Who Are We? Looking At Pittsburgh Through Public Art

Jan 8, 2016

The murals in the United States Post Office and Courthouse on Grant Street are pretty hard to get to. There’s security, now, unlike when the Department of Treasury’s Section of Painting and Sculpture commissioned the three works in 1934.

Two of the octogenerian paintings survive on the 8th floor; one disappeared. That’s the thing about murals, said Sylvia Rhor, associate professor of art history at Carlow University. They’re large, but they’re not immune to time’s vagaries. They can go missing, be discarded or painted over.

“Some of the styles are outdated. Some of the topics don’t seem to fit with the community, so sometimes they’re painted over for that reason. Some of them are offensive. Some of the buildings were destroyed so some murals were lost. Many murals were lost,” she said.

The murals Rhor referred to were part of a vast national output in the 1930s and commissioned by a number of agencies created by the federal government, the most famous of which was the Works Progress Administration. Programs like the WPA put people back to work during the Great Depression, Rhor said.  

“The interesting part from my perspective is the fact that artists were considered workers and were funded on a large scale to do their artwork,” she said.

And it wasn’t just about getting people back to work. Part of the government’s aim was to help people feel hopeful again, she said.

“There was a sense of raising morale and bonding community and suggesting a narrative of American history of onward, upward, everybody together,” she said.

But that spirit of togetherness wasn’t necessarily what people were experiencing as they struggled to rebuild their lives; it felt disingenuous and contributed to works being taken down and lost to time. Yet one of Pittsburgh's murals did precisely the opposite.

Courthouse systems manager Rodger Leasure pointed to a 10- by 17-foot painting by Stuyvesant Van Veen hanging above the judge’s chair in an 8th-floor courtroom.

“That is without a doubt the coolest mural. I love it,” he said.  

“Pittsburgh Panorama” shows a condensed view of the city framed by the Westinghouse Bridge. The Monongahela River curves past blast furnaces and coke batteries and moves toward a tiny Downtown. Its distance from the viewer suggests that the collection of buildings is not the focal point. The city is dun-colored, almost dusty, but the valley is soaked in light.

“It’s real, I think it’s real. It really depicts the city. People coming and going, to and from work probably, so I think it shows a tremendous amount of Pittsburgh,” Leasure said.

Leasure spent 10 years working in a steel mill before he moved into IT. His father hauled finished steel products; his in-laws were pipe fitters. To him, the painting connects his past — and the city’s past — to their collective present.

“You’ve got the legal system here. But you’re showing our background from where the city came from and what really is this city,” he said.

That’s precisely what Van Veen and the other muralists commissioned for the courthouse intended to do, Rhor said.

“Those murals in particular — they wanted the people who saw that mural to be able to say: that is me. I can connect to that. I can understand that,” she said.

What a work of art means depends on who’s looking at it, in the same way that what a city means depends on who’s experiencing it. There’s a lot of public art in Pittsburgh today, and it's just one part of building a city people can look at and say, that is me.

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