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Pop Star: Robert Qualters

Let’s start with Braddock Maple Street, a typical Robert Qualters painting, average folks serving as silent witnesses to change. A Qualters scene is always populated, especially here in the Mon Valley, where the impact was most deeply, most desperately felt. “The theme,” Qualters says, “is the transition in places, in people.”

Not so long ago there was plenty of that hereabouts, which Qualters scrupulously documented on canvas, poster, and print. Auteur of the here and now, his oeuvre, collected as Monongahela Valley: A Time of Change, 1980-2000, is on display April and May at the Rivers of Steel Visitors Center, the Bost Building, East 8th Avenue and Heisel Street, Homestead.

A collection of 30 works, ranging in size from petit to gros, hand-holdable to six-by-eight feet, the Qualters pieces include 10 studies from 21 images he placed on Homestead light poles; his Homestead, homage to the departed Mesta machine works; and his award-winning Hazelwood Second Avenue, a Rembrandtesque view of a rainy night in front of the J&L mill, one bright spot erasing the night. “There’s a kind of,” Qualters begins, then lets the thought hang. “I grew up here,” he gestures of his McKeesport boyhood.

Beyond the economic catastrophe, the loss of 100,000 manufacturing jobs, Qualters illuminates the lives of the people who survived. Those who will not merely endure, as William Faulkner said in another context, but will prevail.

Prevail they do, in Qualters country, crowded, charming scenes recalling Brueghel. Elevating the familiar and folksy into art, examining our shared experiences, even as the Valley’s economy evaporates there’s a sense of play about these paintings, an oddly optimistic view, the bright colors ameliorating the pathos. In Kiddieland, for example, one of three Kennywood views, light mingles with dark, the power of the mills standing behind childhood innocence and abandon.

Living in Squirrel Hill, Qualters works in Homestead’s Creative Signs factory, in a large room with unfinished paintings on wall. Having studied art at Carnegie Tech, Qualters took a hitch in the army, then split for California before returning home. Once upon a time he showed in New York and San Francisco, but for decades now he’s preferred to be here – at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Concept Art and other galleries in the city, happy to be in a place where the waitresses call him “Hon” and the autumn leaves keep gently falling, if only in his heart.

Holding up Changing Shifts, Qualters talks about mill workers heading for taverns, heading for home. “That’s all gone now,” he says. “The mood has gone, too, from anger to acceptance.  They’ve moved on.”

As has Qualters. He’s got a wholly different Shadyside show this fall, then a Lawrenceville offering next spring. The latter, a series of autobiographical paintings, shows Qualters’ development from boyhood dreamer into Pittsburgh’s grand master, including a nude self-portrait, his first in decades. “There’s a dance or two in the old dame yet,” he says, then laughs.
Abby Mendelson’s latest book, Ghost Dancer, a collection of short stories, is available at amazon and bn.com.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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