The Workers and Rankin Deer sculptures by the Industrial Arts Co-Op.
The importance of art in the working class culture is not only aesthetically pleasing but crucial to its existence. Culture, among many things, is essentially about communication. When words tend to fail us, which they often do, images and symbols prevail to help exchange ideas to those unfamiliar with this particular way of life. This philosophy is well understood by the Industrial Arts Co-Op (IAC), a unified venture of artists dedicated to creating works honoring the steel industry in the rust belt region and beyond. “My entry into Pittsburgh was at a really pivotal point in the changing of the region and the decline of the steel industry,” states co-founder and project leader Tim Kaulen. “So I got to see a lot of the activity and some functioning mills, but I also got to see them being demolished. So from that response to the landscape, I felt compelled to create objects that were sometimes centered in those settings, because I just felt drawn to the absence of productivity. Once the people left, the sites would fall into neglect or different factors of vandalism, and theft and nature would start to take over these once really productive venues of industry. So it sort of prompted me and some colleagues to begin making art in abandoned settings.”
Many of the works created by the IAC utilize found materials salvaged from the ruins of Steel City’s once prosperous industrial sites; an aesthetic that hits home for Kaulen and many others in the cooperative. “I moved to Pittsburgh to go to the art institute in the mid-80s, and at that point began to see the impact of the steel industry both active and fading,” says Kaulen. “Once I had graduated from the art institute, I started to explore vacant industry sites. I started to visit them because they were amazing and they were centers of epic production, proportion, scale and all the things that just really inspire a lot of people. It let me understand not just how the steel industry in particular set the tone of our landscape by having such an imposing visual presence, but how the industry impacted its residents and communities.”
“I think I found some personal success in working with recycled material. One, they’re generally more affordable than new materials. Two, I really like designing with objects and materials that have had a former life. So the materials just become another vehicle of communication, because they already have levels of dialogue that are a part of their history and origin. So reusing materials allows a person to build on the former life of the object and create a new story.”
Through this combined love of entropy and exploration, the IAC formed in the mid-90s to create such formidable works as The Owl, Space Monkey and The Millipede, before completing their first seminal project The Rankin Deer. The sculpture resides at the Carrie Blast Furnace and is heralded by the Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation as a monument to the legacy of this now defunct manufacturing plant. “Its character is playful and innocent, and it somehow has transcended a period of time at the site, which has been very vulnerable. Any stray demolition person along the way could have decided to destroy it and it would have taken five minutes. So it’s interesting how some pieces have a lifespan, and we’re really thankful that of all the work that we’ve done, that piece has managed to survive. The Rivers of Steel folks actually look at it as representative of the period of time when industry left the site, to acknowledging the importance of the site without the productivity as a destination of remembrance, as well as acknowledging the people and the importance of iron making in Homestead. We’re very fortunate that all of those things aligned and the window of its creation was there to begin with. It’s not very often that a site like that is available for people to develop something.”
The IAC’s most recent work has culminated in the creation of the 18 foot steel structure The Workers, which now permanently resides at the Riverfront Park in the South Side District of Pittsburgh. Created using reclaimed industrial steel, the project was forged by over twenty artists during a 15 year period. “It was a long journey and originally the piece was spawned by the city of Pittsburgh. Tom Murphy wanted to create an identity piece that commemorated the city’s history, so there was a public call for artists that was sponsored by the city. The city at the time did not have a policy for public art. It had a few rare examples of city sponsored projects. So it was an interesting opportunity for us as artists, and we were all really young and pretty naive about the process of doing something for the public. So in a lot of ways it was a gamble for both parties, but luckily we were selected to produce a piece with a moderate budget while being true to the intent of the project, which was to recognize the value of industry in Pittsburgh; specifically the steel industry.”
As the group continues to evolve, the IAC hopes to move forward with community outreach projects and educational initiatives that stay true to the collective’s mission. “We’ve been doing some facilitative visioning experiments to try to get to the core of our mission and beliefs. I think the core of the IAC has always been a shared sense of accomplishment and collaboration. The common gratification from working together once results begin to happen is just so much bigger than what a single person can do under their own practice. I think that shared sense of accomplishment has always been the driving force around projects. Often artists aren’t really great at the grand scheme, but are really great at responding to a spark and creating something impactful in the moment. I think that the success of the group has been around interesting ideas in challenging conditions and working with difficult materials. Put all those things together and you get this stew of activity and hopefully something comes out of it that is tangible.”