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FYIThe folk

Everyday people also use the arts to express their faith, ideals, feelings, and ideas.

The Arts in Pittsburgh


What is art for?
The famous
The folk<
Where art lives

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Faith and pride

Groups of people seem to be compelled to describe and record the special events and traditions in their communities. Some used visual symbols, like the prehistoric cave drawings of animals. Native Americans honored the spirits and marked important occasions with ceremonial dances. Songs sung in the cotton fields in the South resonated with the experiences of Blacks forced to suffer the cruelties of slavery. With such a diverse and complex history of immigrants and ethnic communities, it is no surprise that comparable expressions of folk art still are evident all over Pittsburgh and its surrounding region. In short, one may find very formal ethnic dance performances at the annual Pittsburgh Folk Festival . . . but be just as likely to witness a spontaneous celebration of the Tarantella on Italian Day at Kennywood Park!

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India Classoom
Polish stained glass
African stool
Tom Altany

The Nationality Rooms: The Indian Classoom, the Polish Classroom, and the African Classoom.

The Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh were founded especially to promote pride in the cultural contribtutions of the many nationalities and ethnic groups that came to make a home in Pittsburgh.

When the University of Pittsburgh's Chancellor John G. Bowman had the 42-story Cathedral of Learning built in the 1920s and 1930s, he invited the ethnic groups of Pittsburgh to participate by sponsoring and building classrooms representing their cultures at their highest level of achievement in authentic styles and materials.

Nineteen rooms were completed between 1938 and 1957 and seven more rooms were dedicated between 1987 and 2000. Four more of these unique monuments to the arts of both everyday folk and recognized masters are in the proposal stage.

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Perhaps churches stand as the most obvious markers of the city's various ethnic groups. Many congregations sponsor craft fairs and holiday presentations that reflect their traditions and celebrate their culture. One very striking examples happens at St. Peter and Paul Ukranian Orthodox Church in Carnegie, where an annual Easter celebration includes the creation and sale of traditional Pysanky eggs. The word Pysanky is derived from a Ukrainian word meaning "to write," although by traditional definitions, the eggs actually are being painted. Portions of a design are "written" in melted wax on a white egg, using a tool called a kistka. The egg is dipped in a color dye and then the process of "writing" is repeated. Over and over the eggs are "written" and then dipped in progressively darker dyes, until ultimately the wax is melted and removed and a complex and colorful design is revealed on the egg.

Pysanky are typically made to be given to family members and respected outsiders. To give a pysanka is to give a symbolic gift of life, which is why the egg must remain raw and in its shell. Each of the designs and colors on the pysanka is likely to have a deep, symbolic meaning. Traditionally, pysanky designs are chosen to match the character of the person to whom the pysanka is to be given.

Traditionally made during the last week of Lent, Holy Week in the Catholic and Orthodox calendars (both faiths are represented in Ukraine), they are then taken to the church on Easter Sunday to be blessed before being given away as gifts.

This form of folk art carries a deep layer of religious meaning for Ukrainians, many of whom believe that every time a woman makes a pysanka the devil is pushed farther down into captivity -- but when the last woman to make pysanky stops, evil will again reign triumphant in the world.

In this century, pysanky have come to mean something more among Ukrainian immigrants in North America. Because the former U. S. S. R. was an officially atheistic state, pysanka writing, with its layers of specifically Christian meaning, was discouraged. Pysanky, therefore, became for many Ukrainian-Americans a symbol of their longing for a free, independent Ukraine -- a longing that has been gratified in recent years since Communism fell.

Each year at St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, old and young alike participate in the festival marked by the creation and sale of pysanky. Parishioners dress in traditional Ukranian outfits, and while adults sell the eggs, children gather to learn the traditional art of "writing" the pysanky. It is a way for the parishioners at St. Peter and Paul's to declare their pride in their heritage, communicate their beliefs to others, and assure that future generations will preserve the custom and appreciate the significance of this art form.

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Similar examples of cultural art exist in other churches and temples in the region. Bethel A.M.E. Church is recognized as the oldest Black congregation in Pittsburgh, and they hold an annual fundraiser called Choir Day, where groups perform many traditional gospel music selections.

