Traffic Patterns | City Guide 2008: Local Routes | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Wood Street "T" station is a busy spot: Every day, light-rail commuters traverse the stairways past artwork they might not even notice, like Sol LeWitt's "Thirteen Geometric Figures," a set of wall hangings inside the station that essentially live up to their name.

But Kimberly Baker, who became the city's first full-time public art director, says she doesn't mind if people don't realize their commute brings them into daily contact with one of America's best-known conceptual artists.

"We just expect it to be part of the place," she says. Even if a piece doesn't stand out particularly, she adds, it can provide a more interesting aesthetic form to places that would otherwise be strictly functional. Even when overlooked, Baker says, art "adds value to a space."

But for those who see art as a destination in itself, rather than a signpost for getting somewhere else, Pittsburgh offers some unique works scattered about town.

Start just a few blocks from the Wood Street T station, on the otherwise easily over-looked stretch of Strawberry Way between Grant Street and William Penn Place. "V 24/7/365" is an installation you hear rather than see, created by Gerard Damiani and Jeremy Boyle in 2005. Powered by a solar panel atop the nearby AT&T building, the piece features a computer-generated interpretation of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. The music -- a series of chimes -- changes according to the weather conditions.

Around the corner, and out of earshot, is Mellon Square Park, itself an aesthetically pleasing green space. The park includes one of Downtown's more intriguing sculptures: Kenneth Snelson's "Forest Devil." Many of the city's abstract pieces are hulking structures; in contrast, Snelson's piece is light and airy, a series of stainless steel pipes suspended from cables. It was created in 1977 for the Three Rivers Arts Festival, which provided many of Pittsburgh's more notable sculptures today.

At Seventh Street and Penn Avenue sits Agnes R. Katz Plaza, where you can take a break and sit on a bench in the shape of a giant eyeball. The sleepy-looking eye sculptures dot the square. The centerpiece, a year-round waterfall fountain, is offset by a dense pack of linden trees; the plaza is a collaboration between artist Louise Bourgeois and landscape architect Daniel Urban Kiley.

Just across Seventh Street is Tony Tasset's "Magnolias for Pittsburgh," an installation of two bronze sculptures in the shape of magnolia trees, which are "planted" alongside real magnolias. The work is in a parklet managed by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which places a new installation here every several years. It's easy to miss that the magnolias are even sculpture at all, especially in early spring when the others are blooming.

A walk across the Roberto Clemente Bridge at this point will bring you to the North Side's Allegheny Landing Park. Developed in 1984, the landing is an early example of a public sculpture park, and includes everything from historically based representational sculpture ("The Builders") to the abstract ("The Forks") to the inscrutable (mosaics by Ned Smyth featuring sea creatures and naked laborers). Some of the work is in disrepair, but plans are in place to renovate the park.

No local art tour would be complete without a trip to Oakland, long a major cultural center -- and no tour would be complete without checking out "Pittsburgh" along the way. John Henry's sculpture, which lies in a roadside park along Bigelow Boulevard, is a sprawling set of linked yellow rectangles affectionately known as "the French fry thing." A product of the same 1977 arts festival as "Forest Devil," it's a landmark everyone knows without ever having to stop for.

Public art abounds around Oakland's college campuses; one of the more noticeable pieces at Carnegie Mellon is Jonathan Borofsky's "Walking to the Sky." Installed in 2006, the sculpture is 100 feet tall and features a line of people walking skyward on a tilted pole. The work occupies a space near the University Center, on Forbes Avenue.

Oakland also houses controversial sculpture as well. Giuseppi Moretti's Stephen Foster sculpture on Forbes Avenue, near the Carnegie Main Library, has been accused of perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes, thanks to the banjo-playing African American at Foster's feet. (On the other hand, local tradition holds that rubbing the bare toe of "Ned" gives you good luck.)

Newer sculptures have sought to resolve such tensions. Atop Mount Washington, on Grandview Avenue near Sweetbriar Street, James West's "Point of View" imagines George Washington negotiating with the Indian chief Guyasuta. The modern city of Pittsburgh is the backdrop for this 2006 bronze statue -- a powerful reminder of how history was set in motion by such early encounters between cultures.

In recent years, murals have sprung up all around the city: Among the earliest was "Bride of Penn Avenue," a mid-1990s mural on the 5400 block of Penn Avenue in Garfield. Created by the late Judy Penzer (who died in a 1996 airplane crash), the mural features a young African-American woman in bridal veil, scaling the steps of her home.

Behind many of the murals is The Sprout Fund, a nonprofit arts-funding organization, which has furnished more than 30 community murals in the past five years. Designed with community input, the murals could make up an entire tour of their own. Notables include Jordan Monahan's "Lend Me Your Ears" (Penn Avenue at Penn Circle West, East Liberty), Kevinn Fung's "Tuesday's Heroic Paragon" (Penn Avenue at Mathilda, Garfield) and Brian Holderman's "Yesterday's Tomorrow" (Liberty & Seventh avenues, Downtown).

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