First and foremost, I want to humbly thank all of you who reached out to me last week after the loss of my father-in-law, as well as to express my gratitude for your kind comments about last week’s story behind “Meet Me Under Kaufmann’s Clock, Too!”
As we continue our shelter-at-home lifestyle, I have another story to share with you. This one, I promise, is a bit brighter. It’s about “Walking in the Light of the Cathedral,” the second painting in my “Pittsburgh Remembered” series.
My artwork has always been about memories, and one of my very first recollections of Pittsburgh happened back in 1975 during that life-changing high-school orchestra trip where I first met Tom. On the way back home to Philadelphia after the concert, we were treated to a tour of the Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh campus.
For starters, I was awestruck by the sheer size of the building. As I entered the Commons Room, I remember seeing beautiful wood and stone everywhere, with iron chandeliers hanging from the impossibly high ceiling on long, long chains… so majestic, like a real medieval cathedral or castle. I had never seen anything like it!
But my favorite part was touring the Nationality Rooms. Each room is decorated to represent the heritage and culture of a different country. The rooms reflected the architectural styles, furniture, and art of their respective countries, with intricate wooden carvings, beautiful hand-painted flowers and symbols, and more. One room was roped off, and no one was allowed to enter, but my eyes were dazzled by the golden artifacts within. (I have no idea which room that was now… maybe one of you can refresh my memory?) After all those years, the memory of my visit to the Cathedral was still so vivid, I knew it had to be the second painting in my Pittsburgh series.
I grabbed my camera and headed for Oakland, prowling around the Cathedral, looking for the perfect angle. It didn’t take long before I found the perfect composition for my painting – near the Student Union Building. As late afternoon turned into early evening, I watched the windows in the Cathedral begin to light up, waiting for an old-fashioned gas lamppost in the foreground to come on as the sun was setting. (Later, I posed a young man from our church youth group under the gaslamp, holding an umbrella. I even put a girl in the painting for him to talk to!) I especially wanted to capture the way the light shining through the windows created fascinating visual effects on the building’s stonework, giving the grand gray structure a warm orange glow.
I gave the painting what some people call a “Pittsburgh sky,” raining in the foreground under big dark clouds, with a colorful sunset in the background on the horizon. To me, this symbolized the light and calm at the end of a storm and, in a way, represents the turbulence of our college years, when we’re young and finding our way in the world.
I did make one change to the painting after I thought it was finished. I had originally painted a man sitting hunched over on a bench in the foreground. But as the more I thought about it, the more I felt sorry for this poor (imaginary) soul sitting there and getting rained on, so I removed him from the scene.
Not long after that, Tom studied the painting and said, “You know there’s a hole in your composition now. You really need someone sitting on that bench.” After thinking about for a minute, I said “OK, go put on your raincoat and hat and pose for me, and you’ll be the man getting soaked in the rain.” So Tom sat on our dining room chair, decked out in his rain gear, and I sketched him in. I realized then and there that Tom was going to be a very handy model to have around!
Little did I know at the time, adding Tom to the composition was the start of something that would become one of my trademarks. Like Alfred Hitchcock doing a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” cameo in all his movies, Tom does the same in my Pittsburgh paintings!
When I released the painting in the fall of 1990, reviews were mixed. I was surprised to find out that certain collectors – typically alumni of other local colleges and universities – were angry that I chose a Pitt landmark to paint. I was disappointed because I chose it for my own reasons, because it was a unique and special building and deserved to be painted. Regardless, some collectors just weren’t interested in hanging this print on their walls, and I wondered if I had made the wrong choice of subjects.
Then one day the innocent words of my 4-year-old daughter Brittany cheered me up and put a smile back on my face. We were driving into Oakland on Forbes Avenue as the Cathedral of Learning came into view, standing so tall, towering of the rest of the Oakland landscape. It seemed to practically rise up in front of us as we drove closer and closer. Excitedly, Brittany leaned forward in her car seat and pointed, shouting, “Mommy! There is your building!” I realized that since I painted the Cathedral, she thought I owned the building!
She reminded me of just how unique and impressive the Cathedral of Learning is architecturally and its place as one of Pittsburgh’s most famous landmarks. I’m certainly not the only one for whom this building is a cherished memory, and I realized that many, many people would appreciate this painting for what it is, and that’s what’s important.
Thank you for letting me share another story with you. I learn something significant with each one of my paintings, and I hope you enjoy “Walking in the Light of the Cathedral” … no matter where you went to college!
Stay safe, stay healthy.