The Art of Shipbuilding

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

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.

Categories: Rick Sebak