In the back. That’s where Pittsburgh wants its packages delivered; not out front, right on the street. That is, unless the request is to place items Over the gate, Through the gate, Behind the gate, or Inside the gate, under the awning.
Some want their deliveries In the vestibule, Inside the door, or In the screen door. Others are more specific: On side of house on table, one; Up the side steps in front of the door, another; a third: Please bring floor 2 packages to side door up stairs down walkway.
We’re redirecting deliveries Next to the large wooden planter box, Under the mailbox (behind the flower pot), Next door, At the Cricket store, and Across the street at People’s Grocery.
We also set conditions on our parcels: Please place light packages over the fence; heavy packages go here [who decides what the light/heavy threshold is?] and Please, if package fits, place between doors OR deliver to side door thru gate at right.
Some of us believe our carriers have special secret knowledge. Mail Courier: Please deliver the letter in my mailbox to the correct address … this is not it.
Being a delivery driver cannot be easy work—especially right now, mid-pandemic, as the Christmas season officially gets into high gear, and when just about everyone is ordering from the Internet—at least, some of the time.
We’ll add the obvious aside here, that this is all one more reason to shop locally and independently as much as one can. The money you spend close to home supports local businesses, stays in the community, and creates the kinds of Main Streets populated with life that pretty much everyone wants to see.
Amazon’s drivers are reportedly given 30 seconds to make each home delivery. That’s not a lot of time for anything, let alone to stop the vehicle, locate and scan the package, haul it to the customer’s front door, and get back to the van. Now, imagine if the delivery address includes a note requesting packages not be left at the front door, but instead be taken “to the back,” or “up the steps,” or “to the side door through the gate.”
It’s a lot to ask—even when the instructions pretty much always include please and thank you—but the reasons homeowners make these requests is obvious, too.
If you live in a row house—as your author does and where almost all of today’s photos were taken—there is often no separation between the sidewalk and one’s front door. A package delivered to the front steps is as exposed as something left right on the street. It is effortlessly easy for the most part-time of thieves or teenage pranksters to pick up that intriguing brown cardboard box, pop the corn, and make an evening of the random possibilities that await within.
It’s a conundrum—one the home builders of the late 19th century could never have anticipated. So called “porch pirates” are their own well-known menace, even when they’re not targeting row houses. Today—just spitballin’ here—architects are probably integrating some kind of hidden/protected package receiving area right into the fronts of new housing the way the automobile was welcomed into the home in the 1950s and ’60s.
So with Black Friday behind us and Santa’s elves already packing for non-stop December deliveries, let’s all consider the overwhelmed and under-valued “last milers” who bear the brunt of all that Amazon Prime “free” shipping. They may not be able to “put all packages inside the gate under the awning,” and that’s O.K.
Package/Gate or Packagegate
Take a walk on the porch side
Have you seen the back?
Not here, not now
Someone is home: find them!
Special thanks to Orbit faithful Paul and Mark who came up with “Vestibulers Day Off” and “Post-Its with the Most-Its,” respectively, when your author was unable to think of anything nearly as clever. It’s always Snark Week with those two.
Thanksgiving’s back, baby! The good news is that last year’s cancellation has been repealed and, by Thursday, families will reunite to resume the polite political discourse, subtle lifestyle judgements, and long-unresolved childhood issues they so dearly missed last year. Sure, the inevitable post-holiday spike in coronavirus cases spreading throughout our union won’t be pleasant, but how will we get to the mu or omicron variants if we don’t all do our share?
Regardless, the city of Pittsburgh will welcome visiting friends and family members when and however they get here. We can collectively cross our fingers that enough folks have been boosterized to handle all the close-quarters jawboning and cross-table finger-pointing that ensues.
Said visitors will be arriving to a changed city … at least, somewhat. The last two years have been ones of big investment and a little growth. There are plenty of new Legoland™ condos and not a few painful demolitions. But we’ve also seen the creation of some exciting new public spaces and a lot of renewed neighborhood pride.
Why, Fineview’s big retaining wall welcome mural, on Warren Street (photo above), didn’t even exist during Thanksgiving 2019. We like to think the Orbit pointing out the neighborhood’s previous, underwhelming sign had something to do with that, but perhaps it was just coincidence. (For reference, see our first story on this subject from 2018.)
