This spring, Christopher Rolinson took his digital photography students to Carrie Furnace so they could photograph the mill that made iron for the Homestead Works across the Monongahela River.
"They seemed overwhelmed by the scale of it all," said Mr. Rolinson, an associate professor at Point Park University.
Mr. Rolinson, who grew up in Freedom, was well acquainted with the Jones & Laughlin mill in Aliquippa, which has been torn down.
As recently as five years ago, he says, pictures of that mill hung inside a McDonald's restaurant in Baden. He wanted his students to realize how much this region's landscape changed when major steel mills disappeared. There was another lesson, too.
"How many people went to college because of this site?" Mr. Rolinson mused as he looked again at his students' digital images of the millsite in Point Park University's Lawrence Hall gallery. For more than 70 years, he said, steelworkers forged a work ethic and earned salaries that propelled them into the middle class, a step that helped their children get ahead.
If you can't drive to Rankin and visit Carrie Furnace on Oct. 15, the date for the last official public tour offered this year by Rivers of Steel, you can get a sense of what remains by looking at the students' images. Through this weekend, the pictures are on exhibit in Lawrence Hall at Wood Street and the Boulevard of the Allies.
The color images make up roughly half of an art exhibition called "Rivers of Steel at Point Park University."
Blast furnace No. 7 is silhouetted against a bright blue sky in a picture taken by Point Park senior Erin Price of Mars. While touring the sprawling industrial site, she experienced sensory overload.
"I was surprised by how there was a lot of graffiti everywhere, how rundown it was," Ms. Price said, adding that she would like to return to the mill with friends and family to see how they react to seeing the vast, empty buildings.
An image titled "No Smoking" by Carl Bloss is exceptionally well balanced. Jace Lumley's well-composed image of a building with boarded-up windows and graffiti conveys a sense of abandonment. Korryne Corriere's shot of electrical wire that has been pulled apart serves as a metaphor for an industry that unraveled. The students' work represents the hard, rusting reality of what remains but some of their work is also surreal.
The other half of the show, which stays on view through Dec. 30, includes colorful, romantic scenes and graphic depictions of the sprawling complexes that sent fiery plumes of exhaust into the sky. There are masterful paintings by Aaron Gorson, Robert Qualters and Ron Donoughe plus stark photographs by Clyde Hare and Mark Perrott.
Mr. Perrott's vast "October Sky" was taken in 1989, long after many of the white hot fires cooled in local mills, and tens of thousands of steelworkers had lost their jobs. The stark image is an elegy for a sweaty, productive era. Many of the canvases belong to Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area and rarely leave the Bost Building in Homestead. Admission is free.
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