More than 30 years after James Wolfe shaped them into art, eight abstract sculptures of Johnstown- made steel have returned to the heart of the city.
Thanks to a grassroots effort involving local residents, business owners and civic groups, nine of the colorful creations are now back in Johnstown’s business district – along the path of the planned Iron to Arts Corridor.
Eight sculptures were moved from the Johnstown Inclined Plane’s hillside and refurbished over the past year, said Leah Spangler, a project coordinator.
Now, in addition to “Steel Story” – the piece that has occupied the intersection of Walnut and Washington streets for decades – one has been placed next to the train station and seven either line the entrance to Peoples Natural Gas Park or sit just inside it along a pathway that links downtown to Iron Street and the historic Stone Bridge.
“These sculptures were created with help from Johnstown’s last generation of steelworkers – and they are part of our community’s legacy,” Spangler said. “And it’s kind of cool that they’re now going to be part of this corridor connecting our city’s arts and heritage.”
It wasn’t always planned that way, she said.
For decades, the sculptures occupied the Inclined Plane’s hillside, but the path was plagued by drainage issues and erosion – making it a challenging place to display art meant for the public’s eyes.
“For 30 years, the trees grew, and they sort of got lost in the mix,” said Deb Winterscheidt, development director for Johnstown Area Heritage Association, which owns the sculptures.
Four years ago, Spangler and fellow Vision 2025 member Mike Cook launched an effort to find them another home.
They were taken to a Kernville property by RDM Management for restoration – with every color matching the ones used by Wolfein 1989, Spangler said.
Even before the Iron to Arts Corridor was a sure thing, putting the steel creations back in the city’s industrial corridor made sense, she said.
“It’s kind of serendipitous – but perfect,” Winterscheidt added. “You couldn’t have picked a better place for them.”
Local community leaders are hopeful the sculptures will get a second act in the spotlight beginning this spring, once the final two are painted.
One of them, “Steel Bearer,” was placed by crews from Pro Disposal and an affiliated company Monday.
“I think it’s going to be awesome to see the finished product on display at the park – and I think people will enjoy the chance to see them,” said Pro Disposal President Mike Bellvia, adding that his company was happy to lend a hand – and a crane truck.
Johnstown Area Heritage Association Director of Communications Shelley Johansson said “a true community effort” made the project possible.
Pro Disposal excavated the foundations for concrete pads and then helped place each sculpture downtown, while local artist Andy Bellak and an Alternative Community Resource Program work crew under Jim Buday prepped and painted most of the sculptures.
Sherwin-Williams donated the paint that matches Wolfe’s original design, while the Johnstown Rotary Club provided a grant to refurbish “Steel Float” – the mammoth 30-foot-tall sculpture that remains at the Incline trail site.
Elias Painting’s Albert Ghantous refurbished that sculpture, donating $2,000 in labor to finish the job, Johansson said.
Contractor Jake McCoy handled the concrete work at a cost covered by community donations managed in a fund through the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies.
The Johnstown Redevelopment Authority also provided support.
Preserving city history
Wolfe has work displayed in New York City and Boston, including at Harvard University.
He was already well-known for his talent of turning metal into art when he was commissioned by Johnstown’s Flood Centennial Committee to create the sculptures.
For that to occur, he spent months living in the city in 1989 – much of that time inside Gautier Steel, which was still owned by Bethlehem Steel at the time.
He used leftover mill “cobble,” hand tools and steel beams – sometimes made just for his artwork – to create 10 unique pieces paying tribute to Johnstown’s steelmaking history.
Oftentimes, he’d was up early during the “first shift” alongside busy steelworkers in the mill, he told The Tribune-Democrat in 2019 after the first sculpture was restored.
“I never had another project like this one in my career – before or since,” the New York artist said.
David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst.