Finding History on the Outskirts of Pittsburgh

“St. Mary’s Snowstorm,” by William Pfahl, oil on canvas on board, 19 x 24 in.

Oil painter William Pfahl set his sights on a historic town of 3,000 for a series of cityscapes. His pieces examine the nature of light, the charm of older buildings, and the pull of history.

Pfahl is a retired teacher; he taught art in the Pittsburgh public schools. But before that, he was a sign painter in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, located five miles northeast of Pittsburgh. While there, he came to appreciate the architecture and history of the borough. Pfahl has been painting series featuring different Pittsburgh neighborhoods, and a recent one centered on Sharpsburg. “I chose Sharpsburg because of my connection to it and because it’s on the river,” he says. “It’s situated so you get more light at the end of the day because nothing is blocking the sun. Plus, I like the historic buildings, the interesting architecture.”

“Sunset With Yellow Construction Equipment,” by William Pfahl, 2016 oil on canvas on board, 11 1/2 x 21 in.
“Sunset With Yellow Construction Equipment,” by William Pfahl, 2016 oil on canvas on board, 11 1/2 x 21 in.
“N. Canal and Main Streets View,” by William Pfahl, 2016, oil on canvas on board, 15 x 35 in.
“N. Canal and Main Streets View,” by William Pfahl, 2016, oil on canvas on board, 15 x 35 in.

Sharpsburg has a rich history. A Seneca chief named Guyasuta lived there; he served as a hunting guide for George Washington, and was a key player in three wars including the Revolutionary War (on the side of the British). H.J. Heinz began his canning business in Sharpsburg. Pfahl can tell fascinating stories about the Heinz family’s role in the community, and the saga of the Heinz house, which has been relocated twice — once via a barge floating down the Allegheny River.

“Fourth of July View of S. Main Street,” by William Pfahl, 2016, oil on canvas on board, 16 x 24 in.
“Fourth of July View of S. Main Street,” by William Pfahl, 2016, oil on canvas on board, 16 x 24 in.
“E&H Sunset,” by William Pfahl, 2016, oil on canvas on board, 19 x 24 in.
“E&H Sunset,” by William Pfahl, 2016, oil on canvas on board, 19 x 24 in.

A selection of Pfahl’s paintings of Sharpsburg is on view at Roots of Faith, a component of the Faith United Methodist Church, through February 28. Pfahl has no connection with the church, but he is pleased with the arrangement. “I wanted to show these paintings in Sharpsburg, but there’s no gallery space there,” says Pfahl. “The church allowed me to use the space in the community center. They are kind enough to let me show there, and I guess it helps them with foot traffic, helping with their outreach to the community.”

“Henry Miller,” by William Pfahl, 2016, oil on canvas on board, 19 x 24 in.
“Henry Miller,” by William Pfahl, 2016, oil on canvas on board, 19 x 24 in.
“15th Street View,” by William Pfahl, 2016, oil on canvas on board, 16 x 24 in.
“15th Street View,” by William Pfahl, 2016, oil on canvas on board, 16 x 24 in.

Pfahl has moved on to paint other Pittsburgh neighborhoods, but Sharpsburg keeps pulling him back in. “It’s still a regular place I go to,” says the artist. “I will return there and do more paintings — in fact, I already have. There are always inspirational things to see there.”