Carving Out A Voice: Sculptor Thaddeus Mosley Chisels An Ode To Free Expression
From the outside, Pittsburgh sculptor Thaddeus Mosley’s home is an ordinary, red-brick row house on one of Pittsburgh’s Mexican War Streets—an historic area on the North side. The streets bear the names of Mexican War battles like Buena Vista and Monterey, or of its military leaders like Jackson, and Mosley’s street, Sherman.
On the inside, his house is a magical lair where every wall, every mantle and every ledge are covered with art: Oil paintings, charcoal renderings, textiles, photographs, African art and of course, Mosley’s sculptures.
VIEW THE TOP FLOOR OF MOSLEY’S HOUSE
Now 83, Mosley has called Sherman Street home for nearly 25 years, and has raised three of his six children there. He continues to work regularly, coaxing his sculptures out of raw logs and rough-cut stone.
“I’m in my studio everyday at 9 a.m.,” he said, his compact, muscular build hinting at the brawn it takes to shape logs and stone into art. He culls his materials from tree surgeons or the rubble of demolished buildings. “Talent is one of the most plentiful things in the world,” he said. “It’s passion that is lacking. The first thing that I want to do when I get up is go to my studio and create.”
“An untenable situation”
So Mosley can’t imagine what it must be like to live in a world where creative expression is oppressed; where to write a poem or sing a song or paint a picture is a life-risking act of courage.
“At this point in history,” he said, “it’s hard to believe that someone would want to kill an author for something he would write.”
When Mosley realized that international exiled writers lived nearby on another Mexican War Street, he was intrigued.
The writers reside at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh in a row of rehabilitated houses lining Sampsonia Way. The organization offers two-year residencies to writers who have been persecuted in their homelands for their poetry and fiction.
“I had met Horacio Castellanos Moya from El Salvador and Huang Xiang from China,” said Mosley of the residents of City of
Asylum/Pittsburgh. “It’s hard to for us to visualize their circumstances. Most governments are at best, indifferent to the arts. But when a government feels that arts are dangerous, you have an untenable situation.”
He was moved by their stories and understood their compulsion to create. When City of Asylum/Pittsburgh founders Henry Reese and his sculptor wife, Diane Samuels, commissioned Mosley to create a sculpture to be mounted on one of the houses, he agreed.
Mosley’s work takes wings
But what kind of sculpture does one create for the house of a writer in exile?
Mosley searched his own life experience for an answer. One of five children born in New Castle, Pennsylvania, Mosley was exposed to music by his seamstress mother and coal miner father. His four sisters played the piano—two seriously—and his father played the trumpet. For years, he sang a cappella, until his limited vocal range made him realize that he could not pursue voice professionally. After serving in the segregated Navy in World War II, he decided to attend the University of Pittsburgh to become a journalist.
Mosley became interested in sculpting while he was still in school and living in a Pittsburgh housing project with his wife and three children.
“I saw Scandinavian furniture and fell in love with the design,” he said. “In the furniture brochures, there were sculptures and paintings. I was in my 20s and didn’t have money to buy sculptures. That was the first time I thought that I could make them on my own.”
He was soon influenced by the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi and African art. It was Pittsburgh in the 1950s. The term “black sculptor” was an oxymoron. Racism was ever-present, but Mosley was undaunted. He worked two jobs to raise his family. Eventually, he opted to stay with the post office for 40 years so that he could save his creativity for his art.
“The problem with discrimination is that people begin to hate themselves,” said Mosley. “It becomes a rationalization not to try.” Having experienced government-sanctioned discrimination in America, he easily related to the exiled writers at City of
Asylum/Pittsburgh. In fact, he keeps one of his black walnut sculptures in his dining room called “Fanfare for Fanny.” It is dedicated to Fanny Lou Hamer, the black civil rights organizer who was jailed and severely beaten for her attempts to end segregation in the South. “Oppression is oppression,” he said. “Whether it’s the Inquisition, or fascism or you’re an African American at the turn of the 20th Century. It’s demeaning and kills your spirit.”
His response as a sculptor was to create art to uplift the artists.
“I wanted to do something to give the house wings, something with an air of spirituality,” he said. “When you read the work of these writers, you can see the joy, spirit and idea of personal freedom. I wanted to reflect that.”
In September 2006, the community celebrated as City of Asylum dedicated the home on Sampsonia Way featuring Mosley’s sculpture, “Spiritual Wings.” The door of the house is inscribed with a passage from Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soylinka.
“I tried to create the feeling that the building could almost magically lift itself up,” said Mosley of the home for exiled writers.
“You can feel the vitality and beauty happening in that small space.” His art is not only a monument to free expression, it’s helping to rejuvenate his own neighborhood as tourists visit Sampsonia Way. “When you look at the row of homes that City of Asylum has rehabilitated for persecuted writers,” he said, “it’s like you stuck a diamond in the most unexpected place.”
READ “TALKING WITH SCULPTOR THAD MOSLEY” BY DAVID LEWIS
READ “MATTRESS FACTORY DISPLAYS THE FLUID SHAPES OF SCULPTOR THADDEUS MOSLEY,” BY MARY THOMAS,