With this morning’s dedication of Washington Avenue Pier (née Pier 53) as Philadelphia’s newest park, the city’s paths of immigration, art, and nature converge. Marking the exact spot stands Jody Pinto’s Land Buoy, a 55’ sculpture, viewing platform, and beacon weaving those histories into a single narrative she knows firsthand. The artist, 72, has made a career integrating the natural world into her art—beautifying the corridors and stations of St. Louis’ Metrolink light rail, marking the boundary of Phoenix and Scottsdale in a desert park, and bridging a crevasse to carry the trail hiker forward through Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley Park. Though based in New York City, Pinto’s knowledge of Philadelphia has roots both familiar and familial. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and lived here through the mid-1970s, while her father and his brothers built their successful art careers in South Philadelphia, the protégés of Albert Barnes and the sons of Italian immigrants—who arrived in America through Pier 53.
“My grandfather, Luigi Pinto, came a number of years before my grandmother and went back and forth a few times, probably to bring money and things to his family,” says Jody Pinto. “My grandfather was already here when grandmother Josephine (who was pregnant at the time) arrived with my aunt Grace, my uncle Salvatore, and my father Angelo, who was one year old. They arrived at the pier a few blocks above Pier 53 (as did most Italians) and were processed (as were all immigrants) at Pier 53.”
The Pintos lived in a home near South 9th Street, contributing to the growing Italian Market with Luigi’s fruit sold from a horse and cart throughout South Philadelphia. Luigi’s sons helped the family operation by going to the docks on the Delaware River and picking up shipments of produce.
Jody Pinto’s lifetime in the arts came naturally. Her grandfather on her mother’s side left Ireland during hard times and came to America a glassblower. Her mother Gertrude contributed drawings to a 1940s–60s Philadelphia Inquirer column called “On a Shoestring” which gave women inexpensive ideas on design for the home and clothing. And her father Angelo and his brothers Salvatore and Biagio, encouraged by their father Luigi, developed an early passion and skill for art, enrolling in the Barnes Foundation’s art education program.
Albert Barnes was immediately enamored by the Pinto brothers, providing scholarship for them to continue their work and funding trips to Europe for them to paint. Barnes accompanied the brothers on trips to Italy and France and introduced them to Henri Matisse. Matisse recommended they paint in northern Africa, and Barnes paid for them to do so. They were mistaken as spies in Corsica en route to Africa and were only released from custody when Matisse vouched for them.
The Pinto brothers lived at 1827 South 16th Street in Point Breeze and kept a studio at 10 South 18th Street, where the Elephant and Castle pub now stands. While Barnes supported them early on, the rest of the world took notice in 1932, when he purchased four of their paintings for the Barnes Foundation—the first Philadelphia artists to earn such an honor. He also wrote a four-page preface to the catalogue of their exhibition the same year at the Mellon Galleries, 27 South 18th Street (now the back side of United Plaza), where the paintings he purchased were first displayed. Of the brothers, Barnes wrote: “The work of the Pinto brothers shows that they have studied the traditions of painting intelligently, have the sensitivity to grasp the individual contributions of the great masters, and have been able to make what they have learned the medium in which they express their own temperaments and personalities.”
The relationship deepened when Barnes invited Angelo Pinto to teach art appreciation at the Foundation in 1935, a post he held until he retired in 1992. With an interest in photography, particularly that of the burgeoning color technology, Angelo also became the Barnes Foundation’s photographer. When Barnes died in a car accident in 1951, the Foundation had Angelo photograph each of the galleries as they existed at the time of Barnes’ death. When the Foundation relocated to the Ben Franklin Parkway in 2012, the galleries were meticulously reproduced based on Angelo’s 61-year-old photos.
At present, the Barnes Foundation has five of Angelo’s paintings on display, two of his brother Biagio’s, and while none of Salvatore’s paintings are on the walls of the main galleries, his work is in Albert Barnes’ private collection (in storage in Merion) and the Woodmere Art Museum held a retrospective of his work (featuring that of his brothers as well) in 2012 to coincide with the Barnes’ opening on the Parkway.
