Exhibit of paintings documents decline of steel industry in Western Pennsylvania

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Robert Qualters remembers watching bright orange slag, a byproduct of the steel-making process, sliding down a West Mifflin hillside against the night sky. "The whole world would light up," he recalled.

The hillside later became a backdrop for Century III Mall, and Mr. Qualters became an accomplished artist who spent a lifetime capturing images like this on canvas, paper and even outdoor building facades.

"I do a lot of mural projects with high school kids," he said.

Mr. Qualters, 74, is a McKeesport native who has teamed up with the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area to offer some of his work in an exhibition at the Bost Building, 623 E. Eighth Ave., Homestead. The exhibit, titled "Monongahela Valley: A Time of Change: 1980-2000," highlights the end of the industrial age in the Monongahela Valley, focusing on the people who lived through the transition. The exhibit runs now through June 14.

"It's not just about steel, it's about the people," said Jan Dofner, director of communications for The Rivers of Steel, an affiliate of the National Parks Service. The nonprofit organization strives to preserve steel-making history in an eight-county Western Pennsylvania region.

Rivers of Steel works on more than 300 preservation projects yearly, including bringing up to three exhibits to the Bost Building museum, including the Qualters' exhibit.

"This was perfect timing to have his work, which speaks so strongly of the Steel Valley," Ms. Dofner said.

Mr. Qualters graduated from Clairton High School and attended Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University, before joining the Army. He always knew he would be an artist, receiving formal training at an art school in California. He returned home to teach his craft at various universities, including University of Pittsburgh, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and West Virginia University.

"Most artists teach," he said, explaining that it allowed him to support his family.

Over the years, he has shown his work at Carnegie Museum of Art, Westmoreland Museum of American Art and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, among others.

From his Homestead studio, Mr. Qualters watched as the Homestead community's sprawling steel plant was razed and redeveloped into a shopping complex known as The Waterfront.

"He was able to look out his window and observe life. Those observations are incredibly astute, and he captures them on canvas," said Ronald Baraff, director of Museum Collections and Archives at Rivers of Steel.

"It's not a haughty lens, it's a lens of the people," Mr. Baraff said, describing Mr. Qualters' artistic vision. "That's what makes it so attractive."

He called the style "concrete abstract with very vivid colors."

"You feel the life [and] you feel the electricity of the world," he said.

Much of the work displayed in this exhibit shows the end of the steel industry.

"Many of them have to do with the tearing down," Mr. Qualters said. One of those includes a piece called "The end of OH-5," which refers to Open Hearth No. Five, once located in Homestead.

"It's not just a history of the industry in the region. It's a history of the people," Mr. Baraff said.

Influenced by 19th century Japanese painter, Hiroshige, Mr. Qualters painted "A Rainy Day in Homestead," as a "gently surreal view where everything is Spring."

Mr. Qualters is hesitant to name his favorite piece in the collection of 25 paintings, prints, posters and drawings included in the exhibit.

"I love them all, but I don't love them all equally," he said.

Mr. Baraff believes this art exhibit helps tell an important story.

"[Mr. Qualters] was painting these at a time of great transition. It was not a happy time," he said. "This is the first time ever he's brought all of these pieces together."

Ms. Dofner said "The Mon-Valley was the pulse of the steel industry. There is a wonderful legacy here and Bob really captures that in his work.".

The Qualters exhibit runs 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, through June 14 at the Bost Building, 623 E. Eighth Ave., Homestead.

Jennifer Goga is a freelance writer.


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