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Photographer Michals to Mentor Young Artists

Legendary artist, filmmaker, 91, presenting three-day workshop in and around city

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
July 05, 2023
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Duane Michals, 91, shown here in a 2002 self-portrait taken in the ruins of his childhood home in McKeesport, will return to the city this month to mentor a group of aspiring local photographers. (Duane Michals photo © 2002)

Internationally known photographer and McKeesport native Duane Michals will return to his hometown this month to lead a three-day workshop for both aspiring and experienced local artists.

Michals, 91, a self-taught photojournalist whose works hang in galleries and museums around the world, will join with local artist and educator Richard Kelly on July 14, 15 and 16 to teach “Picture This: A Photo Experience” on location at several Mon Valley sites, including the former McKeesport Daily News Building and Carrie Furnaces in Rankin.

Although the three-day event is sold-out, the public also is invited to meet Michals, Kelly and other participants at 6:30 p.m. July 14 at the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center in Renziehausen Park.

Kelly, an adjunct instructor at Point Park University who previously taught at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, says he’s hoping the Michals visit sparks more creative interest in McKeesport and the surrounding area.

“One of Duane’s messages is that we can make magic here,” Kelly says. “We don’t have to go elsewhere to make magic.”

Kelly is scheduled to be joined during this workshop by Duquesne-based photographer and educator Curtis Reaves, Pittsburgh-based artists George Lange and Tim Kaulen, representatives of Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, and six to eight students from local colleges.

Michals will talk with students about his career and then collaborate with them to create a humorous film about William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” at Carrie Furnaces, Kelly said.

Students will work with digital cameras, film cameras, smartphones or whatever equipment they choose, he said. Michals, Kelly and other artists will then review and discuss the work with the participants.

In addition, Pittsburgh filmmaker Stephen Seliy, who produced the 2004 documentary “Duaneland,” exploring Michals’ childhood in McKeesport, will be following Michals and the class as he works on a new film.

“It will be chaotic and interesting at the same time,” Kelly said.

Kelly said he, Michals and Seliy are donating their time for the weekend.

Duane Michals self-portrait. (Submitted photo via Facebook)

More about Duane Michals from Amazon.com

Michals grew up in a neighborhood near the intersection of Spring Street and Jenny Lind Street in the city’s Third Ward. The Michals home is abandoned and the streets around it have been taken over by weeds and brush.

Michals last year announced plans to clear the neighborhood and create what he calls a “pipe palace” commemorating McKeesport’s steel-making heritage.

Seliy said this week that plans for the “pipe palace” have shifted slightly. Rather than the large sculpture originally proposed, organizers now envision a smaller project that would include clearing the vacant lots around the former Michals home and creating a nature preserve, he said.

Plans — which are still tentative — also include developing mosaics about the history of McKeesport and a nature trail that would link the Carnegie Library of McKeesport, the McKeesport Little Theater, Twin Rivers Elementary School and Michals’ old neighborhood, he said.

Seliy said Michals and his friends have formed a non-profit corporation to spearhead the “pipe palace” project and are actively soliciting funds from Pittsburgh-area charitable foundations.

The movie that Seliy is making will document Michals’ efforts to leave a permanent legacy to his hometown.

Although Michals has lived in New York City since the 1960s, his family and childhood in McKeesport have been consistent themes in his work, and his ties to the city have been explored in two of his books, “The House I Once Called Home: A Photographic Memoir with Verse” (2004) and “ME Keesport” (2022).

Michals is calling this month’s events “Sonny returns to the scene of the crime.”

In an email, Michals said he is encouraging participants to create stories that “evoke magic, create alchemy, exploration, discovery, innovation, wizardry, fantasy, life, love, despair, death, joy, anger, wonder, whimsy, ecstasy, hope, lightness, or possibly clowns.”

Although Michals’ participation is likely to be a one-time-only event, Kelly is hopeful that with Michals’ encouragement and continued support from the arts community, photography workshops in the Mon Valley may become an annual or semi-annual experience.

Originally published July 05, 2023.

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