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Famed Artist Plans Project in Hometown

Photographer Duane Michals envisions ‘pipe palace’ as monument to past, future

By Alisha Tarver
The Tube City Almanac
June 02, 2022
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Matt Gergely, president of the board of McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center; Duane Michals; and McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko during their recent meeting. (Tube City Almanac photo)

McKeesport native and world-renowned artist Duane Michals recently celebrated his 90th birthday. But he’s the one who wants to offer a gift.

A photographer and storyteller whose portraits are on display in galleries and museums around the world, Michals, who now lives in New York City, has created a proposal for what he calls the “McKeesport Pipe Palace.”

Last week, Michals met with McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko to discuss his plans and possible locations for the sculpture.

A child of steelworkers, Michals closely relates to the industrial history of the Mon Valley and the citizens who contributed to it.

“If you go to Pittsburgh, you have the Carnegie Museum and the Frick Museum. There’s no kind of salute to the people who did all the work in the mills for decades,” Michals says. “I want to remind everyone what once happened there (McKeesport), who those people were, and how hard they worked.”

Michals has recruited an architect and a landscape architect to prepare preliminary drawings. The planning team is currently researching possible locations. Michals says his goal is to build the monument as soon as possible.

“It’s about the future of McKeesport, not the past. I want it (the McKeesport Pipe Palace) to create a place of destination,” he says.

Michals is creating a nonprofit organization he’s calling McKeesport Inc. to coordinate fundraising for the project. He says that ideally, the structure will be made of locally produced steel, including pipe from McKeesport-based Durabond.

“The Duane Michals Project not only pays homage to McKeesport’s industrial past and the things Mr. Michals experienced here in his youth,” Cherepko says, “it has the potential to create yet another destination in our fine city. We are in the process of researching possible locations for a modern monument and parklet where residents and visitors can gather and see something new.”

The design and construction process will be documented with a film by Stephen Seliy, filmmaker and native Pittsburgher. Seliy, who retired from a career in commercial filmmaking, now produces documentaries about social justice issues through his company, Silver Lake Films.

Seliy directed and produced a film entitled “Duaneland” in 2004, that highlighted Michals as an artist and educator and examined his relationship to his hometown.

Seliy’s next documentary will document the journey as Michals plans and builds the McKeesport Pipe Palace.

“We are our stories,” Seliy says. “This isn’t looking back and saying how great McKeesport used to be. This (project) is saying what happened was important but what’s happening now is just as important as what happened then.”

Michals also has recruited the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center, which operates a museum in Renzie Park dedicated to McKeesport and the Mon Valley, to help with the project.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to highlight McKeesport’s history through the eyes of such a talented and profound artist as Duane Michals,” says Matthew Gergely, heritage center board president. “His vision and proposed sculpture will draw on the history of our city and our region, which is really what we’re all about.”
“As the historic authority of this community, the center is proud to partner with Mr. Michals and his team to ensure this project meets the public,” he says.

Michals envisions building the sculpture in a wooded area somewhere along the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail. The design and location have not been finalized.

Michals was born and raised in McKeesport on a dirt road named High Street, and comes from a close-knit working-class family. He began exploring art by taking weekend classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

At 90, Michals says he continues to grow and navigate his career, and he has optimism for the future.

“I have an energy I got from my grandmother,” he says. “We would be sitting there watching Ed Sullivan. There’d be singing and she would smack me on the arm and say you can sing better than he can so why aren’t you on television? I grew up with that kind of energy.”

Alisha Tarver is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. She graduated from Penn State Greater Allegheny in 2021 with a Bachelor's in Corporate Communications. Her interests include reading and participating in conversations about social justice issues. This is her first story for Tube City Almanac.

Originally published June 02, 2022.

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