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Arts, Sports & Culture

Rivers of Steel Honors Regional Artists, Storytellers

Cathleen Bailey

Sam Robinson doesn’t consider himself to be an artist, but he sure can tell a story.

“I kind of got used to asking questions and learning about things from my father,” he said. “So certainly that heritage has made it easier for me…”

The 64-year-old tour guide is one of 12 regional artists and storytellers being honored by the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area Wednesday for their work in preserving history and culture.

Pittsburgh’s steelworkers brought their traditions to western Pennsylvania from all over the world, and Jeff Leber, vice president and chief operating officer for Rivers of Steel, said he wants to see them stay.

“We hope to carry forward for many generations these types of cultural arts and traditions that were brought over by the immigrants who came over to work in the steel mills,” he said.

Sam Robinson is what Rivers of Steel considers to be a Tradition Bearer, someone who is “recognized for their expertise and their efforts to carry, preserve, and share traditional knowledge.”

Robinson, a Beaver native, worked as a railroad signaler for about 15 years on the same line that serviced Pittsburgh’s then flourishing steel mills. In 2009, he started giving tours of Carrie Furnace, which produced iron for the Homestead Works from 1907 to 1978 along the Monongahela River.

Robinson said his father, an engineer, continues to be his storytelling inspiration.

“He could talk about what he did and what his company did in words that a really nontechnical person could understand,” he said, “and, I would say that I’ve probably adopted that style.”

Robinson is also a tour guide for the Duquesne Incline and the Pittsburgh Transportation Group where he highlights movies filmed around the city.

Rivers of Steel is also honoring the region’s Master Artists – those who developed their craft in their communities and are dedicated to sharing their culture with others.

“They’re doing this for the fun of it and to pass it on to their kids and other kids,” Jeff Leber of Rivers of Steel said.

Credit Michael Kapeluck
"Moses" painted by Michael Kapeluck

Michael Kapeluck, an iconographer from Carnegie, is one such artist.

“They’re doing stuff that is everything from art forms that are purely decorative to what I do, which is actually a religious art form, and it’s great that they have this wide spectrum,” he said.

The 54-year-old started taking classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art of Pittsburgh in fourth grade and later graduated from Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Fine Arts. After working as a contemporary artist for several years, Kapeluck returned to his roots in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

“It just got to the point as I started investigating my actual heritage as opposed to the contemporary art I was doing; it was over a two-or three-year period of time, it just made this transition.”

Kapeluck has painted icons, or religious figures, for more than two-dozen Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches in the U.S. and Canada. And, in 2005, he was the recipient of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship in Folk and Traditional Arts, the highest award a traditional artist can receive in the state.

Other awardees include Cathleen Bailey, George Balderose, Joe Grkman, Mimi Jong, Mac Martin, Dave Motak, Yuriy Mudrenko, Charley Rappaport and Brett Ridgeway.

All awardees will be featured on the Rivers of Steel Folk Arts Directory, an online tool for teachers to find Master Artists and Tradition Bearers in the region and bring them into the classroom.