Cantini, who was a vital part of Pittsburgh’s public art scene in the twentieth century, believed art should be free and available to everyone
By Holden Slattery
In 1930, eleven-year-old Virgil Cantini was struggling to adjust to his new life as an immigrant in Weirton, West Virginia. He’d recently moved from a sunny Italian village to a smoky American steel town. His father and oldest brother had already been in America for years, working to save money, when his mother came with the other seven children. They weren’t only reunifying in the famous land of opportunity; they were fleeing Italy so the children wouldn’t be conscripted into Benito Mussolini’s fascist military.
Young Cantini missed the beauty of his old home. “Why would you bring me to a town like this?” he asked. “All I see is smoke every day!”
“You’re here to change this country,” his father replied.
Cantini took his father’s big directive to heart. Decades later—after studying art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and the University of Pittsburgh—Cantini began creating large, grand works of art in urban public spaces, following in the tradition of the great Italian artists from earlier centuries, and became part of a burgeoning public art movement America. Cities that previously commissioned statues of political and military leaders were commissioning abstract, idea-driven sculptures, often paired with new architecture projects. Cantini started winning commission after commission in Pittsburgh.
As an artist, he was drawn to vibrant colors, shapes, and symbols. He became interested in working people, in bringing art into everyday life. Many of Cantini’s artworks decorate the campus of the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), where he helped create the studio arts program and spent thirty-eight years as a professor. Among them are large porcelain enamel murals such as Science in Service to Mankind and Universal Order, and steel sculptures like Man and Ode to Space. Other works, like the Joy of Life fountain in East Liberty and the untitled mosaic tunnel beneath Bigelow Boulevard in Downtown Pittsburgh—which was recently removed—became landmarks in other parts of town.
In addition to accessibility, Cantini strived for permanence. In 1964, just before construction began on the mosaic tunnel Downtown, he told a reporter for The Pittsburgh Press it should last two hundred years or more. His pursuit of permanence affected his choice of materials. He built sculptures using weathered Cor-Ten steel, which develops a protective oxide film resembling rust to slow corrosion. He created large, bright murals using porcelain enamel. He would sprinkle the porcelain powder on steel panels, melt it down in a furnace, and repeat that several times with added layers of color. With porcelain, the colors would not fade over time the way that paints could.
Cantini’s outdoor works of public art have retained their form, surviving Pittsburgh’s torrents of snow, rain, and sleet for more than half a century. But weather is not the only threat to the persistence of public art. As tastes change, urban planning shifts, and decision makers marshal new approaches to organizing public space, public art can become collateral damage. Both during his lifetime, and in the eleven years since his death, some of Cantini’s most well-known works have risked removal or destruction. But in most cases, they have been transported to new sites in the Pittsburgh region where they remain visible. In most cases, Cantini’s public art has endured because people have argued for its significance and created new spaces for it.
I first learned of Cantini in 2007, when I was a senior at Pitt. At a pitch meeting for our student newspaper, The Pitt News, the editors were presenting story ideas. One of them, Clay Webster, had recently done yard work for Cantini and thought he would make a good subject for a profile. It sounded interesting, so I raised my hand. Thirteen years later, I’m still thinking about Cantini—the ideas and memories he shared with me, his passion for public art, and the pain he experienced in the last phase of his life.
For my Pitt News story, I made two reporting trips to Cantini’s home, in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. He lived in a beige brick cuboid house, decorated with colorful glass diamonds above the roof and beside the front door, with his wife, Lucille Kleber Cantini. She was also an artist; the two met as art students at Carnegie Tech in the 1940s. During my visits, Lucille usually sat in a rocking chair while Virgil led me around the house and showed me his paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures.
After my article was published, I visited his house a couple more times. He was nearly ninety years old then, and I recorded him talking about his life and art. The next time I went, I left the recorder behind. He was no longer a subject; we had become friends.
