On a visit to the South Side Slopes in 1999, I met Tish Corbett, an artist who had bought and renovated a former grocery store on Mission Street. I was awed by the scale and joy of her paintings, which covered and leaned against every wall surface.
A tiny woman who worked on 8-foot horizontal canvases at the height of her ambition, she is now almost 90 and preparing to leave Pittsburgh for California, where two of her four children live. She will leave a staggering collection of paintings, artifacts and furniture for auction; she already has systematically been giving paintings away.
She also will leave the last class of her Thursday morning South Side Studio School, a somewhat haphazard collection of six artists who brought her out of retirement and now are casting about for a place to keep painting together -- with her as their guiding spirit.
"We're beginning to think through how that might happen," said Cheryl Towers, a painter who lives in Shadyside.
"We want to get a show for her, too," said sculptor and ceramist Dennis Bergevin of Allegheny West. "I remember the first day when I came to her class, I asked how much the classes were. I'd have paid $100, $500, but she said there is no pay. What a gift. She sees the unexpected and draws the unexpected and has no inhibitions, and she brings that out in me. When I am in her class I am invincible, free."
Holly VanDine, a ceramist who lives in Squirrel Hill, introduced herself to Ms. Corbett in the locker room at the Jewish Community Center several years ago. "We hit it off. I told her that I'd never taken painting classes. She had stopped teaching. One day she said, 'I really miss teaching. If you would like to come I would be glad to teach you.'
"I mentioned it to two friends, Dennis and Cheryl, and both said 'Oh my God, can I come?' "
"These are the people who are going to be hard to leave," Ms. Corbett said of her students one day recently when I revisited the uncurated gallery she calls home. "I've gotten back to painting with them. It makes me feel as if I just had a B-12 shot."
Ms. Corbett, who as an adult changed her first name to the first four letters of her last name, grew up Olive Tishlarich in Bellevue. Her father had emigrated from Zagreb at age 18. As a child, she made paper dolls and designed their clothes. She started at Margaret Morrison Carnegie College to study art but heeded her father's urging against "being around kooky artists and musicians." She studied home economics and costume design before dropping out to get married.
She took art classes during 40 years of marriage to an insurance executive, with whom she lived in 17 cities and raised four children. In 1979, she returned to Pittsburgh, where she and her husband divorced.
Her work is a festival of color that ranges from expressionist to abstract.
Steve Mendelson, the owner of Mendelson Gallery in Shadyside, is aware of her teaching prowess: "She teaches the joy of painting and the joy of seeing," he said. "I think she's a prophet or a shaman of sorts who, through her creative process, energizes the people around her."
On an outing in France, during which students saw the value in painting fig trees, she instead painted colorful creatures stealing from fig trees, in what she named the fig-eater series.
"Just doing the tree is not so much fun," she said.
Ms. Corbett, who has taught in public schools in California and in Pittsburgh, said she has been asked to talk to graduating students about their expectations of art careers.
"I tell them not to put all their eggs in one basket, but that if you're satisfied" to struggle financially as an artist, "there's nothing more exciting than doing art -- it's more exciting than sex, you go to a different place. That gets their attention."
Concept Art Gallery, 1031 S. Braddock Ave. in Regent Square, will be auctioning some of Ms. Corbett's paintings and furniture in the spring.