There will be time to murder and create. The words are painted and collaged onto a set of five entrance steps to an elaborately over-the-top front porch. The three-story, Victorian-style dollhouse is covered with a blitzkrieg of … everything. Small toys, buttons, shells, bottle caps, and other found objects have been hot-glued to its surfaces along with a loose collage of magazine cuttings, product packaging, and patterned prints. The decoration is not limited to the exterior of the house. No, the walls and floor of each interior room are decked-out, each in a different over-the-top theme.
The art piece, titled I Lost My Mind, is by Erin Harper. One hopes Ms. Harper was speaking metaphorically of both the losing of minds and murder, but she certainly found time to create. It was perhaps the most striking work at last weekend’s Art All Night, this year again at 31st Street Studios in the Strip District.
Let’s get something straight: there were boobs—lots of them—wangs too. And yes, there was at least one hoo-ha. In addition to the requisite nudes and soft-porn, other Art All Night perennial genres included sports art, paint-splattered baby dolls, skip-a-little-rope, smoke-a-little-dope doobie visions, skulls, skeletons, and zombies, visual puns, and lots and lots of renditions of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline. This being the first Art All Night since the Dobbs decision came down, women’s rights and body autonomy was an important topical issue.
These specialties are not the sum of the artwork included at Art All Night. Despite the focus of this piece, know that Art All Night also features landscapes in oil, portrait paintings, photography, ceramics, elaborate sculpture, delicate craft, terrific kids art, and all the rest. The event, of course, is so much more than paintings hung on plywood walls—the mass of people out-and-about, kids going nuts on cardboard, performance art, the drum circle under the 31st Street Bridge.
But it is this collision of the sublime, along with the ridiculous and the mundane that makes Art All Night so special. And what is most thrilling is that these individual bizarre expressions—created as jokes or under the influence of hallucinogens or mental health issues as they may—have an outlet for public exhibition.
I don’t know if there’s a gallery out there that would show Joseph Heckmann’s Brittany in a Sketchy Atlantic City Hotel, but I’m sure glad I got to see it. What was Brittany doing in Atlantic City and why is she dressed like a clown headed to aerobics? Does she really have a giant tattoo of another clown on her left leg? I want answers, sure, but Heckmann’s acrylic painting gives us that great gift of wonder—not just about the subject of the artwork, but about its creator too.
That is Art All Night’s great gift to the world—both to its event goers and its art contributors. It continues, 26 year on, to be a safe space of free expression for every kind of any person to do what they want to do and share it with everyone else. Hats off, yet again, to the fantastic crew that manages to pull this genie out of a hat year after year.
Staring right back at you is the biggest eyeball you’ve ever seen. We’re talking about a King Kong-sized window to the soul. Gulliver’s frightened ocular as he’s swarmed by Lilliputians. The last thing your reincarnated keister sees before the fly-swatter takes you onto your next life … and it’s parked right there on Butler Street.
But cars, man, cars! We’re Americans! We drive everywhere and get angry doing it! The automobile is our religion and its finish coating is this temple’s elegant spires and stained-glass windows. Why not treat it like the holy house it truly is?
We’ve all been hoodwinked in one way or another, but this time it’s in the very best way. The mother of all mothers blessing an F-150; a chainsaw-wielding mastodon rider with a window to another galaxy; someone’s sun-bleached Easy Rider fantasy played out across the front of an Econoline van.
So let’s get down under—and over—the hood and rev up another great canvas for self/automotive expression.
Appearing like alien inscriptions burned into city streets, they just seemed to arrive out of nowhere, in the still of the night. The images are cryptic—they could be designs for astral exploration or tools to cure conditions we can only imagine. These coded hieroglyphics seem as if they’ve been very intentionally left for only the most sentient of earth’s creatures who may be able to comprehend their true meanings.
When last we encountered the House of Hades, six years ago, it was in the form of a series of similar artworks that could be fairly described as tributes or homage to Toynbee Tiles. [Newcomers to this topic: click those links for background.] The pieces used the same graphic language as the Toynbee originals: big block letters with clear—if bizarre—messaging that reads like paranoid prophesy of dystopia.
One man vs. American media in society, reads a tile; Media must be reduced to ash, another. One even goes as far as to name its inspiration: The resurrection of Toynbee’s idea in society.
Those pieces, all including the date 2012 were installed on and around Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown, in 2017. A cursory look around the Internet shows The House of Hades deploying similar pieces in a raft of American cities: Philadelphia, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Richmond, to name a few.
Unless your author is slipping—and that is entirely likely—The House of Hades left Pittsburgh’s streets alone for the next five years.
Starting in the summer of 2022, though, new Toybee-like tiles began appearing throughout the city—Bloomfield, Oakland, Lawrenceville, and especially Downtown. These new cut-up mosaic street pieces are in the same medium as House of Hades’ 2017 deployment, but with an entirely different visual style. We don’t know these are from the same person or people—heck, we don’t know anything about these folks!—but the correlation and HOH attribution suggest our old friend is back in town.
I don’t know what you did with your pandemic, but it feels like The House of Hades spent the last couple years working on a brand new bag. These pieces avoid any scorn of American media by abandoning text entirely (aside each tile’s HOH inscription). Instead, the tiles are more pure art: constructivist assemblages of colored blocks and metric lines, maze-like interlocking shapes and jumbled forms like tall stacks of books on a shaky table. They may be read as floor plans to space housing or profile views of history, mid-excavation. Rorschach-like, one can probably read just about anything into these designs depending on where the mind is inclined to wander.
And wander it shall as we stare deeply into these fascinating artifacts and dream of the next contact from beyond.
Special thanks to Orbit reader Ivan Russell for his tips on a couple of the Downtown tiles.
It’s been a been more than a year since The Orbit served up its last over-the-top feast of all things skyline-shaped, themed, printed, and painted, so you have a right to be hungry.
And O! What a meal we’ve prepared for the skyline-starved today! Murals with downtown Pittsburgh as both star and supporting player. Business signage to either boast one’s 412 bona fides or pander to us yokels from a corporate office far, far away. Hand-created tributes as extracurricular activity spray painted onto bicycle paths and inked onto city steps railings.
All that—and more—awaits diners at this all-u-can-eat buffet of bridges, The Point, Steel Tower, PPG, and the rest. Grab a fork and knife, don’t waste your time on rolls—those are for suckers—and dig into a legitimate, if figurative, smorgasbord of Your Favorite City™ put on the pedestal it deserves … or, at least, thinks it deserves when it’s not too down on itself.
If somehow you’re still hungry for more, you can always go back to skyline stories one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine part 1 and 2, you know, just to tide you over.
A window of whispers. The alluring title comes courtesy of artist Escalator Harrison (neé Dan Ivec) whose solo show of small pen-and-ink drawings filled one of Pittsburgh’s smallest art galleries for the first half of April, 2022. The gallery itself—a mere two-and-half feet wide, not quite as tall, and fronted by a single pane of glass—is its own window of whispers, even when the Escalator’s not running.
The Silver Apple Gallery, located on residential Main Street in Lawrenceville, was installed right around New Year’s Day, 2022, and received its signage, lighting, and variable pedestal options in the coming weeks. We thought we’d celebrate that achievement with a look back at its first year.
Full disclosure: We at Pittsburgh Orbit are not impartial observers to this particular story. This has been a project between your author and Mrs. Orbit from the start and it’s been a joy to see how the little venture has taken on a life of its own. In that first calendar year we hosted 11 individual artist shows—two a month on the even months (we had one cancelation in December)—and offered the space as a free little art gallery/art swap on the odd months.
The shows have been tremendous with many of the artists creating site-specific installations that completely maximized the space to turn what is essentially a glass-fronted, street-facing, cupboard with pretensions into a magic oasis of creativity and surprise for determined visitors and random passers-by alike.
The single-artist shows have come with all the fixins. Openings, closings, and in one case “middling” receptions right there on the porch and spilling out onto the sidewalk. Attended by friends of the artist, gallery faithful, neighbors, and the curious, these have been great ways for people to see the artwork who mayn’t be in the neighborhood otherwise—and it’s just a good excuse to have folks hang out on a Sunday afternoon (or whenever).
And what of the pieces randomly arriving during free gallery months? To say that every day is a surprise would be a stretch—but it’s more often than not.
Right out of the gate, art hero Claudia McGill sent us a package from the other side of the state containing a family of “stick people” (photo above) and a gaggle of equally wonderful “vial people.” Serial contributors like collage artist Kim Breit, Dan Ivec, Mark347, and John “Clohn Art” Lee—all of whom have had/will have solo shows at the space—have dropped-off terrific small works.
Like a mini Art All Night, what walks in through our tiny glass door comes in all media—paintings, drawings, ceramics, assemblages, collage, papier mache, photographs, sculpture, lino prints—you name it. Some pieces stay for a little while, some are gone so fast we don’t even get to see them once. Like that proverbial tree falling in the forest, we don’t even know what we don’t know.
Enough tooting of one’s own horn! It was a great first year and we have an exciting slate of shows booked all the way through the end of the year. The current show—Dave English and Jennifer Ramsey’s “A Spirited Winter”—is terrific and well worthy of your eyeballs.
