“Steel City” is the phrase conjured in most people’s minds when thinking of Pittsburgh. However, “Glass City” is closer to the truth.
The Pittsburgh Glass Center represents a revival of the industry that originally monopolized the city’s factories, before the rise of the steel industry pushed it to near extinction. In the early 1900s, Pittsburgh flourished with glass artisans and factories. The Glass Center was created in 2002 by Kate Mulcahy and Ron Desmett, artists involved in Carnegie Mellon University’s glass art program who were moved to create a space for the craft after the University’s glass program was shut down. Mulcahy and Desmett purchased the building from the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, and in the years since, The Glass Center has worked to revitalize both the community and the art of glass work in the region through its multiple programs.
The Glass Center is an exciting space because it functions on many different levels, since it houses the Hodge Gallery, which features the work of a Resident Artist at the Center, the Resident Artist program itself, an apprenticeship program, and classes that are offered both to University students and to the public.
The Hodge Gallery currently houses resident artist Jon Moran’s show, entitled “American Idols”. Moran has created busts of all forty three U.S. presidents, sculpted from glass with facial features and hair carved in epoxy and painted. The busts are arrayed on white pedestals along a celebrity-esque red carpet, and at the very back of the exhibit, the American Idol TV show logo is hung on the wall, highlighting the role of the president as a celebrity as well as a politician. Rather than clothing them in period-appropriate attire, Moran has garbed them in modern clothing, ranging from a bedazzled uniform (Andrew Jackson) to sports jerseys, and displays their nicknames beneath the pedestals rather than their actual names. Though the technical skill of the artist is inherent in the busts, the exhibit functioned only on the level of a political caricature, poking fun at famous names. Though humorous, it left me wanting for some deeper message.
The accessibility of the Center creates a thrilling sense of opportunity: the gallery is free and the staff members are friendly and extremely informative, offering tours of the workshops and furnace rooms as well as an opportunity to watch master glass blowers at work. When walking through the building, I was entranced by the work being created right before my eyes, and immediately began wondering if I had enough room in my schedule to take a glass class myself.
That’s not to say that glass art is a skill easily picked up. My tour guide was quick to mention the scarcity of glass programs currently in universities, as well as the grueling amount of training (sometimes more than twenty years) required to become proficient in glass art. But it is the juxtaposition of these skilled masters and the rare nature of their craft with the accessibility offered by the Center itself that makes the site such a valuable resource.