Beyond the Valley of the Doldrums: The Skunk Hollow Art Walk

paintings made from flattened tin cans nailed to a utility pole
“I’ll tell you what magic is … Love” / “The Hollow.” Unofficial tin can pole art welcome signage for the Skunk Hollow Art Walk.

There is a melancholy to the exhibition: themes of darkness, loneliness, one very literal cry for help. Among the images, you’ll find birds soaring in flight and stretched-out cats, abstractions and twinkling stars–but these are the exception.

If Orbit staff were laying out a catalog for the collection, our cover would feature the image of a single small piece installed on a utility pole. In it, a figure has been cut from a tin can lid and painted a rich spring green. The devil’s horns are bent and rusted and his eyes are cut out to make us believe we can stare right through the back of his cranium. In hand-lettered paint marker is a simple descriptor alluding to exactly that: A Lost Soul.

painting of devil made from cut steel can nailed to utility pole
A lost soul.

Elsewhere, there are instructions to Give yourself to the nite (sic.), a pair of unoccupied dinette seats, our favorite tin can pole artist’s tell-tale devils, martini glasses, hearts, and arrows. The artwork is made from recycled metal bits and bobs, a discarded cutting board, even the door from a standard-issue mailbox.

It is artwork from the trash bin, placed deeply out-of-sight–as if thrown into the void–and likely only ever experienced by fellow lost souls who hear the cryptic pieces whispering from cracks in the wood … or maybe that’s just the way it seems.

rusted painting on tin can nailed to utility pole
“Help me.” Ex-mailbox pole art.
painting on tin can nailed to utility pole
“All here (?) into the night.”

Skunk Hollow, the deep valley that separates Bloomfield from Polish Hill and North Oakland, won’t appear on any regional cultural guides; you’ll not find it featured in glossy magazines or listed among Pittsburgh’s next hottest neighborhoods. In fact, “The Hollow” doesn’t even show up on maps of the city (at least, not by that name). Its derisive title is merely a people’s collective dismissal of the out-of-sight/out-of-mind not-quite-a-real-neighborhood.

There are some good reasons for all this. Skunk Hollow hosts one of the more convenient spots in the city to illegally dump a La-Z-Boy recliner or an old television–plenty of people have chosen to do just that. The handful of businesses located along Neville Street are not what you’d call boutiques–they’re more of the rock-moving, general contracting, and looking-for-new-occupants varieties. Japanese knotweed has completely consumed the steep hillside and makes an effective trap for all of the blown-around street trash as it washes over Bloomfield’s banks.

rusted paintings on tin can nailed to utility pole
“And that nite, we raided the devils. Private stash needless to say.” / “We had a good ole time.”
collage of round-formatted street art attached to utility poles
Pole art in the round

So if the Convention and Visitors Bureau wants to pitch Skunk Hollow as a special place for out-of-towners to explore on their limited time in the ‘Burgh, they’ve got their work cut out for them.

But for those of us waking up ridiculously early, obsessively walking many mental health miles at daybreak, the Hollow is a welcome open air experimental art detour. Its randomly-curated works speak to the solitude of the early hour and themes of escaping into the night, tiny devils playing hell with our synapses, and you are not alone messaging make for a kind of communal balm for the disconnected.

paintings made from flattened tin cans nailed to a utility pole
“Life is good right now … thanks, Mom.”
small painting of camper trailer on wood screwed to utility pole
Camper trailer painting

The Skunk Hollow Art Walk is not what you’d call accessible. There is one big hill, one Y-shaped flight of city steps (we’ll get to those), and a road surface with no accommodation for pedestrians. Worry not, though, it’s unlikely you’ll see any other human beings–with or without vehicles–during the length of your visit. Walking in the street tends to work out just fine when you’re the only one there.

