Paintings recall city’s historic, personal moments
For half a century, Robert Qualters has had a knack for celebrating Pittsburgh. His vibrant paintings, prints and posters — even his many public murals, which can be found throughout the city and surrounding boroughs — feature Pittsburgh and its people, as well as its buildings, factories and monuments of today and yesterday, in a jubilant, almost reverent light.
Many are familiar with Qualters’ oil and acrylic paintings of Pittsburgh’s steel mills of the past, his lithographs of the bustling neighborhoods that surrounded them, and his posters that feature Kennywood rides long gone.
Now, we’ve been given a chance to become reacquainted with his work with the exhibition “Monongahela Valley: A Time of Change, 1980-2000,” on display at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in Homestead.
The exhibit showcases two decades worth of original works by Qualters that visually tell the story of the end of the industrial age in the Monongahela Valley. The pieces look beyond the industrial aspect of the downfall of Big Steel with the intention of revealing the lives of the people who fought through this period of change.
Qualters, 74, lives in Squirrel Hill. But he maintains a studio in Homestead where he has had two others since 1990. Homestead suits him well: An ever changing neighborhood, it still has some of the grit and charming grime it did half a century ago when the steel mills and metalworking plants located throughout it were bustling.
It’s a perfect place for a man who grew up in the Monongahela Valley, first in McKeesport and then Clairton, where he graduated from Clairton High School in 1951. After high school, he attended Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) to study painting and design, taking two years out for service in the Army.
In 1956, he left the Pittsburgh area to study at the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland where he studied under influential West Coast abstractionist Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993). It was there that Qualters became part of the movement that came to be known as “Bay Area Figurative Painting.” This was the most influential three-year period of his career, and largely influenced the development of his artistic style.
Returning to Pittsburgh in 1959, Qualters landed his first teaching job at Woodland Junior High School in Munhall before leaving to teach at the State University of New York at Oswego. But, after pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts at Syracuse University, he returned to Pittsburgh in 1968 to teach at the University of Pittsburgh. And he has been here ever since.
Possessing a solid foundation of study in the visual arts, both in history and practice, his work is informed by his predecessors even to this day. But you wouldn’t know it. Still, shades of artistic inspiration abound, such as in the screenprint “A Letter to Saskia” (1998) in which Qualters depicts Rembrandt at the blast house floor in the Edgar Thomson Works. A portrait of Matisse, as well as a reference to one of that artist’s iconic, reclining female figures, can be found in the screenprint “Matisse de la Recherche” (1998). And in the painting “A Rainy Day in Homestead” (1994), shades of legendary Japanese printmaker Hiroshige can be found in the downpour depicted bombarding the Homestead stacks, which are now more recognized as the icon of The Waterfront retail development than the Homestead Steel Works that once surrounded them.
From his studios in Homestead and West Homestead, Qualters witnessed firsthand the changes felt by the Mon Valley during the last decades of the 20th century, which were frequently reflected in his work.
That’s why some of the pieces on display are general views of the Homestead area. ” ‘Pete’s Barbershop’ was across the street from my old studio,” Qualters says, pointing to a painting of the same title. Nearby hang four small studies for panel paintings that, up until recently, hung from the light poles on Eighth Avenue in Homestead. They include images of ladies making pierogies, the old Leona Theatre that was once on Eighth Avenue, and one of the few female steelworkers who was known to work in the mills, especially during World War II.
Though the lady steelworker is long gone, it’s no surprise that Qualters would include such an image. In fact, a lot of his works reach back into history to retell stories anew.
Sometimes, Qualters pieces not only have significant historical reference, but reference the time in which he painted them as well as anticipate the future. The painting “Homestead” (1982) is one such work. Particularly prophetic, the piece actually depicts West Homestead. Painted in 1982, the year Soviet Union leader Leonid Brezhnev (who lead the communist country from 1964 until his death) died, it contains some writing that Qualters added to the bottom, which he often does, that reads, “Now the mills are quiet. The Japanese instead of the Russians, as Kruschev predicted, are burying us.”
The painting, which depicts millworkers walking up Sarah Street and kids coming home from school, was inspired by a 1959 trip to Homestead by Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964.
Qualters recalls that, in addition to a large parade along Eighth Avenue that welcomed him, a worker in the crowd yelled at the leader in Ukrainian when he gave a speech at Mesta Machine Co. “Khrushchev shouted back,” Qualters says, “but then he took off his watch and gave it to the guy later. Khrushchev said the place he liked best in America was right here, Pittsburgh.”
Though much of the work is inspired by memories like that, Qualters insists that he is not trying to record history, or even making a conscious effort to recall it.
“The truth is, I don’t care about history, or history as it popularly understood,” he says. “But this moment is important to me.
“The feeling of getting the experience right, the experience of each particular moment, that’s what’s important to me.”
‘Monongahela Valley: A Time of Change, 1980-2000’
What: Paintings , prints, photos, and posters by Robert Qualters that visually tell the story of the end of the industrial age in the Monongahela Valley
When: Through June 14. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Saturdays by appointment
Where: Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area , The Bost Building, 623 East 8th Avenue, Homestead