Robert Qualters

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A life's recounting in the subject's own words

What’s it like to be 75? Well, I’ll tell you. I’ve had two knee replacements. I’ve had back surgery. I keep falling down and breaking things: my fingers, my skull. But overall I feel pretty good, actually. I still like to work. I just keep on going. I find some way to continue.

My most recent show was autobiographical, my life story. It began with drawings I made at the age of about four, which my mother saved, andI did some paintings based on them. For one, I used an old, yellowed article from the McKeesport Daily News, the headline for which read: “Boy Explorer, 3, Falls Through Bridge.” That three-year-old was me! My picture was in the paper! A little friend and I had walked away from our houses and took a stroll through downtown McKeesport. I ended up slipping and falling about 15 feet through one of those street car trestles. Fortunately, I didn’t really get hurt.

It’s as true for painters as it is for any other creative people: We constantly mine our own lives and experience for material. I certainly have. But after a while, some of us get sick and tired of the me, me, me; the same portraits and the same stories, like coming home from school in the snow in Clairton and looking down at the mill. It’s what I’m known for, but still, it can get to you. “Pittsburgh: Hell with the lid off,” as we’ve heard so many times. That remark is often falsely attributed to Charles Dickens, but what the hell, right? It fits.

The Pittsburgh I grew up with doesn’t exist anymore. Things have changed a lot. I was born in 1934, right in the heart of the Great Depression. My mother was a schoolteacher and my father, when she married him, was just a laborer, working in the streets. Back in those days, if they found out you were married and a woman, you had to give up your job. The idea was, I imagine, that the man was supposed to be the breadwinner and the woman was better suited to tend to the home and kids. Because my father didn’t maintain “traditional” employment, we got to live off of two incomes, such as they were.

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