Back when she was a newspaper photographer – before and even after she won a Pulitzer Prize – one of Martha Rial's tasks was shooting for the publications' big community-news sections. Those were the pages that noted and celebrated the contributions of volunteers and others who made their towns better places to live.
Daily newspapers have been shrinking for years, and newsprint dedicated to small towns and suburbs has dwindled with them. But people are still doing good works, and Rial says they deserve recognition.
Her project “Beyond The Ceiling: Sharpsburg” honors women in that Allegheny River town in a very public way. In October, working with the Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization and art space Ketchup City Creative, Rial unveiled three murals, based on her photographic portraits of the town’s women volunteer firefighters; a beloved Sharpsburg Community Library employee; and a long-time volunteer at a local faith-based organization.
On Saturday, Rial unveils murals of two more women who've been special to Sharpsburg. One is Evelyn Shoop, 82, who ran a floral shop and helped Sharpsburg women acquire credit cards in their names, back in the 1970s, when that was still hard for many to do. The second honoree is and Barbara Smith, who taught Sunday school and worked for a local social-service agency. Beyond the Ceiling honors living women; Smith, sadly, died in May, at age 88.
Rial is a graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh who went on to a career in photojournalism. She shot for papers in Florida and Virginia before joining the staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in 1994. Four years later, she won the Pulitzer for her images of survivors of war in Rwanda and Burundi.
She left the Post-Gazette in 2006 but stayed in photography. Inspirations for Beyond the Ceiling included the work of Philadelphia-based photographer Zoe Strauss.
“I love that idea of taking photography to the streets,” says Rial. “But I really wanted to focus my attention on ordinary women who were doing extraordinary things in their community.”
She chose Sharpsburg because she was impressed by the sense of community there.
“They have their own identity. They’re a really tight group of people who’ve banded together through some really tough times. And the women especially,” she says. “I’ve met a lot of really strong women who were just going above and beyond to keep their family and their communities together.”
The honorees were chosen by a panel that included Rial (who lives in Edgewood) and Sharpsburg residents. Rial says the panel worked with a list of 60 nominations for more than 25 women submitted by community members.
The murals, which range from 7 to 12 feet in width, are printed on bumper-sticker like material that adheres to buildings with prominent sight lines. Barbara Smith’s mural, for instance, will hang on the Linden Gymnasium, at Clay and Canal Streets. The murals are temporary, expected to last up to three years.
Saturday’s unveiling will be followed by a reception with Rial, Evelyn Shoop, and family members of Barbara Smith, and featuring additional Rial photos of Sharpsburg women, at Ketchup City Creative.
On Wednesday, it was announced that Beyond the Ceiling is headed beyond Sharpsburg. Rial was one of 15 artists or teams to receive an Investing in Professional Artists grant, from the Heinz Foundation and the Pittsburgh Foundation. She received $10,000 “to support production, organization and community programming” for a new version of the project just downriver, in Millvale. That project will be presented in conjunction with the Millvale Community Library and Triboro EcoDistrict.