In 1976, the Society of Sculptors of Western Pennsylvania decided to commission three monumental site-specific sculptures to create an opportunity for regional artists to work on a scale usually reserved for artists of much wider renown. While two of the winning proposals — Five Factors II by Peter Calaboyias and Steelcityscape by Aaronel deRoy Gruber — remain on prominent public display in Pittsburgh today, the third commission — Clarion Call by H. Douglas Pickering — had a more troubled history.
Clarion Call was an aluminum sculpture intended for the site of an old merry-go-round that stood in Schenley Park before World War II. The design featured two flanges connected to the ends of a rounded joint, arranged so the components extended dramatically along three axes. The sculpture had both industrial and organic elements; its curved forms were held together with conspicuous bolts, and several subtle but stark bits of black fiberglass accented the mirrored aluminum alloy. Even though the sculpture was ten-feet tall and weighed more than 800 pounds, a ball bearing in the mounting allowed passersby to easily rotate it by pushing against one of the flanges at ground level. The reflective aluminum surface and kinetic function recalled the joys of the old carousel.
Pickering wanted the design to have space-age connotations, and his title, Clarion Call, was intended as a signal of hope and optimism for the region at a time when the steel industry was collapsing and a new economy was emerging around computers and high technology. “I call it ‘Clarion Call’ because it says, ‘Hey, look! Celebrate!’ There’s the sense of going around, going up and down. That gave me something to hang on to. It’s right out of CMU robotics,” Pickering explained to the Post-Gazette in June 1985.
Through a combination of logistical delays, a busy schedule, a decision to conduct his own foundry work and considerable revisions, Pickering spent more than nine years working on the sculpture. Although originally intended for the 1976 Three Rivers Arts Festival, Clarion Call finally went on public display in Gateway Center for the 1985 Three Rivers Arts Festival. When the time came for permanent installation, the city worried about blocking a popular sledding hill in Schenley Park and decided to move the sculpture to Frank Curto Park, a long greenway along Bigelow Boulevard. While completing aspects of the installation in September 1986, a work crew from the Parks and Recreation Department left components of the sculpture in the grass for several weeks. In the interim, three men who lived nearby loaded the pieces of metal onto a pick-up truck and sold them to a scrap dealer in the Strip District, who sent them smelter. A judge later convicted the three men of theft and the scrap dealer of receiving stolen property.
H. Douglas Pickering (1921-1991) was born in Wilkinsburg, Pa. and raised in Forest Hills. He earned a bachelor’s degree in art from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1943 and a master’s degree in art education from Penn State University in 1953. He taught at Allegheny College in Meadville from 1948 until 1960 and Carnegie Mellon University from 1960 until he retired in 1986. He sat on the boards of the Three Rivers Arts Festival and the Pittsburgh Plan for Arts, served a term president of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh and was chairman of the city Art Commission.