Whatever prompted neighborhood do-gooders to take up brush and paint, wood and brick to celebrate the pride they have in their corners of the city, we love it. Here then is Part 2 of our neighborhood welcome sign roundup where the casual sign-spotter can enjoy some great new additions to the streetscape, check in on old favorites, and peek at a couple Easter eggs. Sit back with the popcorn … er, turkey sandwich, and watch as Deutschtown and Lawrenceville continue their welcoming open arms race for the most total signage.
A final note:Yes, we’re still missing plenty of place/signs—the southern neighborhoods are woefully underrepresented so far—so there will be a Part 3. Until then, be understanding, try to avoid the petty squabbles, and leave some room for dessert.
While The Orbit will always prefer the touch of the human hand, we’d be negligent to not include professionally-produced welcome signs. Some of these are obvious custom jobs and others look mass-marketed. The signs for Stanton Heights and Morningside each look like they were ordered from welcomesigns.com (see below). C’mon, gang! Follow Fineview’s lead and hire a couple artists to work on a nice street-facing retaining wall!
Those eyes! Haunted, possessed, staring blankly or looking right through you—take your pick. Any way one describes these quite literal baby blues, they’ll either do a number on you or you’ve got no heart. The form of this particular plastic baby doll—naked, broken, mud-stained, body caked with an unknown white substance, missing one foot and the other leg—is to elicit pathos of most primal variety.
There, on rain-soaked century-old brick paving, we find a counter to all the ghosts, goblins, witches, and boogeypeople that get the big press this time of year. These unsung, woefully innocent, and generically “creepy” children—nay, mere babies!—lay lost, damaged, bugged-out, and now seem to exist in an undead state of demonic reanimation.
Little child dry your crying eyes How can I explain the fear you feel inside ‘Cause you were born into this evil world Where man is killing man and no one knows just why What have we become just look what we have done All that we destroyed you must build again
Vito Bratta / Mike Tramp
If we’d only listened! Sure, Denmark’s White Lion weren’t writing in their native tongue, but for ESL Rock, these 1987 lyrics proved as prescient then as they’ll inevitably be for … let’s face it, every future generation. Why, the crying children of the mid-1980s are now well into their 30s, bringing up youths to whom they’ll eventually have to “explain the fear [they] feel inside.”
On this perfect Hallowe’en Day—overcast and drizzling, right on cue—we salute all the lost babies, Barbies, doll parts, and broken hearts that can make any day a Hallows Eve … if you know where to look. Sure, we’ve all been born into an “evil world,” but if you’re not lying face down in the gutter, abandoned in a creek, or missing too many body parts, there’s still a bright side, right?
The little boat is lifted into the air on a delicate structure of thin poles and wire rigging. You’d swear it was aloft, but for the abstracted waterline letting us know we’re an omniscient third-party able to see the full depth of the craft as it navigates dangerous waters. At the bow is the unmistakable bloodhound jowls of Humphrey Bogart. He’s sporting the exact black hair, thick eyebrows, and three-day stubble we expect. Astern, a fully-coiffed Katherine Hepburn, barely holding in her contempt for the man she’s trusted with her life. A nameplate on the side of the rusty steamship tells us what any classic movie lover already knows—the craft is the African Queen.
Resting on a tabletop, the sculpture is a beautiful objet d’art all on its own. But turn the little crank handle at the side and the whole thing bursts to life. The vessel doesn’t so much rock back and forth, but lurches in the awkward way that passing waves disrupt movement on water, tossing everyone and everything in their way. As this happens, the big engine propeller spins; buoys, bumpers, and trawling nets swing wildly; Bogey and Hepburn’s spring-loaded body parts are given a shake that will require the best chiropractors … if they ever make it to Kinshasa.
“It doesn’t have to be super complex to get a magical look,” Ken Draim tells us, “There’s a story to everything and that’s what’s important.”
Draim is the creator of “African Queen”—and many others in its spirit. He’s been building kinetic art—automata—for at least the last dozen years. Draim’s creation of these little moving fantasy worlds follows decades as a painter, sculptor, builder, furniture maker, and tinkerer. We were lucky enough to catch a number of his still-available automatons at his home in Bellevue on the eve of delivery for exhibition.
