Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributor
Ron Donoughe has devoted much of his career to chronicling Western Pennsylvania with a canvas and brush. A plein air painter, Donoughe spent 2019 at his easel in all the towns of the Mon Valley, capturing life along the river. The project resulted in 60 paintings, about 50 of which have been assembled in a book just released by the University of Pittsburgh Press, “Brownsville to Braddock: Paintings and Observations of the Monongahela River Valley.”
Donoughe took his time to walk around these mill towns and get a feel for them, allowing places to reveal their light and life. There is the grandeur of Carrie Furnace and the whimsy of the Thunderbolt, the movement of the Mon under the Lane Bane Bridge, the elegiac feel of non-operational Elrama power plant, and the streets and alleys of Donora and Monessen, Monongahela and McKeesport. Donoughe’s is a unique view of the life of a region.
“There’s a lot of natural beauty and industrial landscape to document. It’s really my mission: to document Western Pennsylvania,” Donoughe told the Current. “It was something I wanted to learn about. I thought it would be a good time to shine a light on a region that doesn’t get a lot of good press.”
The paintings were photographed beautifully by Ric Evans and the collection produces a more complete picture of towns often misunderstood and mischaracterized as the sum total of the economic ravages and challenges they face. These communities are not only their histories or a ledger entry; they are alive and breathing. Donoughe’s painting captures the humanity and beauty in under appreciated spaces and neighborhoods.
The mills aren’t always there, but in some ways they are. Donoughe uses every shade of gray in his paintbox to bring new vision to the region’s silvery skies and the shuttered and operational mills all along the valley.
“It’s part of who we are here, it’s part of our heritage,” he said. “I don’t think these mills were built to be beautiful objects, but in some weird way, they are. They’re cloud factories — all the muted grays and browns. They’re fascinating. They have a life to them.”
He doesn’t focus exclusively on the industrial leviathans. There are modest homes, church steeples, alleyways, bridges and the river. There are also several abandoned houses and warehouses, all in various states of nature’s repatriation.
“I did a warehouse in the book and a tree was growing right up through the middle,” he explained. “[The buildings] start taking on even the color of the ground from the bottom up, I’m noticing that as I paint these things. There is a certain poetry to it.”
Donoughe lists the Ashcan painters of the late-19th and early-20th century as one of the influences of his work. Those painters just went out and painted what they saw — tenements, dockyards, train stations and crowded park benches. Like them, he uncovers the beauty in the grays and browns and greens that make up the intersection of Appalachia and industry. Sometimes, people just don’t appreciate the view around them. Donoughe says, “they don’t know what they’re missing.”
This isn’t the first time he has undertaken a sweeping project. There were the 100 paintings of the Altoona-Johnstown area where Donoughe grew up that make up his Labor Landscape. And he undertook paintings of the 90 neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. He’s worked on large painting projects in Indiana and Lawrence Counties. He likes being able to spend a significant amount of time in one area — to really not be a casual observer, to dig in to try to feel the spirit of a place.
Working on site allows him to see the light shift and the clouds move. Donoughe feels like the smell of the river and the biting cold of a 12 degree morning all make it onto the canvas.”I’m using all my senses and somehow that gets into the work. And I think it makes it more authentic,” he said.
When he’s out working, locals approach him all the time. One doesn’t often stumble across a painter parked at his easel in a random alley in Clairton. Donoughe decided to include in this book are photos of the people and bits of their stories — the stories of the Mon Valley — that they shared with him.
“Since I don’t paint people, really, I wanted to show that these places are full of people and a diverse crowd of people,” Donoughe explained. “I think it warmed [the collection] in a way that shows the humanity of the folks who are down there. It meant a lot to me. They were all so darned nice. They were all so willing to talk to me, to have a conversation and tell me about their experiences. I wanted to go to the streets and the places where I painted and tap into that human spirit.”