An Oct. 14 exhibit in Pittsburgh organized by an ISRI member gave visitors a look into the industrial legacy of Western Pennsylvania and Northeast Ohio. The guest list for opening night of the show reads like a who’s who of steel and metals recycling: All Metals Recycling of Rochester, Pa.; ARSCO Metals; Cronimet USA; David A. Joseph Co.; Edw. C. Levy Co.; Nucor; Metalico; OmniSource; and Steel Dynamics Inc., among others.
Chip Barletto, president of CBS Metal in New Castle, Penn., and Pittsburgh artist Cory Bonnet are behind The Patterns of Meaning exhibit at Pittsburgh’s Energy Innovation Center. Among its items, the exhibit holds a treasure trove of 6,000 wood toolmaking patterns and accessories the men found in a barn. “We hope this will be the first event in a series of many,’ Barletto says. “We hope to take the collection on the road, eventually, to other steel cities.”
After steelmaker Youngstown Sheet & Tube closed in 1977, a man who lived in Lake Milton, Ohio, got handcrafted wooden steelmaking patterns used for decades in the sand casting of steel machine parts and stored them in his barn. Barletto’s father owned a heavy equipment business that serviced the steel industry, and the recycler has collected steelmaking relics since the age of 10. After Barletto set up his CB Gallery & Museum in New Castle in 2019, a visitor told him about the barn full of forms, blueprints, and other mill parts. Barletto and his friend Bonnet met the owner’s widow and arranged to take over the collection.
“She said she’d had lots of offers from people who wanted to make things out of [the items] like tables and lamps,” Barletto explains. “I told her I had a museum, and she said I could have it all.” It took 10 trips with a 26-foot box truck to haul everything away. Bonnet moved in March 2020 into a 10,000-square-foot studio in the same building as the Energy Innovation Center. Gears, piles of railcar wheels, and other parts were joined by some of Barletto’s collection as his lease in New Castle ended. The men worked out a deal with the center’s management to display items on several floors.
Bonnet, who trained in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a green building certification program used worldwide, often paints on repurposed materials like old church pews. Barletto offered him for a working canvas curved pieces of patterns used to make molten steel ladles that came from a Pennsylvania mill. “The thing that’s interesting about all of these forms is that they’re pristine, even though some are over 100 years old,” Barletto says. “They help us tie so many important things together from this area’s history. The guys who made these things weren’t just carpenters–they were like machinists with wood. The precision and attention to detail of these forms is incredible.”
While some artifacts will remain at the Energy Innovation Center permanently, Barletto and Bonnet are looking into showing pieces elsewhere, including Youngstown’s Butler Institute of American Art. “[The Oct. 14 opening] is going to be the first event of a series of six that are coming up. We’re actually going to have a furnace here that’s going to be melting, then we’ll pour into these 100-year-old forms, and make parts,” Barletto says. Steel, glass, and other materials can then become artworks for future collectors to enjoy.
Photos courtesy of Chip Barletto. Main photo: Chip Barletto and Cory Bonnet with some of the artifacts in Bonnet’s studio. Body photo: Bonnet painted a scene from Pittsburgh’s steelmaking past on the inside of one of the wooden forms used decades ago to sand cast molten steel ladles.