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Aaronel deRoy Gruber

American, (07/10/1918–7/5/2011)
Aaronel deRoy Gruber
Since her graduation from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, (now Carnegie Mellon)
Aaronel deRoy Gruber has been creating art-paintings, steel and Plexiglas sculptures,
and for many years, photographs.
Long known for her artistic vision, Aaronel employs photographic processes that range
from traditional methods to the latest in digital technology. As Murray Horne of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and curator of Wood Street Galleries in Pittsburgh, PA, has said of her work, "There is a real lustrous-ness to it. A real feeling for the extravagant, but it's not over the top."
This lavish feel shines in Aaronel's striking photographs.
Aaronel's work can be viewed in both regional and national exhibitions. Her art is part
of the permanent collections of the Butler Institute of American Art, the Westmoreland
Museum of American Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Frick Art Museum, the Palm Springs Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and the Kawamura Museum of Modern Art in Japan.
A great honor, Aaronel won a third place prize for her special effects photography in the 2004 International Photography Awards, a worldwide competition. Her work was featured in "A Legacy of Excellence" in 2004, an exhibition at the Susquehanna Museum of Art that visited the Governor's Mansion in Harrisburg, PA and traveled to other locations through the summer of 2005. A solo exhibition of Aaronel's work, "Aaronel deRoy Gruber: Small Sculptures & Recent Photographs" was recently shown at 707 Penn Gallery in Pittsburgh, PA. Several ago, a separate show featuring Aaronel's photographs and large, kinetic sculptures was on display at the Photo Forum in the USX Tower in Pittsburgh. Aaronel's work could recently be viewed in "Contemporary Desert Photography: The Other Side of Paradise" at the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Springs, CA. The celebrated Palm Springs show also featured the work of noted photographers Lee Friedlander and Richard Misrach among others.
To view more art by Aaronel deRoy Gruber, please visit her website at:

Artist Aaronel deRoy Gruber, with two of her Plexiglas sculptures in 1981, when she was named Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Artist of the Year.
Pittsburgh has lost one of its consummate artists. Aaronel deRoy Gruber, who died Wednesday, four days from her 93rd birthday, had what it takes to be an artist: talent, brains and the means to reach many of her dreams.

The potential she showed as a 1940 graduate of Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) with a degree in costume economics propelled her throughout her long artistic career. After raising three children, she easily transferred her early eye for fashion design to abstract expressionism. Then came op art, leading to steel and kinetic and illuminated Plexiglas sculpture, to finally toned photography at which she excelled. Even when her materials were steel discards, she saw their inherent beauty and turned it into art.

Her father was a noted Pittsburgh dentist, Joseph Israel de Roy. Her name is a feminized form of Aaron (she was named for an uncle), with the modified French "elle." In midlife, she inherited from a Southern aunt, helping her attainments. But I once saw her on her knees at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts cleaning the floor for an exhibition. When I asked why, she said, "Because I belong to this organization."

Unlike many regional artists, Ms. Gruber was always in tune with what was occurring in the New York art capital as well as exhibiting locally. After years of art shows in Pittsburgh, in 1960, her work was selected as the outstanding painting in the Boston Arts Festival and that year was the best in show at the annual exhibition in Newport, R.I.

From 1969 to '71, she exhibited at the highly regarded Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York, just one of many American and European galleries that showed her work. Between 1958 and 1999, she had 48 one-person exhibitions and received more than 73 invitational shows, awards and honors. It is an enviable record, not to mention her works being included in 19 art museums and at least 21 corporate collections, mentions in art books and works sent on world tours with the United States Information Service.

One of her enlightening experiences was visiting the late abstract expressionist sculptor David Smith at his studio near Newburgh, N.Y. Mr. Smith urged Ms. Gruber to attempt steel sculpture. She never forgot his words: "The more you produce, the more experience and emotional evolution is yours."

Moving from painting on canvas to steel sculpture, she used heavy discarded materials, lifting them on cranes and adapting them at American Forge & Manufacturing in McKees Rocks, where her husband, Irving Gruber, had been president.

One of those pieces, her largest work, "Steelcityscape," done in 1977, is 18 feet tall and 21 feet long and is owned by the City of Pittsburgh. It stood for years on the City-County Building's portico and is scheduled to reappear in the new outdoor sculpture garden at Mellon Park, Shadyside.

Studying later at Rohm and Haas Co., a manufacturer of Plexiglas in Philadelphia, the artist learned to vacuum-form molded plastic. This led to her colorful and jewel-like rotating and still sculptures, many based on her motif, the round-cornered square.

As her physical strength waned with the years, Ms. Gruber took courses in photography. She specialized in landscapes with implied moods such as time passing or displaying unusual hand-applied techniques while experimenting with several different cameras, including those with panoramic views. She took thousands of filmed images before settling on those that she and her assistant, photographer John Fobes, treated with selenium salts in the darkroom.

She was only satisfied with the extraordinary. In 1996, while visiting Petra, Jordan, and ancient treasury buildings carved in the narrow valley's red stone, she refused to snap the well-known site. Instead, through a natural hole in a cave she photographed the sky lighting the cave, then richly colored it on returning to the darkroom.

"I couldn't do what everyone did," she explained, a hallmark statement of an artist.

She loved to wander in the car to out-of-the-way places with the thrill of not knowing what she would find. She would not have discovered "Secluded House Near Brunot's Island," 1995, for instance, if she had not been in a parking lot overlooking the Ohio River and a house that would have been invisible with trees in leaf. The same was true wherever she and her husband traveled.

After retiring from the Post-Gazette, I wrote the text and selected the photographs for a monograph called "Aaronel: the Art of Aaronel deRoy Gruber" that the Grubers commissioned in 2000. All of the photographs were toned ones.

Among her outstanding images in the book, well-known in Pittsburgh and in art museums and libraries across the country, are: "Downtown Pittsburgh Skyscrapers from Mount Washington," 1996, which is in the Carnegie Museum of Art Collection; "End of an Era," one of several views of razed steel mills, 1998; "Felucca Sails, Aswan, Egypt," 1987; "Vizcaya, Coral Gables, Fla.," 1992; and "Salt Cities of Mono Lake, Eastern Sierras, Calif.," 1993.

Other of my favorites are: "Gilded Cage, Buckingham Palace," 1990, where the focus is on the curling tendril of an outer gate; and "Birth of an Arboretum, Hampton Court, Middlesex, England," 1994, filling two pages in a panoramic swoosh.

Believing that images speak silently, we easily agreed on photographs for the book. But when she kept adding details to my essay, I said, "Aaronel, I never had to rewrite an article 12 times for the Post-Gazette," and she said, "... So?"

Yes, she was a hard driver with a voice to match. But she never drove anyone harder than she did herself. She will be very much missed, as will her philanthropy to Pittsburgh art organizations. But, fortunately, her works still live.

Donald Miller, the Post-Gazette art and architecture critic for 33 years, lives in Naples, Fla. Contact:

First published on July 8, 2011 at 12:00 am

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