Viewing the environment on foot is an absolute requirement as all the little objets d’art are scaled for up-close examination and located in the kinds of niche spaces one must poke around thoroughly to see at all. One of the photos here (I loved kissing her in the rain, below) was achieved only by climbing up the hillside, bearhugging a utility pole with one arm, and then using the dumb selfie camera so I could get a photo of a tin can painting that I couldn’t actually see from my precarious position.

painting made from flattened tin cans nailed to a utility pole
“I loved kissing her in the rain.”
rusted painting on tin can nailed to utility pole
“Give yourself to the nite.”

For the directionally-challenged, don’t worry about getting lost in Skunk Hollow. There is only one road that traverses the short distance between Bloomfield’s backside and the old Iron City brewery. In typical Pittsburgh fashion, it goes by three different names–Lorigan, Neville, and Sassafras–in its approx. 3/4 mile run.

Most of the art is found along sloping Lorigan Street, from the Ella Street steps down to the bottom of the hill, so a greatest hits visitor could drop in for some tin can pole art and still make it to Tessaro’s for an early dinner. But really, why not go “full Hollow” and walk the length of it. It’s a little more spartan at the bottom, but by the end you’ll be rewarded with some great wheatpaste pieces on the old brewery.

City Steps with graffiti reading "Try" on every riser, Pittsburgh, PA
Ella Street (aka the “Try Try Try”) city steps
metal toy truck screwed into concrete steps
The “Try Try Try” steps metal truck

The last time The Orbit reported from Skunk Hollow we were on the step beat, there to check out the great Ella Street (aka the “Try Try Try”) city steps. We’ll not go over all that here, but this bit of you can do it self-affirmation infrastructure is totally of a piece with the collection of street art that surrounds it.

What’s been added to the steps (since that 2015 story) is its own terrific set of oddball ephemera. The bolted-on scrap parts truck (photo above) is thankfully still there, right at the lowest landing. It’s been joined by a tiny sculpture of simple chairs, placards, handrail ramblings, one repurposed wooden puppet-like thing, and a mystery mailbox.

sculpture of two chairs anchored into public steps
Tiny furniture, big steps
metal piece with text "Dream 1: You had a whole lot of fun with a comedian ..." attached to public steps
“Dream 1: You had a whole lot of fun with a comedian …” Steps koan
graffiti painted support on public steps of waving figure
Art on the “Try Try Try” steps

A fancy art museum, this ain’t–but then again, no one visiting The Carnegie gets to experience the thrill of risking both poison ivy and tetanus in their bloodthirsty pursuit of new tin can pole art. As combined art happening/aerobic workout, Skunk Hollow is hard to beat. Plus, the hours are great and the price is right.

Yes, attendees of the Skunk Hollow Art Walk will have to negotiate some broken glass and a few salty words committed in spray paint on the jersey barriers along the roadside–oh, there’s also that mystery odor. But, like poking through a thrift shop or digging through used records, a visit rewards the patience of the art lover willing to do a little work for a commensurate dose of oddball magic.

handmade masonry gates to Iron Eden, Pittsburgh
The Seussian gates of Iron Eden, Lorigan Street
wooden painted board that used to read "LOVE" with most of the middle section removed
Ouch! There is no middle ground in love. Vestigial cutting board art.
collage of protractors glued to various walls and signs
Yes, there are Pittsburgh protractors in The Hollow
graffiti on pink wall reading "Stuck in the rain for 20 minutes on a 1 year tour of the USA"
If JYK could make Skunk Hollow a part of his American tour, you can walk down the hill from Bloomfield.
metal piece with words "Rusty love" cut out nailed to utility pole
Rusty (and muddy) love

7 thoughts on “Beyond the Valley of the Doldrums: The Skunk Hollow Art Walk

  1. Paul Schifino says:

    Thanks, Wills. I LOVE it! I’m going this week. PLUS I that “Mystery Odor” would be a GREAT band name.

    Like

  2. Claudia McGill says:

    There is something otherworldly about this place, I am feeling (I don’t live in Pittsburgh so I’m going entirely by what I am seeing and reading here). Like it’s a little skewed out of sunc with the “real world” and if you go in, things might happen in odd and exciting ways. I love this idea.Thank you.

    Like

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