Artist Jane Haskell, whose neon work "River of Light" is installed in the Steel Plaza station of Pittsburgh's 'T' system, died Tuesday at her Oakland home from breast cancer. She was 89.
Ms. Haskell was a beloved presence in the Pittsburgh art world who used her influence and expertise in service of bringing art of quality to the city. She was also a wife and mother of three, an accomplished skier and tennis player, and a traveler with a sense of adventure.
"We've lost a huge figure in the art world in Pittsburgh," said Judith Hansen O'Toole, director/CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg. "She was an artist and a donor and a patron and a spokesperson and a champion. She had a gentle way of doing things, but somehow you knew you were in the presence of someone remarkable. She was very unassuming."
Ms. Haskell, who became a member of the Carnegie Museum of Art board in 1999, "really felt the mission of the museum in a very deep way," museum director Lynn Zelevansky said. She was interested in art that is hard for most people, such as abstraction, Ms. Zelevansky said.
The Edward N. Haskell Family Acquisition Fund had been established by Ms. Haskell and her late husband for the purchase of works for the collection. Before her death, Ms. Zelevansky asked the artist what type of art she would like the funds be directed to, and she answered that her preference was pre-war abstraction and then mid-century abstraction.
More than patron, Ms. Haskell was a friend. When Ms. Zelevansky arrived at the museum in 2009 "my husband and I immediately felt a kinship with her. She was someone with whom we really bonded. She was full of life and always young and ready to laugh and always interested and interesting. She's very very important to the staff here, and I will miss her terribly myself."
Ms. Haskell was born in Cedarhurst, Long Island, N.Y., and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Skidmore College. In 1949 her family moved to Pittsburgh and she continued her education in the arts, earning a master's degree in art history from the University of Pittsburgh. She was also a student of noted Pittsburgh artist and educator Samuel Rosenberg. Ms. Haskell taught at Duquesne University for a decade before resuming her career as a studio artist.
Her interest in arts and culture rubbed off on family members.
Daughter Patti Haskell was a weaver and the owner of Gallery Wear, a handmade clothing and jewelry boutique in Point Breeze. She attended rabbinical school in Philadelphia and now serves the community at Seacrest Village Retirement Communities in Encinitas, Calif. Her mother was always "very strong and also willing to bend. We could see that over the last few months as she moved through this process."
Daughter Judi Haskell of Easthampton, Mass., is an avocational jeweler who said her mother helped her to "let go of control and follow the process."
Ms. Haskell's grandson, Micah Andrew Haskell-Hoehl, who lives with his wife, Jessica Ann Lemke, in Washington, D.C., said one of the things that he found inspirational about his grandmother was that "she saw creativity in almost everyone. She was always urging me to be creative in everything I did and that wasn't necessarily limited to art."
Jane Arkus first encountered Ms. Haskell when she called to speak to her husband, Leon, then Carnegie Museum of Art director. After Mr. Arkus died in 1999, a friendship grew between the widows during regular two-mile walks on the Carnegie Mellon University track.
"She gave the impression of being laid back but she wasn't really," Ms. Arkus said. "In her 80s she was still climbing ladders to work on her art. She stopped going to morning tennis clinic only about three or four months ago. There were two sides of Jane. The quiet woman of dignity and elegance, and then the whack-'em-hard, tennis-ball-hitting Jane.
"She traveled when she could to the most uncomfortable places on earth. She took the Silk Road trip with Carnegie Museum of Natural History."
Ms. Arkus and Ms. Haskell traveled to Berlin with a side trip to the big art show Documenta. "We braved the blazing sun to tromp across the fields to see what was new and shocking."
Ms. Haskell was a painter and sculptor until 1979 when she turned to neon, and the light that had informed her paintings took on another dimension.
"Light is a pervasive element in the world in which I live and work," Ms. Haskell says on her website. "Without light there is no life."
Carol R. Brown, president of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust from 1986 to 2001, was responsible for the commission of Ms. Haskell's large project for the subway station when she developed a public art program for the transit system.
The resultant work, "Rivers of Light," was installed in 1984 and in recent years has been in need of conservation. Renee Piechocki of the Pittsburgh Office of Public Art was thrilled to tell Ms. Haskell before her death that the National Endowment for the Arts had approved a $40,000 grant that would be applied to the restoration of her work and another in the light rail system.
Ms. Piechocki pointed out that Ms. Haskell "was a visionary in how lighting could convey meaning in an artwork, predating such projects as the changing lights atop the Gulf Tower."
She said Ms. Haskell gave the Office of Public Art permission to consider other options when restoring the work, such as using LED lights instead of the original neon. "It didn't surprise me that she would be open to change. Jane was hip. Jane was about the future. And she was passionate about Pittsburgh."
Ms. Haskell was preceded in death by her husband, Edward N. Haskell; daughter Anne Haskell Landell; and brother Jerome N. Zirn. In addition to her daughters, grandson and his wife, she is survived by step-children, nieces, nephews and cousins.
Funeral services will be held at Rodef Shalom Temple, 4905 Fifth Avenue, Shadyside, at 2 p.m. Thursday. Visitation will be held from 1 to 2 p.m. at Rodef Shalom. Interment will be private.
Contributions may be made to Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA; Jewish Residential Services, 4905 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213; or Biblical Garden at Rodef Shalom Temple, 4905 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.