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“Breathe Better Day” brought together art and air quality awareness at an event last weekend, in coordination with the Carnegie Museum of Art’s ongoing exhibit Monet and the Modern City.

The Breathe Project invited speakers from various environmental organizations to discuss sources and effects of air pollution in Pittsburgh. Environmental groups and Pittsburgh’s bike sharing system also set up tables in the lobby of the museum. 

LISTEN: “Bringing Together Monet, Pissaro and Air Pollution”

The exhibit includes works from impressionists like Camille Pissaro and Claude Monet and American paintings of Pittsburgh’s own industrial aesthetic by the likes of Aaron Gorson and Joseph Stella

“I wanted to really tie into Pittsburgh and to the region and to really pull from our permanent collection. So the industrial imagery really spoke to me,” Akemi May, assistant curator at CMOA said. 

The Monet and the Modern City installation showing the painting, “Pittsburgh at Night” by artist Aaron Henry Gorson, circa. 1920 at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo by Bryan Conley, courtesy of CMOA.

May said that many people connect to art on a personal level and bring in their own past. For many in Pittsburgh, that means remembering dirty air from the steel mills.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people who have come to this exhibition that they struggle with looking at these and seeing the aesthetic beauty of industry, which at the time that these artists were creating these images, they did look at that smoke and fog as being very sort of romantic and indicative of power and prosperity,” May said. “But we as modern audience look at it with a totally different lens. You know we think about it in terms of air quality and pollution.”

This is the case for Lois Bower-Bjornson, who grew up along the Monongahela River. Looking at the paintings in the gallery, she said she remembered stories her dad told her about when they couldn’t hang the sheets out at her grandparent’s hotel because it was the time when the coal mines were active and “there was soot everywhere and it was nothing to have two inches of coal dust on the windowsills.”

Michael Dimonte, from Cranberry, said he came because was interested in the environment, especially in light of the Clairton Coke Works recent pollution and because he lives downwind from where a Shell cracker plant is being built. 

“I am impressed by the relevance of art in social issues,” he said. “How important it is for us and how artists can touch emotion in society that might bring about more action than the scientific facts and figures,” Dimonte said. 

Francis Harkins, a board member of Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), one of the environmental organizations tabling for the event, said that breathing Pittsburgh’s air likely gave her asthma. She said she didn’t realize how bad the air quality was growing up, but when she spent a year in Michigan in her 20’s and came back she was “stunned by my inability to breathe.” She said 30 years later in her 50’s, she returned from Boston and experienced trouble breathing when she returned. 

“The politicians have to hear that people want clean air or nothing will change,” Harkins said. “So get involved.”

Monet and the Modern City runs until Sept. 2 in Gallery One of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland. 

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Read more about air pollution in Pittsburgh in our series, Hazardous to Your Health:

Hazardous to Your Health