BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP)
-- What enchants painter Rachel Lussier about the Bethlehem Steel’s old
blast furnaces is the “beautiful decay” -- the warm rust colors and, when
the sunlight is just right, iridescent grays wrapped around what was once
the plant’s fiery belly.
The image takes
shape on the oil painter’s canvas just feet away from the furnaces the Steel
left behind after it closed its hometown plant in Bethlehem two decades ago.
The painting focuses tightly on the large cylindrical shape that spans the
length of the industrial spires.
To replicate the
pipe’s color, Lussier mixes a bit of red with black, white and blue, holds
her brush up to the sunlight and compares the color to the furnaces. She
adds more blue.
important to Lussier. The 50-year-old painter traveled from her home in
Stamford, Conn., in September to spend nearly three weeks painting the
furnaces from life rather than a photograph.
“There are a lot of
physical challenges up here. I have to lug a lot of stuff up. It’s hot.
Sometimes, the bees are all over. It’s not a like being in a studio, but
when you get out of your comfort zone, that’s when you grow,” Lussier says.
“It’s just me and the canvas. You have to deal with the elements, and
sometimes that propels you forward.”
She is part of a
niche of artists who work en plein air. It’s French term for in the open
air, a method immortalized by the 19th Impressionist painters like Monet and
paint poppies or parasols, but the mechanical muscle of the Industrial
Revolution. She’s painted a B-29 and a gas pump. Her portfolio features
tight images of industrial gears, hoses and tiny nuts that hold the machines
The images contrast
with other plein artists who showcase the natural beauty of the Rocky
Mountains in the west to the architectural detail of Central Moravian
Church’s Bell Tower in Bethlehem. The artwork can range from abstract to
What binds plein
air artists is not the subject or form but the practice: working outdoors
with real subjects. But even that can be subject to interpretation by
artists as to whether finishing touches can be applied in the studio.
chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters Association, is a purist --
and only counts artwork that is completed outdoors.
He says he believes
interest in the age-old practice has been re-energized in the last decade,
perhaps part of a push to make art more accessible to the public. Plein air
artwork, he said, often portrays familiar places, something with which
people can connect.
more than 400 painters strong, regularly participates in paint-outs up and
down the East Coast. The artwork generated in a weekend, he said, can raise
upward of $100,000.
In Pennsylvania, he
said he knows of at least five annual juried plein air competitions,
including one in Bucks County. A plein air competition was held last month
at the Riverside Festival of the Arts in Easton.
There are regular
opportunities for artists -- novices and veterans -- to meet and paint
outdoors in the Lehigh Valley. Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites has
hosted plein air classes at its properties. And the 70-year-old Bethlehem
Palette Club has regularly organizes paint-outs in the Lehigh Valley,
including at the SteelStacks arts and cultural campus which opened six years
ago at the foot of the blast furnaces at the former Bethlehem Steel plant.
He says artists savor the close-up views of old industrial structures that
"The blast furnaces
seem to be very popular,” says Ben Gilmore, Bethlehem Palette Club’s
director of paint-outs. “I think it’s the size that draws people to them.”
senior director for visual arts at ArtsQuest, said she often sees artists
with their easels around SteelStacks, but Lussier’s three-week commitment
takes it to another level. Brennan says she hopes to have Lussier back for
an exhibition of her finished pieces.
“It’s exciting to
see artists who are inspired by the Steel and take this opportunity to not
only create their work here but also get to know the culture and history
through the people they come in contact with on a daily basis,” Brennan
says. “It’s a very intense process to watch.”
Some of Steel’s old
buildings and what’s left inside them are almost “sculptural” in terms of
symmetry and are washed in a beautiful palette of rusted colors, said Tony
Hanna, director of the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority, which owns the
“Rachel is the kind
of artist who can capture that,” Hanna says. “She paints in small
components, drilling down to a pipe or a piece of machinery.”
Educated in the
fine arts in New York City and Italy, Lussier was trained in figurative art
and built a career in the art world. In 2000, she left her position as
senior art director at Sotheby’s where she designed marketing material
catalogs and exhibitions for the sales of world-renowned collections.
restrictive, she wanted to remove herself from the tangle of computers and
keyboards and get into communities to study the machines that propelled the
nation into a world power.
Without the aid of
photographs or the amenities of a studio, Lussier says she wants nothing to
come between her subject and the canvas.
She likens the
practice to recording a song live on location as opposed to inside a studio.
She says studio recordings can be touched up and perfected, but live
recordings are spontaneous and highlight the level of musicianship, she
though, can be grueling. She must deal with fickle light and weather. On
some sites, like the Steel, she must haul her supplies up to the
Hoover-Mason Trestle, the elevated walking path that once carried raw
materials to the furnaces and now allows people to get a close look at the
Working en plein
air, especially in Bethlehem, requires quite a bit of stamina.
A runner since
childhood (she carried the Olympic torch in 1984 for a stretch through her
native state of Michigan), Lussier says she understands how to pace herself.
She’s regimented, painting for six hours a day under the sun beating down on
the trestle, which is suspended 46 feet off the ground.
To break up the
monotony, she puts on earbuds and listens to jazz, blues or, if she is
really dragging, punk rock.
She dresses for the
job -- no painter’s smock. Just a white tank top, gray pants, baseball cap
and, sometimes, a pale pink button-down shirt to protect her from the sun
beating down on the trestle.
From the public
plazas below, Lussier’s petite frame nearly gets lost in the towering
furnaces that rise more than 200 feet high at SteelStacks.
industrial landscape, Lussier finds, is an enigma -- bones of dead machines
popping behind the vibrant cultural venues that have grown around it. The
interaction with the community, she says , has helped her capture the Steel
She said she finds
that people are as curious about how the art is created as the finished
work. Many of those who stop by to admire her work, she notes, are people
who may not visit an art museum. She said she relishes the chance to talk
about her work to people who likely will never see it finished.
She has met some of
those in the Asian community who arrive daily at the Sands Casino on buses
from New York City and take strolls on the trestle. There is a language
barrier, she says, but some days, a few gaze over her canvas as she works
and one of the men gave her the thumbs-up sign.
In some ways,
Lussier muses, art is a universal language.
Other days, retired
steelworkers stroll by, pointing out details on the machinery and telling
her what it was like to work at the Steel. She hears stories of how the
plant provided good jobs to raise families. She hears about the caustic
industrial environment and warm camaraderie among lifelong coworkers.
“That’s what I’m
chewing on here: what is our relationship to industry,” Lussier says. “There
are good and bad sides. I think that’s really what I’m examining.”