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Unexpected Art in the Mon Valley

Rick finds art in an unexpected place at the Melega Art Museum.

On hot summer days when I need a quick getaway, I sometimes hop in the car and drive south on Route 88 into the Mon Valley. As you go upriver, there are towns to discover—from New Eagle to Elco to California. There are antique stores in Charleroi, all sorts of treats in Speers and Lenzi’s Italian restaurant in Monongahela—among other places. And on Market Street in Brownsville, there’s a small art museum in the unusual Historic Flatiron Building.

Like the Warhol, it’s a museum that celebrates the work of one artist. I first saw this unusual collection of paintings, sketches, sculptures and vintage commercial art in 2010 when we did a story there for my TV documentary, Right Beside the River. When I was looking for historic photos, Norma Ryan, former mayor and steadfast promoter of all things connected with Brownsville, insisted that I visit the tiny Melega Art Museum located above the town’s history museum. I was surprised at how much I liked Melega’s work. The museum has since moved downstairs into a storefront where more examples of Melega’s art can be displayed with all its thoughtful energy.

Frank L. Melega was born in Indiana but came to this corner of Pennsylvania when he was 14 years old after his dad received work as a coal miner. Growing up, Melega’s artistic talents were recognized by his teachers, and as a young man, he distinguished himself in several different disciplines—from sign painting and eye-catching advertising work to serious painting and sculpting. His work has been honored many times—often with Associated Artists of Pittsburgh and, most importantly, at the 1952 Carnegie International. He may be best known for his paintings and sketches of the lives and locales of coal miners at work and at home. 

I learned a lot about Melega and his history from Patrick Daugherty, an artist and teacher who I met at the museum one day. Daugherty, Ryan and Melega’s son, Frank, founded the museum as a tribute to Melega, who died in 1997 at age 92. Daugherty helped design and install the clever recreation of Melega’s studio that sits in a front corner of the museum.

The paneled walls are similar to the ones in the original studio, and the rest of the artifacts are relics from there, including Melega’s sign painter’s tackle box. Daugherty says, “Frank always claimed that, with that set of tools, he could get a job anywhere in the world as a sign painter.”

Daugherty also pointed out that Melega’s most famous for his painting of a woman washing her miner husband while he’s bent over a galvanized tub, which was created in 1941; it’s titled “Another Day” and has a Norman Rockwell-ian, all-American glow about it. Many of the other paintings are not so optimistic, and since Melega worked in a variety of styles, you can see influences from Impressionism to Cubism—and even Surrealism. Or, like me, you can fall in love with his Town Talk bread ads and other slick illustrations for products like Brownsville Beer, which isn’t there anymore. Art is all around us. 

 

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