Pretty much everything in Draim’s artwork has been built from scratch—from the internal mechanics to the rusty hulls of tanker ships, cartoon-like motor vehicles, and carved wooden people. Much of the rusted and battered structural elements look like they were salvaged from the real thing but, to paraphrase Dolly Parton, it takes a lot of love to make something look this rundown.
Draim started as a painter—beautiful, dreamlike, cubist-inspired works that look not-unlike light refracted through stained glass—but gradually moved into the third dimension.
“I found an old pachinko machine which I wanted to rebuild into something different,” Draim says of an earlier project, “But with my limited engineering skills I couldn’t make the balls go where I wanted them to.”
“I got into boat-building,” Draim says of the big, table-top-filling fantasy ships he constructed in this period, “From there, it was just one more step to make them move.”
Let’s be clear: it may indeed be “just” one more step to make a sculpture of a boat move, but that is one big step.
“It takes time to do all this,” Ken Draim tells us, “It can take all day just to make a gear do a thing.”
We believe him! Watching these wood and wire sculptures come to life is magical. We are all naturally drawn to a little boat surfing wild seas right there before us but Draim very intentionally makes all the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of his machines visible. To see a crank turn an axle that holds a gear that works a cam or spins a belt or pushes a pole or squeezes a hose sparks its own how did he do that? curiosity. Like the repetition of train cars rattling across track or those old Pathé films of things getting made, the rhythmic movement of the gearing—and the gentle clicking that comes with it—is soothing and satisfying in ways that never make it to self-help guides.
Ken and his wife, partner, and ace videographer Sara moved to Pittsburgh four years ago after decades of living, creating, and running a gallery in Taos, New Mexico. They had no specific reason to relocate to the Paris of Appalachia besides wanting some more city stuff, a larger potential art market, and an obvious big change in scenery. The Pittsburgh cliché “big city with a small town feel” seems to fit well with the couple’s taste.
Draim’s “10th Street Bridge,” a large piece with unique counter-directional spinning wheels/traffic lanes, was an early response to their new home. Ken and Sara landed first in the South Side flats before purchasing a home in Bellevue. The third floor of the house is now devoted to what Ken describes as “the best studio I’ve ever had.”
Ms. Orbit—our consultant for all things aesthetic and most things marital—was there for our tour. “What’s special about Ken’s work is that each one feels like it has a life of its own,” she says, “The movement is jerky; there is so much humor. Some of the pieces almost feel like they’re going to fall apart.”
“There are a lot of people making cutesy automatons nowadays,” Madame D’Orbit continues, “But they can be boringly unimaginative. Ken’s work makes you wonder ‘Who are these people? What is life like in this world?’ There’s a personality, a story, real quirkiness to each one.”
That’s about as a good summary of the experience as we could ask for. So welcome to Pittsburgh, Ken and Sara. Unlike what some of the city’s detractors will tell you, hopefully you’ll find it neither boringly unimaginative nor about to fall apart.
Ken Draim currently has a number of available pieces at Exposure Gallery (412 Beaver Street, Sewickley) and one may reach him/see more videos of his other work at his web site, FaceBook page, or one of two YouTube channels.
Direction—am I right? Who doesn’t need a little more of it, especially now. The world’s fallen apart, all trust is gone, no one seems to know where they’re going. Someone, anyone—heck, anything—show us the way!
Enter the simple arrow. Yeah, we’ve still got a few of them lodged in the backside, but we love them just the same. The arrow guides us through some of life’s many mysteries with that most basic of graphic forms. It points us clearly this way or that; up, down, and around-the-bend; when we need to start looking and what’s coming up ahead.
Four or five years ago, we started collecting great, hand-made arrows painted on walls and plywood boards to direct vehicles toward parking and loading zones, help people locate back entrances, and keep everyone moving the right way. In the resulting story [This Way Out: Arrow Collecting (Aug. 20, 2017)] we waxed on and on about our love for the humble arrow. That description was so complete that we’ll keep the narrative on this sequel short and get you where you’re going.
We haven’t even gotten to Halloween, but the yuletide season is in full swing … if you’re in the right place.