The following year, I was living in upstate New York and working at a newspaper when Clay called to tell me Cantini had died. I read the in-memoriam articles that came out online. A journalist who had been my instructor at Pitt wrote one for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that summed up Cantini’s legacy nicely. Then I didn’t hear much more about Cantini for years—until 2018, when I read that the tunnel beneath Bigelow Boulevard, in Pittsburgh, was going to be filled in with dirt as part of a plan to build a new park. Lining both sides of the tunnel, of course, was Cantini’s 1964 mosaic.
The abstract mosaic is comprised of twenty-eight panels, each a different shape, upon which colorful porcelain enamel tiles were embedded in concrete. It depicts Pittsburgh from different perspectives, including aerial views and abstract interpretations. The city’s initial plan was to save three of the panels and put them in the park, burying the others with the tunnel. Cantini’s daughter, Lisa Cantini-Seguin, who led a group organizing to save the mosaic, told me she thinks that would have happened if not for a well-timed introduction to Brittany Reilly, an art curator and preservationist.
Reilly had recently returned to her hometown of Pittsburgh after studying and working in art curation in New York and Chicago. She became executive director of a foundation that promotes the work of one of Cantini’s contemporaries, Aaronel deRoy Gruber, who is also famous for public art. She started looking into how Pittsburgh had acquired its public art commissions in the 1950s and 1960s. Cantini often surfaced in her research.
Reilly wanted to learn more about Cantini and decided to organize a walking tour showcasing his work. She spoke with the owners of Pennhollows, a gallery in Shadyside that owns and sells dozens of Cantini’s artworks. They knew Cantini-Seguin—they had acquired their Cantini pieces from her after her father’s death—and arranged an introduction at a Shadyside café. There, Reilly told Cantini-Seguin that her tour would begin at Pitt’s campus and conclude at the mosaic tunnel. Cantini-Seguin stunned her with the news of the tunnel’s impending fate.
At the time, Cantini-Seguin was already growing weary of these situations. In 2010, Cantini’s Aerial Scape mural was removed from its longtime home in the lobby of the One Oliver Plaza Building at the request of a new building tenant. Cantini-Seguin helped coordinate the mural’s donation and relocation to Pitt. Around that time, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh wanted to part ways with its Cantini sculpture after opting for a different aesthetic at its new location. So Cantini-Seguin called the City of Pittsburgh and all of its colleges and universities looking for a taker, and when she couldn’t find one, her husband Jim collected it and drove it to the Cantini family farm. By the time she met with Reilly, the city’s plan to save just three of the mosaic’s panels seemed decided, and she wasn’t sure if she had any recourse.
About twenty people attended Reilly’s tour. Among them were artists, designers, architects, and preservationists. Cantini-Seguin came along, too. When they reached the mosaic tunnel, Reilly explained that most of the mosaic would be buried. For these art-loving tour-goers, the news was quite troubling. “What was supposed to be a lighthearted reception, which I hosted at my apartment after the tour, turned into a very lively and engaged conversation about what can we do, right now, to begin a campaign to save this mosaic,” Reilly told me.
They organized, set up a Facebook page and website, and caught the attention of several Pittsburgh media outlets. From a distance, I perceived a grassroots movement in which many people petitioned the city to change its plans. But it was really the work that Reilly, local architects Rob Pfaffman and Jeff Slack, and a few others did behind the scenes that prompted change. For example: because the park was receiving federal funding, there were federally mandated opportunities for public input. A consultant hired by the city had already surveyed the park site for historically significant objects and determined that the mosaic did not qualify.
Reilly, Pfaffman, and Slack challenged this assertion. The tunnel mosaic, they contended, is a quintessential Cantini work that shows his mastery; and it is one of a kind, yet representative of Cantini’s oeuvre. In letters, emails, and public meetings, they laid out reasons why the mosaic tunnel should qualify for historic status. “How much valuable and unique evidence of one artist’s practice needs to be lost before we can save one in situ?” Reilly wrote in a letter to the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office.
Ultimately, that office agreed that the mosaic was a historic city resource, and the City of Pittsburgh changed course. The entire mosaic would be removed and relocated. An art conservation company removed the panels in the fall of 2018, and the city of Pittsburgh now has them in storage. The city has agreed to solicit proposals and relocate the mosaic within five years. Recently, the city hired another consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study on the reinstallation of the mosaic at a suitable location.
