Who designed the sculpture of the three flying birds in the entrance of the former Alcoa Building Downtown? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Who designed the sculpture of the three flying birds in the entrance of the former Alcoa Building Downtown?

Question submitted by: Mary Smith



There is a tiny wall plaque identifying the artist who created this work, but I don't blame you for missing it. This sculpture -- indeed, all human endeavor since the dawn of recorded history -- has been dwarfed by the greatness of Xplorion, which occupies a street-level display a few windows over in the same building. You know, Xplorion: that gigantic multi-TV-screen monument to the power of Pittsburgh ... and to the eternal lure of civic boosterism.



As the presence of Xplorion suggests, today the building houses many of the agencies charged with revitalizing the region. Known as the Regional Enterprise Tower, the structure provides offices for nonprofits, civic boosters, and other regional movers and shakers. Yet the flying bird sculpture remains in the building's glassed-in entrance, and rightfully so. For while Pittsburgh is not exactly known for letting women in on some decisions, this sculpture proves that a woman can get in through the front door here (if not much further). And a hometown woman at that: sculptor Mary Callery.


Titled "Three Birds in Flight," the sculpture is original to the building, which originally served as the headquarters of the Aluminum Company of America: Both were unveiled in 1953. The sculpture is 14 feet long by 12 feet wide and fabricated from -- wait for it -- aluminum. About 700 pounds of it, in fact. (Which means that right now, half of City Paper's readership is starting to figure out how they can cut it down, cram it into a shopping cart and cash it in at the recycling depot.) The front of the Alcoa building is fashioned from aluminum as well, but the sculpture is well suited to its space for another reason. As Vernon Gay and Marilyn Evert's book Discovering Pittsburgh Sculpture notes, the birds "enhance the clean lines of the ... architecture and complement the strict geometry of their glass cage."


And if those birds happen to be flying right into a glass window, well that's at least realistic too.


Indeed, in better days, the "cage" looked a bit like a habitat at the National Aviary, with a tree installed and everything. Lately, though, it looks a little scrubbly. The last time I was there, a couple folding tables were pushed against the wall, and the ceiling above the birds needed a paint job. (On the bright side, on one of the tables was a copy of City Paper, the liner of choice for discerning birdcages everywhere.)


What can we say about the artist herself? According to her biography in Pittsburgh Sculpture, Callery was born in New York City in 1903, and died there in 1977. But she grew up here and began sculpting at age 12. Her father, James Callery, was the president of now-defunct Diamond Bank and a former chairman of the Pittsburgh Railways Company, which provided trolley service to the city when it wasn't filing for bankruptcy. Like many artists, Callery studied at the Art Students League in the 1920s before heading out to Paris. There she became a confidante of famed modernists like Fernand Léger -- with whom she collaborated -- and Pablo Picasso. "He was always so generous to aspiring artists," Callery is quoted as saying in Pittsburgh Sculpture. (Aspiring female artists especially, judging by his reputation.)


But Callery was a successful artist in her own right. Her sculptures were accessible, especially by the standards of 20th-century art -- abstracted but usually still recognizable. A 1947 Callery work called "Amity," for example, is housed in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It's a work featuring five abstractly rendered human figures holding hands. Less recognizable is a sculpture hanging above the stage at New York's Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center; an untitled work that the Opera calls an "ensemble of bronze forms creating a bouquet of sculptured arabesques." So you know that must be good.


If you want to see a Callery closer to home, you can find works in the permanent collection of Youngstown's Butler Institute of American Art and the Toledo Museum in Toledo, Ohio. Callery's sculpture, then, is one of the many reasons that every serious tour of American culture includes stops in New York, Washington and Toledo. And of course, Downtown Pittsburgh, home of Xplorion, the flower of all creative endeavor!