

Mr. Baraff said he considers the deer a local monument, an attraction he hopes will woo additional development projects. The site is already well-traveled. Rivers of Steel offers tours every Saturday from May to October, and more from June through August. Private tours are not uncommon, Mr. Baraff said. Class reunion groups and choral leagues have come to see the gargantuan sculpture. American Eagle Outfitters has used the Carrie Furnace as a backdrop for photo shoots.

In the stock house, where ore and coke were readied for the furnaces, gray-painted foam -- mimicking cement -- sticks to the walls; it softened the tumblings of Christian Bale in the 2013 thriller film "Out of the Furnace." Mr. Baraff said these projects provide funds for the site, a National Historic Landmark.

But not enough money is coming in to finance necessary upkeep. When Ms. Hammond and her creative co-conspirators designed the deer in 1997, they never dreamed it would last.

"The expectation was that it would be destroyed or fall apart," she said, enumerating the destructive possibilities: metal scrappers, demolition, the weather. Transience was presumed.

The deer has survived, however, even as graffiti, stray litter and broken glass have marred other parts of the mill, secured with chain-link fencing and barbed wire. "People always leave it alone," Mr. Baraff said. "They feel reverence for it."

Now the onus is on Rivers of Steel to maintain the work: "We're the caretakers," he said.

The deer is indeed in need of care. The sculpture has shifted forward and to the left, inching closer to the brick-lined hoist house, where several window panes are shattered. The roof buttressing the neck of the deer crumbled, replaced by temporary supports, and the whole structure is held together with rust welds and twist ties.

An on-site celebration and fundraiser Aug. 16 will kick off a fundraising campaign for the rehabilitation of the deer and related improvements. Ms. Brown's documentary will play on large screen, and the artists behind the deer head will be there to meet guests. A reception will precede the main event.

Proceeds will finance a support ring for the deer head, which will distribute its weight more evenly, along with vertical supports and repairs to the roof. Rivers of Steel is also hoping to refit the pump house -- filled with cobwebs and detritus -- into a small gallery for emerging artists. With additional funds, Mr. Baraff said, he wants to open a gift shop.

Mr. Kapusta said he would like to see the mill become a bona fide museum instead of a mausoleum of Pittsburgh's steel industry. That would be the proper way to preserve history, he said, and teach young people about the beauty of the way things used to be.

"It's becoming a lost art," said Mr. Kapusta, who now paints airport hangars and works in a garden. "Everything now is just scrap metal being remolded and remanufactured. In the old-fashioned way, there was this feeling that came from making it. It was hot and dirty, so dirty all your clothes would be black."

For Mr. Kapusta, smelting was an art. The process was beautiful to behold.

"I'm not a poet, but when they opened the furnace, and the shower of sparks came flying out, and it wasn't real noisy -- in fact it was sometimes tranquil and easy -- you could just sit there and watch the orange glow and the sparks flowing off of it," he said.

The deer is a wiry, beguiling testament to that beauty.


Isaac Stanley-Becker: Istanley-becker@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3775.

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