Arts: Scrap thieves may have damaged sculpture project 

It's certainly no secret that times are tough these days. So tough, in fact, that even artists are getting robbed.

For roughly a decade, artists from the Pittsburgh-based Industrial Arts Co-op (IAC) have been using steel from defunct local mills to sculpt a large sculpture paying homage to the industry. But on Oct. 24, artists noticed that nearly a ton of steel had been stolen from their workspace in Hazelwood.

"It's super disappointing," says Eric Lipsky, an engineer and manufacturing artisan for the project. "It's a huge setback."

More than a dozen artists have been working on the sculpture, which was originally commissioned and funded by the city in 1998. When completed, the project will include a 10-by-8-foot ladle, which will serve as the centerpiece of the sculpture, and a group of 18-foot-tall steelworkers positioned around it, meant to represent the fusion of labor and industry.

Such projects are nothing new for the IAC, which has created similar oversized sculptures throughout the region. In 1994, for example, IAC artists sculpted a 60-foot-long owl at the Carrie Furnace in Rankin, as well as a 35-foot-long caterpillar in the abandoned Geneva Iron Works site, in Youngstown, Ohio.

According to sculptor Tim Kaulen, the stolen metal -- donated to the IAC by the South Side's former Jones & Laughlin steel mill in the 1990s, after it was demolished -- was most likely sold to a scrap yard shortly after the theft. (Kaulen declined to disclose the exact location of the site where the scraps were stolen, fearing more thefts.)

But Richard Palmieri, plant manager of Three Rivers Scrap Metal, Inc., says the thieves probably wouldn't get much for the load. Because of the economic downturn, the current going rate for a ton of scrap metal is just $50. "You can't sell the stuff, so you're obviously not going to pay as much [for it]," Palmieri says.

By contrast, Palmieri estimates this year's average rate for a ton of scrap metal had been about $200.

But while the steel might not be worth much on the market, it means a lot to the IAC's project. That's why Kaulen and his team are willing to fork over $1,000 for the stolen scraps. But even though Kaulen says he's "really mad" about the theft, he has no intention to prosecute the people who stole the materials. He just wants the scraps back.

Kaulen says the stolen materials -- measuring 2-by-3 feet and approximately 1 ½-inches thick -- are very shapely, ideal for use as accents to the sculpture's steelworker figures. The stolen pieces were intended to serve as the armor (gloves, face shields, shin guards) of the steelworkers. Currently, the steelworkers are skeletal constructions made mostly of girders.

"Those [stolen] pieces were meant to decorate what's pretty much an architectural shape," Kaulen says. "They were supposed to add a layer of treatment and finish."

Plus, the scraps' origins in J&L's once-mighty Pittsburgh Works imbued the material with a deeper meaning.

"The historical context of that material helps tell the story [of the steel industry]," Kaulen says. "You can't go to the scrap yard and pick out the same stuff."

"The whole idea was to use specific materials from a specific location," agrees Lipsky. "And that's lost."

Kaulen says he's contacted more than a dozen scrap yards throughout the region, hoping one of them will report the stolen materials.

"I consider it to be long lost at this point, but I can't help trying to get it back," Kaulen says.

The project was supposed to be finished by the end of this year, to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Pittsburgh's name. But because of the theft and other setbacks the artists have endured, meeting that deadline is highly unlikely. Instead, Kaulen says, he hopes to finish the sculpture by next spring.

So far, Kaulen says, the city has yet to determine exactly where the sculpture will be displayed. Since the project's inception, three sites near the banks of the Monongahela River have been proposed: SouthSide Works, Second Avenue and South Side Riverfront Park.

And even if the IAC doesn't get its scrap metal back, Kaulen assures that the sculpture will still be finished, "and it's going to be as good as it was [initially] designed."

In fact, while Kaulen calls the theft "hurtful," he adds that in an ironic way, it's "a good commentary" on the industry his team of artists is trying to honor.

The project "has a bitter end," Kaulen says -- "much like the decline of the steel industry."


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