A giant red bauble, sparkling in a gleaming silver halo, is cast against a field of deep kelly green. With the holiday season’s most repulsive color scheme thrust upon us–even on this warm, glorious, early autumn afternoon–one can almost hear bells a-jinglin’, cash registers a-beepin’, and maids a-milkin’. You’d expect a lunch this special to be hand-delivered only to The Nice by ol’ Saint Nick himself, rewarding a full year’s-worth of good deeds. The Naughty get a lump of coal … or maybe Papa John’s.
But! Nerves need not be a-tanglin’ nor moods a-swingin’, uncles a-drinkin’, or temperatures a-sinkin’ because Christmas exists this time of year only in the mind of the lucky diner who finds him-, her-, or they-self in that Valhalla of American regional pizza, the mid-Mon Valley.
Why, it is here that Santa’s elves train year round in flour-dusted workshops on knife-scarred cutting boards. Classic rock will have to substitute for caroling and mountains of grated mozzarella are as close as we’ll get to the ice floes of the North Pole–but that’s all just window dressing to the main event.
Mon Valley red top pizza is it’s own thing. We went on and on about the greatness of the double-decker red top at Anthony’s Italiano, so we’ll not bore faithful “red heads” with another recitation of this unique style’s it’s-a-pizza and it’s-a-way-of-life transformative powers. No, we’re here today in Charleroi, at Armando’s Pizza, to once again chase the dragon, fly through the eye of the needle, and capture a moonbeam right in the palm of our collective hand. That’s what you get with a red top.
The pizza is all we could ever want: sustenance and gathering point, sure, but also good friend, consoling advisor, and life of the party. There’s a crusty dough on the edges where it’s been exposed to direct heat and a gloppy center as the red sauce ceiling has inevitably caved-in on the cheese and “toppings” innards.
Red top purists will tell you there are no additions to this pie. It’s pizza simple, they say: dough, cheese, and the eponymous red sauce. Yeah, that’s great if you’re a monk, but when Armando’s is giving away four toppings for an extra dollar-fifty, we’ll take that deal all day long. [Note: Armando’s online menu shows the price difference between the Original Red Top and Red Top Supreme at an absurd 50 CENTS!?!]
Like Anthony’s, the Armando’s in Charleroi isn’t fancy. (The pizzeria also has a sister location across the river in Monessen.) You order from a counter up front and grab a drink from one of many mostly-empty coolers. The dining room appears to have last been updated in the ferns-and-stained-glass 1970s and feels like it’s lived a number of lives since then. At this point, with its dark wood and pendant lighting, one might call the style P.J. O’Pootertoot-retro.
But you’re not at Armando’s to impress a boss, or parents, or your budding Internet romance. No, the hot date here is with a sublime style of pizza pie that one can only find in the towns along the banks of the Monongahela, where Santa decided to center all of his pizza-making divinity … OK, maybe God did that, not Santa–but you get the idea.
We’ll be back again … and again. There are other red tops to try and more of the gospel to spread. Just don’t tell Anthony we cheated on him.
Getting there: Armando’s is located at 583 Fallowfield Ave. in Charleroi and 201 Tyrol Blvd. in Monessen. It takes most of an hour to drive there from Pittsburgh.
The image is both bold and secretive, seal and sigil, blunt of message and artful in its old-world, hand-crafted execution. At its center is the stump of a tree, big roots extended like a three-legged beast; on either side are crossed boughs, each leaf in perfect alignment. Ringed around the image in a practical, modern typeface are the words WOODMEN OF THE WORLD MEMORIAL.
Beneath the tree’s roots is a small scroll. More often than not–at least in our harsh climate–the words have been worn away. But if you’re lucky, you’ll find one that still has its Latin inscription clear enough to read: dum tacet clamat, “though silent, he speaks.”
Woodmen of the World grave markers were a new thing to this taphophile until just recently. Sure, any tombstone tourist has tripped over plenty of big granite monuments carved to look like tree trunks, piles of cut wood, or stumps carved with a common surname, sometimes with each limb separately marked for a departed family member. As gravestone fads go, these were a big thing in the 19th Century and the fever lasted well into the 20th. Pretty much any larger cemetery dating from this era will have its share.
