If Douglas Cooper is a sort of superhero of Pittsburgh murals, he has an origin story to go with it.
At age 6, he accompanied his father by train on a business trip. It was 1953, and the mills of the Mon Valley were going full-blast. Cooper and his father arrived by night, and Cooper, in his 2000 book “Steel Shadows,” recalls being mesmerized as the dining car passed under the Westinghouse Bridge -- and shaken by the story his father told him of a construction worker who’d been entombed in wet concrete while building the bridge.
Then from their rail car they saw the “smoke and fire plumes of the Edgar Thomson steelworks,” which solidified young Cooper’s “sense of awe for this fire land where people were buried drowning in concrete.”
Cooper (whose grandmother lived in Pittsburgh) of course returned to Connecticut, but Pittsburgh stuck with him. Twelve years after that first trip, he moved here to study architecture at Carnegie Tech, where he began to develop an approach to drawing that eventually resulted in his singular, epic murals, vast landscapes rendered in charcoal from a low-flying-bird’s-eye-view. The murals, wall-sized or larger, are painstakingly detailed yet slightly surreal, with crazily steep hills and exaggerated perspectives, as though the skin of the city were afloat on a tumultuous sea.
The murals are a way to express his abiding love for Pittsburgh, with even the burnt wood that comprised the charcoal seeming to harken to those initial memories of a gritty, fire-licked town.
Cooper, now 72, is an architecture professor at his alma mater, now Carnegie Mellon University. His new book, “Knowing and Seeing: Reflections on Fifty Years of Drawing Cities” (University of Pittsburgh Press), is an elegant tribute to his half-century-old career, from its fold-out pages that capture the breadth of his murals to his detailed prose exploring his drawing practice.
While Cooper has created murals of cities around the world – Rome, Qatar, Frankfurt, Seattle, San Francisco -- Pittsburgh is home to several. Perhaps the most prominent is at Heinz History Center, which houses a collection of details from a mural that covered all four walls of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Forum Gallery some 25 years ago. In the mid-1990s, Cooper completed a 200-foot-long mural for the main lobby of CMU’s then-new University Center. It greets visitors to this day.
His murals are tall, too – 11 feet or more high – and typically reach to the floor because he wants viewers to feel as though they can step into them.
“Doug Cooper employs his panoptical vision not only to record and rearrange the lay of the land but also to infuse it with a distinct psychological flavor,” writes Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, in promotional materials for the book. (Armstrong is a former director of the Carnegie Museum of Art.) “His many representations of Pittsburgh mirror the city’s intensely built, verdantly wrinkled face, memorializing it with affection.”
Cooper traces his drawing style to a freshman-year class at Carnegie Tech where, Cooper has written, the professor challenged students to draw “everything in our studio and, in the same drawing, everything outside as well.” Cooper earned his architecture degree, but by 1974 had decided to pursue art full-time.
He said his drawing style seeks to evoke both “[t]he map that we carry in our minds” and “the cognitive map of the city, combined with our experience of any individual place.”
The big murals, in particular, "show the experience of moving through the city from neighborhood to neighborhood, but then stopping, pausing, and then looking around the city from that one location or several locations," he said.
Cooper’s Pittsburgh murals might center on Oakland, or Polish Hill, or the South Side Slopes. Streets on hills are a specialty: snaking left to right, plunging vertiginously away from the foreground. His landscapes are also shaped by memory: Cooper’s sense of Pittsburgh is deeply marked by his years in the ‘60s living next door to Forbes Field. Both the cars and vanished landmarks in his murals peg them to that era.
“I am really interested in showing the relationship of the past with the present,” said Cooper. He often works with community members, seniors in particular, and incorporates their stories into the murals.
The charcoal murals are all in black, white and shades of gray, but they teem with action. In the foreground of one, as if in close-up, a bespectacled woman reads a newspaper on her Slopes porch, while to her left another woman climbs the steps of Sterling Street; in the middle ground, the J&L steel-mill belches black smoke over the Monongahela River; in the distant background sit Forbes Field and the Panther Hollow Bridge.
“My work is very, I would say, realistic in the sense that it deals with real things, real stuff, real street cars, real houses, real streets. But,” he added, “it’s really … intended to present the way we see the city when we’re in it, the way we experience it visually, the way we experience it haptically, meaning some sense of moving through the city at the same time that we’re looking at it, and the feel of its topography, the steepness of slopes or the inclination of our views in it.”
The text of “Knowing and Seeing” is dense with Cooper’s personal anecdotes, musings on mapmaking, discussions of the art that has inspired him, and more. But asked what he hopes readers get from the book, he said, “I hope they recognize their own cities. … I’ve heard from a lot of people that that the sense of the city … that they get from looking at my murals really kind of strikes a deep chord that resonates with their own experience of the city. It’s not that it looks like it. It’s that it feels like it.”
On Nov. 21, Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures hosts a book-launch for "Knowing and Seeing," featuring a talk by Cooper, in the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater. Attendance is free with registration.