While he remained closely tied to the Barnes Foundation until his death in 1994, Angelo Pinto’s growth as an artist and development as a photographer led him to New York in the late 1930s. There, he and his brothers set up a photography studio on 57th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. They contributed some of the earliest color, on-location photography to large-format magazines Life, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post. When World War II broke out, the brothers became involved in their own respective affairs, and Angelo took over the space for his family home. He and his wife Gertrude were living there in 1942 when they had their daughter Jody.
“We were tremendously lucky children,” Jody Pinto says of her childhood with her siblings, sister Maria, who worked in the 1960s for Dietrich von Bothmer, chief curator of the Greek & Roman wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, brother Angelo Antonio, a painter, and sister Anna, a calligrapher. “We grew up in the theater of a working studio apartment tucked inside the theater of New York with parents who took every opportunity to our eyes to the world.”
It certainly helped that Albert Barnes enabled her parents. She recalls her only meeting with the doctor, as a three-year-old girl: “One day Dr. Barnes came to the apartment in New York. He stopped in on the spur of the moment. Dad wasn’t home and when my mother introduced me to him, he swooped me up in his arms close to his face. At the time he wore rimless glasses which frightened children because of the glare. I snatched them off his face and my mother held her breath. Dr. Barnes just said, ‘She certainly is something, isn’t she!’ My mother exhaled and said she agreed.”
Jody Pinto also recognizes the path Barnes helped forge for her family. “Dr. Barnes gave my father and his brothers the opportunity of a lifetime,” she says, “three trips abroad during the 30s, meeting great artists of the time, and the support, appreciation, and encouragement to live and work as artists.”
She also specifically cites her father’s paintings of ocean and beach scenes as a direct influence, recalling the family’s summers at Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Philadelphia artists began congregating there in the 1930s, and when the Pinto brothers had reached a level of success to do so, they built their parents a home on the shore in Harvey Cedars, NJ. (It was destroyed in the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962.)
“The ocean and I are great friends, including all structures built to protect, signal, and save,” Jody Pinto observes. “For years I’ve drawn structures that were meant for sitting, watching, or floating on water.” These include Widow’s Perch, a 1982 installation at the Battery Park landfill when the Twin Towers were on the waterfront, and Watchtower for Hallett’s Cove, a 1987 installation facing the East River at the end of the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens in an outdoor exhibition that also featured work by Mark di Suvero and Rudy Serra (Richard’s brother, likewise a sculptor). It also includes Fingerspan, her breathtaking footbridge in the Wissahickon.
Her first permanent work, the unforgettable landmark in the journey between the Livezey Dam and Mt. Airy Bridge in the Wissahickon arrived via helicopter in 1987 at the end of its own unforgettable journey. In 1980 under the leadership of Penny Balkin Bach, the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) invited artists to participate in “Form and Function,” a project to populate public spaces with functional art for the City’s tricentennial in 1983. Out of the project, Philadelphia gained Martin Puryear’s Pavilion in the Trees in West Fairmount Park, Siah Armajani’s seating in the Fleisher Art Memorial’s Louis Kahn Lecture Room, and ultimately, Fingerspan—the third version of Pinto’s vision for the Wissahickon.
Initially, she designed Triple Split Tongue Pier, a pedestrian boardwalk and pier over the Livezey Dam, with three “tongues”—one directly over the dam, one cantilevered over the calm water above the dam, and another over the waters raging under the dam’s spillway. The concept aimed to preserve the dam by deflecting erosion from foot traffic. Ironically, the feasibility study deemed Triple Split environmentally unsound, and it was scrapped. (A “lite” version of the tongue pier was installed at Swarthmore College in 1980.)
In speaking with Friends of the Wissahickon and neighbors in West Mt. Airy (where she lived briefly in the early 1970s), a deteriorating ravine on Orange Trail, a hikers’ trail on the east side of the Creek, was identified as needing stabilization. Pinto’s Arrowhead Perch would have created a lookout platform over a sharp bend of the creek and replaced aging wooden stairs salvaged from a ship 30 years prior with a series of platforms. The Fairmount Park Art Association liked the piece as a work of art, but they felt it didn’t meet the functional requirements of the project. With a definitive location and a blank canvas, her third effort took major inspiration from major art: Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel.
