Transmutation of History and Experience
By: Amy Maurine Edwards | Photos By: Ivette Spradlin
The resilient remnants of the Carrie Furnaces reach for the sky above Swissvale; the zenith of the blast furnaces jut above all else, visible from the entire surrounding valley. The post-industrial fortress’ 135 acres are penned in on three sides by railroad tracks and by the Monongahela River to the south. Constructed in 1884 and in operation for just under a century, until 1982, the site was producing 1,000 to 1,250 tons of iron per day during its apogee. Today, only blast rurnaces six and seven remain. The Rivers of Steel Corporation manages the site, the only existent pre-World War II iron making facility.
In 2016, Rivers of Steel Arts was created to support artistic projects that further the interpretation of local history and re-imagine the future of familiar places. Co-founded by current RoSA Director Chris McGinnis, local artist Sean Derry, and Director of Historic Resources and Facilities, Ron Baraff, the program unites and expands upon the range of independent art initiatives designed for the Carrie Furnaces in order to better serve the mission of Rivers of Steel and bring this mission to the public. Their website states their goal is to, “through a range of exhibitions, performances and educational experiences, RoSA promotes novel partnerships to enhance the lives of community members, build local pride and attract renewed public interest in Pittsburgh’s Monongahela River Valley.”
“RoSA owes a great deal to the creative pioneers who over the past twenty-five years found inspiration in our region’s industrial remains at a moment when most people only saw detritus and failure. RoSA’s dynamic programming is at once a tribute to the progressive vision that Rivers of Steel has for the Carrie Furnaces and a testament to the value of creative expression and collective spirit represented in these historic places. I feel both excited and honored to work with such passionate and talented artists helping to reshape the future of RoSA and the community through our public programs,” said RoSA Director, Chris McGinnis.
RoSA program departments are: Photo Arts (photography), Urban Arts (aerosol and graffiti), Metal Arts (iron and aluminum casting), Eco Arts (native plants and the surrounding environs), Heritage Arts (folk arts and traditions), and Alloy Pittsburgh (a temporary site-based program offered every two years for regional contemporary artists). I sat down with Ron Baraff, who is old-school ROS, as well as some of the new program coordinators, and got caught up on some of their new program offerings.
Ron Baraff, Director of Historic Resources & Facilities, Rivers of Steel
How long have you been involved with Rivers of Steel & the Carrie Furnace site?
I have been with Rivers of Steel since 1998. My introduction to the [Carrie Furnace] site was in late 1998 as I hoped to work on the National Historic Landmarks nomination and preservation of the site. I have been the lead or heavily involved in most aspects of preservation, tourism, programming (education, arts, etc), restoration, and events there. We began public tours of the site in 2005, though our efforts really began in earnest in 2010 when we obtained title to the site.
What is the historical significance of this site, and why is its preservation important to you and to the area as a whole?
The Carrie Furnaces National Historic Landmark site stands as a reminder of the region’s industrial past and the legacy and culture of big steel. It reflects not just who we were as a region, but also who we are as a people. It’s a place where we can celebrate the industrial and the post-industrial legacies of this region that strikes to the heart of the spirit of Pittsburgh, past, present, and future. What was created there helped to build America’s 20th century. It is the birthplace of the middle class and a legacy that mustn’t be forgotten. It is a narrative and story that strikes a chord not just locally, but nationally and internationally.
The Carrie Furnaces resonate on many different levels. We talk about the region’s rich history and its impact; we discuss how the legacy of what was created there changed the world. We explore how sites such as these change and evolve through the years – what happens when the work goes away and it’s rediscovered and reinvented on an aesthetic level rather than occupational. The site serves as an inspiration not just because of its past, but also for the present and future. What is happening there now with the diversity of programming and events is the bringing of new people and ideas into the narrative. It is invigorating and getting them excited to create a climate in which new change can take place, all of which can have a very positive and wide reaching impact, not just on the historic site, but also on the surrounding communities, the region and beyond. The Furnaces meant prosperity in the past and it can mean so again in the future. We are not constrained by a box. We are thankfully able to get outside of it and create new and innovative ways of interacting with one another. These are just a few of the many reasons why the site matters and matters so much.
What is it like watching the inception of RoSA? What do you most look forward to from the new program?
Virtually all of the arts programming at the site existed prior to the formalization of the program under the RoSA banner. Beginning with embracing the Carrie Deer, [a hallmark metal sculpture of a deer synonymous with the Carrie Furnaces transition from functioning blast furnaces to a hub for wayward artists and eventually an organized creative space] we understood that the post-industrial interactions were meaningful. Early on we began to explore programming through the metal arts, photo arts, eco arts, and urban art programs, all of which pre-date RoSA by a number of years. As an example, Shane [Urban Arts Coordinator] and I began the Urban Arts program a number of years ago as a way to stabilize the activity at the site as well as foster a relationship with graffiti writers. We recognized the importance of the interactions that took place at the site between closure/sale by USS (1988) and our increased presence on site (2010). The question for all of the arts programming was how do we change the culture of the site and explore new ways to tell the story. What was (and is) important is that there are many different ways to love and appreciate the site. There are many, many different stories to tell, but how do we do so? I often tell people that it is not our place as an organization to devalue someone’s experience. Whatever the reason that brought them to this place, that caused them to be inspired or fall in love with it, is important and needs to be explored and embraced. The programming through the arts allows us to do this, to stretch the limits of what we know and to explore new ways to see the site; to re-envision the past and the present, and move forward into the future.
Ed Parrish Jr.
Metal Arts Coordinator, RoSA
How did you come to be the Metal Arts Coordinator at RoSA and what is your past experience with the Metal Arts?
I studied sculpture at East Carolina University where I became hooked on iron casting. After college, I moved to Pittsburgh where I worked and ran my own metal fabrication shops where I continued to explore the metal casting process. I started working with Ron Baraff at Rivers Of Steel in 2007 and we cast iron at the pump house as a part of Hot Metal Happening — an iron casting demonstration and performance series. I continued working with Carrie Furnace over the years to preserve the iron casting offerings on-site and then stepped in to develop their Metal Arts program at The Foundry.
It definitely directly influences my aesthetic and approach to cast iron. For me, going to pour at Carrie Furnace is like going to church. Being able to work in a place where iron casting has been done on such a huge industrial scale and getting to continue that work in a more creative process and share that with people is transcendental. We create a place where other artists can come and commune. That aspect is actually more influential to me than the direct aesthetics of the site.
Do you feel that metal pours and workshops can connect those in the present to the past significance of the Carrie Furnace?
Most certainly. The metal pours allow people to encounter a process that most anyone from this region (or those who come through this region) feel a significant connection to but have never actually seen or experienced. It is important for them to see and feel the process – the smell, the heat, but on a smaller scale. It gives them a first-hand experience of the process that they have only ever heard of. This industrial process historically provided people with work. Now, it is more like a living thing that people can explore creatively.
Iron casting workshops are listed on the RoSA website. What can the public expect when attending a pour, and are they for all skill levels?
Yes, they are for all skill levels, from no experience to advanced. They can expect to create an object, of their own design through the creation of a sand mold, a casting made from a unique or original object and then walk away with a physical reproduction/representation of that object transformed into iron. They can also expect to experience working as a part of a team of artists and craftspeople. By working together, they will create their own work as well as help in the creation of other people’s work. It is a very community-oriented activity. Expect to sweat, get your hands dirty, and to work hard. Expect to experience some level of magic and alchemy that is hard to find in these times.
Ivette Spradlin, Photo Arts Coordinator, RoSA
How did you come to be involved with the Photo Arts programming at Rivers of Steel Arts?
Silver Eye Center for Photography first hired me to lead their Photo Safaris at Carrie Furnace in 2011. Silver Eye ended up going through a transformation soon afterwards and a lot of their non-gallery programming ceased for a while. During that time, Rivers of Steel and I decided to continue the Photo Safaris since they were so popular. I have been leading the safaris ever since and, in the last few years, have been in conversation first with Rivers of Steel and later with Rivers of Steel Arts about how the site can provide different photographic opportunities.
Which elements, or subjects, do you like to focus on in your role as Photo Coordinator? How does this position augment, inspire, or inform your own original body of work?
As the lead artist / coordinator for the Photo Arts at RoSA my goal is to think about how the site provides a unique experience to create photographic images. Although right now we only do safaris at Carrie Furnaces, there is talk of doing some at the other heritage sites, like the W.A. Young and Sons Foundry and Machine Shop, or even a walk through Homestead. There are the safaris that allow for participants to roam freely at their own pace, and workshops to teach a specific photographic technique. I aim to create programming that fosters an opportunity for a diverse range of photographers. This is not only for the photographers who are drawn to photographing abandoned buildings or architecture. The Photo Arts programming is diverse; including workshops on tintypes, event photography, off camera flash, and astro-photography. Once our camera obscura is up and running, I will create programming around that, which will reach beyond the photographic to drawing and painting.
Working with Rivers of Steel has given me a chance to create a permanent camera obscura on site at Carrie Furnace. Creating a public camera obscura has been a personal dream for 15 years. The Carrie Camera is still a work in progress, we hope to open in 2018. I will forever be grateful for this opportunity. (More about the Carrie Camera below)
“Photo Safaris” and Workshops at the Furnace are advertised on the RoSA website. What can the public expect from one of these workshops? Are they open to all skill levels?
First and foremost, the safaris offer access with not much else happening on site at the scheduled time. Next, they allow for participants to be on site with a small group of other photographers. This gives participants a chance to be able to photograph without anyone else in their frame, but also feel the energy of other people photographing on site with you. Finally, there is a representative from Rivers of Steel to answer questions about the site, and I am there for any photo instruction or guidance. The safaris are open to all skill levels and all types of photographic equipment. The first half hour I walk the group around to show them the grounds, where they can and cannot go, and what to watch out for; the site is still in decay and can be dangerous in some parts. After the walk through, participants are set loose to explore within the parameters given. I continue to walk around checking in on people to see if they need help. These safaris are for the independent photographers, not for one who wants instruction. I am very happy to answer questions about cameras or lighting, but instruction to the group will not be given.
Shane Pilster, Urban Arts Coordinator, RoSA
Were you familiar with the Carrie Furnaces site prior to working with RoSA?
Absolutely. Pittsburgh’s post-industrial landscape used to house many abandoned mills, factories, warehouses, etc. all over the city. Most have been torn down, converted into some lofty apartments, or have evolved into something else, much like Carrie. Several friends of mine grew up in Swissvale, which looks right at the mill from the hillside, and have been going into the place for a couple decades doing everything from exploring, painting, having parties, or just whatever you do in an abandoned iron mill. NECSKE and REMIX first took me there in I believe 2007ish to paint pieces; there wasn’t enough space to all get on one wall so they painted inside the main structure and I painted a solo wall on a shed in the middle of the central yard. Wiz Khalifa or someone filmed a music video there and the production team buffed out their pieces but, because the side of the shed I painted didn’t have a lot of room to get photos or film equipment in there, it stayed for all these years and still exists at the site. I really only painted there a couple of times but had been back maybe ten times to explore and take photos throughout the years before eventually partnering with Rivers of Steel National Heritage Corporation (organization that is site manager / co-owner of the site). The place is amazing still to this day.
Who are some of the guest artists that you have brought in to paint and create on-site?
There have been several over the last four or so years; some were friends, or friends of friends, some were passing through town and got in touch with me, and others we brought out specifically to paint. In no particular order, here’s a few I recall: Remix, Necske, Soviet, Rams, MFOne, Seak, Prism, Mare139, Ridle, Kavis, Canoe, Court, Dever, Wheats, Gypsy, Cedar, Saren, Vick, Vamp, Chu, Trism, Red, Stoe, Rime, Toper, Trav, Begr, Kove, Skum, Rufie, Thor, Ivory, Kaffeine, Orion, Wes, Stef, Kif, Fars, Radeo, Roskoe, Like, Jaber, Aware, and I’m sure I’m forgetting several. There’s been a lot of people to come through to paint and many more in the future.
What are your dreams for outdoor/Urban Arts in the future, both for RoSA and public spaces in general?
Really, I enjoy painting with a can, painting with friends or meeting people that paint, and being able to create something larger than life whenever possible. With that has come many opportunities for commissioned projects throughout the city and abroad, teaching/programming/outreach for and in schools ranging from sixth graders to college-aged kids and adults, and being able to do what we love without the threat of the legal system crashing down on us. With Rivers of Steel/RoSA, and Ron Baraff (Rivers of Steel) we have created a curriculum that educates people on the history, culture, and style that really gives people a broader understanding to the art of using an aerosol can to create something amazing. I’ve partnered with other organizations in the city to grow the culture and education of the culture and creative outlets for artists; one of which is where the classroom concept began with Hip-Hop on L.O.C.K. (non-profit that works with youth to educate on the culture of hip-hop, the music industry, and giving people skills to advance in life). Another is a partnership we established with Steve Root of the Graffiti Watch in the Southside of Pittsburgh to form the Southside Community Mural Project, which is currently raising money to be able to compensate artists properly for creating murals in the Southside; hopefully some of which could use aerosol. We also partnered with the University of Pittsburgh to bring in artists from Chicago and Léon, Mexico to conduct workshops with youth and paint multiple murals in the city while they were in town. So I’d really like to expand on all of the above, partner with other national and international organizations doing similar programs and projects to bring together like-minded individuals to partner with and throw events in the future. Also to grow our client list for commissioned projects nationally and internationally so we can continue to do what we love on a creative and professional level.
Urban Arts workshops are listed on the RoSA website. What can attendees expect, and are they available for all skill levels?
At the Carrie Furnaces we’ve created the Urban Art Tours and Workshops. It also includes either demonstrations of painting or a crash course in lettering, can techniques, different caps, what paint to use, color theory, composition, creative uses for such skills and examples of them in practice. We use a hands-on approach with using a can so people can see for themselves the amount of skill it requires to create something with aerosol. On some occasions we allow people to paint walls at Carrie, others we have canvases that people can take home (some have been donated to us through our partnership with Artist & Craftsman Supply Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill). At the end of the day, people from sixth grade to seniors have walked away from our tours and workshops with a broader understanding of the culture and history behind the art form. And sometimes a souvenir like a canvas they created or one of the graffiti coloring books we have at Rivers of Steel Arts. You can check out some of the future tours and photos we have on the website: www.rosarts.org/programs/urban-arts.