Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: City neighborhoods serve as model, muse for a local painter

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Since last July, Ron Donoughe has been painting the town, alphabetically, by neighborhood.

He had arrived at the "O"s when I joined him one day last week on a search for an inspiring spot in Oakland. He has several sections of Oakland to do, and that day he decided on West Oakland.

We left his studio in Lawrenceville on a morning he called flat -- like a matte finish, when what you want is gloss to grab light and throw shadows. "But we'll try it anyway," he said.

He drove up Herron Avenue and through the Hill District and into the new Oak Hill development. When the road curved onto Burrows Street, we passed a convenience store, its paint the color of beet juice. He stopped.

A funky little store with a flight of wooden stairs in front, the Oak Hill Convenience Store and More displays its goods behind a transparent wall. The person who waits on you delivers your item and change through a small opening.

Mr. Donoughe told the owner about his project. He said he does this so no one wonders what he is doing in deep concentration behind a tripod and a magazine-sized piece of wood for almost two hours.

The neighborhood project emerged from more than two decades of painting places both iconic and little known throughout Western Pennsylvania. A native of Loretto, he is working on a mural for the Cambria County Courthouse and has painted historic sites in Johnstown.

He devoted himself to painting full time in 1991 after working as a graphic designer and a teacher on the high school and college levels. He hopes to exhibit his 90 neighborhood paintings at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts sometime next year.

"I have been painting in neighborhoods for a long time but got this idea last year when I saw a wood-cut map of the city" with all the neighborhoods identified, he said. "I decided to do them alphabetically because I could criss-cross them" and get different views. "I started last July with Allegheny Center."

There, he painted the former Allegheny branch of the Carnegie Library, a Richardsonian Romanesque icon that closed several years ago. In his studio, he has rows of scenes he has painted so far. I recognized my neighborhood from the side of a building that sits by an alley. The corners of buildings that frame the painting are incidental, because he focused on the alley.

"Alleys allow me to explore depth," he said.

The Central Northside is usually celebrated for its Victorian architecture, but his painting is a study in depth and shadow, which cast the alley in various shades of gray. On a flat day, that painting would not have been as interesting.

On our flat morning in West Oakland, he set up his tripod across the street from the store. In his studio, he had squeezed out the paints on his work case like rows of colorful caterpillars.

"I start by mixing colors," he said. "It's like doing calisthenics before your run."

He began with dark colors, mixing them to make a milk chocolate brown. That was his sketch color. As he sketched out the store, the hillside of tangled trees around it and the front deck with its rows of orange plastic crates, people passed in cars and on foot, casting glances without stopping.

The painting began to emerge as a portrait as he defined dimensions, reflections in thin white lines and added layers of color. He paints on Baltic birch that he shellacs to get the texture of fine linen.

"I don't know if this is the painting that will represent Oakland," he said.

Certainly, the Oak Hill Convenience Store and More is a different view of Oakland. On our climb up the steps, I had a flashback to another world, maybe in the Third World or an earlier time in history.

"I like to paint places that probably no one had ever thought to paint before," he said as he began to clean his paint case and wipe his brushes. When he looked up, a thick shadow lay diagonally across the red store.

"Aw, look," he said. He paused, and wondered whether it was possible to capture the shadow. "That's such a strong element."

He paused, but only to regret. Everything about the painting, the colors and disposition of light, was informed by a lack of shadow. It was too late.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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