Painting My Way Through Life: Pittsburgh (And Beyond) Through The Eyes of Artist Ron Donoughe

Ron Donoughe has spent over 30 years painting the Pennsylvania landscape, especially Pittsburgh. When you don’t find him capturing the spirit of his paintings on location, you’ll likely find him in his Lawrenceville studio – where he’s watched the neighborhood transform through his windows. With a potential sale of his building looming in 2022, we chatted with Donoughe about his artistic journey thus far, what might come next, and Pittsburgh through his eyes.

by Taylor Fowler
June 21, 2022

Photos by Maddy Lafferty

The door of 208 Main St. in Lawrenceville opens and I’m greeted by Ron Donoughe. 

The artist welcomes me up a spiraling staircase of the old building he calls his studio, which has experienced many phases of life. The slight dilapidation boasts old-time charm – weathered wood flooring, ghostly outlines of doorframes, mismatched, aged wallpaper of grapes and glasses and flower pots next to exposed brick and crumbled drywall, an enormous industrial elevator that still works – until we land on the second floor, which has housed Donoughe’s art studio for over 25 years. 

I’m immediately immersed in the life and work of Donoughe. His plein-air (or, open-air and often landscape) paintings adorn the walls. They depict houses, streets, alleyways and even steel mills of Pittsburgh and Donoughe’s hometown in Cambria County —  where he travels once or twice a week to paint.

His art can be found in public and private collections, as well as the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art and the University Museum at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He’s highly awarded, even earning a proclamation from the city of Pittsburgh for Ron Donoughe Day —Aug. 1, 2018 — and his work appears in books and films.

One of Donoughe’s notable accomplishments is his 12-month journey in 2014 painting all 90 neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, which resulted in the book “90 Pittsburgh Neighborhoods: The paintings and experiences of artist Ron Donoughe” and the collection being acquired by the Heinz History Center.

I sat with Donoughe to chat about his artistic journey and the neighborhood he calls home to both his studio and himself – Lawrenceville. 

AN ARTIST LANDING IN LAWRENCEVILLE

“I landed here because another artist rented (the space),” he said. “She found a new studio and alerted me to this about 25 years ago.”

Next to what might be considered the main room of Donoughe’s studio (complete with a comfortable sitting area, shelves of novelties, and Donoughe’s art covering both walls) is his workspace. Enter through a wide cased opening adorned with news clippings, stories, and family photos to be greeted by canisters full of paint brushes, works-in-progress on easels, though he’s usually painting on-site, stacks of frames, and of course, more hanging art. 

Photos from the inside of Donoughe’s  studio

The second main attraction might be the enormous windows flooding the place with light. 

“When I first came here (in probably the early 90s), the landlord told me city detectives would be coming in to use the windows to watch the street for crime,” Donoughe said. “I guess that was before surveillance cameras.”

Like the rest of Lawrenceville, the building itself has gone through many changes, with the first-floor housing rotating businesses and the upper floors used as dwellings and meeting spaces.

Also a resident, Donoughe said he first moved to Lawrenceville by happenstance and discovered how many other artists called Lawrenceville home.

Some of Donoughe’s larger paintings hanging in the studio 

“We came for a house, we stayed for the neighborhood,” Donoughe said. “We found it was just full of interesting creatives, and I felt immediately at home.” 

He recalls a Lawrenceville where neighbors took his laundry to the porch when it rained, told him to close his windows so the bats don’t get in, and generally watched out for each other. 

“Not to mention, there weren’t cars parked up and down the streets,” he said.

READ MORE: Lawrenceville’s The Abbey on Butler Street: From Foundry to Funeral Home to Restaurant

Donoughe said he wanted to show others that Lawrenceville could be a hip area full of artists with tons of affordable housing. He’s one of six founding members of Art All Night, a free 22-hour festival of art and performances.

“The idea (for Art All Night) was that anyone can be an artist for 24 hours. There would be no fee, no censorship, and no jury – things I have had to contend with as a professional artist,” he said. “We were also determined to bring attention to Lawrenceville from investors who, at the time, weren’t looking here yet.”

Lawrenceville did eventually experience rapid change. In the 2000s, Lawrenceville quickly transformed from a neighborhood having suffered economic decline to one booming with trendy retail shops, restaurants, entertainment and updated housing.

“I don’t have any bad feelings about what happened in Lawrenceville,” Donoughe said. “I think it’s exciting.”

Having watched Lawrenceville transform through his studio windows, he recalls a gritty Lawrenceville that spoke to Pittsburgh artists. Now, he still celebrates Lawrenceville’s good vibe, cool housing, and proximity to the city. 

“It’s nice to see that what we hoped for, that people would discover Lawrenceville, DID happen and people love it,” Donoughe said. “Of course, the downside is that the properties have become too costly for a lot of us, and if you didn’t invest in property, you missed out.”

Along with Lawrenceville’s change, the building housing Donoughe’s studio went up for sale in 2022, leaving the artist unsure of what comes next. 

STUDIO SANCTUARY

Donoughe admires his work.

“As an artist, you become part of a space – it’s become a sanctuary for me,” Donoughe said.

In his Main Street studio, Donoughe has hosted dozens of community events, fundraisers, and openings for both himself and other artists. He refers to his studio as a time capsule, not only through decades of work hung on the walls capturing his legacy, but also as a way to see things change in Pittsburgh – like things he’s painted no longer standing as Pittsburgh evolves.

