By Karamagi Rujumba, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Until a year ago, James Simon, the Pittsburgh sculptor
well-known for his larger-than-life impressions cast in concrete,
had no reason to spend time in Braddock.
Braddock "wasn't the first place that came to my mind," said Mr.
Simon, 52, a Pittsburgh native who lives in Uptown and is
recognized for his "Uptown Rhythm" mural at Duquesne University and
the 15-foot sculptures known as the "Liberty Avenue Musicians" in
Pittsburgh's Cultural District.
That changed last year when he met Braddock Mayor John Fetterman
at "a party somewhere in town." A consummate Braddock champion who
in recent years has sought to lift up the old steel mill town
through art, among other things, Mr. Fetterman talked Mr. Simon
into taking a look at what Braddock could offer his artistic
"We talked about how I could teach kids to do mosaics and the
concept of public service art," Mr. Simon said. "Something
sustainable and in the public eye that would be building to the
future of this community."
The brainchild of their conversation was a sculpting studio in
Braddock, where Mr. Simon could work with some of the community's
It would be a chance to give some young boys and girls in
Braddock some skills that could make a difference in their lives,
Mr. Fetterman said.
In September, Mr. Simon set up a sculpting studio in the
basement of the former First Presbyterian Church at 416 Library
St., a 120-year-old red brick building that Mr. Fetterman bought
privately four years ago and is converting into a community
In his Braddock studio-- his professional studio is in Uptown--
Mr. Simon and a group of about 12 regular students have on display
an assortment of concrete murals, slabs and sculptures they have
designed since they started.
Some of their work soon will be displayed at UPMC Braddock, Mr.
Fetterman said. Their long-term project is an elaborate sculpture
of a steelworker seated on a couch after a long day's work.
When it's done, it will be placed in front of the community
center across from the historic Carnegie Library, just beneath the
"Restore Library Street. Restore Braddock," banner.
But Mr. Simon's idea of a public service art project gnawed at
him for a while until a few months ago, when he was driving over
the Rankin Bridge into Braddock.
"I noticed the small and old 'Welcome to Braddock' sign and I
thought that maybe we should do a mosaic of a new and fresh sign,
something that would capture people's attention," he said.
What he came up with was a 10-foot by 12-foot concrete mosaic
put together in eight panels and pasted with mosaic tile, shards of
mirrors, stone, and stained glass.
Filled with an array of colors and light tones, the mosaic
evokes aspects of Braddock's industrial and urban past with a
looming shadow of a trumpet player over the words "Welcome to
Mr. Simon said music is a constant theme in his work because it
crosses many cultural boundaries. In this case, it harkens back to
a time when Braddock was an industrial hot spot characterized by
hard-working men and women, but also had a rich nightlife including
neighborhood bars, saloons and music joints.
The mosaic was commissioned by Braddock borough council, Mr.
A Peabody High School graduate who once made his living as a
violin maker and has lived in Brazil, Mexico, England, Canada, and
Italy, among other places, he said the mosaic also includes symbols
of indigenous cultures, "because they are now a part of me and my
For Kadale Coles, 11, a fifth-grader at Rankin Intermediate
School, working on the mosaic for about two or three hours a day
with Mr. Simon gave him an appreciation of the vastness of artistic
"I like mixing colors," he said. "I didn't know that you can mix
colors and pieces of glass to make something like this. I feel very
happy that I helped to make it."
The mosaic, which will be elevated and cast in a metal frame,
will be unveiled during Braddock Community Day festivities Aug.