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

Review: Salt of the Earth

Review: Salt of the Earth

Brandon Fisher is the latest chef behind Salt of the Earth’s modern-American dishes.
2014 Pittsburgher of the Year Award: The Fred Rogers Company

2014 Pittsburgher of the Year Award: The Fred Rogers Company

Sharing the DNA of the father of children’s television, the Fred Rogers Company reinvigorates a beloved legacy while creating new hit characters and content that help children to grow, giggle and learn.
Update: The McMutrie Sisters' Mission 5 Years After the Haiti Earthquake

Update: The McMutrie Sisters' Mission 5 Years After the Haiti Earthquake

Jamie and Ali McMutrie were PM's 2010 Pittsburghers of the Year after airlifting 54 youngsters to safety. Now, they have forged a relationship with a major global player to continue their work to prevent struggling Haitian families from surrendering children to orphanages.
PittGirl's New Year's Resolutions for Pittsburghers

PittGirl's New Year's Resolutions for Pittsburghers

Four ways to make the city even better in 2015.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Destined to be a Classic: Pittsburgh Penguins 'Christmas Vacation' Parody Video

Destined to be a Classic: Pittsburgh Penguins 'Christmas Vacation' Parody Video

Evegeni Malkin is priceless at the end.
This Weekend: Chris Jamison & the Steelers, Pens & Ugly Sweaters, Mayor Undercover

This Weekend: Chris Jamison & the Steelers, Pens & Ugly Sweaters, Mayor Undercover

Some cool things to watch out for this weekend in the ’Burgh.
#Oops — Or, About that Headline . . .

#Oops — Or, About that Headline . . .

Once in a while, no good deed goes unpunished.
Now Online: Two New Cameras to Keep an Eye on Pittsburgh’s Bald Eagles

Now Online: Two New Cameras to Keep an Eye on Pittsburgh’s Bald Eagles

A Murrysville security company has installed the new cameras, which provide sharper images of the Hays eagles.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Review: Salt of the Earth

Review: Salt of the Earth

Brandon Fisher is the latest chef behind Salt of the Earth’s modern-American dishes.
2014 Pittsburgher of the Year Award: The Fred Rogers Company

2014 Pittsburgher of the Year Award: The Fred Rogers Company

Sharing the DNA of the father of children’s television, the Fred Rogers Company reinvigorates a beloved legacy while creating new hit characters and content that help children to grow, giggle and learn.
Update: The McMutrie Sisters' Mission 5 Years After the Haiti Earthquake

Update: The McMutrie Sisters' Mission 5 Years After the Haiti Earthquake

Jamie and Ali McMutrie were PM's 2010 Pittsburghers of the Year after airlifting 54 youngsters to safety. Now, they have forged a relationship with a major global player to continue their work to prevent struggling Haitian families from surrendering children to orphanages.
PittGirl's New Year's Resolutions for Pittsburghers

PittGirl's New Year's Resolutions for Pittsburghers

Four ways to make the city even better in 2015.
Penguins Profile: The Fearless Patric Hornqvist

Penguins Profile: The Fearless Patric Hornqvist

The Penguin winger fits in easily with the team, thanks to his infectious personality and his mad dedication to confounding opposing goaltenders.
Rev It Up: This South Side Pittsburgh Loft is Unique and Unusual

Rev It Up: This South Side Pittsburgh Loft is Unique and Unusual

This three-story home melds all of the comforts of home with the sleek look and efficiency of industrial design.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags