Commentary: The Steelworkers

By Louis A. Zona
All the exciting discussion about a sculpture destined for downtown Youngstown that features the famous handshake between George Shuba and his teammate Jackie Robinson got me thinking about another sculpture project so many decades ago. 

I was teaching an art appreciation class during the late 1970s at Youngstown State University that covered the topic of public art. An older student in the class, Cathy Solomon, raised her hand and suggested that it would be great to have a work of sculpture for downtown Youngstown that would draw attention to the brand new pedestrian mall that had just been completed along the former Federal Street.

After class, Cathy and I walked down to survey the site and discussed the fact that the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council just might be interested in supporting such a venture. Cathy volunteered to take on the task of applying for grants from both organizations.

Amazingly, both government agencies said yes. We would need, however, an official organization, a fiscal agent, to represent Youngstown were we to receive funding. The fledgling Youngstown Area Arts Council was that entity and the late John Weed Powers lent his name to the project. Others followed. We approached local banks and businesses and I must have given 50 slide show presentations in the homes of prospective donors. It all fell into place with the occasional bump in the road.

When federal money became part of the equation, a team of “art experts” came to Youngstown to meet with a committee of local residents to decide on the nature of the art that would be selected and where exactly the sculpture would be placed. A curator from Buffalo insisted that a large metal abstract sculpture made of steel would be most appropriate.

As she and others on her side of the table went on about what would be best for Youngstown, our side, which consisted of professor Al Bright, Cathy Solomon, Mrs. Josh Butler and I, remained quiet. One of the national team members was obviously upset that we did not jump on their idea of a large abstract sculpture for downtown Youngstown.

The woman from Buffalo ultimately leaned across the table and said something to me about seeing me in hell one day.

“What is it that you want?” she asked sternly. “We want George Segal,” I responded.

“Segal [not the actor but the world renowned sculptor] will never be a part of this. You have so little money, even with your grants, that a major artist would never be a part of a smallish project like this. Forget George Segal,” she said, “and let’s move on to other possible artists.” We stood our ground as the visitors became totally frustrated at our stance.

At that, John Coplans, former director of the Akron Art Museum, left the table and called Segal’s agent. Before the committee had broken up, Segal’s agent, Carroll Janis of New York, returned the call to tell us that Segal was interested and would fly to Youngstown to look over the site for a possible work.

In a week or two, George Segal, known for his realist sculptures in plaster and bronze, came to our town and told us that he was interested because Youngstown was reminiscent of his hometown in New Jersey. He went on to tell us that he wondered what he would create for Youngstown.

He thought, “Jack Nicklaus is from Ohio. Maybe I’ll create a golfer.” But when his plane flew over our city and he saw the steel industry in full force and how amazing it was to see people managing these enormous furnaces and machines, he knew right then that his sculpture would relate to the steel industry. It would consist of two bronze figures tending a furnace. Steel workers disassembled an older furnace and rebuilt it downtown.

In a matter of weeks Segal returned to Youngstown with his wife, Helen, and toured the mills and asked two workers if they would pose for his sculpture. Wayman Paramore Jr., an African American, and Peter Cobly, 25 years his senior, had tended an open-hearth furnace together for 25 years. Both said yes.

They agreed to wear their oldest pairs of trousers and to meet Segal on the YSU campus in one of the art classrooms in Bliss Hall. When Segal returned to Youngstown to begin crafting the sculpture, a team of reporters and even CBS News followed him. Eventually the project appeared on CBS.

The official unveiling of the sculpture attracted an enormous crowd. Wayman Paramore was asked to say a word or two. He brought tears to the eyes of all assembled when he said that he agreed to be one of the figures because “I did it to represent the hundreds of thousands of steelworkers who were able to feed their families because of their employment in the steel industry.”

Sadly, between the time that the artist began the process of creating the sculpture and the dedication (approximately four months), the steel industry had closed up shop. Resentment toward the steel companies was very high and it was not surprising that the sculpture took the brunt of the protest.

Vandals damaged it even before George Segal left town. Late one night, guys in a pickup truck pulled the sculpture from its concrete base. George Segal called my home early the next Sunday morning to ask if serious damage had been done.

I confessed that it was true but that the Youngstown Street Department had rescued the sculpture and stored in their garage. And that we would restore it and place it in a spot that would please him.

Our good friend Dr. Milt Greenberg was able to secure funds from the dental society to restore the sculpture. Ultimately it found a new home in front of the Museum of Labor and Industry (Steel Museum) across from St. Columba Cathedral.

Eventually Segal exhibited the plaster figures and a wooden image of a steel furnace in New York City. Several years after his death, his widow donated the plaster figures and wooden furnace to The Butler.