But The Woodmen! Not every stump-like grave marker is for a Woodman. In fact, here in the city of Pittsburgh, they seem to be extremely rare. To find one, you’ve got to kiss a lot of lumber-looking frogs. Woodmen markers will have that impressive insignia bearing the organization’s name or the dum tacet clamat phrase. Each will almost certainly date within the 30-ish year period from the 1890s to the 1920s.
Annette Stott, professor of art history at The University of Denver, seems to be the authority on Woodmen gravestones. Her article “The Woodmen of the World Monument Program,”(Markers XX: Annual Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies, 2003) is a great introduction to the relatively short history of Woodmen of the World’s (WOW) membership/insurance policy-gets-you-a-free-gravestone program.
Stott was writing from Colorado, which is perhaps not coincidentally where the Woodmen–a secretive, fraternal order in the mold of Freemasons and Odd Fellows–were founded in 1883. (WOW headquarters moved to Omaha, known as the “Sovereign Camp,” in 1890. The insurance side of the business–rebranded as “Woodmen Life“–persists to this day.) She describes a very particular couple of styles for the monuments the Woodmen initially offered to supply their beneficiary members in good standing upon death.
When and how the Woodmen spread east is unclear, but they sure found a lot of takers in the Mon Valley. I’ve had a devil of a time locating any WOW stones in all of my hundreds of walks through giant Allegheny Cemetery; exactly one found (so far) in equally huge Homewood Cemetery. (Though I haven’t put in the same amount of time there.)
But Dravosburg–WOWza yowza! Richland Cemetery, just uphill from the bridge to McKeesport, has dozens of Woodmen monuments. There are so many in this medium-sized memorial park that at a certain point, your author just stopped looking. You can’t bag them all and I had a cookout to get to.
Stott describes the two original designs offered by the Woodmen program as “a six-and-a-half-foot monument consisting of a shaft surmounted by a draped urn … or a seven-and-a-half-foot tree trunk with the Woodmen of the World emblems carved in high relief.”
There is nothing resembling “a draped urn” on any of the WOW monuments at Richland, but tall tree trunks with the Woodmen emblem are in no short supply there. There is a strong similarity in all of these, but they’re not cookie-cutter copies, either. The placement of severed limbs, design of the deceased’s name plaque, and the monument’s base all vary from model to model.
One of these (Peter Wersderfer, below) is decidedly more ornate than all the rest, but whoever decided to face the monument north–so it would be perpetually backlit–never considered the trouble that would cause photographers in the blogosphere a century later. Sigh.
Even though one being a “member in good standing” was the initial qualification to be in the Woodmen of the World’s monument program, one has to assume the big seven- or eight-foot tree trunks had to cost a lot more than a simple flat slab. Money came into the system somewhere and it wasn’t going to pay out evenly across-the-board.
So there are many Woodmen grave markers out there with no resemblance to trees or stumps or woodland anything. One can see by the examples below that there were a couple more common, much simpler designs and then a number of outliers that look like the monument carvers added the WOW emblem to other off-the-shelf models in their catalog.
Woodwomen of the World?
While there were undoubtedly many many ladies of the frontier who could accurately be described as “woodwomen,” it will come as a surprise to no one that a hundred years ago, a person required a Y chromosome to be eligible for the Woodmen of the World.
That doesn’t mean women were entirely excluded from memorials. Rather, as is so often the case, they arrived on WOW-branded markers partnered with their husbands or in their own separate, adjunct status.
Stott describes a particular version of this the Western U.S. “Women of Woodcraft, the female auxiliary of the Pacific Jurisdiction Woodmen of the World since 1898, also maintained a monument program.”
In Dravosburg, at least, there don’t appear to be any Women of Woodcraft, but rather a number of stones bearing typically female names and the seal-like imprint of the alternate Woodmen Circle. That title is objectively less cool than Women of Woodcraft, but we imagine the route to get there was pretty similar.
Woodmen of the Afterworld
Woodmen of the World grave markers exist for a relatively slim segment of history–approximately, the 1890s through the 1920s. This tracks with what we found in Dravosburg, although the earliest ones spotted are from 1907. The insurance program likely took some extra time to spread this far east.