Fingerspan recalls Adam’s slightly bent finger as God gives him life, mankind’s first breath. Architect and structural engineer Sam Harris, a founding partner of Kieran, Timberlake & Harris (now KieranTimberlake), helped Pinto achieve her artistic vision. His own experience as a helicopter pilot, including 600 rescue missions during the Vietnam War, helped inform the project’s dramatic installation. Fabricated of Cor-Ten steel in Pottstown, Fingerspan measures 59′ in length, 9′ in height, and 4′ in width. The structure’s grated footing allows its user to view the crevasse below, 40′ down to Wissahickon Creek. Thousands of ½” holes perforate the “skin” of the finger, allowing air and light through the bridge; a “fingernail” is even placed atop the low end of the span. A second, much smaller grated steel bridge sits at the low end of a set of stone steps installed by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, bridging a brook that trickles from a spring into the Wissahickon.
When it was dedicated on October 25, 1987, the Marian Locks Gallery, who represented Pinto as an artist in the late 1970s into the 80s, hosted an exhibition of the seven-year process by which Fingerspan came to be, including drawings, watercolors, and models of the project’s various versions.
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In the years since Fingerspan‘s inception, Jody Pinto’s public works have taken root in Japan, Israel, and all across the United States. Her drawings are part of the private collections of the Guggenheim, Whitney, and MoMA in New York, and the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC, among others. In Philadelphia, her work appears at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Woodmere Art Museum, the Locks Gallery, and PAFA, where she’s taught as a critic since 1978. In 1983, at age 41, she was among the recipients of the Thomas Hazlett Memorial Awards for Excellence in the Arts in Pennsylvania, winning the award for sculpture alongside Denise Scott Brown’s and Robert Venturi’s awards for architecture and John Updike’s award for distinguished artist. And prior to returning to New York in the mid-1970s, she founded Women Organized Against Rape (WOAR); in 1973, WOAR opened its first rape crisis center at Philadelphia General Hospital, which closed in 1977, but which became the model on which rape crisis centers across the country were built.
Jody Pinto has built a distinguished body of her own work to complement her family’s legacy in art. And all of it comes together in Land Buoy, on South Philadelphia’s Pier 53, where a century ago boats unloaded European immigrants seeking a newer, better life in America—immigrants including Jody Pinto’s family.
With a rolling design by Applied Ecological Services featuring native plants, education components that work because they don’t come off as “educational components,” and a handsome boardwalk, Pier 53 leads visitors from its entrance at Washington Avenue to its end, where Land Buoy invites you up its spiraling staircase. At the top, 16′ above the ground, one surveys 360º of riverfront vistas, from the Ben Franklin Bridge across to Camden, down to the Walt Whitman, and around to the setting sun behind the Philly skyline. But it’s not a place to linger; there is no platform per se, only a large top step encouraging a brief pause and reflection. Rising 55′, the staircase’s central mast is topped by a blue beacon powered by a solar panel installed a few feet away. A system running through the column grounds the stainless steel sculpture, protecting it against lightning. The structure was manufactured and delivered by Salter Spiral Stair, based in Collegeville.
In his preface to the catalogue of their 1932 exhibition, Albert Barnes said of the Pinto brothers, “Their work is modern in the best sense—that is, it is an expression of young men who are very much interested in the contemporary scene and have arrived at their interpretation of it by a knowledge of the fact that the present is the natural outgrowth of the past.”
With Land Buoy, Jody Pinto, daughter and niece of the artist brothers and granddaughter of the Italian immigrant fruit seller, delivers a modern work in the best sense—simple, handsome, technologically advanced—via a natural outgrowth of her own past.
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The author would like to thank Judy Donovan, Kelsey Halliday Johnson, and especially Jody Pinto for all their assistance in bringing this story forward.