First in a pictorial series celebrating the extraordinary mural art of the Strip, Lawrenceville, and beyond.
    Mural by Kyle Holbrook

    Mural by Kyle Holbrook

    Painting on Walls—from Caves to Pittsburgh

    The Horse’s Mouth is a 1958 movie starring Alec Guinness as Gulley Jimson, a London artist who is ever searching for large walls on which to execute his labyrinthine, apocalyptic visions. Interior, exterior—it doesn’t matter as long as it is big; and huge would be even better. The last scene has Jimson scoping out the side of a giant ship resting in the Thames.

    Large spaces, especially natural rock formations, have called out to artists worldwide for eons. The magnificent Ajanta caves in India, for instance, are the site of Buddhist art dating as far back as the second century BCE.

    Some Indonesian cave paintings have been pegged as the oldest known, from roughly 45,000 years ago. Many of our own southwestern petroglyphs, which are images incised into a rock wall, are a relatively youthful 800 to 1,400 years old.

    Thanks to the documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, we are treated to a detailed look at the creative energy of ancient artists as depicted in the Chauvet Caves of southern France. It is especially fascinating to see how the artists took advantage of the features of the rock formations—the “architecture” of the cave, so to speak. For example, the wide expanse of a rock face pictures herds of animals, many now extinct. At one point a small section of the wall eroded, leaving an indent resembling a mountain; the animals appear to slow down as they go up, then rush down the other side. Other significant formations, such as stalactites, invited different views of individual animals.

    No review of wall art through history, however brief, would be complete without at least mentioning the detailed, colorful Egyptian tomb paintings depicting the lives of pharaohs and the civilization in which they lived. Conceived partially as assists in the other world after death, the images are a tremendous source of information for historians.

    Perhaps the greatest of wall paintings—technically frescoes—are those by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. The Renaissance master faced numerous architectural challenges in a vast room with the available painting surface defined by a flattened barrel vault, existing masonry, windows, and one large west wall. Since we can’t tell the complex tale here of how brilliantly Michelangelo solved those problems, for sheer pleasure take a look at the many images online. Personally, I have always enjoyed looking at the Delphic sibyl, framed within the space defined by the arches above two windows.

    Kyle Holbrook

    Born in Wilkinsburg, Kyle Holbrook knew at a very early age that he wanted to be an artist—leading him to eventually create murals throughout the world.
    He has collaborated with the likes of Bill Clinton, LeBron James, Spike Lee, Wiz Khalifa, and the late Mac Miller. Miller was an alumnus of the Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project (MLK Mural), founded by Holbrook in Pittsburgh in 2002. Holbrook has exported the MLK concept to 27 states and 43 countries, employing more than 7,000 young people.

    Holbrook’s work has been commissioned for the 2006 MLB All-Star Game, the 2007 US Open, and the G-20 Summit; Heineken, Ford, McDonald’s, PPG Paints, and other international entities have contracted for his talent. In addition, he has been involved with Miami’s famous Art Basel for several years.
    Yet despite his worldwide artistic activities, Holbrook emphasizes, “Pittsburgh is always home.”

    The August Wilson Mural is a memorial tribute to a great American playwright—a city of Pittsburgh and Hill District icon. My mother’s family was raised in the Hill District—the Stotts family. In creating the mural, we worked with 10 youths who were all interested in pursuing arts careers. Each student studied one of August Wilson’s plays. This mural was meant to educate future generations and visitors and familiarize them with Wilson’s creations. I also worked with Dr. Kim Ellis and Sala Udin, both personally associated with August Wilson. The mural was featured via The New York Times, the Associated Press, and publications around the country. The late Anthony Bourdain visited the mural on his last trip to Pittsburgh.

    The Monroeville Mall Mural was my first large commission. The theme is Pittsburgh History. The Soffer family and the other original owners of the mall approved the design. Being able to create imagery of Pittsburgh icons from our region’s history—such as Stanley Turrentine, Billy Eckstine, Honus Wagner, and Dan Marino—was an honor.

    The Salem’s Market & Grill Mural was part of a 10-mural series called “Pittsburgh Solidarity for Change,” produced in the fall of 2020 to galvanize our city through art, pre-election. I designed all the murals and worked with 30 local Pittsburgh artists to paint all of them with themes of solutions to police brutality, systemic racism, and gun violence. The solution selected for the Salem’s mural is of collaboration, cooperation, and working together. A similar design was selected for Enrico Biscotti’s warehouse, which is just one block away. Salem’s is the first of its kind in Pittsburgh—where that mural is part of another mural nearby, the two work together aesthetically to spread the message. It’s a message of unity. Salem’s and all the murals in the series were partly painted by artists from the Pittsburgh community. —K.H.