Reilly and Cantini-Seguin both hope the mosaic is put in a pedestrian walkway, where it can surround viewers on both sides as they pass, the way Cantini intended. Reilly plans on responding to the feasibility study when it comes out and remaining involved in discussions about the mosaic’s relocation to ensure alignment with Cantini’s artistic intentions.
At the beginning of his career, Cantini primarily made religious art. Catholic imagery and ideas were familiar and meaningful to him, and he liked their permanence—how they had endured for so many centuries. At Pitt’s Hillman Library, one of several Cantini works on display is a wood sculpture of the early Christian martyr Saint Sebastian. At his house, Cantini showed me two paintings of the hand of Jesus Christ with an eye on the palm. He made one with a white hand and one with a black hand, questioning depictions of Christ as a white man. He wanted to pose new questions and keep an open mind, he explained, even while dealing with traditional subject matter.
By the 1960s, Cantini took on some of the big themes of the decade, and his work became more abstract. The 1965 Man, on the façade of Pitt’s Parran Hall, features a gold man in front of a circle and surrounded by triangles pointing upward, representing man’s exploration of the world and constant expansion of knowledge. At the height of the space race, bright circles became central features in giant porcelain enamel murals like Aerial Scape, Enlightenment and Joy, and Universal Order. In the late sixties, Cantini was watching TV every night to follow the Apollo missions and, eventually, the moon landing.
Cantini also responded to the civil unrest of the decade with his 1969 fountain Joy of Life, in East Liberty. Above the fountain is a circle of six cubist-style people looking up with their arms wrapped around one another, as if doing a joyful dance. The sculpture’s Core-ten steel gives the figures a rust color. “The sculpture wasn’t just to play with elements of cubes and shapes,” Cantini told The Pittsburgh Press, “but the concept that people should join arms in working together, all the races.”
One of Cantini’s personal favorites was a piece inspired by biology, the budding field of computer science, and love. Science in Service to Mankind, a forty-by-thirty-foot porcelain enamel mural he created in 1973, depicts a man and a woman touching hands, their muscular systems exposed. The colors on the man and woman represent human cells, and the squares and triangles around them symbolize the birth of the computer age.
Cantini picked Science in Service to Mankind for a photo location when a photographer and I coordinated a shoot a couple of days before my Pitt News story went to print. He posed near it with Lucille. The photographer took other shots, too, and what appeared in the paper was a more intimate shot of the couple on a bench. Virgil was in suspenders, holding an early model of the Man sculpture in his thick, workmanlike fingers. Lucille leaned toward him and grasped the gold figure’s right leg, her wooden cane hooked to her purse strap.
The day my story was published, I picked up five copies from a rack inside Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning. I wanted to give Cantini multiple copies and keep some for myself. I called his house to ask if I could come and visit. He said sure, and thanked me “for the wonderful article.” It was drizzling, so I put the newspapers in my backpack and raised my umbrella before walking the few blocks to Cantini’s house. When he answered the door, took out his wallet and pulled out five crisp twenty-dollar bills. “I know college students always need money,” he said, still standing in the doorway.
He must have really liked the article, I thought. I thanked him but said I couldn’t accept it. I didn’t want to break journalistic code by accepting a gift. I explained that I wanted to write a longer piece about him for a writing class, and that I couldn’t accept any money before that. He relented. I noticed he was on the verge of tears – thankful that I’d captured his art and story and given him a new wave of public recognition. As I would later learn, he had been written about in scores of news stories—and had even been interviewed by King Friday XIII, a puppet played by Fred Rogers on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—but most of that had been decades earlier.
I have one of Cantini’s paintings on my bedroom wall. It’s Weirton, a 1941 oil painting depicting workers at a steel mill melting and shoveling iron ore, transporting the material on railroad tracks, and cutting steel. “Soph.” is written on the back of the canvas (he was a college sophomore when he painted it). It was inspired by Cantini’s experiences working weekends with his brother at the Weirton steel mill. “I was twenty-one years old or something—you’ve got energy galore,” he told me. “You worked eight to twelve hours. Pay wasn’t much more than a dollar and a half to two dollars an hour.”
