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Steelers Students thrilled their art will hang in Heinz Field

High schools provide 60 concourse murals

Wednesday, August 01, 2001

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

From the second Allderdice art teacher Ron Sobolewski got word of the idea, he loved it. How better to decorate the new football stadium than to ask local high-school art students to help?

So as soon as he got a letter from the Steelers asking if he and his students were interested in painting a 4-foot by 5-foot ceramic tile mural to hang in the concourses of Heinz Field, he started talking about the project in class. The students were full of ideas, from featuring the school's mascot, a dragon, to listing the diversified neighborhoods where Allderdice students live to incorporating the autograph of graduate and current NFL player Curtis Martin into the design.

Now, after what Sobolewki's son Ben, one of the artists, guessed was at least 50 hours of work, the Allderdice mural is part of Heinz Field.

A tall ship navigates a gridiron in a ceramic tile mural designed by Perry Traditional Academy students. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

"It's permanent," Ron Sobolewski said. "If this lasts for 30 years like Three Rivers Stadium, these kids will be able to take their kids here and say, 'Look. Mom was part of that.'"

Steelers president Dan Rooney came up with the idea in 1999. His brother, Art, put the idea into practice in the spring of 2000, sending letters to 96 schools that had won WPIAL or City League titles and asking if they were interested in submitting designs for the murals.

"I was absolutely thrilled," said Mount Alvernia art teacher Carolyn Armitage, who read a newspaper article about the project around Thanksgiving that indicated there was still space for mural and encouraged her students to submit a design even though the all-girls school has no football team.

"It's like having your child do something tremendous. One of mine just graduated from college, and this feeling is similar -- your children have completed something permanent that is great to have."

The requirements weren't particularly strict. The letter from the Steelers said the design should answer the question, "What does football mean to you and your high school?"

With such a broadly defined topic, no two of the 60 murals are alike.

The Beaver Falls artists, of course, made sure to work into their design alumnus and Super Bowl hero Joe Namath. Two students from North Catholic featured the Rooneys themselves, both Dan (Class of 1950) and Art ('53). At Monessen, where art teacher Jaison Biagini got word of the project not long after long-time high school football coach -- and all-around good guy -- Jack Scarvel had died, eight students jumped at the chance to honor Scarvel.

"He was Monessen," Biagini said. "It's fitting to put him."

Other schools chose to honor their own football teams; the football player in the middle of the mural from North Hills, for instance, wears No. 87, the year the Indians won the national championship, and stars around the poster commemorate the team's state and WPIAL titles.

Still others combined football history with community history. The only player number in the mural from Steel Valley is 71, for the year high schools from Munhall, Homestead and West Homestead merged. The artists from Highlands made their school mascot, a Ram, the centerpiece, and put the mascots of the two schools that merged to form their school in the background.

"We wanted to show the history of the school," senior Joel Panach said. "It was tough because we only had a 4-foot by 5-foot mural to do it in."

And at Mount Alvernia, the only girls' school that participated, the artists made sure to paint not only a football, but a basketball in the corner for the school's seven WPIAL basketball championships. Most of the design, however, is based on a theme of molten steel.

Explained senior Danielle Leach, "We wanted to show that Pittsburgh is a hard-working city."

One of the most creative designs can be found outside section 106, at the end of the Great Hall. There hangs the project from South Allegheny High School, featuring a man whose fan club was based just down the road from the school, in Port Vue -- placekicker Roy Gerela and Gerela's Gorillas.

The top half of the mural, designed on a computer by sophomore Brent Fiore, features Gerela in action. In the right bottom corner, there is a gorilla wearing a South Allegheny baseball cap.

"When our teacher gave us the idea, we were like, 'Who are Gerela's Gorillas?'" said junior Dylan Scheirer. "Now we know all about them."

Asked how much work went into the murals, most of the students groaned and laughed. "Too much," joked George Zappas of North Hills.

Most artists came up with their mural designs by sorting through dozens of ideas from dozens of students. At Monessen, the students even considered the style in which they wanted to paint, settling on the Impressionistic style of Vincent Van Gogh. Then the students had to sketch the drawings and submit them to the Steelers. Once approved, they picked up the tile supplied by the team, and then even harder work began.

They had to transfer their drawing onto the tiles; "We traced it probably 100 times," said Mt. Alvernia's Sherry Golebiewski.

They painted the tiles with glaze. "Some of them we had to paint twice," said South Allegheny junior Rob Bentley. "Because the first time, we got it wrong."

Then they had to wait for the pieces of tile -- there are 63 in each mural -- to be fired.

Plenty of students spent 50, 60 or 70 hours on their mural, coming in before school, staying afterward and even putting in the occasional weekend appearance.

Said Sobolewski, "It's an honor to have your art in a public setting, and that's why the students worked so hard."

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