Stott describes the end of things as a basic case of an unsustainable business model:
After 1928, no insurance certificates were issued with a monument benefit, and in 1932, with no new money going into the monument fund, it was decided to distribute to each member still holding a monument agreement the exact amount that they had paid in, plus interest. That ended the program.
Richland Cemetery has at least two markers that include the WOW insignia and fall outside this timeline. Clinton Shallenberger (d. 1935, photo above) and William Neel (d. 1945, below) both ended up with WOW-branded grave markers, but it seems unlikely they were paid for by the organization.
Were these “members in good standing” who’d paid enough into the program back in the day to find a grandfathered-in loophole? Or were they loyal Woodmen to the end who specified the organization’s seal on their gravestones–even if the family had to pay for it–as a dying wish?
We’ll likely never know–there may be as many reasons as there are after-market Woodmen of the World grave markers. Like their fellow crypto-brotherhoods The Freemasons and The Odd Fellows, The Knights of Pythias, The Frogs, and The Owls, there’s what’s known, what’s imagined, and what we’d rather leave untold to keep some mystery alive in this age of over-exposure, instant reward, and gluttonous narcissism. We can be grateful that maybe that’s something that might still be taken to the grave.
All photographs taken in Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA., Sept. 2021.
One thing about not sleeping: it leaves a blogger lot of time to hit the bricks–maybe too much time. Your wayward author spent most of the big light months stumbling through pre-dawn fog. Aimless, wandering, wondering, and trying to shake not few demons. Up hillsides with more wild turkeys than people; down roads where ravens and groundhogs ghosted the train to Lonelyville. Out looking for a reason when no one else had yet cracked the lids or boiled the bean.
Ketchup City at six in the morning is a funny place to meet a woman out on her own. This one wasn’t what you’d expect–all flowing robes, white gown, palms out like Fido’s about to jump in her lap. She had the face of an angel–glowing, porcelain, radiant–but this lady wasn’t giving anything away. She held her secrets tighter than a vice grip on a lug nut. Mary made you think decency may still linger on this scorched earth.
Around another corner and there she is again … and again! Mary kept busier than a vampire at a blood bank. This lady didn’t know when to give up or how to relax. At every corner in this small hamlet, there’s another mother of a holy other watching out, keeping us honest.
There she is: standing guard in a big flower pot, her blue and pink gown ready for anything the world would throw at her. Again on a front stoop, commanding in the supra-orbital power of a protective grotto. Down the alley she’s relaxing under the dappled sunlight of backyard roses. Yeah, Mary looked better than a cold beer after a mowed lawn and all that walking makes a blogger mighty thirsty.
We put the tacks on Mary, but she gave us the slip more times than we’ll tell the big guy. A secret smile echoed from curtained window seats; knowing chortles from behind a screened-in façade. Sure, she was happier than a butcher’s dog, but Mary was hiding something. Like the best secrets, though, we knew the suspense is always worth the wait.
Ketchup City–OK, Sharpsburg, if you’re pushing paper for the governor–you’ve got a lot to be proud of. Not the least of which is the battalion of Blessed Mothers peepin’, creepin’, and brow-beatin’. From St. Mary’s to The Madonna of Jerusalem, The Lafayette to CC’s, The Internet Court of Lies to Drop ur Load Washery (R.I.P.), you’ve got a friend in Sharpsylvania–just don’t forget the french fries.
The large swan has its wings spread a full four- or five-feet wide as it rests atop a glass table. Unlike waterfowl one might find in the most idealistic of parks or if you’re just randomly lucky out in nature, this bird is both skeletal and glasslike, brutally jagged, and delicately bedazzled.
The graceful neck of the beautiful creature is an ornamented fantasy of deconstructed costume jewelry, burnt-out micro-bulbs, and little pearly leaves. The bird’s wings are aloft in waves of smoky sunglass lenses as eggs populate the eye sockets of an animal’s skull. Around the body swirls a tumble of shiny red Christmas ornaments.
“The show is a love letter to Greta Thunberg,” says artist Glendon Hyde, “At fifteen, she had this myopic determination to do something about the state of the world. I wish we could all manage to find the bravery in ourselves to do something important.”
Hyde is discussing This is Garbage, the first large-scale solo exhibit of his artwork in thirty years. It’s up now through the end of the month at Spinning Plate Gallery. The title is ironic, self-deprecating, but also sadly true. Most people would look at these raw materials–and perhaps even the odd but lovely artworks to emerge from them–as detritus. Don’t make that mistake.
