16 January 2016

Challenge Pittsburgh by Harold R. Shuler

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We found this mural quite by accident. We were looking for a completely different mural and were surprised when we stumbled on this one underneath the Steel Building. It’s in a pedestrian tunnel that runs from the USX Building to the Steel Plaza T–Station. Yes, you can bike to it. Sort of. Bikes can be taken on the T. You just need to walk them through the tunnel. Unfortunately we only saw escalators from the T station to the mural location, so you may want to lock your bike up and walk down. The bike–on–an–escalator thing is a bit tricky and I couldn’t recommend it with a clear conscience.

Harold Shuler worked for US Steel Corporation. He started out with them as a structural draftsman in 1956. In 1985 he created this mural about steel – showing raw materials, manufacturing processes, and uses of steel. This series of photos shows some of the detail working from left to right:

Update Nov 2013
We received information regarding Mr Shuler and his artwork by someone that once knew him very well:

"...As a matter of interest, American Bridge (US Steel) never paid Harold Shuler for this work of art. He was paid his usual salary as a draftsman at the company and was paid nothing for the many overtime hours that he spent in the walkway. Harold studied at Chicago Academy of Art during the time he worked for American Bridge. He also painted many original works of art for some of the buildings that US Steel constructed -- notably some of the Florida structures."
"Also, when Picasso gave the City of Chicago the sculpture of the woman which now stands in front of the Richard J. Daley Center in downtown Chicago, it was Harold Shuler who did the drawings from Picasso's model (about 18" in height) from which the sculpture was cast to its current height. Picasso approved his work without revision. Once again, he was not recognized for his work. When the sculpture was dedicated, Harold Shuler was among the crowd present, but he was unrecognized. It was Picasso who saw him behind the ropes, greeted him, and brought him to the reviewing stand where he sat with the other dignitaries."

Head by Pablo Picasso, Daley Plaza, Chicago.

We discovered that there is a puzzle of this mural available, and inside the box is an explanation of how this mural came to be. It was written by the artist and rather than try to offer you bits and pieces, we’ve copied it verbatim here:

"How long did it take?" that's the question I'm most asked. The typical artist's answer is, "about 30 years." But, in my case it is very close to the truth. As an employee of U.S.Steel, a series of events began in 1956, bringing me to the right place at the right time and the "Pittsburgh Challenge" mural.

In February of 1984 Mr. Joseph Mikalik, Project Manager of the Subway Tunnel Construction called me at home where I was recuperating from a back operation, and asked me if I'd be interested in designing a mural with a steel making theme that would be 10' high and 100' long. Being stuck at home with nothing better to do, I did it. The thought of actually doing a job of that magnitude is an artist's dream.

By the time I returned to work, the design had been shown to all the "Yay Sayers" and "Nay Sayers" and was approved.

I was given the final architectural drawing which accommodated a mural 10' x 92'.

The next step was to make a detailed drawing of the mural design which I transferred to 4' x 10' strips of butcher paper with an opaque projector and magic marker. It took 21 of these patterns. The lines were perforated on the patterns with a sign painter's pounce wheel, the backs of the patterns were sanded so that the perforations wouldn't close up, the patterns were then rolled and stored away until the tunnel was finished and I could start painting. This was in April of 1984.

In the meantime, different types of paint were evaluated. Artist oils were disregarded due to the cost and durability considerations, and I had some personal misgivings about acrylics. I finally settled on a synthetic enamel used for outdoor signs manufactured by Ronan. It had a tested durability as well as a range of colors often found in a basic artist's pallet and the price was right.

There was also the problems of finding qualified help in doing this job. I found a young man named Scott Vradelis who was studying for his Masters in Fine Art at Carnegie Mellon University. He is an Abstract Expressionist, which is contrary to the means of self expression I had chose for myself. One thing he did in his art that I liked, nay, what I needed, he painted "BIG". He related mentally to "BIG". He was going to be my "Mr. BIG". I also had the help of a "Ms. BIG" for a three week period when my artist daughter, Susan Koenig, visited me from San Antonio, Texas.

