|Commissioning Entity||Urban Redevelopment Authority|
|Owner||City of Pittsburgh|
Thad Mosley’s Phoenix rises gracefully and powerfully from the corner of Centre Avenue and Dinwiddie Street in the Hill District. A strong presence at the intersection, this larger-than-lifesize sculpture sits high above eye level on a concrete base. Mosley’s hand-carved artwork, made of Northwest coast red cedar, is set back from the sidewalk on a raised platform surrounded by a low stone wall. Behind the sculpture, a small terraced park steps gently down the incline of Dinwiddie Street.
The sculpture was commissioned in 1978 by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and installed in 1979. In the late 1970s, The URA was exploring options for redeveloping the commercial core of Centre Avenue in the Hill District to include a shopping center, library, and various small businesses. Although there were few resources for the inclusion of public art, the URA agreed to build a small park at Centre and Dinwiddie if a sculpture could be created for the corner. David Lewis, an urban design professional and Carnegie Mellon University professor who was involved in the redevelopment, nominated Mosley for the work.
The title of Mosley’s sculpture references the ancient legend of the phoenix. In classical mythology, this bird was reborn from its own ashes and alternately represented immortality, resurrection, and the power of empire. Mosley’s Phoenix is a symbol for the Hill District, which at the time was attempting to recover from the traumatic effects of racist practices such as Urban Renewal and segregation. In the late 1950s, the URA had cleared over 1,000 buildings from 95 acres of land in the Lower Hill District to make way for the Civic Arena and its attendant parking lots. 8,000 people and over 400 businesses were displaced in the process and most of the main thoroughfares between the Hill District and downtown were truncated. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the neighborhood erupted in protests and civil unrest, which ultimately resulted in the destruction of storefronts and businesses along Centre Avenue. Indeed, Pittsburgh was one of many cities rocked by civil rights protests in the 1960s. Residents in Black and African-American neighborhoods across the country demanded attention to and reparations for the enormous injustices they had suffered due to structural and institutional racism that persisted despite the passage of laws such as the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Phoenix is a testament to the power and resilience of the Hill District community. Carved from a single piece of lumber, the sculpture spirals upwards with barely contained force. Inspired by African tribal art, as well as the work of artists Constantin Brancusi and Isamu Noguchi, it simultaneously reaches for the sky and asserts its rootedness to the ground. As it rises from its base, the work subtly expands and contracts, drawing the eye outward and then pulling it back again toward the column’s center of gravity. The sculpture’s negative space, resulting from both Mosley’s handtools and the wood’s natural warps and clefts, creates a visual spiral that pulls the body around the work. This circumnavigation is anchored by the gravitational pull of of Phoenix, which anchors the circular viewing experience through its power and upward lift.
As David Lewis writes of Mosley’s Phoenix, “His sculpture is human fertility, the birth of a new tomorrow out of yesterday’s conflagration. Yet the sculpture also never ceases to be a tree: its energy to soar is tempered by shakes and splits in the wood and the scars of its surface, as though youth and age, life and death, joy and tragedy, aspiration and struggle are combined in one expression.” (Lewis, 32)
N.B. (1): Published accounts differ as to the size of the sculpture, alternately citing it as 10’, 12’, or 14’ tall. Accounts also variably refer to the sculpture as Phoenix or The Phoenix; the former appears more frequently and has been used here.
N.B. (2): As of the writing of this text on October 5, 2018, the sculpture is currently undergoing restoration. Although visible through a surrounding wood and metal scaffold, close access to the work is prevented by orange safety edge fencing that rings the raised platform.
By Divya Rao Heffley, Office of Public Art
Marilyn Evert, Discovering Pittsburgh’s Sculpture (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983), 100-101.
Dan Fitzpatrick, “A Story of Renewal,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 21, 2000.
David Lewis, Thaddeus Mosley: African-American Sculptor (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 1997), 31-32.
Steve Mellon and Julian Routh, “The Week The Hill Rose Up,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 2, 2018.
Rebecca O’Connell, “Biography of Pittsburgh sculptor molded with compelling details,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 17, 1997.
Office of Public Art, “Thad Mosley Studio Tour & Artist Talk,” YouTube Video, 41:35, December 15, 2017, https://youtu.be/FqVs_LBZpmI.
Thaddeus Mosley was born in 1926 in New Castle, PA. After graduating from high school, Mosely enrolled in the U.S. Navy. In 1950, he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a double major in English and Journalism. During the 1950s, Mosely began writing freelance for The Pittsburgh Courier and he also began making sculptures. In 1968, he had his first solo exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art.