“Part of my mission has been to document this region, particularly Lawrenceville,” he said. “I’ve felt a deep passion for this neighborhood, and to watch it grow and flourish and be part of that, it’s been a real kick. I would certainly hate to move out.”

Until he has to, Donoughe says he’s not considering where his next studio will be.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF RON DONOUGHE

Donoughe smiles next to one of his Pittsburgh paintings

“Every day is a little bit different,” Donoughe said. 

Donoughe arrives at his studio with the morning light around 7 a.m. He either gathers materials to go paint at the day’s location or stays inside to paint – but only if the weather is terrible. 

As a plein air painter, Donoughe creates his works by capturing the spirit of a place he’s immersed in. He’s enamored by light, color, and shadow. When he chooses a location, he sets up a mobile easel and is often planted in one space for hours, watching his subject shift slightly with the day’s changing light.

He likes to create projects that have 50-100 pieces, digging deep and exploring one topic for a long period to create a series upon the foundation of an idea (like 90 Neighborhoods or most recently, The Ways of Pittsburgh, which documents Pittsburgh alleyways). Occasionally, he seeks abandoned structures, finding quiet beauty in architecture being reclaimed by the earth.

A few paintings from the collection The Ways of Pittsburgh

“This might sound corny, but it might be the day that I make a masterpiece,” he said when asked what gets him out of bed to paint every day. “I just really love painting. I love looking and recording and being sensitive to light and shadow. It’s a way of life for me now.” 

Donoughe says the plein air style of art chose him, and he’s found it a great way to experience the world compared to painting inside.

“I didn’t feel like I was an interesting painter painting inside, and when I go outside, I think I’m invigorated. It kind of speaks to me that I get a more honest, genuine painting,” he said.

STORIES TOLD WITHOUT WORDS

Donoughe has met a lot of curious people during his time standing stationary to paint Pittsburgh. Some people watch while others deliver unexpected stories “you just can’t make up” about the neighborhood. 

“You find out that people are proud of their neighborhoods, and they’re willing to share those stories with you,” he said. “Sometimes people are really thrilled because you’re showing the rest of the world something that’s already meaningful to them – I don’t think they ever see it again the same way they used to when they’ve watched me do it. They don’t see (the neighborhood) as art until it is.” 

Sometimes, places tell him stories without words.

In the early days of the pandemic, Donoughe started venturing out at night – something he doesn’t usually do – to more carefully avoid running into other people. He would photograph a place and recreate the scene in his studio. 

“At times, these places started reminding me of dream sequences and maybe at times, stories,” he said. “Things that happen at night are quieter with a different color palette. It led me to a different place where these paintings felt quieter and full of stories that I could only imagine.”

On the fourth of July in 2020 amidst no celebration, Donoughe painted a home on 54th Street. The home was adorned with small American flags along its porch. He recalls how strange the scene felt with it being such a boisterous holiday that was instead blanketed in silence as people stayed home. 

Donoughe with his painting of the Lawrenceville American flag house on a quiet pandemic Fourth of July

When he posted the painting on social media, a follower reached out to tell him they’d grown up in that house.

“It’s always interesting when that happens – when someone sees something you’ve done and it really touches them,” he said. “Places are special to people and their stories then come to fruition through the painting.”

WHY PITTSBURGH IS ART

“There’s something in the DNA of Pittsburghers,” Donoughe said. “They have a passion for and deep fascination with this town.”

Donoughe says Pittsburgh neighbors have a special, spiritual attachment to the city – especially people who grew up here – that you don’t always find in other towns. Generations upon generations live on the same block, pass down homes, and have Pittsburgh become a part of them. 

When it comes to creating art, Pittsburgh offers diversity.

“The geography. The typography. The fact that you get a different view almost everywhere you go, from almost every neighborhood based on how the city pops up over the skyline – these great vistas are very interesting to me as a painter,” Donoughe said. 

One of Donoughe’s paintings in progress

Between the neighborhoods, the industry, and the grittiness, blended with softness and how easy it is to find nature and greenery here, Donoughe says he never runs out of things to use as subject matter.

Plus, that makes it a great place to call home.  

“There’s a lot of things to like about Pittsburgh. I don’t even mind the ugly weather,” Donoughe saidwith a laugh.

When he’s not painting, Donoughe spends his free time staying curious. He enjoys exploring Pittsburgh’s abundant small businesses, food spots, and coffee shops on his own or with his family. He mentors young artists and finds other artists to collaborate with. And to stay healthy, he walks 5-6 miles a day through his favorite neighborhoods, which often sparks an idea for his next painting.

“I just like it here.”

Taylor Fowler is a writer and entrepreneur. A Pittsburgh native and Lawrenceville resident, Taylor’s pastime is exploring the ‘Burgh and getting to know humans behind local art, culture, nonprofit, and small business scenes. She’s passionate about cultivating connections and finding the latest feature story to tell. Taylor also helps creatives, businesses, and organizations build authentic, effective communications that connect and compel audiences through copywriting and PR strategy. Learn more on her website. Outside of writing and business, you’ll find her planning events at Kenny’s in Homewood, volunteering, or at an open mic sharing creative words and poetry. Check out her...

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