Teenie Harris, ‘Silver Clouds’ and the inexplicable charm of Pittsburgh in February
We found sweetness and light in the City of Bridges.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series about our first visit to this historic city last weekend. Look for Part 2 about Billie Eilish and the art of radical care over the next few days.
Pittsburgh is a resilient place.
The city of 600,000 in Western Pennsylvania was one of the country’s early economic centers, boosted by the nearby coal mines of Appalachia and a steel industry that made possible the railroad expansion west.
By the 1960s, the wartime boom was over and the city faced a level of deindustrialization seen in few other American cities. Its population fell by half over the next forty years, leaving behind a gilded city trying to find its new shine.
Relics from the Carnegie/Mellon/Heinz era — stunning buildings, such as the Cathedral of Learning on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh and the nearby Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History — are what draw many people to visit Pittsburgh today, but the city is thriving in other ways, particularly its art scene.
But it wasn’t until I experienced this place that I started to understand why Pittsburgh looms in the American psyche in ways this Midwest-born Texan wasn’t fully aware.
I knew that Andy Warhol and Fred Rogers were born in the same year (1928), on opposite sides of Pittsburgh. I knew that both became icons of creativity and individual expression through their very different career paths, but it was another Pittsburg artist who left the most notable imprint on me after this trip.
Charles “Teenie” Harris was a staff photographer at the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the oldest Black newspapers in the country, from 1936 to 1975, leaving an archive of more than 80,000 images that is now housed at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
In 2020, the museum unveiled a permanent exhibit featuring some of Harris’ photos, which we stumbled upon during our visit. (You can also browse the entire collection on the museum’s website. Try entering words like “picnic” or “hair salon” or “summer camp” to start your exploration.)
Harris documented Black life in Pittsburgh with a loving gaze. A row of elderly women sitting on swings with their stooped-but-still-standing husbands behind them. Two fresh faced girls kneeling at the foot of a woman who had been born into slavery.
A shop owner leaning against a window, staring confidently into the camera as she waited for customers. Boys gleefully playing marbles. A young boxer with a smile and a tear. A row of co-ed roller skaters dressed in their 1950s finest, leaning forward so that they are all balancing on one skate, steading themselves by holding onto one another’s shoulders.
The exhibit featured a quote from Henry Louis Gates Jr., who said, “If there are 42 million African Americans, then there are 42 million ways to be Black.” Harris’ camera captured moments from these lives, and these images brought to life a part of Pittsburgh (and American) history that felt like its own bridge from the past to the present.
Harris spent his entire career in Pittsburgh, and of all the Yinzers I met (the regional term for Pittsburgh residents), all of them were born and raised there.
It seems that if you or your family didn’t leave during the mid-century exodus, you’re in Pittsburgh to stay.
At the Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum on the North Side that originally opened in 1977, we met a twentysomething Pittsburgh native who grew up going to the city’s museums and now works at what we learned is one of the oldest site-specific art museums in the county, where artists-in-residence create works according to the spaces available.
Some of the rooms have permanent pieces, including two Infinity Room constructions from Yayoi Kusama and James Turrell’s Danaë, an early example in his Aperture series, both of which captivated my Instagram-loving teen.
Neil, the museum worker, said he fell in love with art, generally, because of these pieces, specifically. Walking into a room and becoming part of the art was an experience that changed his life as a young man, and now he welcomes visitors who are seeking their own brush with the divine.
I had my own immersive art moment that nearly knocked the wind out of me, but it was a few blocks away at the Andy Warhol Museum, which opened in 1994 and pays homage to a man who left Pittsburgh but could never really leave.
The museum is a retrospective of Warhol’s life, starting with his earliest works as a teenager, the son of recent immigrants from Poland, and then a student at what is now Carnegie Mellon University. I’ve seen more Warhols than one probably needs to in their life, but I still learned a lot about the artist at the museum.
I remembered that I love his work the same way I love the chicken noodle soup that comes from those famous cans. It’s familiar, nostalgic and so ingrained in my brain that I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t seen his particular brand of Pop Art.
But one piece I hadn’t seen — hadn’t even heard of — was called “Silver Clouds,” a collection of 25 floating shiny balloons, a piece he debuted at a New York gallery in 1966, as a middle finger to Donald Judd, it turns out. (Judd and Warhol had been spatting, and Judd had just introduced his stacked metal boxes in the same gallery earlier in the year.)
Walking into this room, Julian and I had the entire space to ourselves — a benefit of sight-seeing on a Monday in early February — and we could hear the quiet breeze from the fans that moved the balloons gently through the air.
The silver laminate pillows crinkle ever-so-softly when they bump into each other, and visitors are allowed to touch them. It’s the closest thing to touching an actual cloud that I’ve ever experienced, and the child-like delight in my heart is what took my breath away.
Let it be easy, I thought. Be in this moment. You’re here with your eldest child who isn’t getting any younger. You aren’t getting any younger.
What will you do with this one wild and precious life?
This. Exactly this.
A softball formed in my throat, and my mask couldn’t contain the smile on my face or the tears in my eyes.
We stood there, mesmerized. In awe of this perfect moment.
That happened again and again on this adventure.
We didn’t get to the Heinz History Center, the August Wilson African American Cultural Center (named for playwright who died in 2005) or the Carnegie Science Center (which has the traveling Pompeii exhibit right now), so I guess we’ll have to return for another visit sometime, but all this Pittsburgh adventuring has me thinking about wealth and legacies and how we build bridges from the past to the future.
Over the next couple of newsletters, I want to tell you about that once-in-a-lifetime concert and another humbling, magical moment I had at a place that reminded me of Austin, but for now, I’ll leave you with a quote from Andrew Carnegie, whose dream for Pittsburgh as a destination for learning and for wonder is now its reality.
The iron-and-steel baron once wrote about his desire to give away his money to create libraries, museums and educational institutions that would contribute to “enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light.”
Sweetness and light.
That’s what life is all about, right?
What an unimaginable gift to taste another city’s sweetness, to bask in their light.
A quick note of thanks (as always!) for your support on Substack. It’s officially been ONE YEAR since I moved from Wordpress to Substack, and some of you have been with me since the very beginning.
To those of you early subscribers and to the folks who have just signed up, I’m incredibly grateful for your readership on this platform, which allows me to write three-part series about places like Pittsburgh. Or a nature sanctuary in upper Wisconsin. Or a basketball court in East Austin. Or the inside of my heart.
See you soon,