What were you doing, if anything, in 1942?
The artist Victoria Hruska then was a young lady completing her studies in art school. Seventy years later she was hosting a month-long exhibit of her works at the Braddock Carnegie Library.
What a treat it was to blunder, on a whim, into the Christmas event at the Braddock book palace and to enjoy two of the region’s enduring treasures -- the grand old building itself and the irrepressible Hruska.
I blush to admit it, but having never met the lady, at first I mistook Hruska for part of the Christmas decorations there in the library’s front parlor. She was standing, stock-still, right beside a handsomely decorated tree. She was all decked out in an elaborate brocade outfit, topped by a glittering beret.
I misperceived her as a three-quarters-size mannequin displaying ladies’ finery that might have been contemporary with the building. But then, she raised a gloved hand in greeting and we talked.
A lifelong resident of Braddock, at age 91 Hruska is the town’s biggest booster, absolutely devoted to its buildings, its history and its people.
“People should care about the place they come from,” she said. “It explains who they are.”
Indeed, when Hruska was born, Braddock was a proper, prosperous town with 21,000 inhabitants, theaters, department stores and its own self-contained civic life. But by 2010, the U.S. Census counted only 2,159 residents. Happily, Victoria Hruska is one of them.
Her creations -- the thousands upon thousands of them -- may not be fine art in everybody’s estimation. Some of her offerings are more likely to grace tabletops, jewelry cases and bookshelves rather than alcoves or pedestals.
Still, there’s artistic sensibility and vivid aesthetics in her choice to repurpose found items such as greeting cards, wine bottles, compact disks and even eggshells into works that are pleasing to the eye, whimsical and cheerful to behold.
“Everybody deserves to have art,” she told me. “I do what I can to make that possible.”
Describing her decision to work with recycled material, Hruska declared “It’s a matter of seeing things in a different way, giving things a second chance.”
Her approach to her work can inspire aspiring artists of modest means. “You work with what you have,” she said.
Learning to make do came early to Hruska, who was born in 1921 and reared in the low riverside neighborhood south of Braddock Avenue. She shared the house with her parents, working-class Polish immigrants, and her seven siblings. She was next-to-the-youngest.
At 16, young Victoria dropped out of school to work at a lingerie shop on Braddock Avenue to help support her family. She found the time and cash to put herself through art school.
Through the years she worked at several other jobs, married, and has been an enthusiastic volunteer in art education and cultural groups. “Why would I slow down now?” she asked.
And that’s why, when you see her exhibiting in Braddock or elsewhere around the region, she’ll remind you that you, too, deserve to have art. Then she’ll cheerfully sell you something fancy and original for just a few bucks.