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New Girl in Town: Under-the-Radar Cultural Gems

With the city of Carnegie, Heinz and Mellon boasting so many cultural temples, you'd have to be pretty cynical to say "been there, done that" about our winning arts scene.  That said, it's refreshing to find something new and unexpected.  Even better, think how cool you'll seem once you let your friends in on these under-the-radar cultural gems.

At the Carnegie Museum of Art, a pitch-black hallway leads to "Migration," a video piece created by Doug Aitken for the 2008 Carnegie International and originally projected on the museum's facade.  In his roughly 35-minute film, the artist places a series of animals in nondescript hotel rooms and waits for the fur to fly.  A horse fidgets ever so slightly as he watches a stampede on TV while a lion plays bad-boy rock star, trashing his room.  The beaver taking a bath is a joyous moment for both viewer and subject.  Filmed partly in Pittsburgh and accompanied by a haunting musical score, "Migration" is easily one of the best and most memorable works in town.  Across the way at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, visitors to the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems will be richly rewarded for walking all the way to the back.  There, they'll find "Time Machines: Watches from the H.J. Heinz Collection," a stunning collection of timepieces donated to the museum by the ketchup magnate in 1917.  Comprised of rather large pocket watches, the collection is devoid of guilt and loaded with gilt.  A Viennese oval in an enameled case features Venus disarming Cupid; another watch depicts a woman caressing a grapevine set with diamonds.  Sweeter than sauce is the palm-sized musical box topped by a feathered, singing bird (it tells time, too).

Perched in identical corners on the third and fourth floors of the Heinz History Center are a pair of white Adirondack rockers.  Steps away from the floor-to-ceiling plate glass window, they take in a view of the Allegheny River and the hills beyond.  Sit in one of the rockers and it won't be long before the sun warms your face and you hear the faint echoes of great Pittsburgh sports moments wafting over from the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.  Admire the trestle bridge and the convention center at your feet while a train rumbles by in the distance.  If this soothing, swaying, contemplative moment won't make you appreciate Pittsburgh, nothing will.  Also hiding in plain sight is Manfred Honeck, the musical director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  Why is he under the radar? Underneath the tuxedo is a man who epitomizes the common touch and everyman sensibility of a true Pittsburgher far more than the lofty conductors of yore.  This father of six is a devout Catholic who attends mass daily and while he lives in the mountains outside of Vienna, he brings his family to Pittsburgh every chance he gets.  The kids have gotten into sports, of course, and root lustily for the Pirates, even including the Buccos in their nightly prayers. The love affair cuts both ways, with orchestra members shouting "bravissimo!" when Honeck recently signed an extension through the 2015 season.

Ask Charlie Humphrey, the Executive Director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, what excites him and it's 404 Strand, an experimental theatre troupe helmed by ex-pat Dan Jemett.  The international cast of characters met on a Quantum Theatre production of "Billy the Kidd" and worked so well together, they decided to continue their collaboration by staging productions locally with an eye to touring them nationally and internationally.  Their first work, "faustUS," is a retelling of the Dr. Faustus tale in which the protagonist sells his soul to the devil for knowledge and power.  "An installation with performers in it," according to writer/director Jemett, faustUS is intensely powerful, aided by the fact that the audience sits on stage mere steps from the enraged doctor(s).  Humphrey is also a fan of Encyclopedia Destructica, a community-wide collaboration with book-binding as its glue.  Looking to make art less intimidating, founders Jazdeep Khaira and Christopher Kardambikis host free, weekly drop-in book-binding parties at their Lawrenceville studio where they turn out one-of-a-kind zines that are equal parts art, sketchbook and journal.  These hand-crafted showpieces are then placed in bookstores and cafes and sold at community events.  No need to fear the group's name it's a Bart Simpson quote.

Tom Sokolowski, Director of the Warhol, is drawn to the murals at the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, a century-old parish that provided comfort to the over 50,000 Croatians who had settled in Pittsburgh by the turn of the 20th century.  The church commissioned native son Maxo Vanka to paint the murals in 1937 and the artist, an agnostic, vigorously took on dueling themes of old vs. new country alongside the horrors of war and the plight of the working man.  In "Croatian Immigrant Mother Raises Her Son For Industry," a mother agonizes over the loss of her son in a mining accident.  A parallel piece, "The Croatian Mother Raises Her Son For War," is a gut-wrenching portrayal of a mother who has lost her son to war.  To look at the face of this mother is to know the genius of the artist and the passion that drove him and kindred spirits such as Diego Rivera. 

The mood is equally reflective for the Carnegie Museums' Kitty Julian at the Allegheny Cemetery, a 300-acre park-like setting where she "loves seeing how people memorialize the people they love."  Amid leafy trees and serene lakes filled with Canadian geese, lovers stroll and mourners grieve, all held in the firm embrace of centuries-old monuments that are works of art themselves.  On the National Register of Historic Places, the cemetery is best experienced via the Butler Street gates, a series of low towers worth of Henry VIII.  From there, stroll up, down and around rolling hills where angels weep and deer, wild turkeys and nesting blue herons are part of the living mosaic engaged by youngsters, bird watchers and the occasional drawing class.  A visit on a crisp fall day is guaranteed to leave you feeling lucky to be alive.  Now, isn't that what art is all about?

What are YOUR favorite undiscovered cultural gems?  We'd love to hear.  Email Pop City here and we'll feature the best of the best in a future column.

Captions: Manfred Honeck; Douglas Aitken's Migration; Heinz time pieces; 404 Strand; St. Nicholas murals; Allegheny Cemetery.

404 Stand courtesy 404 Strand.
All other photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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