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And at St. Michael the Archangel Church on the South Side, parishioners have, for the past seventy years, put on the play "Veronica's Veil" to tell the story of the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Members of this church, which was founded by German immigrants in the mid-19th century, volunteer their time to produce and perform the event, and each year they use antique costumes and sets to stage this tableau.

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Churches all over the region serve as excellent "museums" for folk art and many striking examples of fine art and architecture, too. For centuries, people have expressed their devotion to God in works of writing, painting, sculpture, and music. Massive and stunning examples of stained glass art at Heinz Chapel in Oakland depict over 400 religious and historical figures, including everyone from saints to Leonardo daVinci holding a small painting of the Mona Lisa. At Calvary United Methodist Church on the North Side, three large stained glass windows are considered among the finest religious stained glass ever produced by Tiffany's.

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In Millvale, at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, one very unusual wall mural blends religious and political themes to express a strong personal message from its artist, Maxo Vanka, a Croatian artist who fled to the U.S. in the mid-1930's. On the ceilings and walls of St. Nicholas, Vanka painted Jesus' mother weeping at the Crucifixion; a Croatian mother weeping as she raises her sons for war; an immigrant mother weeping as she raises her sons for hard labor in the manufactories; and the famous statue of Injustice wearing a gas mask. On the ceilings below the choir loft he painted images of war, mixing images of Christ with 20th Century soldiers, and at the back, a greedy capitalist sitting at a table ignoring a beggar at his feet.

Clyde Hare for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Max Vanka's mural inside St. Nicholas Church in Millvale.

The controversial commentary on social classes and injustice sparked debate at the time, and a prominent Pittsburgh family even offered one million dollars to the Diocese to whitewash what they felt was a personal attack. The offer was refused, and today the controversial images still exist along with Vanka's more pastoral images depicting rural life in a Croatian village. In those less provocative mural images, people are dressed in traditional Croatian costumes, and they dance by a sea that "flows" into the hills of Pittsburgh, surrounded by a painting of the parish priest and the immigrants who helped to build the church.

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Making a home

No structure is as intensely personal as an individual's home. The structure itself needs only to protect the inhabitant from the elements of nature. If it has walls and a roof to keep out the rain, and a suitable foundation to keep it standing through a windstorm, then it's serving its purpose. But we return again to that human need to mark something as "special" -- and suddenly the little box takes on new shape, to reflect the vision of the designer and the tastes of its inhabitant.

One excellent example of this is a small white house that stands in Washington County. It is the home of artist Malcolm Parcell, who lived there from 1963 until his death in 1987. While Parcell is most remembered for portraits (some of which still grace the walls of the home), this odd house became part of his artistic legacy too. Parcell designed the place by adding new rooms onto an older structure and fashioning both interior and exterior into a romantic cottage of mainly colonial design.

Parcell dubbed the home Moon Lorn, a reference to trees on the estate that obscured Parcell's view of the moon. Donald Miller, an art critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote a book about Parcell called The Wizard Of Moon Lorn, and speaks of the eccentricities of Malcolm Parcell. According to Miller, the house is not extremely well balanced, but it is extremely attractive. It's a home, says Miller, where all kinds of art can be appreciated, and the Malcolm Parcell Foundation hopes someday to open Moon Lorn as a house museum.

Moon Lorn, home of Malcolm Purcell
Moon Lorn, home of Malcolm Purcell
Rick Sebak

Moon Lorn the home of artist Malcolm Purcell.

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Many other homes in Western Pennsylvania merit celebration as works of art. Frederick Schiebler, Jr., was a progressive architect who worked in Pittsburgh in the early 1900's, and his designs reveal classic features that immediately identify them as Schiebler creations. Many of his homes are still featured in community house tours.

And, in Aspinwall, a series of "castles" is situated behind what used to be the main home of German immigrant Frederick Sauer. He designed these castles back in the early 1900's as a tribute to the much larger castles he recalled from his old life in Heidleberg, Germany. What does that tell us about Sauer's feelings toward his homeland? His culture? What if, instead of being charming and lovingly detailed, the castles were grossly exaggerated and designed to look imposing or frightening? What would you surmise about Sauer's feelings then?

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Frederick Sauer's castle
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

One of Frederick Sauer castles.

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