Billowing steel-foundry smokestacks have dominated the Granite City landscape for decades.
Gritty and gray, they help give the town its distinctive, working-class character.
They also produce thousands of jobs.
But the industrial giants were closed this year due to a weakening economy.
While they sat idled, a group of area artists decided to seize a new opportunity.
"We felt we could make the mills valuable in another way," said Ron Laboray, a Granite City artist and Washington University art instructor. "We thought we could make something beautiful."
Laboray and about a dozen painters took to the streets over the summer to document the beauty of "an empty industrial landscape" on their easels, through "plein air" painting.
Plein air painting is open air painting, done outside rather than in the studio.
Laboray invited plein air artists from across Missouri and Illinois to paint Granite City's empty foundries and historic buildings.
"I think a steel mill is beautiful," Laboray said. "The geometric shapes and colors of the mill. There's a romantic quality to the smokestacks. They're ever-present in the background and set context for our landscapes."
After weeks of painting, Laboray created gallery space at City Hall to house the artists' work. About 18 paintings now hang there, all open to the public for free and available for purchase.
Edwardsville artist John DenHouter contributed four paintings. A Southern Illinois University Edwardsville art instructor, DenHouter said painting during the hustle and bustle of daily life on the streets attracted attention.
"We did receive a lot of interesting comments," he said. "People were surprised to see artists working. They'd tell us the paintings were looking good or ask us questions."
Belleville artist Susan Rogers, who often paints plein air, said painting in an industrial was a challenge.
"The nice thing about Granite City is that it's not all green," Rogers said. "I've been painting a lot lately in parks and green spaces."
Granite City's stark landscape provided quite a contrast.
"It's a different kind of beauty," Rogers said.
Laboray, who grew up in Granite City and maintains studio space there, said the exhibit is part of a larger effort to help revitalize a downtown that a distinct retro feel to go with its historic charm.
"We want to do things to attract artists into the city," he said. "If artists relocate here it brings up property values and attracts youthful, educated people, and the city prospers through tax revenue."
Laboray, who also sits on a city committee dedicated to preserving historical architecture, pointed to the new movie theater under construction in the 1300 block of Niedringhaus Avenue. The $3.6 million project is scheduled to open in April.
"That's one of the things the city is doing to try and promote and arts and entertainment district down here," he said.
Laboray said despite an environment some outsiders might dismiss as bleakly industrial, Granite City is fertile ground for artists, as the plein air exhibit shows.
If you GO
'Plein Air: Granite City, Illinois'
Where: Granite City Hall, 2000 Edison Ave., Grand Rotunda
For more information, call 447-0833
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