The Art of Shipbuilding

A Portrait of the Artist Thomas Hart Benton in Ambridge During World War II



"Cut the Line" courtesy of Navy Art Collection. Big thanks to Gary Augustine.

Even in high school, I loved paintings by Thomas Hart Benton. His works have a kind of all-American goofy energy with a distinctive, slightly distorted style, lots of color and a blend of landscape and humans. History and folk legends are frequent subjects, and he sometimes places scenes from ancient mythology in rural America. Something about Benton's art tickles my brain.

Benton painted a lot of murals, many during the Depression, and the huge paintings that he did for the Missouri State Capitol are some of his most famous. He is often identified as one of the leaders of the art movement known as Regionalism, but I think his style evokes comic books as well as Norman Rockwell and lots of other influences. He lived from 1889 till 1975, and he created worlds that seem fluid: hills roll, smoke billows, clouds curve, elongated people bend in the wind, and everything seems to conform to the surface of the earth.

Anyway, earlier this year, while working on the WQED TV program called "Right Beside the River," I put together a story about the big warships called LSTs that were built beside the Ohio River during World War II. LST stood for Landing Ship Tanks. These large ships (longer than a football field) were designed to deliver a lot of tanks - and other supplies - onto beaches like the ones in Normandy and on Pacific Islands.

Dravo built LSTs first on Neville Island, and shortly thereafter American Bridge started putting them together in Ambridge. LSTs were the largest ships ever built around here.

I learned most of what I know about these vessels from Gary Augustine, a writer and historian from Sewickley who is working on a book about LSTs. We interviewed him near where the huge American Bridge shipyard was - Hussey Copper is there now - and Gary said he'd help us get pictures of all the things he was talking about. He had collected a lot of still photos and knew of a vintage American wartime propaganda film that showed the launching of an LST at this facility.

"There are also some great LST paintings and sketches," he said. "Thomas Hart Benton came to Ambridge in September of 1944 and drew and painted the shipyard here." Wow. He made 17 sketches and two paintings, one of them, "Cut the Line" (seen above), shows workers, officials and visitors getting prepared for a launch, flags waving, huge machinery all around, a giant hull ready to hit the water, with curious onlookers eagerly leaning in, as though their interest and enthusiasm will help push the ship down the skids! It's Benton at his best.

Gary also had a photo (seen at left) of Benton working in Ambridge - nattily dressed, sketchbook in his arms.

The LSTs proved to be crucial to the American war effort, but having some wonderful works of American art featuring these warships just makes them even more intriguing and mythic.

We didn't include the paintings or the sketches in the TV show - I thought it would take too long to explain them - but now I lean in toward these works of art, bending to get a better look, transported by the scenes, the subjects and the stories being told, fascinated by one artist's vision of local events in American history.

Rick Sebak produces, writes and narrates documentaries for WQED tv13, as well as national specials for PBS. His programs are available online or call 800/274-1307.

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh

Our exclusive list of the region's 584 leading physicians across 76 specialities.
Endless Challenges: 48 Remarkable Hours with 8 Pittsburgh Doctors

Endless Challenges: 48 Remarkable Hours with 8 Pittsburgh Doctors

Follow eight physicians over two days as they perform surgeries, consult on end-of-life care, treat accident victims, discuss hospital programs –– and then reset and do it all over again.
The Commoner — Too Much of a Good Thing?

The Commoner — Too Much of a Good Thing?

Chef Dennis Marron designs a menu of modern-American fare at The Commoner in the downstairs space of Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh.
What Inspires Ray Gastil's Careful Plan for Pittsburgh's Future

What Inspires Ray Gastil's Careful Plan for Pittsburgh's Future

How will the city’s new planning director stoke Pittsburgh’s next generation of developments?
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Date Night: Learning to be a Better Butcher

Date Night: Learning to be a Better Butcher

Forget dinner and movie — here are 5 ideas for a fun, non-traditional evening out in the ’Burgh.
Latest Weight-Loss Breakthrough: Swallow a Balloon

Latest Weight-Loss Breakthrough: Swallow a Balloon

Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Health Network is testing an alternative to traditional gastric bypass surgery.
Two Pittsburgh Restaurants Closing; Kings Leaving the Family

Two Pittsburgh Restaurants Closing; Kings Leaving the Family

One of the eateries has been a staple in Bloomfield for more than a half-century.
Who's Carson? Why Does He Have His Own Street?

Who's Carson? Why Does He Have His Own Street?

Some of the names synonymous with Pittsburgh have surprising histories behind them.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh

Our exclusive list of the region's 584 leading physicians across 76 specialities.
Endless Challenges: 48 Remarkable Hours with 8 Pittsburgh Doctors

Endless Challenges: 48 Remarkable Hours with 8 Pittsburgh Doctors

Follow eight physicians over two days as they perform surgeries, consult on end-of-life care, treat accident victims, discuss hospital programs –– and then reset and do it all over again.
The Commoner — Too Much of a Good Thing?

The Commoner — Too Much of a Good Thing?

Chef Dennis Marron designs a menu of modern-American fare at The Commoner in the downstairs space of Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh.
What Inspires Ray Gastil's Careful Plan for Pittsburgh's Future

What Inspires Ray Gastil's Careful Plan for Pittsburgh's Future

How will the city’s new planning director stoke Pittsburgh’s next generation of developments?
Dare to be Different — PittGirl's Better Ways to Use Social Media

Dare to be Different — PittGirl's Better Ways to Use Social Media

You can use social media to change your life and the lives of those around you in a positive way.
Pittsburgh's Top 10 in April

Pittsburgh's Top 10 in April

The 10 best things to do in April in Pittsburgh.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit Module