I HAD a love affair with my hometown last year. Like most love affairs, it just happened one night. I awoke from sleep, saying aloud the words, "Take me back to Braddock, Pa., where the sky is always red and my shirt collar gray." I don't remember dreaming, but somewhere deep in my subconscious this bit of rhyme and meter was conjured up.
The next morning, I went down to my studio and began to write. This struck me as odd because I am a painter, not a writer. But my mind was full of memories of childhood.
I lived in a house on Cherry Way
A wood house at number 1009
A house painted yellow all around.
It wasn't until I had filled several pages of verse that I began to draw and paint. Most vivid in my mind was the town--and the mills.
Braddock still is a steel town. It is one of several situated on the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh that make up the heart of "Steel Valley." The huge mills line the river and a network of rail lines and river barges feed them the iron ore, coke and limestone necessary for steel-making. As a kid in the '30s, I remember walking the few blocks from my home to the river to watch the tugs push the loaded barges.
Braddock had many churches and twice as many saloons. I had a friend whose dad owned one on 11th Street, just two blocks from the mill. We sat at a table in the back and watched the men standing at the long bar. They were mostly immigrants, spoke many languages--Polish, Slavic, Croatian, Serbian. They were the millworkers. They worked hard, drank hard and went to church on Sundays.
Such memories lend themselves better to words. But there were images to paint. The way the mill sat on the river, with the town clustered about it and the steep hills rising up from it, covered with houses and signs.
I used pencil and watercolor so I could record them quickly. At times, a drawing would be tacked to a wall, a watercolor on each of two tables, and I would move from one to the other.
I painted as directly as I could, sometimes starting out with a drawing in brush and then working the colors. At other times, I would start painting in large forms without a drawing. Most of the images are frontal, avoiding the use of perspective. This way I could compose the space easily and concentrate on color and form. Never have I painted so quickly.
I painted the yellow house many times. Sometimes it came out looking like a happy house, other times it looked grim. My memories of it are the same. I painted the houses around it and thought of the people who lived in those houses. And the mills. The ever-present mill, spewing out smoke and soot that settled on everything, with the fires from blast furnaces that turned the sky red.
By summer, there were more than 50 paintings and drawings.
My wife and friends persuaded me to show the work to others. I felt "Steel Valley" was the place to start. One day in August, I threw all the work into a portfolio and drove to Pittsburgh.
I visited the corporate world of U.S. Steel and was received cordially. In the slightly more modest digs of the steelworkers union I felt more at home. Much interest was shown in the work, and a magazine cover resulted. I was elated.
Eventually it was time to return to Washington, but I had to stop in Braddock. When I lived there it was a bustling town of 20,000. It had a main street lined with stores, restaurants and theaters. On Saturday night, it was so crowded with people, cars and trolleys that it was difficult to walk. At the end of town was the mill, working three shifts and filling the air with soot and the wallets of the steelworkers with money.
Not so long ago, all that stopped. Braddock, like other steel towns, is dying slowly. I walked the familiar streets, past the boarded-up windowless stores, the piles of rubble where buildings once stood, where my house once stood.
An important town in American history is being allowed to die. Andrew Carnegie built the first steel mill in Braddock. An important battle was fought here in 1755 in the French and Indian War; Gen. Braddock, the British commander was killed, and his aide, Col. Washington, learned the lessons that would serve him so well.
Since then, my work has changed. I think about Braddock, not as a childhood memory but as it is. A painting of a mill evokes a feeling of sadness. Drawings become a mass of jumbled lines. I no longer use watercolor because it lacks the substance to express what I feel.
The yellow house on Cherry Alley is gone
So is the house that stood next to it
And the houses that were in front and behind it . . .
The rusty black mill stands quiet
Against a blue sky.
First Hand is a weekly column written by people in the arts.