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Artist captures city's soul in its landscape

Thursday, November 29, 2001

Ron Donoughe is a vista collector. He paints landscapes every day, from hilltops hither and yon. As I ride shotgun in his truck from his studio in Lawrenceville to a hilltop in Reserve, the sky is overcast. Doesn't matter.

"I've started to really embrace these kinds of days because it makes you feel a certain way," he says as we cross the 40th Street Bridge.

It makes you feel like you're in Pittsburgh, that's for sure. We cross the Allegheny and soon I'm on a road I've never traveled, Logan Street in Millvale, which rises at what seems a 30-degree angle.

"Pittsburgh is a painter's paradise," Donoughe, 43, says. "There's so much variety and texture."

Soon enough we pull over in a quiet slice of suburbia, Pittview Avenue. Some kids are walking home from school. The moisture has made the afternoon blue-gray or maybe blue-violet. Donoughe is interested in how colors change over distance, and we have come to a place where that plays out.

He breaks out his easel, oil paints and an 8-by-10-inch birch panel. Then he puts on his wide-brimmed hat. Stepping over a guard rail, he sets himself up on a bluff facing the city. The skyline is a couple of milky miles to the southwest. In the middle distance are the homes of Troy Hill, reminiscent now of a model railroad set. A brown hillside slopes down from our right to our left, and a handful of evergreens frame a red and white house just a few hundred yards ahead.

The scene is not so much pretty as it is stunning. Donoughe has painted on and off here for a couple of years, yet, with the changing light and weather and seasons, he never sees the same place twice.

He sketches the skyline's outline in gray paint and fills in the USX Tower with a darker gray. He is not looking to replicate every detail; this is not photography. Donoughe is more novelist than journalist.

"You bring something to a landscape by being out here," he says. "The spirit of the landscape somehow gets into your work. You're using all your senses."

About this time, a truck stops behind us. A worker who is carting a couple of road-kill deer to who-knows-where tells Donoughe he's painting "a masterpiece." Then the man drives on.

"Sometimes I think I'm responding to the way Pittsburgh feels as much as the way it looks."

He wasn't always a full-time painter. He used to go to a day job as a graphic artist in a shop on the lower North Side, but every walk through the park reminded him of what he was missing. His wife, Tracey Seder Donoughe, a potter at Penn Avenue Pottery, told him, "You'll never be happy unless you quit your job and try this."

So he did. With two young children at home, he walked away from the steady paychecks in 1990. He has made ends meet in the years since by teaching at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and La Roche College, designing art books and installing museum exhibits. He has now reached a point where he has almost weaned himself from the part-time stuff, and he and a handful of others around town are launching a revival of plein-air painting, painting in the open air.

Born and raised between Altoona and Johnstown in rural Cambria County, Donoughe says it took him five or 10 years to warm up to the urban landscape after moving here in 1980. He had to drive to the country to paint. But once he digested what Pittsburgh was about, it became his constant muse.

In about 45 minutes, working from big shapes to small, from large brushes to small, he has a field sketch. It's not yet completely in focus, but Donoughe will return the very next dreary morning to finish it.

That's all he wants to do, seven days a week. He is driven to reveal Pittsburgh's soul. When we return to his studio at the corner of Main and Butler, just down the street from his home, I look again at the hundreds of decidedly non-postcard looks at Western Pennsylvania.

"I'm glad when the sun goes down," Donoughe confesses. "Then I don't have to paint anymore."

Brian O'Neill's e-mail address is boneill@post-gazette.com

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