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Walkabout: Painting as an act of devotion

Wednesday, July 28, 1999

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

I wait at an Oakland intersection for a man on a bicycle. When one glides toward me, I decide this must be Felix de la Concha.

He stops, committing to the sidewalk a left foot in a sneaker of the type people wore before anyone jogged, a dime store sneaker, dark blue and unstrung. One of his pants legs is rolled up, revealing a delicate ankle. He apologizes for being late but I do not mind. I made sure I was early because this is his morning and he has to find the right place to paint while it is still morning.

We cross the boulevard and stop on Thora Way, an alley from where the Cathedral of Learning is low in the sky. A billboard and a collage of houses and chunky buildings own the foreground.

Felix begins unpacking his bike, the wooden paint box behind the seat, the tiny easel and tiny tripod stool along the frame. His canvas is just 9 by 11 inches. In front of us, in a parking lot, a man steps from a Lexus. He asks, "Are you a surveyor?" and Felix says, "I'm a painter."

Every morning that it's possible, the 37-year-old native of Leon, Spain, rides from his home in Bloomfield to find a different view of the Cathedral of Learning to paint. His suite of paintings has inspired an exhibit at the Carnegie, "One A Day: 365 Views of the Cathedral of Learning, 1997-1999," that runs through Sept. 19.

"In the beginning, I didn't have in mind such an ambitious way," he says. Many days he couldn't go out, including during trips home to Spain. But in almost two years, he has painted nearly every calendar day. The ones he has yet to paint are these days, from when you read this until Aug. 24. Each day, he drops off a fresh view at the museum, where it is hung, still wet.

Slight and boyish-looking, Felix has exhibited his work in Spain, Italy, Chile, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico and Columbus, Ohio, where his girlfriend had applied at Ohio State to work on her doctorate. They visited Pittsburgh one summer weekend in '97.

"When we came through the tunnel," he says, "I said, 'Ana, maybe you could apply here instead?' "

In devotion to theme, Felix had set earlier precedents, as an art student. He painted 23 views of a single tree in Rome and 360-degree panoramas of his kitchen in Madrid. Of Pittsburgh, he says, "This is a fascinating place. I love the architecture."

Several days after watching Felix paint, I visit his exhibit at the Carnegie. As soon as I walk into the gallery, a lump forms in my throat. It isn't so much the cathedral as everything that appears in the picture with it. It shows up beyond our rooftops and chimney pots, through the foliage and spindly winter branches, and it looms beside our modest awnings, fences and street signs. It sits framed between posts of our elegant summer porches, obscured by November rains, ghostly in gray-pink twilights. It appears at the end of a row of tombstones.

When seen as one body of work, these perspectives amount to a love affair.

I watch from my seat in the grassy strip just behind him as he begins making shadowy outlines of forms in charcoal with his right hand. He clutches a dozen paintbrushes in his left. He washes bluish gray paint into the sky as indefinite clouds putter toward the cathedral, then he dabs in more gray, more white. He glances intensely from the canvas to the cathedral, as if he is watching a tennis match.

In its bed of dirty sky, the cathedral under his brush seems to be growing, not in size but toward me. He trails a frail brush over the cathedral, like a woman putting on eye liner, and suddenly arches appear, angles jut from various levels, and there is a suggestion of windows.

The man walks toward his Lexus. "So you're a painter," he says, pausing to look at Felix. He looks at me and makes a little hrrumph sound: "I didn't know this neighborhood was worth painting."

Diana Nelson Jones can be reached by e-mail at: djones@post-gazette.com



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