Preserving Western Pennsylvania Through Art

Dan Helsel SAMA

Public art is not democratic. We all know the greatest art in major cities like New York or Los Angeles, but often we are stunned by the treasures found in regional museums. Old Jail Art Center, in Albany Texas, houses a collection ranging from Pre-Columbia to Paul Klee, in a town of less than 2,000. New Yorkers won’t have the same share of European masters per capita.

Rural Western Pennsylvania is not on the top destinations list of any culture map, but Westmoreland Museum of American Art, in Greensburg showcases both regional and national art with great depth. Driving toward west, there is the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, spanning four campuses from Ligonier in the west to Altoona in the east.

The Loretto campus, housed in Saint Francis University, is the largest of four. It is also where the permanent collection is. We visited the gallery about four years ago, but were disappointed to find out only a special Western art exhibition on view. This time, we visited the Downtown Altoona gallery. It was the last day of the current exhibition of Dan Helsel, a Davidville resident who started painting after retiring in 1995. Most of his still lifes are in the style of 17th Dutch paintings, with occasionally a heavier impasto that reminds me of Emil Carlsen.

The biggest finding was actually a permanent collection catalog. The woman at the desk generously gave us the only available copy at a discounted price. Thus we are able to grasp the breadth and the depth of the collection for the first time.

For a museum that has only less than 40 years history, it is amazing that it has now more than 4,000 objects in the collection. Unless deep-pocketed like Kimball, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary and its new Piano building, small museums often rely on the donations, which could change the direction of their focus.

The back of the catalog illustrates some important donations, that, to some degree, define what this collection is. The list includes modern American posters, Tibetan art, Art Deco Steuben glass, paperweights and surprisingly some silver from Charles M. Schwab, who once reigned Bethlehem Steel but died in Loretto spending borrowed money.

It kind of reminds me of the Old Jail Art Center. It has many objects in Chinese and Japanese decorative arts, from the collections of mothers of the two founders. Yet it is not deep enough to justify rotation or mount special exhibitions. Tibetan art is hot in the art market, but unless a museum has a depth like Rubin, a dozen or so objects alone won’t justify a department or a permanent showroom. What’s more, while Met or Art Institute of Chicago can offer curatorial care in every aspect of their encyclopedic collections, small museums count on a few individuals, whose domain of knowledge won’t stretch from a Woodstock poster to a Far East Buddha statue.

More importantly, if it is the local community that regional museums serve, their own interests should have a say. Flipping through the catalog, it can be sensed that while the Southern Allegheny Museum of Art won’t say no to any general donors whose collections merit its standard for aesthetics and collectability, it has, however, over the years, gradually honed its own focus toward national and particularly regional art.

Not surprisingly, Scalp Level School is well presented. That includes George Hetzel, the Wall family, A. F. King, and Martin Leisser.

While Scalp Level is actually a place near Johnstown, the school already has a home. Westmoreland Museum of American Art has a special large gallery reserved for Hetzel, Linford and their fellow friends. To some degree, there is no need to compete for the greatest depth in that direction after what Westmoreland has done.

However, I was amazed to see a reproduction photo of a watercolor painting by Barbara Strank Zivkovich, a Johnstown native.  Her hustle-bustle industrial scene has a dynamic rhythm that is so different from Aaron Gorson’s night scenes of steel mills. It’s rare that women artists chose industrial activities as their main subjects, but maybe that is part of charm and characteristics of mid-century regional art in western Pennsylvania.

Similarly, I was attracted by the works by Edwin Zoller, a Pittsburgh native who taught at Penn State and died in Tyrone, somewhere 20 miles from Altoona. His early works from the 30’s followed regionalism with a faithful depiction of architecture and weather (that special cloudy Pennsylvania sky).  Interestingly, I noticed that some works by Zoller came from Joseph Servello, an artist from Altoona. Sadly, his gallery next to the museum closed several years ago.

Not every regional artist chosen is representational. It is interesting to read the titles and guess the works by Willie Lee Atkyns, Jr, who moved to and died in Puzzletown (near Duncansville) in 1987. The only piece of artwork reproduced in the catalog shows a complex composition with layers of short slashes in varied thickness, orientations and colors, interrupted by dripped paint. The museum obtained nine works from his estate.

These are not the artists on the list of art investors or brokers. Yet their works connect rural Pennsylvania with national art scene, often through a reference to their indebted influence from European modernism, American regionalism or the New York school. It shows that while public art may not be democratic, individuals can blossom regardless their roots and locale.

To some, that downtown street scene of Wilkes-Barre by Zoller is just another regional-looking painting from the 30’s. (How many actually know where the town is?) But to the very few lucky ones, seeing the square as it was may go deep in the heart.

Luckily, I have one watercolor by Servello, a rendering of Altoona downtown back in the 50’s.  Like Zoller, Servello shows the city in its prime time with all the joviality. The city has declined since; the art persists.

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