Garbage, this ain’t. But there’s no denying the obvious environmentally-conscious connection here. One hundred percent of the materials making up Hyde’s large freestanding, ceiling-dangling, and wall-hanging sculptures have lived previous lives.
The component parts have been supplied by friends, donated by fans, and left on his doorstep by the in-the-know. They’ve also come mailed-in from far away and picked right out of curbside garbage bins ahead of city collection crews. Nothing in the show, aside from glue, Hyde tells us, was purchased at an arts supply store–or anywhere else for that matter.
While claiming the show was for Ms. Thunberg, another theme keeps spilling out. Emerge is the action word Glendon Hyde uses most in our conversation. That concept comes up early and often throughout the show.
The aforementioned swan is a piece literally titled Emerging and its companion Ugly Duckling rests just across the space. The two creatures appear to be looking back at one another with a knowing hang in there, it gets better silent communication.
Elsewhere, an enormous sequined frog morphs from its tadpole state; a cicada, or Sir Cada, outfitted in something between bondage and biker gear, has sprung from the earth for its once-ever-seventeen-year bender. Babies emerge from the womb; an ant is poised atop a glass apple; jellyfish bob and weave in the boundless surf of a tinfoil sea.
In a world–especially one still well within a global pandemic–where everything feels like it’s moved to the Internet, there is an even more subtle touchstone for the exhibit.
“I’ve emerged to be a more stalwart person,” Hyde says of the ugliness around so much of world’s discourse right now. “Current culture is so abrasive I found myself wanting to get away from the arguing. The best thing I can do is play and share that experience with friends.”
Indeed, the show is blessedly free of any video screens; there is nary a #hashtag, @handle, or URL address to be found. Instead, the show is a grand expression of human-hands touching each and every piece, working the materials, wrapping, gluing, and stitching disparate elements into their final reconstructed forms.
Part of the fun of This is Garbage is that each piece warrants a multi-level examination. There’s an establishing first-impression from a few steps back. The viewer sees the overall form and message–often in perilously-precarious balance–its visual language and suggestive humor.
But then you’ve got to get in close–real close–to see the intense level of detail, clever reuse of random materials, and each creative choice in miniature that grows, blossoms, and yes, emerges from its rooted center. This is where your author spent most of his time–looking at all the little beads, the curling folds of movie film, how plastic Internet cables wrap and blend with soft, frayed acrylic yarn.
Two years of Glendon Hyde’s life went into creating This is Garbage. It took him and a friend four days just to set everything up in the gallery space. (And he lives right upstairs!) That might seem like a long time for a gallery show … until you see this one. It is as dense and eye-popping, stuffed-to-the-rafters and meticulously placed as anything you’ll encounter anytime soon.
Whether the lofty concepts behind Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Hipster Tea Trolley or Thoreau’s Temple translate to gallery visitors is questionable. What’s not is that This is Garbage is a fantastic vision statement from an artist who is singularly endowed with the ability to spin gold from tinfoil, bring life from street debris, and coax spectacular joy from these desperate times.
This is Garbage is up at Spinning Plate Gallery, 5821 Baum Blvd. in East Liberty, now through Sept. 30. Gallery hours are Thursday and Friday, 12-6; Saturday 12-7; Sunday 12-3. Hyde is holding a special second opening–let’s call it a re-emergence–this Saturday, Sept. 11, from 6-10.
A final note on the photographs:
It’s safe to say visual art is pretty much always best experienced up-close and in-person. To see the scale, true color, and individual brushstrokes of a painter; how different strands cross, meld, and blur in fiber art; the way sculpture demands to be seen from multiple angles; up close and from a distance. Photographs are excellent long-term documentation for the work, but they just don’t match up to seeing the real thing.
Glendon Hyde’s pieces really need to be seen in person. There’s just no way to photograph most of the work (especially in this particular gallery setting) and have it look like anything–that’s why we chose mostly detail shots. A bunch of really great pieces didn’t make it to this story for that reason alone. Do yourself a favor and get down to Spinning Plate while you can to see this fantastic show the way it needs–nay, deserves–to be seen.