    Mural by Kyle Holbrook

    Mural by Kyle Holbrook

    Fast forward to the 20th-century Mexican mural paintings, especially the socio-historic works of Diego Rivera. World War II gave us the simple yet famous “Killroy was here” notice written on walls around Europe as U.S. troops rolled along, today considered a form of wall art. “Killroy” was a relative of all the thousands of markings, notes, names, and ephemera inscribed wherever possible by ages of nameless people from Roman times to the present as they traveled along.

    Here in the United States, Independence Rock, Wyoming, was so named because it was a stopping point for wagon trains on the California/Oregon/Mormon trail on July 4th. It was a day of celebration, of course. More importantly, those on the California trail who reached the rock by that day felt that they had a reasonable chance of crossing the high Sierras before winter set in. Incising one’s name, as dozens did, was as much a signal of hope in surviving an arduous journey as for any other purpose.

    And so we come to the latest iteration of art on walls. Graffiti art started in earnest in this country roughly in the 1960s. Any surface from walls to the sides of subway cars was fair game for giant initials, names, and drawings, elaborately done in bright colors and sometimes outlined in black, white, or contrasting colors with spray paint. Leaving your “tag”— Cornbread and Cool Earl were among the first—was a plus. So, in a sense, was spraying over somebody else’s work. The results were often an unsightly hodgepodge that provoked determination to stop the practice from the political establishment.

    Mural by Berry Breene

    Mural by Berry Breene

    The efforts didn’t work and graffiti slowly morphed into street art with more stringent artistic qualities and an informal agreement not to cover somebody else’s creation. Acceptance by the general public finally came. The work has since taken its place in the history of art as a descendant of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, going on to influence movements in its own right.

    Berry Breene

    Artist/singer-songwriter/realtor Berry Breene’s busy lifestyle hasn’t kept her from creating over a dozen exterior and interior murals for community organizations, businesses, and individuals. Her interest in public art was born when she interned with the Read Between the Signs project while a student at Allegheny College. Her most recent piece was the Queen City Trail Mural, which can be seen along the Erie-to-Pittsburgh bicycle trail on the Black Bridge (on the side of the metal train bridge), which crosses Oil Creek in Titusville. Musically, Berry sings with the folk band Her Ladyship, and recently released a solo album—Beam On, currently available on Bandcamp.

    Garage Roof, private residence. This Pittsburgh-area residential garage roof was painted to improve the appearance of the patio it faces. The trees and leaves painted give a presence of the natural setting it resides in.

    Art’s Tavern at 2852 Penn Avenue. This mural was a collaborative piece produced through the Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project (MLK Mural). It was designed by me, Micci Hallinan—an art teacher at Woodland Hills—and Edward Rawson, one of the leaders of the mural project at the time. Featured are jazz musicians with Pittsburgh connections: Stanley Turrentine (saxophone), Ray Brown (bass), George Benson (guitar), Roy Eldridge (trumpet), Erroll Garner (keys), Art Blakey (drums), and Lena Horne (vocals). Also included is the Penn Incline, which ran from the Hill District to the Strip.

    The Titusville Queen City Trail Mural. This mural was commissioned by the Titusville Community Development Corporation in order to beautify the stretch of the Queen City Trail that runs in front of it. This recreational trail is part of the Erie-to-Pittsburgh bicycle trail. The mural includes outdoorsy imagery depicting some of the local wildlife and recreational activities that the area affords.—B.B.

    Mural by Berry Breene

    Mural by Berry Breene

    Pittsburgh has a plethora of intriguing walls, many the lingering gifts of the industrial age. Large spaces, crenelated roofs, uneven walls punctuated by windows—all of which require creative solutions, just as in the past. Should the windows be part of the work, perhaps the eyes of some comic animal, or be separated off, surrounded by garlands of flowers? The challenges are not as cosmic as those facing our far-distant antecedents working by torchlight in caves, but the challenges are still inspiration for the artistic soul.

    We are fortunate to have dozens of talented artists willing to tackle hundreds of walls, taking them into the colorfully painted 21st century. Happily, owners of these buildings are delighted to have the art distinguish their properties—unlike what went on in the early days of modern graffiti.

    The Strip! magazine is proud to begin a series about our city’s street art, focusing on the artists who make it happen. To our artists, we say thank you for the beauty. To our readers, we wish you a very pleasurable stroll around town to savor those imaginative creations.

    Artists who are interested in having their work included, or readers who are aware of interesting wall art in their neighborhood, should send information, including location and images, to Chuck Shane at cshane8678@aol.com.

    Cynthia F. Weisfield graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in art history. She teaches about varied art topics for local Osher programs, is a regular contributor to the Journal of the Print World, and writes on a freelance basis for several other publications. She was a consultant for “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” a show mounted by the Denver Art Museum.
    Photograhy by Mary Pegher