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09-08-2010, 12:45 AM
CMU exhibit examines the culture of Steeler nation
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
By Marylynne Pitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A new exhibition that showcases the creativity of that multitude called Steelers Nation is a lot like its subject -- loud, colorful, funny and in your face.

"Whatever It Takes," which opens Friday, is so interactive that in "The Immaculate Recreation," visitors can complete Franco Harris' amazing catch and be recorded by a video camera.

It's so authentic that you can tour the Steelers man cave of Denny DeLuca, a local chef whose basement shrine to the team and Three Rivers Stadium has been dismantled and re-created inside the Regina Miller Gallery, part of the Purnell Center for the Performing Arts on the Oakland campus of Carnegie Mellon University. Visitors can also watch a video of Mr. DeLuca describing the mementos he's collected over a lifetime.

"We wanted it to be experiential," said CMU fine arts professor Jon Rubin, who curated the exhibition with gallery director Astria Suparak.

He noted that an art gallery is an unusual venue for this kind of show.

"In some art communities in the U.S., there's almost a stigma to being a sports fan," he said.

In fact, the show's official opening from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday -- called the Immaculate Reception -- may be the only art opening some visitors ever attend.

In creating this amusing, endearing portrait of Pittsburgh sports fans, the curators aimed to examine how fans become producers of culture by constructing their personal and social identities in relation to the team. The result is that the gallery feels like a fun house where Steelers Nation is reflected through a thousand mirrors.

Events: At 5 p.m. Friday, Denny DeLuca will give a tour of his Steelers Room. From 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, an opening party called "The Immaculate Reception" is sponsored by Iron City Brewing Co.

There's Lem Apperson's nylon SuperFan costume on a mannequin. And one look at the picture of "Roethlispoodle" shows us that pets can be diehard fans, too.

Just inside the gallery's first-floor entrance, you'll see Pittsburgh Electric Football Heinz Field, a creation of Rob Dalmasse, a CMU chemistry department staff member, and his relatives, John and Shawna Evans.

The couple, Mr. Dalmasse said, stayed up until 3 a.m. for two weeks to finish the 8-foot-long, 21/2-foot-high model in the summer of 2003. The model was later featured in great moments in electric football on the Heinz Field Jumbotron.

Mr. Dalmasse, who started an electric football league in 1997, painted all of the tiny figures in the end zone seats. He updated it with President Barack and Michele Obama, who are waving Terrible Towels. For good luck, "Art Rooney Sr. is up in the club seats at his desk," he said.

Be sure to linger at the display of unlicensed T-shirts. My favorite shows Coach Mike Tomlin surrounded by a saintly halo. Above him is the word, "Believe." Another T-shirt that shows the city's skyline reads, "When you play Pittsburgh, you play the whole city."

One attention-grabber is a large screen that shows a mash-up of 70 videos created by fans, including one that demonstrates how to apply your gold eye shadow on game day and another in which a 90-year-old woman shows off her Steelers tattoo.

When you ride the elevator to the gallery's second floor, a 3-foot-high papier-mache version of Troy Polamalu appears ready to tackle you. On one large wall, a map with dots locates Steelers bars around the world, including Blozik's Britzburgh Cafe in Belgrade, Serbia. No doubt it's a place frequented by employees of steel mills operated there by U.S. Steel.

There's also an exhaustive list of 1,800 Steelers bars and fan clubs from Aruba to the U.S. Virgin Islands. It's fun to look down the list and see the names, especially Dos Locos in Quepos, Costa Rica. You know Jimmy Buffett could turn that into a song quickly. High on a shelf above the map of bars is an array of 100 Steeler autographed footballs owned by Shawn Spinda, a Kentucky collector.

"He put them all in his car. He drove up from Kentucky for training camp in Latrobe, then dropped them off," said Mr. Rubin, adding that Mr. Spinda knows a great many Steelers.

Early this summer, the curators launched a Facebook page. Some fans who visited there provided video or memorabilia for the show. That's how Mr. Spinda learned about the exhibition.

The curators also set up a photo booth at Steelers training camp in Latrobe and at the first pre-season game against the Detroit Lions. During those events, they photographed fans' tattoos, some of which are as detailed and intricate as a tapestry and are shown in the gallery. Steeler Ron, who is Ron Vergerio, spent more than 200 hours getting tattooed on his chest, sides and back by artist Chris Blick at American Tattoo in Verona.

At the gallery's website, you can find the names of all of the fans who contributed to this show. That's nice, but that's not enough. In fact, while this show is about fans as producers of culture, it tells us almost nothing about them as human beings. That's a squandered opportunity.

Mr. Rubin said the traditional text panels often seen in art galleries seemed too formal for such an entertaining exhibition. Maybe so, but this is the era in which people ask, "What's the back story?"

At a university where students pay roughly $50,000 annually to attend classes, a few text panels are hardly going to break the budget.

It's great that the gallery highlights the weekly Web show called "Yinz Luv 'Da Stillers." Created by James Shearer, a Pittsburgh native and an MTV2 vee-jay who lives in New York, the weekly broadcast is a do-it-yourself version of a typical post-game show with puppets and game footage. In one clip, Mr. Shearer asks Jack Ham which coach he would choose in a football game that would decide the fate of the world -- Chuck Noll or Joe Paterno.

Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult to hear Mr. Shearer's broadcasts. They are drowned out by competing sound from Denny DeLuca's tour of his man cave.

"Yinz Love 'Da Stillers" is also next to another exhibit where you can talk through Skype to people at La Botticella, a Steelers bar in Rome. Duquesne University and Penn State have campuses there, so Steelers fans gather at the bar, owned by Giovanni Poggi.

There's just too much sound in this confined space. That's a shame because Mr. Shearer's show is worth seeing, and Mr. DeLuca's man cave is a memorable journey into the parallel universe of a single fan.

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'Whatever It Takes: Steelers Fan Collections, Rituals, and Obsessions'
Where: Regina Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University's Purnell Center for the Performing Arts, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

When: Through Jan. 30, 2011. Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Admission: Free.