Making a City's Memories Visible

Artist's interviews - and his interviewees' artwork - help form Pittsburgh drawing

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MOST people see a city, visit its sights, meander through its streets. Artist Doug Cooper tries to live it. Right now, he's wandering Pittsburgh's past through the memories of three women from the city's north side.

"Did you used to go in with your mother?" he asks Pauline Rudis. She's describing a hat store she remembers from childhood. Mr. Cooper listens intently, drawing all the while.

While Mrs. Rudis and Irene Scott prefer to tell Cooper their stories, Frances Laurina draws hers on rice paper. She lays out the streets and draws the important buildings. The result is something less than a Rembrandt. "I don't know how you are going to make it all out," she sighs.

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But Cooper does. After each session, he takes these childlike drawings and stories and pastes them onto his monumental collage mural of Pittsburgh. It's called "The Visible City." But it really is the invisible city, a repository of Pittsburgh stories.

Retirees remember an unusual day at the factory, or going for a drive on Saturday night. In one part of Cooper's collage, he has drawn a park bench where someone's uncle dressed as a woman to play a practical joke. (It took three dates before the "woman's" suitor discovered the ruse.) Mrs. Laurina draws a house where she often heard loud piano music. She learned much later that the music covered up the sounds of a tunnel the family was digging to free someone from prison.

Every Monday afternoon, Cooper meets a handful of Pittsburghers at Vintage, a nonprofit service center for seniors. Each group represents a section of the city. They gather for three or four Mondays, then Cooper gathers a new set of volunteers.

"There are things that are silly in it; things that are sentimental," Cooper says. If that's were all it was, "you would say it's trite. But if you include something with stories about this personal tragedy or that disaster, then it's really part of the whole picture, part of the whole city."

Cooper has wrapped these memories with his own vision of the city. He bends Pittsburgh's already twisted streets and hills into impossible angles and perspectives. A lamppost shoots off in one direction while its companion is tilted another.

Cooper, associate head of the architecture department at Carnegie Mellon University here, has had several solo shows in New York and Cologne, Germany, over the years. His work is now shown at the Mendelson Gallery here.

"It's very sophisticated art," says Leon Arkus, director emeritus of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art who bought several of Cooper's works for the museum. "It's not at all primitive or naive." One of Cooper's pieces was so big that the museum could not hang it on the walls: They had to display it by laying it on the floor.

Cooper started "The Visible City" last spring. He hopes to complete it in September. It will be 120 feet long and 12 feet high, spread across 74 panels. Except for some small touches of acrylic color, it is grays and whites - vine charcoal on paper.

The panels flow sequentially along Pittsburgh's Monongahela River, capturing river communities as well as downtown. Look closely, though, and the piece bends time just as it bends space. One panel shows downtown today; nearby it is drawn as it was in the 1940s. On either side of the huge work Cooper has drawn porches, so that it seems the viewer is sitting on one of the city's overlooks. On one of those porches, Cooper has painted himself, playing cards in a 1940s setting.

"People get lost when they look at this," Cooper says. "In some ways, that's the point."

At the moment, he's sorting through Rudis's story.

"Yes," Rudis answers, she did go into the hat shop with her mother. "That was before I learned to make my own," she adds with a twinkle.

Cooper discovers that Rudis was a milliner at a fashionable department store in downtown Pittsburgh. So he abandons the hat store and begins drawing the inside of the downtown department store and the fourth floor where Rudis made hats.

"We had tables like that," Rudis says, seizing the pencil and drawing the layout of her department.

He coaxes her to remember the names of her supervisor and co-workers. They are names she hasn't thought of in years. Clearly, she enjoys the exercise.

So does Joanne Lowery of Pittsburgh's Greenfield district. "I think it's the most exciting thing," she says, surveying the drawings strewn on the table. "Look at all these memories."

Portions of the piece have already been shown publicly. It is scheduled to be exhibited this summer (June 12-Aug. 8) at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

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