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

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in May

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in May

The month's best bets in The 'Burgh.
Best Doctors in Pittsburgh 2016

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh 2016

The list of the regions's 687 leading physicians across 80 specialities.
Making The Rounds: What It Means to be a Doctor in Pittsburgh

Making The Rounds: What It Means to be a Doctor in Pittsburgh

In a city known for world-class care, a life dedicated to health is rewarding, challenging, and innovative at every level — from med school to the board room.
Why Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay is Cornered

Why Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay is Cornered

Can McLay reshape the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police in his polite, communication-heavy, community-friendly, racially sensitive, 21st-century image?
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Is PUC Going Overboard With Its Punishment of Uber

Is PUC Going Overboard With Its Punishment of Uber

Governor Tom Wolf, Mayor Bill Peduto, and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald say the PUC went too far when it fined the ride-sharing company $11.3 million.
The Story Behind This Epic Picture of Lightning Over Pittsburgh

The Story Behind This Epic Picture of Lightning Over Pittsburgh

Most people crawl deeper under the covers during a nighttime thunderstorm, photographer Dave DiCello does just the opposite.
Not Surprising: 'Burgh Among the Best for New College Grads

Not Surprising: 'Burgh Among the Best for New College Grads

According to a financial advising site, Pittsburgh is both affordable and a good place to find a job for those fresh out of college.
Harold Hayes' Biggest Retirement Fear, It's Not What You Think

Harold Hayes' Biggest Retirement Fear, It's Not What You Think

Hayes leaves KDKA TV after nearly 37 years with his legacy as one of the city's most respected, fair and accurate reporters – and his priceless sense of humor – firmly intact.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in May

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in May

The month's best bets in The 'Burgh.
Best Doctors in Pittsburgh 2016

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh 2016

The list of the regions's 687 leading physicians across 80 specialities.
Making The Rounds: What It Means to be a Doctor in Pittsburgh

Making The Rounds: What It Means to be a Doctor in Pittsburgh

In a city known for world-class care, a life dedicated to health is rewarding, challenging, and innovative at every level — from med school to the board room.
Why Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay is Cornered

Why Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay is Cornered

Can McLay reshape the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police in his polite, communication-heavy, community-friendly, racially sensitive, 21st-century image?
The Eaglets Have Landed

The Eaglets Have Landed

The bald eagles nesting in Hays once again have given birth to a new generation. We take you into the nest to see how quickly the two chicks are growing.
Review: Justin Severino Knocks It Out of the Park With Morcilla

Review: Justin Severino Knocks It Out of the Park With Morcilla

Severino's follow-up to Cure is already winning national accolades.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Is PUC Going Overboard With Its Punishment of Uber

Is PUC Going Overboard With Its Punishment of Uber

Governor Tom Wolf, Mayor Bill Peduto, and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald say the PUC went too far when it fined the ride-sharing company $11.3 million.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Umami Izakaya (Finally) Open in Lawrenceville

Umami Izakaya (Finally) Open in Lawrenceville

The much-anticipated Japanese pub from Tamari's Roger Li and Round Corner Cantina's Derek Burnell will serve food and drink deep into the night.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


Digital Jukeboxes are Evil, Bar-Ruining Monsters

Digital Jukeboxes are Evil, Bar-Ruining Monsters

The case against TouchTunes, the streaming music loudspeaker that can't stop screwing up the vibe at local bars.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
A By-The-Numbers Draft Has Its Advantages For Steelers This Time

A By-The-Numbers Draft Has Its Advantages For Steelers This Time

For the Steelers, this is a draft that’s long on need but short on intrigue.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Off to the Races

Off to the Races

Want to shade yourself in style at Derby Day and the PNC Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Spring Hat Luncheon? Look no further.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Your Mother Deserves Better than This Awful Mother's Day Movie

Your Mother Deserves Better than This Awful Mother's Day Movie

Reviews of "Mother's Day," "Keanu," "Green Room" and local film news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Finding Sunshine on a Rainy Wedding Day in Pittsburgh

Finding Sunshine on a Rainy Wedding Day in Pittsburgh

You don’t always need blue skies and sunshine to have a beautiful and memorable wedding. One couple shares their advice on making the most of a rainy wedding day and what to do when the forecast is less than ideal.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
A Far From Ordinary House Tour in Wilkinsburg This Weekend

A Far From Ordinary House Tour in Wilkinsburg This Weekend

The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation hosts a one-of-a-kind house tour on May 7.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
STEM Event for Girls Planned at La Roche College

STEM Event for Girls Planned at La Roche College

The Tech Savvy program from the American Association of University Women aims to interest middle school girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

Comments