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.

Hot Reads

Review: Sienna Mercato

Review: Sienna Mercato

Matthew Porco, one of our Chefs of the Year, designs the menus at Sienna Mercato's downtown establishments.
An Open Letter to Local Sports Reporters

An Open Letter to Local Sports Reporters

PittGirl has had enough of the criticism of fanatics and asks the media to stop labeling everyone.
Film Noir Fall Fashion

Film Noir Fall Fashion

Fall into autumn with a fashion landscape awash in black, white and nifty shades of gray.
8 Foodie Day Trips (and a Few Weekends, Too)

8 Foodie Day Trips (and a Few Weekends, Too)

Hoping to take a leaf-peeping road trip? Keep food at the top of your priority list and consult our lineup of eight destinations, most within 150 miles of the city.

The 412

Awesome Hyperlapse Video Takes You Through Pittsburgh at Warp Speed

Awesome Hyperlapse Video Takes You Through Pittsburgh at Warp Speed

Instagram’s new Hyperlapse technology was made for Pittsburgh.
The 10 Most Important Concerts in Pittsburgh History

The 10 Most Important Concerts in Pittsburgh History

We went one on one with legendary promoter Rich Engler to get the scoop on which shows have stood out over time.
8 Photos That Best Capture Summer in Pittsburgh

8 Photos That Best Capture Summer in Pittsburgh

Just because the season's winding down doesn't mean you have to be glum. Savor these images that capture all that you love about the city.
Pittsburgh: America's Most Livable City ... Again?

Pittsburgh: America's Most Livable City ... Again?

It feels good to be at the very top of The Economist's list of high-ranking metropolises in the continental U.S.

Hot Reads

Review: Sienna Mercato

Review: Sienna Mercato

Matthew Porco, one of our Chefs of the Year, designs the menus at Sienna Mercato's downtown establishments.
Film Noir Fall Fashion

Film Noir Fall Fashion

Fall into autumn with a fashion landscape awash in black, white and nifty shades of gray.
An Open Letter to Local Sports Reporters

An Open Letter to Local Sports Reporters

PittGirl has had enough of the criticism of fanatics and asks the media to stop labeling everyone.
8 Foodie Day Trips (and a Few Weekends, Too)

8 Foodie Day Trips (and a Few Weekends, Too)

Hoping to take a leaf-peeping road trip? Keep food at the top of your priority list and consult our lineup of eight destinations, most within 150 miles of the city.
From Field to Fork

From Field to Fork

We put together this dynamic guide to help you find and engage with the region’s sustainable producers of meat, honey, alcohol, fruits and vegetables.
Sometimes Your Best Friends in Life Aren't on Facebook

Sometimes Your Best Friends in Life Aren't on Facebook

PittGirl wonders if it's still possible to raise kids to be big-hearted people in an age of self-obsession.