Cantini’s family arrived in Weirton in September of 1930. The day they got in, his father said the kids should get ready for school the next day. Cantini’s mother was dubious. How could they go to school? The kids didn’t know any English yet. Suppose they had to go to the bathroom, she wondered. How would they ask?
But Cantini’s father had been in America for years already, and he knew the answer. “If he raises his hand, all he has to say to them is ‘bughouse,’” he said.
Bughouse—an outhouse buzzing with flies. Those were the kinds of facilities they had in Weirton. So, without delay, the kids started school. When Cantini first got up from his desk to go to the bathroom, he shouted it out. “Bughouse!”
The students all laughed, Cantini remembered. As it turned out, the kids in Weirton just called it a toilet.
Despite the embarrassing introduction, Cantini went on to become a popular figure in school life. He was not only an artist, but an All-America high school quarterback, receiving sixteen college scholarship offers. When the scholarship to his first choice, Carnegie Tech, was rescinded due to the school’s financial troubles, he went off to Manhattan College for its proximity to New York City’s art galleries. He later realized he needed studio art classes, which Manhattan College didn’t have. Carnegie Tech offered, again, to cover Cantini’s tuition—he’d only have to pay for his room and board. So he transferred there and worked weekends at Weirton’s steel mill to pay for housing.
At Carnegie Tech, Cantini became the lone superstar on an unremarkable football team, back in the days of leather helmets sans facemasks. In 1941, the Pittsburgh Press described him as a “sharp-eyed stocky sophomore with a slingshot arm.” His coach, Dr. Edward Baker, told the paper Cantini could be as great as Davey O’Brien, a quarterback who became the namesake of an award given annually to the best college quarterback, while admitting the rest of the team was subpar. “I’m afraid we might not be able to give him enough protection or sufficient co-operation in hauling in his tosses, but he’s still the best I’ve seen,” Baker said. Weeks later, Cantini was making a tackle when he suffered a scary neck injury that knocked him unconscious for forty minutes. Doctors wanted to keep him in the hospital for seven days, but Cantini insisted on leaving after three. He returned the following season, suffered more injuries, and doctors told him he should quit for his own good.
Later in his time at Carnegie Tech, the U.S. was getting involved in World War II, and a recruiter visited one of Cantini’s classes to convince students that they should join the army. He told them the war would probably be over in a few months, and they’d get to travel Europe. It didn’t sound so bad to Cantini. He volunteered and became a cartographer, using his skills to draw topographical maps in North Africa and Italy. His service lasted two and a half years.
He wrote letters to Lucille throughout those years, and they married upon his return in 1945. Then he finished his bachelor’s degree at Carnegie Tech, earned his master’s in art from Pitt, and began establishing his reputation in art contests and exhibitions. By 1956, Cantini was named Artist of the Year by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and in 1957 he was recognized nationally with a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Several times during our talks, Cantini lamented that one of his sculptures was in storage. It was a hanging sculpture he had created for Joseph Horne Company, which ran a series of now-defunct department stores. It was later given to Duquesne University, he said. Cantini thought Duquesne had taken it down because students feared walking below the sculpture—it was composed of heavy brass rods. “They removed it and they have it in storage someplace, which is painful as hell,” he said.
That sculpture was one of two hanging sculptures that Cantini created for the Joseph Horne Company. The other was New Horizons, Skyscape, an iron, steel, and glass sculpture commissioned by the Horne’s store in Pittsburgh’s South Hills suburb—and later donated to Pitt. It used to hang above the Horne’s escalator well, dozens of steel bars with sharp edges. Now it hangs from the ceiling of Pitt’s Wesley W. Posvar Hall, where students have taken to calling it the Death Trap. Cantini said he heard complaints about Pitt students’ fear of walking below New Horizons, Skyscape, but it was never removed.
I saw New Horizons, Skyscape hundreds of times on my way to classes at Pitt. I only knew about its sibling sculpture—the one in storage—from my conversations with Cantini. One afternoon, I asked him if he knew who we could call to find out more. Maybe I could help him get it out of storage, I thought. But he couldn’t recall the details.
