PHILADELPHIA - Williamsport native and Kutztown art professor Mark Mahosky has been fascinated by the Battle of Gettysburg ever since his parents took him to visit the battlefield when he was 5 years old. Over the years, he has returned to the site again and again to use it as inspiration for his own artistic efforts - drawing and painting the battlefield and its buildings from several angles and with many different stories in mind.
"My drawings aren't about hokey things like re-enacting battles or paintings of guys shooting each other. There are plenty of guys who do that and it's just like ridiculous and kitschy. I'm not interested in that," Mahosky said and then quickly added, while laughing, "Don't write that or they'll come looking for me and they'll shoot me!"
The fight that piques Mahosky's interest has nothing to do with guns or casualties but rather deals with an ongoing "battle" over a strange building that was built on the historic grounds of Gettysburg in 1962.
"The building that I keep drawing is by Richard Neutra - an important mid-century architect," Mahosky said. "It was built for the centennial of the battle as a tourist center-administration office and the home of the cyclorama painting depicting Pickett's Charge by French artist Paul Phillippotaux and soon after, was considered by many as an eyesore."
A "cyclorama painting" is a "giant 360-degree painting that was a craze in America in the late 1800s," Mahosky said. The paintings extended around the entire circumference of a room. "There were cycloramas depicting several battles of the Civil War," he added.
Pickett's Charge, the battle illustrated in this particular artwork, was an infantry assault that was ordered by Gen. Robert E. Lee on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The contested building, The Cyclorama Building, has been described as a "glorified oil drum" due to its modern and industrial look. Needless to say, it's a little out of place in a setting that memorializes a battle from 1863. To make matters worse, it stands in the middle of the battlefield, blocking viewpoints of where the Union army advanced. History buffs have been calling for it to be removed for years.
"I love the building but also believe it was ill-conceived and really has no place on that particular site," Mahosky said.
The most obvious solution, it would seem, would be to tear the building down, especially since the structure itself is falling apart. But the answer isn't that simple.
"ReCyclorama," a group of preservationists dedicated to saving Neutra's building, claims that it is of historic value because it's a unique example of modern architecture.
"The building itself has some beautiful details like the polished aluminum letters, stainless steel gutters - even the clocks that were built right into the walls," Mahosky said. "In the mid- 1990s, a new plan was designed and executed and a new building houses a museum and the cyclorama [painting] and now, Neutra's structure is crumbling into the ground. There are few examples of his work on the East Coast and this era of architecture is quickly disappearing."
So, it's a battle of "preservationists vs. preservationists," as Mahosky said. There are historians who think the building doesn't belong and want it torn down - with the site being restored to historic accuracy - and there are architecture enthusiasts who want to see the building stand, or at least have it moved to another spot at a cost of around $5 million.
"All things considered, I am most fascinated by how we think about and memorialize an event throughout different eras," Mahosky said. "Even my drawings, which use very traditional methods, can speak about these 'post-modern' concepts of a modern memorial dedicated to an event at its centennial."
Mahosky's drawings of The Cyclorama Building and several other works of his depicting the battlefield will be on display at the Fleisher-Ollman Gallery, 1616 Walnut St., Suite 100, Philadelphia, this month. The exhibit will open with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. June 14 and will be on display through Aug. 24.
Mahosky grew up in Williamsport, attended Loyalsock Township High School and received a bachelor's degree in fine arts at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, followed by a master's degree in fine arts from Stanford University.
The artist said that his work always has dealt with place.
"When I was in undergrad, at Tyler, we took a trip with one of my professors to Pottsville to look at the coal-mining region," Mahosky said. "My ancestors were coal miners in Blossburg and Wilkes-Barre and I started to think about my ancestors and trying to paint about them."
By making his art about his environment and its history, Mahosky believes that he's connecting his work to the "real world."
"Art isn't just about self-expression," he said. "It's about a bigger thing than that ... the job of the artists is to take something personal and make it universal."
He wants his art to communicate more and he doesn't want to get caught up in his own ideas. "That's the value of knowing history - these are things that communicated to everybody and still continue to communicate. That's what I like. Young artists think they have to be conceptual and wacky."
Mahosky said that if he was in high school today and he picked up an Art Forum, he probably wouldn't want to be an artist.
"It looks like a bunch of people who talk to their elite crowd rather than thinking about it in broader terms," he said. "There's great art out there. I'm not saying all modern art is shit. But there's a lot that's pretty warped - in terms of communicating clearly."
Mahosky said that contemporary educational practices keep pushing professors to guide their students toward conceptual art.
"My department is constantly saying we need to make our kids more contemporary, more conceptual-based," he said. "But students like to make stuff. I tell them, 'Make stuff and the concepts will come to you. Love what you make.' "