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Making a City's Memories Visible

Artist's interviews - and his interviewees' artwork - help form Pittsburgh drawing

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MOST people see a city, visit its sights, meander through its streets. Artist Doug Cooper tries to live it. Right now, he's wandering Pittsburgh's past through the memories of three women from the city's north side.

"Did you used to go in with your mother?" he asks Pauline Rudis. She's describing a hat store she remembers from childhood. Mr. Cooper listens intently, drawing all the while.

While Mrs. Rudis and Irene Scott prefer to tell Cooper their stories, Frances Laurina draws hers on rice paper. She lays out the streets and draws the important buildings. The result is something less than a Rembrandt. "I don't know how you are going to make it all out," she sighs.

But Cooper does. After each session, he takes these childlike drawings and stories and pastes them onto his monumental collage mural of Pittsburgh. It's called "The Visible City." But it really is the invisible city, a repository of Pittsburgh stories.

Retirees remember an unusual day at the factory, or going for a drive on Saturday night. In one part of Cooper's collage, he has drawn a park bench where someone's uncle dressed as a woman to play a practical joke. (It took three dates before the "woman's" suitor discovered the ruse.) Mrs. Laurina draws a house where she often heard loud piano music. She learned much later that the music covered up the sounds of a tunnel the family was digging to free someone from prison.

Every Monday afternoon, Cooper meets a handful of Pittsburghers at Vintage, a nonprofit service center for seniors. Each group represents a section of the city. They gather for three or four Mondays, then Cooper gathers a new set of volunteers.

"There are things that are silly in it; things that are sentimental," Cooper says. If that's were all it was, "you would say it's trite. But if you include something with stories about this personal tragedy or that disaster, then it's really part of the whole picture, part of the whole city."

Cooper has wrapped these memories with his own vision of the city. He bends Pittsburgh's already twisted streets and hills into impossible angles and perspectives. A lamppost shoots off in one direction while its companion is tilted another.

Cooper, associate head of the architecture department at Carnegie Mellon University here, has had several solo shows in New York and Cologne, Germany, over the years. His work is now shown at the Mendelson Gallery here.

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