In April of 1985, almost a year from the date the patterns went into storage, Scott and I made our first visit to the nearly complete tunnel in which our surface awaited us. When we saw it for the first time, we got the feeling of having our mouths full of that unchewable bite. There, before us was this huge virginal surface, rows of light above reflecting from almost white terrazzo below, curving off into infinity like Burt Lancaster's smile.

The time had come for us to put on our I know what I'm doing faces and set to work putting the patterns on the wall. As we reached the end of the patterns, we discovered that someone had decided to add another 4' to the length of the wall. With a little judicious spreading we managed to compensate for this change. The patterns were pounced with blue chalk and removed from the wall, the blue dots were followed with brown paint creating a map to work by.

This was one of those moments of truth. Enlarging the scale from inches to feet can be a devastating test of a designs ability to hold together. Fortunately our map was faithful to what was intended. The simple shapes and symbols held their own. The map read, it flowed. It was exciting to see all the elements working.

From the beginning, an effort was made to avoid creating a "How To Make Steel" mural. If someone wished to know "How To", they could go to the library.

At this point I felt satisfied that the designated task had been accomplished --- to create a steel making theme. This was expected. From now on it was my responsibility as an artist to concentrate on creating a painting, hopefully a work of art.

Since the mural was going to be at eye level in a 12' by 110' curved tunnel, and a viewer could get close enough to touch it with their nose, every inch of the painted surface had to be given as much attention as the whole.

To accomplish this, a unique method of applying the paint was needed to provide an interesting and vital surface. The crisp and pure colors achieved by painting with a pallet knife would work, but the paint chosen didn't have the viscosity to hold heavy applications in place on a vertical wall. It was discovered, while fooling around with a strip of cardboard, that interesting edges could be achieved by layering the paint with the flat side of the cardboard, much like feathering. Compliments could be played against each other. This process also provided me with the control required to sustain continuity of treatment throughout the mural. The excitement over this discovery prompted me to get together with a friend, who is a professor of French, for the purpose of coming up with a classical name for the process. The result was "Pienture a la Plume-Carton". Pretty snazzy if i do say so.

When the thumbnail drawing for this mural was designed, a progression of marks, elements and symbols were put together saying what I wanted. As their size increased from three inches to then feet, they seemed to take on voices of their own which gave them a broader more significant meaning.

Maybe a hundred years ago we looked at our world with a macro perspective, a hand full of dirt, much like the symbols of the element that go into steel making represented at the right of the mural. We viewed the rest of the universe with a micro perspective, distant, unfathomable, even mystical. The situation is almost reversed today, as is represented by the globe at the left of the mural.

Today we look at the universe with a microscope. We even have proofs as to its origin. Our own world is only a small speck of matter in this infinite universe. The more we know about it, the more distant, unfathomable and mystical it becomes.

Though offering little in the way of imagination, the ore boat, barges, railroad and truck do show the basic methods of getting raw steel making materials from their origin to their first step in the process. Looking at the truck, I must admit it seems to have been manufactured by Tonka rather than Ford, Chevrolet or Dodge But, I won't tell anyone if you don't.

The graphic line that weaves its way through most of the mural represents steel in process. It begins at the top of the blast furnace, drops down and out the bottom, then up and into the basic oxygen and electric furnaces, then down into a ladle, into an arch which turns into the continuous casting process, through a symbolic shaping phase, then up into a group of finished steel shapes, where it ends. The flow is picked up by the oil coming out of the ancient oil rig, past the vertical structural beam into the background sky where it comes to an end among a cluster of arches representing the universe or the future.

