At Home in Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol's Youth

by Kathryn M. Duda

Like most Depression-era families, the Warholas found daily life difficult. Money was in short supply, and the family stretched what little they had in order to make ends meet. Added to that, the Warholas had essentially a single-parent home. As head of the household, Andrej Warhola was often out of town working grueling 12-hour shifts in heavy construction, thus forced to leave the care of the home and three boys to his wife, Julia. These periods were interrupted by stretches when Andrej was out of work, which provided times for family togetherness but tainted it with the strain of additional financial worry.

An exhibition of objects used by the Warhola family during that time has been assembled by The Andy Warhol Museum's Archives Study Center and is on view there through September 29. These everyday items, on loan to the museum from Andy's brother John Warhola, give today's audience a sense of the life that the family led during the 1930s and 40s. While Andy seldom talked of his childhood, his experiences during those years shaped his character and his art, and that influence becomes obvious when one studies the items in the exhibition.

Unlike his brothers, Paul and John, Andy Warhola was a shy boy and spent a great deal of time at home with his mother. Under her tutelage he began to develop his artistic ideas and skills, while his brothers played ball outside. Julia was a folk artist in her own right, creating and selling handicrafts, stenciling her family's furniture, and drawing pictures of religious scenes and animals for her sons. After Andy established himself as an artist in New York, Julia moved in with him and a mother-son collaboration developed in which she embellished Andy's works with her whimsical penmanship and drawings. Julia signed Andy's commercial illustrations into the 1960's.

Home, family and religion -- values imported from Czechoslovakia by Andrej and Julia -- were paramount to the Warholas, as they were in most families 60 years ago. With fewer distractions to take people away from home during the Depression years, families like the Warholas relied on each other for entertainment, inspiration and support.

Since few non-essentials could be purchased, Andrej Wahola fashioned and maintained tools, kitchenware and other utilitarian objects, several of which are included in the current exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum. Among these are two implements central to an Eastern-European kitchen -- a potato masher and potato spoon, both large and sturdy wooden objects that saw frequent use in preparing mashed potatoes and piroghi. Equally important in the preparation of meals was a sauerkraut masher, which Andrej crafted once his sons were too big to mash kraut the traditional way -- by stomping on it. A thick, heavy, wooden bread board and an ample mixing bowl are also exhibited, testimonies to the task of breadbaking that was a routine part of a housewife's daily chores.

Nothing of potential re-use was thrown away during the Depression years, so an efficient system for shoe repair was essential. Andrej's workbench included a shoemaker's cast- iron forms, in various sizes, to hold the family's shoes while he stitched a tear or replaced a worn sole.

"Sometimes he'd buy a piece of leather to replace soles on our good shoes, the ones that we'd wear to church," remembers John Warhola. But more often than not, Andrej would cut up old tires to form the new soles.

Always obsessed with people's appearance, Andy had a lifelong aversion to his own looks, which included blotchy skin and a bulbous nose. In what museum archivists have identified as his first self-portrait, Andy confronts his insecurities about his features and creates a startlingly revealing image of himself at the probable age of 16. The signature, "A. Warhol," already minus the final "a," is highly stylized and, according to Assistant Archivist Matt Wrbican, shows that Andy was mimicking the style of commercial illustrators of the early 1940s.

Because Andy Warhol was such a private man, most people are unaware that he was a devout Byzantine Catholic all his life. As children, the Warhola boys accompanied their parents to mass at St. John Chrysostom Church near their home in lower Greenfield (Ruska Dolina). The parish was comprised primarily of Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants like Andrej and Julia, and after the family moved they would walk nearly a mile in any weather to attend mass there.

Their religion did not stop at the doors of the church, however. "There was at least one religious picture in every room," says John Warhola of his family home. One of these was a 17-inch-high religious shrine that Andy painted and kept in his bedroom. Cast from a mold in plaster of Paris, the shrine is brightly painted and once held two candles. It is part of the current exhibition in the museum as well.

"Andy was always shy about being religious," recalls John, "because the other kids would make fun of him." This reluctance to be open about his religion stayed with him throughout his life, his brother says. Andy and his mother attended a Byzantine Catholic church in New York while Julia was alive, even travelling by taxi with a basket of food to be blessed at Easter time. He continued to attend daily mass for the rest of his life, but a near-death experience caused him to temporarily change his church-going pattern.

"After Andy was shot, he had a fear of crowds for awhile and for that reason didn't go to mass," John says. "Instead, he'd go in to church after mass was over and say his prayers." Other items in the exhibition attest to the better-known side of Andy Warhol, such as the family camera and the scrapbook of movie stars' photographs, both of which suggest the artist's fascination with image, star status and capturing a moment in time. While these items are interesting in an obvious way, museum visitors will be especially touched by the simpler objects on display -- the everyday things that provide a glimpse of the boy drinking Ovaltine behind his mother's skirts.

Kathryn M. Duda is associate editor of Carnegie Magazine.

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