Peculiar Pittsburgh

In Pittsburgh art, beauty and fries are in the eye of the beholder

This is a story of a lasting — albeit unintentional — testament to this city’s greatest vice. A window into our french-fried souls.   

burgh french fry sculpt
PHOTOS VIA PITTSBURGH OFFICE OF PUBLIC ART AND FLICKR
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A roadside monument to french fries might be a little on the nose in center city Pittsburgh. But some truths are self-evident, and so here we are.

If you’ve ever driven down Bigelow Boulevard slow enough, you’ve likely noticed it: The batonnet-cut, golden-hued work of art towering mirage-like in the weeds of Frank Curto Park.

“What’s up with the french fry-looking sculpture in the park along Bigelow Boulevard?” an observant Peculiar Pittsburgh reader asked.

Well, it’s a story of a famous sculptor, a city-wide art project, and a lasting — albeit unintentional — testament to this city’s greatest vice. A window into our french-fried souls.

Here’s a quick rundown of what we found out about the piece, before the fries get cold.

John Henry's "Pittsburgh" sculpture, also known as "The french fry sculpture," is pictured in Frank Curto Park off Bigelow Boulevard.

John Henry's "Pittsburgh" sculpture, also known as "The french fry sculpture," is pictured in Frank Curto Park off Bigelow Boulevard.

COURTESY OF THE PITTSBURGH OFFICE OF PUBLIC ART

“Pittsburgh”

The piece, officially titled “Pittsburgh,” was created by sculptor John Henry in 1977 for The Three Rivers Arts Festival’s Sculpturescape project, according to the city’s art collection inventory.

Henry, a native of Lexington, Ky., was one of four sculptors invited to participate in the project, which included works built with donated materials and funded by Pittsburgh-area corporations — Alcoa, Levinson Steel, National Steel, and Tygart Industries, for example.

Henry completed the piece in a month. After the year-long exhibition, a major collector bought the sculpture and gave it to the city.

It resided for a time at the University of Pittsburgh, near the Hillman Library, before being moved to its current location in Frank Curto Park, above the Strip District. Through the years, the park has been used to house numerous pieces of public art — and, on at least one occasion, human remains.

John Henry's "Pittsburgh" sculpture is pictured by the Hillman Library in Oakland.

John Henry's "Pittsburgh" sculpture is pictured by the Hillman Library in Oakland.

COURTESY PITTSBURGH OFFICE OF PUBLIC ART

Henry’s contribution is among the largest of these artworks, consisting of approximately 38′ x 70′ x 30′ of painted aluminum.

And while it’s officially titled “Pittsburgh,” it’s more often referred to as “french fries” or “the french fry sculpture,” a Rorschachian colloquialism if ever we’ve heard one.

And, yes, “The ‘French Fries’ are (still) owned by the city,” Pittsburgh’s Public Art and Civic Design Manager, Yesica Guerra, wrote in an email.

So that’s that.

Or maybe not. Because actually getting to see the piece up close, free from the confines of a vehicle hurtling down Bigelow, is maybe a little less straightforward.

Mike Gable, director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works, said because of its location, the park isn’t frequented by many patrons, except maybe on fireworks nights.

“Vehicles can drive in off the road, but it can be stressful at times trying to enter back onto the highway further through the park,” Gable added of the park’s island-like positioning.

And while we had him, we figured we’d ask Gable to answer one more reader question, this one a quintessentially Pittsburgh query having nothing to do with french fries or public art and everything to do with a vexing, unkempt yard.

“What’s the scoop on the poorly maintained park along Bigelow Blvd, Frank Curto Park? It seems never mowed!” a concerned reader asked us.

Gable said the city made the decision to let the park “go more natural” and is only cutting the grass in specific areas. (It’s worth noting that the park is named for Frank Curto, a former chief horticulturist with the city.)

“We generally cut our turf 19 to 25 times per year depending on weather conditions,” Gable added.

So, just to recap, you can visit Frank Curto Park to see Henry’s work up close, though it might be easier to just drive to Chattanooga, Tenn., to see his contributions to the massive Sculpture Fields at Montague Park there, which he founded on a 33-acre brownfield site overlooked by his home.

And, yes, Henry is still a prolific sculptor whose work dots the globe, though we imagine there’s only one city heavily starched enough to see a realist depiction of fried potatoes in the abstract.


Now that you’ve been inspired by other answer-seekers, submit your own questions here:

Peculiar Pittsburgh questions

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