In the shadow of the Steel Tower, a soon-to-be dismantled abstract mosaic mural brightens the inside of a nondescript pedestrian tunnel beneath Bigelow Boulevard, and soon preservationists will adorn the work with hand-crafted valentines.
In hues of teal, gold, orange, and red, the 1960s mural is the creation of the late Virgil Cantini. As part of the I-579 cap and park project, the mosaic panels will be removed this year, then stored and relocated, Ray Gastil, director of Pittsburgh City Planning, told The Incline.
“We plan to identity a new location within two years, and secure resources and have the re-installation underway within five,” Gastil said, adding that one panel has already been successfully removed without damage, and it now sits in city storage.
“Before it’s gone, we’re going to show it some love,” said Matthew Craig, executive director of the Young Preservationists Association, which is hosting an event on Feb. 9 called Heart Bombs for Preservation.
Anyone young at heart is invited to attend the event, craft some valentines, and post their creations at the mural.
“Before they’re gone, there are still a lot of people passing through that tunnel. We think it’s a heartfelt sendoff,” Craig said. “It’s kind of like a tongue-in-cheek way to demonstrate that, ‘hey these places need some attention, and they’re not getting any.'”
The group understands the need for the construction project, which will fill in the tunnel, he said, but they want an answer to where the mural will be placed once it’s dismantled, and they want to bring awareness to the impending changes.
“Come Monday morning when commuters are walking by, they’ll see all these heart bombs,” he said. “To get people to look and to notice — and to seek a conversation about the places that are neglected.”
Heart bombs have become an annual tradition for the Young Preservationists Association as a way to draw attention to threatened historic sites. Previous iterations have included sites in the Hill District and the North Side — “significant places that need some love,” he said.
The association will provide donuts, coffee, and all the materials for valentines (yes, they will clean up the valentines later, as not to litter). To participate, meet at the association’s office at 700 River Ave. on the North Shore.
Young preservationists were part of the advocacy to save the murals, and now it’s important to determine their permanent home thorough a “community-driven solution,” Craig said.
“Virgil Cantini was really speaking the language of the art world of his time. It is an artifact of a very specific time as expressed by a local artist,” he said.
While some people pass by the murals and don’t notice them, others have remarked on their significance, he said, adding that the heart bombs are aimed at getting people to notice again because these pieces are special.
“To me, it’s this notion that as an early piece of commissioned public art, that was meant to be on some levels healing because of the destruction of the Lower Hill for urban redevelopment and the creation of the Civic Arena. This was meant to be a pathway, as it was, from one side to the other. In today’s context it’s harder to see that because of Crosstown Boulevard,” he said. “The mural itself is supposed to represent the city, and Cantini was really just trying to put into this abstract art all of these ideas.”
Ideally, he said, the heart bombs will offer a “playful response” to a serious issue in a place that’s simultaneously right Downtown but also remote.
“It’s almost like a secret part of Pittsburgh,” Craig said. “We’re going to show Pittsburghers a secret part of their city and hope that they will come away with a newfound respect for this work.”