The blast furnace is the steel industries most recognizable symbol, not only because of its visibility, but because it is the most basic phase in the production of steel. For generations, in areas like the Mon-Valley, these monolithic structures towered over small and large steel towns like great monarchs. Monarchs they were, for the only reasons these towns and the people in them existed was to serve, even to death, the voracious appetites of this industrial royalty. An effort was made to capture this feeling in the rendition of the blast furnace standing over a typical smoke stack steel town with kingly pride, lights gleaming like jewels in its crown. History has shown that this king's subjects were not about to give their lives and their loyalties without reward and respect. The battles that were waged to establish equity were sometimes bloodily memorable. Amidst the "to and fro" equity was achieved and rewards shared to a measure seen nowhere else in the world.

The basic oxygen furnace, electric furnace and continuous casting process represent the technological advancements made during these productive years.

To me, the casting process is the most significant step in steel production. It is the culmination of all the previous efforts. Steel becomes a workable entity which can be rolled, moulded and pounded into functional shapes. That's why the casting phase is the focal point, the center of the mural.

As these shapes ascent toward the viewer, they are suddenly cut off in cross section. This represents the end of the steel processing segment of the mural and the end of the steel industry in this country as we have known it. We will probably never see the likes of it again.

The oil rigs are not only representative of what is happening with the Steel Industry specifically, but what is happening within most of Americas basic industries in todays economy. It's a period of re-evaluation -- base broadening through diversification, the creation of holding companies, and a greater involvement in energy and communication, etc. The oil rig is there to say that this is a merger of partners. Oil isn't something someone just grabs up as an aside. It's a powerful and influential industry with a history all it's own. But, that's another story.

The fact that the blowing oil rig created a dynamic graphic which continued the design flow didn't escape this artist either.

The structural steel assembly is a climactic point in the mural. The use of steel in architecture and transportation changed the world as well as man's perception of it. The vertical column serves as a symbol of the breach which presently exists between many large basic industrial corporations and the people who make up their bodies and souls. The only figure in the mural stands on the cross beam representing these people and the silhouetted city Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in this case, could be any community which is affected by the changes which have and are continuing to take place. This figure is shown as being quiet and contemplative, a person who knows his situation can't be resolved through anger, but through thoughtfulness and commitment.

The cross beam on which the figure is standing is linked to the bridge to the future. It is in place but not yet welded. The welding of this joint symbolizes the healing that must take place before anyone can cross that bridge to the future.

How do we know it's a bridge to the future? Well, I reached back into my memory for that thing that was, and still is a symbol of the future and progress. The red planet Mars. Buck Rodgers lives.

An artist never knows when an element which is placed in a painting for authentic reasons, or as just one of a number of related objects, might become one of its most significant statements. I'm talking about the space shuttle, which could very well be the Challenger. The name itself brings a more emphatic meaning to the mural, since the mural was completed and named months before the loss of the space ship and its crew. It tells us that such events must be used as opportunities to take a good look at ourselves, evaluate our pasts and adjust our priorities. We must try again. As unfair as it may seem, history proves that no matter how smart we may think we are, experience seems to insist on being the best teacher.

As I neared the end of the project and the deadline for completion grew closer, the mural seemed to take on a mind of its own. When shortcuts were tried or questionable areas ignored, I would hear the painting say something like, "You don't really think I'm going to let you get away with that, do you?" It seemed to keep calling me back until the job was completed, to its own satisfaction. Then it said, "Well, I'm finished, you can pack up your junk and go wherever you go." So, about four months after the first mark was made, I packed up my junk and went.

Harold R. Shuler

We were told that Mr Shuler was living and painting in the Denver area these days but in 2015 we heard from his daughter:

I am Harold's youngest daughter. A friend of mine is traveling to Pittsburgh, so I told her to look up the mural, if it was still there, that is. It was such a lovely surprise to see such a comprehensive article on him and his work. Sadly, he is no longer able to paint, but he is deeply proud of his work on this piece, especially the fact that he got to collaborate with my sister for the first time. Thank you for the article. Regards, Megan Shuler

We were sorry to hear that Mr Shuler is not still creating such wonderful art. The good news is that this piece is indoors and protected from the elements. Hopefully it will remain with us for a very long time.

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