Artist Dave Calfo (#BurghVerified) originally thought he would spend his life working with steel. But when the fourth-generation Pittsburgh native of Hungarian descent returned to the city after a stint in the U.S. Army in the early 1980s, he found, like so many others, that the steel mills were closing shop.
“There was nowhere for me to work,” Calfo said. “I thought I’d work in the steel mills, but I never had the chance.”
Today, his hands aren’t casting steel in a mill – they’re molding it into fine art, a tribute to Pittsburgh’s proud history. Inspired by the hard work of those who labored in the mills, Calfo turns steel-related scrap and salvage into gritty, beautiful sculptures. He’s also documented the city’s heritage in a collection of photographs.
“It was truly a part of the lives of families here,” Calfo said of the steel mills. “People have forgotten.”
Inspired by “junk”
A master carpenter by trade, Calfo created his first piece of art on a dare. While renovating a bar in Lawrenceville and after moving some benches, Calfo and his coworkers found a bunch of old cigarette lighters and some rolling papers.
“A friend challenged me to make something out of it,” he said.
So he did. He took the cigarette lighters and made a frame, then created a collage out of the rolling papers. He had about a dozen old wooden clocks lying around, so he added three of them to the piece – one to represent the past, one for the present and one for the future.
“I called it ‘Changing the Times,’” he said.
He can’t remember who bought it or how much that person paid, but he does remember that the buyer knew the bar that spawned it and that the guy thought it was a fantastic piece. The piece shares a story with most of Calfo’s creations, the majority of which are composed of things most people would throw away.
“I’d say 75 percent of my stuff is dumpster-find,” he said.
A passion for the city
Calfo grew up in Pittsburgh – in Hazelwood, right above J&L Steel – surrounded by three generations of Calfo steelworkers during the days when steel mills defined the city. After returning from the Army and finding no work in the mills, he finished a two-year carpentry program at Connelly Trade School in just one year, graduating with honors.
“Most guys are book smart,” he said. “I’m hand smart. I can take things apart and see things that people don’t recognize right away. I’ve been tinkering since I came out of my mama.”
He helped renovate the city’s buildings as a carpenter and was recognized by the city of Pittsburgh for his work.
His respect for those who toiled in the mills of Pittsburgh and across the country inspired the name of his Hatfield Street gallery, DNA Blue Collar Art.
“It’s been handed down from generation to generation,” Calfo said of the manufacturing work ethic, the code a steelworker lives by. “We worked hard. We built America.”
And Calfo worked hard at renovating the 10,000-square-foot building, abandoned since the 1960s, which became his gallery.
“It was 15 dumpsters worth of garbage, like school bus size,” he said. “I spent one year and three months of my life working 24-7 on the building.”
Since the gallery opened in 2001, Calfo has sold pieces to buyers across the country.
On June 18, Calfo will display two of his pieces and two photographs at the Crest Hardware Art Show in Brooklyn, New York. It will be his first visit to the city, he said.
“There’s support for me out there,” he said. “They’re supporting the heck out of me.”
So is Boring Pittsburgh, Dave.
What are the hours?
Thursday: noon – 5pm
Friday: noon – 6pm
Saturday: 11am – 3pm
Or call for an appointment