* Special thanks to Paul Schifino for an assist on this story’s title.
There is a lot going on here. Three bleached-blonde bikini babes take center stage in the strange artwork, but each has her face plastered-over with a large sticker or morphed into freakish skeleton-like distortion. On either side, big colored cartoon-like images have been pulled from a big book, or maybe a glossy calendar, or poster–who knows? Surrounding all this is a riot of other, smaller imagery: faces, sections of classic paintings, pop culture icons, and recycled Hello, my name is identification tags.
The whole thing is probably six feet wide, mounted on cardboard backing, and has been zip-tied to the chain link enclosure on one of Bigleow Blvd.’s two pedestrian overpasses. It is not alone.
They appeared all at once, in one glorious technicolor explosion. At least, that seems like what happened.
One day–it was late June, 2018–these protected walkways were surprise-decorated (aka bombed) with more than a dozen giant collages, all in a singular style. Taken as a whole, the jumble of assembled images added up to a distended fever dream of dark cartoons, chopped-up advertisements, random photographs, and belongs-on-a-skateboard sticker art.
Attempting to discern meaning from any particular collage–let alone the installation writ large–is a fool’s errand. Sure, there’s plenty to work with if you really want to impose a theme on a collection of random Manga frames, postal slaps, and Obey stickers–but you’re not doing yourself any favors by wading into that particular murky sea.
One after another, attached to both faces of the chain link fence with zip-ties, the eye-popping pieces felt like the magnum opus of an artist (or artists?) who we’re calling The Midnight Montagier. (You know, from the French.)
Weeks, months, maybe years worth of work must have gone into hoarding visual imagery and curating the contents, the cutting-out and gluing-down. All this quiet energy was blasted out to the world–or, at least, the handful of pedestrians who regularly walk the overpass–in one giant salvo, three summers ago.
The pieces felt less like an organized statement of purpose and more like a compulsive saver finally admitting I’ve got to do something with all this stuff. There are worse motivations for artistic expression and many lesser attempts at beauty and/or messaging on city infrastructure.
The gift of these carefully created pieces to the few of us who experienced them before either nature or the Department of Public Works decided their time was up was fascinating and much appreciated.
With this much creative energy and such obvious dedication to the medium, the person or persons behind the Bigelow installation would have to strike again. Once they got their first taste of anonymous glory and release to the world, there’s no way they wouldn’t want to go back for more … right?
Well, we waited, we watched, and over the last three annums, we’ve trundled down every side street, back alley, bicycle lane, and flight of city steps the city has to offer, always looking, always searching. Days turned to weeks and months turned to years. But alas, that was it. The Midnight Montagier seemed to have saved it all up for a single epic go-down-swingin’ exorcism of every creative demon and each loose bit of visual ephemera to wash up on their desktop.
… until just last month.
Three years later the Montagier finally struck again! Why we didn’t run a piece on the collages at Bigelow back in 2018 still seems goofy, but perhaps the blogging gods knew there would be more to the story–we just needed to wait through a global coronavirus pandemic (Phase I, sigh) to get there.
Regardless, our old collage buddy returned–and in such dramatic fashion! In a similar kind of overnight secret art drop, new pieces arrived en masse across Lawrenceville’s utility poles, free publication boxes, and at least one mailbox early this August.
It took your author about two seconds to recognize the tell-tale blocky hodge-podge of colorful visual jetsam, this time glued to a utility pole on Butler Street. Other pieces were spotted in quick order–mostly along Butler Street, but also up the hill on Penn.
Several very rainy weeks on, the pieces are still holding up, if sun-faded and with some edge peeling. The style of collage is exactly the same, but the delivery mechanism has shifted ever so slightly. Gone are the big cardboard backings and loose zip-ties. These pieces are smaller, maybe 11×14–sized to curl around roughly a quarter of the big steel traffic signal poles–and glued or wheat-pasted directly to bare metal.
To The Midnight Montagier, Thank you for distributing your collections in such an exciting, egg-hunting, head-scratching way. For keeping the spirit of the street alive and coloring the world. For making the morning constitutional a mental exercise as well as physical. If you’d ever like to tell your side of the story, we’d love to connect. Until then, we’ll be looking out for you, at Midnight.