Cantini’s art beautifies Pitt

HOLDEN SLATTERY | October 25, 2007    

Sculptor Virgil Cantini, has, as he says, lived “a tough life but a beautiful life.”

Born… Sculptor Virgil Cantini, has, as he says, lived “a tough life but a beautiful life.”

Born in Italy and raised in a West Virginia steel town, Cantini and his art were shaped by the 20thcentury and the city of Pittsburgh.

“I think the idea of art is an expansion,” Cantini said. “It’s just like our buildings getting higher and higher. The artist is dealing with the idea of new, invigorating ideas that we’re exploring.”

Pitt students will certainly recognize some of the 87-year-old artists’ work, which decorates much of the campus and appears inside Posvar Hall, the Chevron Science Center, Hillman Library, on the outer wall of Parran Hall and in front of David Lawrence Hall.

His pieces also dot the landscapes of several other universities and Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

Cantini is most proud of his 1973 work, “Science and Mankind,” a 40 by 30 foot porcelain enamel mural inside the Chevron Science Center, depicting a man and a woman touching hands, their skeletal and muscular systems exposed.

The colors used on the figures represent different human cells, and the squares and triangles around them symbolize the birth of the computer age.

“When a man touches a woman that’s the beginning of life,” Cantini said of its significance.

Cantini, who prefers making sculptures and porcelain enamels because of the permanence of the media, founded the studio arts program at Pitt.

To make porcelain enamel, Cantini buys steel tiles coated with porcelain. He sprinkles powdered porcelain in designs on the tiles, and then puts them in a furnace heated to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit which melts each color of powder into a glassy substance. The tiles are screwed together to form a large picture, similar to a mosaic.

“Man,” a 1965 bronze and steel sculpture built for the Graduate School of Public Health on the Fifth Avenue side of Parran Hall, is a symbol for the power of mankind. Cantini said that, at the time, Chancellor Edward H. Litchfield had been expanding the University, and the pointed objects around the figure represent peaks of progress like new buildings and developments.

After receiving complaints for creating a man, Virgil created a woman to stand alongside it, though it was never used. Originally, there was a heavy light in front of the sculpture to dramatize its features, but when students began climbing the light and redirecting its rays into Cathedral classrooms or dorm rooms, it was removed, Cantini said.

Cantini has done a great deal of religious renderings, including two wood sculptures located on the first floor of the Hillman Library. One shows the Virgin Mary holding a lamb, a symbol for Christ. The other shows the Catholic martyr St. Sebastian tied to a tree with arrows in it to illustrate his death.

But Cantini has made many less traditional religious pieces.

“I’m a Catholic, but it doesn’t mean I have to have my mind closed,” he said.

At his Craig Street house, Cantini has two paintings of the hand of Jesus Christ with an eye on the palm. He made one with a white hand and one with a black hand, since his research has shown him that the earth’s first inhabitants were black.

Cantini was deeply inspired when the United States began sending astronauts to the moon. Many of his pieces began to feature circles, which represented the earth, moon and sun, or the universe at large. One such example is the colorful porcelain enamel piece “Enlightment and Joy,” which hangs in the first floor of Posvar Hall.

“When you think about it, we’re not by ourselves as you know,” he said. “And I became interested in the sun as the energy.”

Born in Pietransieri, a town 60 miles outside of Rome, Cantini said he moved to the steel town of Weirton, W. Va., when he was 7 or 8 years old. He was one of 12 children, though one sibling died during pregnancy, and two died of cholera during World War I.

In Weirton, Cantini remembers asking his father, “‘Why would you bring me to a town like this? Man, I was born in a village – it had sunshine every morning. And all the sudden you bring us to a town. All I see is smoke every day.'”

His father replied that he was here to change this country.

A star quarterback in high school, Cantini said he received 16 scholarships, including one to study art at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University. But at the time, Carnegie Tech was struggling financially, and in the summer before his freshman year, Cantini was told the school could no longer offer him the scholarship.

He went to Manhattan College for its proximity to New York galleries, but the college offered no art classes. Carnegie Tech later offered to pay for Cantini’s tuition without room and board, and he transferred.

On the weekends, Cantini worked in a steel mill to pay for his housing costs.

During his sophomore year at Carnegie Tech, Cantini volunteered to fight in World War II. He said most of his classmates were sold the idea that the war would be over in a few months, and it would enable them to travel all over Europe in the process.

Cantini was sent to North Africa, where he stayed for two and a half years. Three of his brothers, all married at the time, were killed in the war.

He spent about six months in the hospital after a shell shattered his knee and an explosion injured his shoulder.

During the war, Cantini sent letters to a fellow art major he had met at Carnegie Tech named Lucille Kleber, who he married a few months after returning from the war.

Mrs. Cantini is also a professional artist who creates sculptures, porcelain enamels and jewelry.

While working on his master’s degree in art history at Pitt, Cantini told one of his professors the school should offer a course on the methodology of art, instead of just history. After consulting the dean, the professor asked Cantini to teach this class. Cantini soon hired a staff of 10, creating the studio arts major.

Cantini said art is freer today than it was when he started as an artist.

“When I was coming through, everything was realism

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