Taking the artistic route through Pa.

By Christine H. O'Toole
Friday, November 19, 2010

The harvest is in, and both the leaves and the birds are blowing south in big gusts. Pennsylvania's Allegheny Mountains have exchanged their tie-dyed October look for basic brown. But there's still plenty of local color in the friendly little burgs along Route 30. I just had to look indoors.

The valleys below Laurel Hill and the Chestnut Ridge shelter a handful of small, specific art collections that complement the rural landscape along the old Lincoln Highway. In a hilly, 80-mile road trip, I found four galleries displaying everything from hand-spun cloth to inflatable art: mixed mountain media.

I began my trek with the familiar crawl from the piedmont into Western Maryland, climbing Route 70 to Route 30 as the mountains came into view. Where the two roads diverged in the proverbial yellow wood, I chose the old two-laner that parallels the Pennsylvania Turnpike. (The old Lincoln Highway is actually a museum in itself: murals and markers along the route tell the story of the first transcontinental road, opened in 1913.)

Bedford, a red-brick seat of Bedford County since 1750, is too small to get lost in. Even without signs to the National Museum of the American Coverlet, I found it a few blocks south of Pitt Street, in the town's stately 151-year-old Common School. As I pulled open the door, a flannel-shirted docent boomed, "Join us!"

Laszlo Zongor, who founded the museum with wife Melinda in 2006, is a Hungarian who has found an American passion: antique woven bedcovers, an art form that flourished in the early 19th century. I expected skimpy doilies and homespun scraps. Instead, I found not pieced quilts, but two galleries of luxurious, vibrantly colored textiles with geometric and figured patterns, proudly signed and dated by their creators.

"People marvel at the condition of our pieces. But thousands of them didn't last this long," Melinda, the museum curator, told me. The collection here is more than 300 pieces, and the museum is the only one in the country devoted to the craft, which flourished among the German, Irish and English settlers of rural Pennsylvania. Along with displays on the tools of the trade, the museum offers courses in weaving, dyeing and rug-hooking. Children's voices echo here, as they have since the founding of the Common School in 1861. Today, the museum shares space with a second-floor preschool.

Zipping past Bedford's Coffee Pot, a two-story wooden percolator and roadside attraction that could make a perfect Starbucks, I headed west, pointing the car directly at the next ridgeline. In a half-hour I entered Somerset, with its grand copper-domed courthouse and a one-room museum that's forever cutting-edge.

The Guild of American Papercutters National Museum took up residence at the town's Phillip Dressler Center for the Arts because of two energetic local artists. Kathy Reed and Linda Peck, both papercutters and center board members, recognized that the Dressler's extra galleries could provide a home for the guild's exhibits. The small upstairs space opened in 2009. While many pieces riff on the monochromatic silhouette style, others incorporate a range of colors, subjects and materials that make them contemporary.

"We don't expect a group of oil paintings to look alike. But when we see an exhibit of papercut artworks, we say, 'They look so different!' " says Reed. "Each is personalized through style and technique." Like coverlets, the medium has a local connection: the Scherenschnitte that Pennsylvania Dutch settlers created for birth and marriage certificates. Though the craft goes back to 5th-century China, Henri Matisse adopted "painting with scissors" in his 1940s collages, and Kara Walker's stark, lifesize silhouettes give punch and currency to the craft. In its upcoming international exhibit, opening Dec. 3, the museum will import contemporary pieces from Poland, Israel and beyond; contemporary Chinese artists, following their ancient tradition, will contribute a 20-foot cut-paper scroll.

Back on Route 30, the low western sun in my eyes, I drove on to a sleek log cabin in Ligonier. The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art opened this location, its third, in 1997. Each year since, it has featured the region's best artists in a juried competition. This year's prizewinners include Kevin Kutz, a Bedford painter whose reputation is growing, and Paul Sirofchuck, whose rugged wood carving evokes the surrounding forest.

Greensburg seems like a big town compared with its eastern neighbors, with a hilly downtown crowned by, yes, another county courthouse. The Westmoreland Museum of American Art was built in the town's historic Academy Hill district 50 years ago, but its reputation for fresh, well-curated shows is gaining it new attention. Works by Benjamin West, Winslow Homer and Louis Comfort Tiffany prove that the Westmoreland has deep pockets, but a fine collection called "The Valley at Work" also depicts the region's gritty industrial heritage. So does a goofy, joyful inflatable sculpture outside the museum entrance. Dubbed "Bessie," it's a Bessemer converter - a squat essential of steelmaking - adorned with a halo of flames by Pittsburgh artist Steve O'Hearn. It's art that couldn't belong anywhere else, and its flames waved a gentle goodbye as I turned downhill and blew down the road.

O'Toole is a Pittsburgh travel writer and the author of "Off the Beaten Path: Pennsylvania."


The Chancellor's House B&B

341 S. Juliana St., Bedford, Pa.

814-624-0374 A restored 1875 mansion across the street from the coverlet museum. Three rooms from $125 a night.


Crazy Alice's Cafe

Glades Pike Mall

101 W. Main St., Somerset


Casual lunch and dinner from $6.65. Closed Sunday.


National Museum of the American Coverlet

322 S. Julian St., Bedford


Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m, Sunday noon to 4 p.m. $6, $5 seniors.

Guild of American Papercutters National Museum

Philip Dressler Center for the Arts

214 S. Harrison Ave., Somerset


Tuesday-Thursday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday noon to 4 p.m. Free.

Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Ligonier Valley

One Boucher Lane and Route 711, South Ligonier


Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free.

Westmoreland Museum of American Art

221 N. Main St., Greensburg


Wednesday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Suggestion donation $5.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company