But then, while I was working on this story, one of my late-night internet searches yielded a 2019 blog entry and a 2012 news article about a Cantini sculpture that had been found in storage and re-installed outside of an art center in Greensburg, a small city thirty miles from Pittsburgh. The sculpture has a glass ball in a circle surrounded by triangular plates and two hundred and fifty brass-covered rods shooting outward.
The sculpture was commissioned in 1965 to hang above the escalator well at the now defunct Horne’s store in Greensburg. At some point, it was removed from the store and donated to the Tamburitzans, an Eastern European folk-dance group that was, until recently, part of Duquesne University. The Tamburitzans used to own a five-story building at 1819 Boulevard of the Allies in Downtown Pittsburgh. It was down the street from their two-story headquarters building, and they used it for extra storage.
In 1990, they sold the five-story building to Dale Middleman, the owner of a company called Used Store Fixtures, Inc., which bought and sold retail store fittings. Middleman saw Cantini’s name and realized it could be of value. “I looked for buyers for many years,” Middleman said when I called him. Finally, he donated it to the Greensburg Art Club. Middleman helped Sharbaugh, the club’s director, put the eighteen-hundred-pound sculpture on a flatbed truck to Greensburg. The art club hired a local welder to add some pieces that were missing and placed it on four poles on the art center’s grounds along Route 30. It’s not hanging overhead anymore, and I’m sure many people drive by without noticing it. But its placement—back in Greensburg, and in public view—is certainly preferable to storage purgatory or the junkyard.
Less than a week after my Pitt News article was published, Cantini’s youngest daughter, Maria, who was a public relations writer and poet, died of multiple sclerosis at fifty-five. I visited his house sometime shortly after that to check on him and Lucille and show my sympathy. The mood was somber, and Virgil seemed perplexed. “They said it was MS,” Cantini said.
The way he said it made it seem like he hadn’t known she had MS. But the family had been aware of Maria’s condition for thirty-five years, Cantini-Seguin later told me. Cantini had begun experiencing dementia and related paranoia in his eighties, she said, and he had been reluctant to accept the doctors’ explanation of Maria’s death.
Cantini, a proud father, had often paired Maria’s poetry with his artwork, like the commemorative medal he designed honoring Pittsburgh baseball great Roberto Clemente in 1973. The U.S. Mint produced two hundred thousand of the medals. Maria’s words, along the curve of the medallion, came from a poem she wrote about Clemente after he died in a plane crash during a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua: “You shared your joy with the less than joyful lot.”
I continued to visit Cantini’s house on occasion. He was a fascinating person, and I think Maria’s death nudged me to visit more, to keep him company. Lucille and I had friendly exchanges, too, but I don’t remember them as clearly. She was quieter and less mobile. Cantini still had the stamina to lead me around his apartment. His age showed most in the way he repeated stories and showed me works I’d already seen a few times. That was okay, though. I could tell that presenting his art brought him joy.
Then, in April of 2008, Lucille died at eighty-seven. Having lost one of his children and his wife in a six-month period, Cantini was heartbroken. When I saw him that spring, I noticed he had lost weight. “I’m beginning to see that when you get old, life can be so sad,” he said.
Cantini died about a year after Lucille. I hadn’t seen him in a while, since I’d moved out of town. I imagine life became harder in those months, as he struggled to adjust to life without his wife of sixty years. In a 2013 documentary about Cantini, his longtime friend Robert Harper describes Cantini’s intensity and tough demeanor, while also noting that a change came over him after he lost Maria and Lucille. “He no longer needed to be strong for anyone, and he would let his sorrow show,” Harper said.
I never had a living grandfather. Both of my parents’ fathers died of heart attacks before I was born. So, for me, it was a rare and delightful experience to talk with a man who had lived through most of the twentieth century. But Cantini didn’t just live through it. He changed it, making an imprint on people’s daily lives. He interpreted ideas like education, science, love, and unity in relation to historic events and achievements. And he did it in public spaces. Some people will seek out the meaning or history behind his sculptures and murals. Others might just glance at them on their way to work or class. But one thing I know about public art is that even if you spend years passing by without noticing it, one day you suddenly see.
In 1985, East Liberty’s community and business leaders wanted to reconfigure the streets surrounding Cantini’s Joy of Life, making it necessary to move the fountain. Cantini set his sights on securing another suitable location and steered community discussions about where it should go. In a letter to the city’s art commission, he wrote: “Since I’m the artist and still alive I will work with the committee, but under no condition should the symbolism and integrity of the piece be compromised.”
He advocated for the location he favored most out of the five proposals, a traffic island at the intersection of Baum Boulevard and Whitfield Street, behind the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. The entity coordinating the project, East Liberty Development, Inc., had ranked that location as the fourth most favorable out of five options, but Cantini ranked it first. Cantini won; the fountain stands on that traffic island today.
Cantini was a public artist in the era of urban renewal, when Pittsburgh and cities across the country were trying to rebuild their infrastructure following World War II. The era was marked by some achievements, such as cleaning up the smog-filled air, modernizing the city, and creating some cherished city attractions, but also many failures—projects that displaced Black and immigrant communities while failing to produce economic gains. Some of Cantini’s biggest public art commissions were attached to urban renewal projects because architects of the period were encouraged to incorporate art in their projects.
The relocation of Joy of Life was part of an effort to undo a failed urban renewal project from twenty years earlier. In the first half of the century, East Liberty had been a popular shopping district, described as a chaotic bazaar. But in the 1960s, business was down. To try and compete with the booming shopping malls of the suburbs, a plan arose to turn the district into a pedestrian mall, where Cantini’s Joy of Life would be a focal point. After displacing thousands of residents and many businesses, the mall never attracted much foot traffic and seemed to only make the neighborhood’s problems worse. By the 1980s, neighborhood leaders wanted to eliminate the mall and reconfigure the streets.
Now, the City of Pittsburgh is trying to undo a separate but related urban renewal failure in the Lower Hill District by creating a three-acre park where the mosaic tunnel used to stand. The Hill District was a Black and immigrant neighborhood that August Wilson memorialized in his famous plays. In the 1950s, a large portion of it was razed by eminent domain to make way for a civic arena, displacing thousands of families, many of whom would end up in public housing projects. The rest of the neighborhood was divided from Downtown by an expressway, making the tunnel necessary for passage. Developing a park connecting the two neighborhoods is a way to correct that mistake and make the city center more accessible, while also creating green space and bicycle paths.
I wish I had the chance to amble through the mosaic tunnel when it was intact. Cantini cared deeply about sharing his art with the public, and I think the relocation of his mosaic would have irked him. But I know the city’s initial plan to bury it would have really made him mad. He sought to bring art into as many lives as he could, and when opposing forces impeded that goal, he spoke out.
One important lesson from the era of urban renewal is the importance of community involvement in development and planning decisions, rather than making wholesale changes in haste. In recent events, eagerness to cover up a misguided and inequitable development project with a vibrant new park almost buried Cantini’s one-of-a-kind mosaic.
With faith in the durability of porcelain and steel, Cantini envisioned his public art lasting hundreds of years. In that sense, he was in pursuit of permanence. But Cantini was also a proponent of change. He followed new sources of inspiration, celebrated scientific advancements, and kept evolving. And even when his desire to create long-lasting public art collided with plans to change Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, Cantini was able to accept that change.
The spaces where public art debuted long ago might not remain ideal placements. But when a piece is moved, its new location should honor the artist’s intentions. Cantini believed that art could change the world, that working people had dignity, and that beautiful, important artworks should be free and out in the open, available to everyone. The upcoming relocation of his 1964 mosaic gives Pittsburgh an opportunity to honor his work and realize his intentions anew. ■
Holden Slattery is a writer and nonprofit professional based in Los Angeles, California. He grew up in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. You can find him on Twitter @HoldenSlattery.
Cover image courtesy the Virgil Cantini Papers and Photographs, MSS 722, Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center.
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