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Sculpture to get a home on the trail

Sunday, May 13, 2001

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For more than a year, an unusual steel sculpture called "The Unkillable Human," a protest against nuclear weapons and a call for world peace, has been standing in the back yard of a house in Regent Square.

Richard and Christine Doreian Michaels have stored "The Unkillable Human" by Frederick Franck in their Regent Square back yard. They hope to move the two-piece, 800-pound sculpture to a trail on the north shore of the Allegheny River. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

The house belongs to Richard and Christine Doreian Michaels, peace crusaders who've been searching for just the right permanent spot for the two-piece, black-painted artwork.

The sculpture was created by 95-year-old Frederick Franck, a New York artist and 1942 University of Pittsburgh Dental School graduate, as a tribute to the unquenchable human spirit and a call to recognize the horror of nuclear weapons.

Richard Michaels, a retired pediatrician and Pitt Medical School professor, and his wife Christine, a psychologist and poet, initially hoped the Human sculpture would be right for a "peace garden" that's been proposed for Point State Park.

The Pittsburgh garden would be similar to an existing Peace Park in Harrisburg that contains several works by Franck.

Point State Park has been ruled out for Franck's sculpture, however, because the sculpture's symbolism doesn't fit with a historical pre-Revolutionary War theme sought for the state-owned park.

So the couple has been seeking an alternative site, and now it looks as if they've found it -- a peaceful section of a walking/bicycling trail that runs along the northern shore of the Allegheny River.

The area is called the Allegheny Overlook and is east of the Veterans Bridge, near the H.J. Heinz Co. plant.

"The trail that goes by there allows for a space that's maybe 50 feet wide, right next to the river," Richard Michaels said. Helping design the space is local landscape architect Henry Hanson.

The site for the artwork was found with help from the Friends of the Riverfront, which also is working on the Point State Park peace garden.

If the city Art Commission gives its approval this month, the Unkillable Human will be moved to the North Shore.

Richard Michaels also plans to contact the Riverlife Task Force, a privately funded group examining development along the three rivers, to make sure it has no problems with putting the sculpture along the Allegheny.

Both pieces of the Human sculpture stand upright -- three-eighth-inch thick and more than 6 feet tall.

One depicts the outline of a human body, minus its right foot, that was cut out of a large flat piece of metal.

The second part of the sculpture, which is lined up directly behind and 30 feet away from the first piece, shows the human shape that was cut out of the first piece.

It can be viewed as the outline of a person who has burned into the side of a building. A small triangular-shaped hole, representing the man's heart, is cut out of the chest of the second piece.

The Michaelses said an outline of a human being was actually found burned into the concrete wall of a building after American forces dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.

The sculpture represents "the shadow of a person who really was irradiated at Hiroshima," Christine Michaels said. "All that was left was a shadow of him" on the wall.

"The heat of the atomic bomb that was exploded left a shadow of him on the concrete," Richard Michaels added. "That was the inspiration for the artist."

The sculpture, Christine Michaels said, shows, "The human part was killed but his soul is still left. The unkillable part remains. The physical is gone but the spiritual remains."

Franck, a native of Holland, was for years a practicing dentist as well as an artist. After graduating from Pitt, he worked for a while at Magee-Womens Hospital. He moved to New York City and worked for two years in the late 1950s as a dentist at an African clinic run by Dr. Albert Schweitzer.

Franck crafted Pittsburgh's "Unkillable Human" a year ago, at age 94. Besides Harrisburg, several other cities around the world have such sculptures by Franck.

He still lives and works in his house in Warwick, N.Y., near Port Jervis, off Interstate 84 just across the Pennsylvania state line. His estate is called Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), the name of the last encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII.

Because both sections of the sculpture contain metal with sharp points, it probably will have to be enclosed in clear plastic to keep viewers, especially children, from being injured, Richard Michaels said. The piece also will have to be painted every couple of years with rustproof paint to protect the metal from the weather.

Richard Michaels is a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a group of doctors formed in the mid-1950s to alert the world to the dangers of radiation and nuclear weapons. The Pittsburgh chapter has about 250 members.

Christine Michaels is a member of Peace Links, a 20-year-old group of women trying to promote world peace. Both groups support putting the sculpture along the river.

Richard Michaels said he and others interested in world peace donated about $3,000 for the materials needed for the sculpture, but Franck didn't charge them for his time and talent in creating it.

"It's his gift to us," Michaels said.

About 18 months ago, Michaels and some friends hauled the artwork -- with considerable difficulty because it's so heavy -- to Pittsburgh in a truck from Franck's studio in New York.

It's been resting in his back yard since, but soon should be in position for anyone walking, jogging or riding a bike along the North Shore to see.

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