If you find yourself on Main Street in Lawrenceville, maybe pause to take in whatever’s happening in the gallery on that particular day. You can follow what we’re doing here or there and hopefully we’ll see you and/or your art around the gallery sometime soon.
Getting there: Silver Apple Gallery is located in front of 255 Main Street in Lawrenceville. It is always “open” (for viewing) but the lights aren’t always on when it’s dark. For happenings and show announcements, follow on Instagram at @silverapplegallery
When last we left Woodwell Street—a single long residential block at the north end Squirrel Hill—it was full of bright color. Thin streamers from every point in the rainbow decorated lamp posts and trees like electric shafts of light. House after house, the community art project was a wonderful, safe, deep pandemic way to get out and experience little bursts of joy.
Woodwell Street is at it again, read the email from dedicated streetwalker Lisa Valentino, and she wasn’t kidding. (The block mounted a yarn bombing project between then and now, we’re told, but we missed that one.) Woodwell Street is currently host to an excerpt of Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” displayed (mostly) one word at a time, house-by-house, in block letters attached to front porches and dug into flower beds.
The poem, written for and first delivered at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, is a call to action. To merge mercy with might and might with right are fabulous words with terrific intention. Walking down Woodwell Street on a blessedly beautiful day like the one we happened to catch is a wonderful experience of community effort, but putting those heady words into action isn’t so easy. Let’s all see what we can do.
Something was brooding this year. Perhaps we were all scratching and clawing for a chance to get back to the real world. There was a fox in our collective hen house, but when we tried to fly we couldn’t get off the ground. Cocksure at our place in the pecking order, we waddled out of the frying pan straight into the fryer. In a plot most fowl, feathers were ruffled and eggs were cracked in the great omelet that is a year in the life of America. Yes, in 2022 the chickens came home to roost.
Seemingly overnight—quite possibly literally overnight—an entire flock of bright red roosters appeared in Polish Hill. The big birds’ super-saturated color glowed from the drab surfaces they played against. The roosters’ look was both comical and earnest—wholesome, even—but with a keen, knowing wisdom beyond their years.
At first—especially when wandering around Polish Hill, randomly finding the fowl on different morning constitutionals—one assumed the roosters are all of a common breed—identical in size, scope, and marking. Each has the same brilliant crimson, the same general shape, and their images have certainly been applied to United States Post Office equipment and city infrastructure with the same wheat-pasted method.
But given this opportunity to see each member of the flock right up against the others, we have the advantage of understanding they’re no mere cookie-cutout duplicates. Some of the roosters face left; most face right. There are clear differences in beak shape and hind feather arrangement.
The widest variance, though, is in each bird’s detailing. Some include a fully-formed leg and claw, but others remain gestural—or nearly free of definition altogether. Chickens may have cartoonish humanoid eyes or concentric circular rings like those of a hypnotist, mid-induction process.
Full disclosure: your author is a rooster booster who loves chicken-pickin’, so the arrival of these fine creatures last April was a welcome surprise as winter’s gloom ceded to glorious spring rebirth. They’ve lived a lifetime since then with many of these specimens no longer present or left in wounded, half-torn-off states of decay. Perhaps many of us—certainly those blunted by seasonal affective disorder or the holiday blues—feel in their own states of decay this time of year.
How the non-denominational bunny rabbit and egg came to be so closely associated with Christianity’s highest, holiest holiday is a matter for historians and/or Wikipedia. We’ll not trouble ourselves with all that, but the roosters of Polish Hill walked out of our dreams and into our lives right around Easter. The timing may be coincidental, but it couldn’t have been more perfect.
Maybe that’s what the chickens were trying to tell us all along … if we’d only listened.
A blast of color. Soft pinks, big reds, cool blues and purples on one face; rusty reds, browns, and blacks another. Everything is accented in gold.
That gold! It’s a gold of ancient secrets and the gold of a new dawn. The warm glow has an extra glossy shine that elevates already-textured steel surfaces to a fourth dimension—something beyond space and time. What the amateur sees as mere spray paint is actually a fuzzy overlay on reality from another world.
Cast against the very literal rust of a pair of weathered steel sheds, the gold feels like flashes of light glinting and gleaming through stony creek water. Precious metal to some, fool’s gold to others, but with an experiential value beyond anything we can measure. That is, if you can climb out of 3-D and into this transformative plane.
In glorious full sunshine, surrounded by high summer’s lush greenery, the two old metal work sheds pop from the earth like temporary housing created by interstellar travelers. We may not speak their tongue, but these pictorial representations of stars and symbols, geometric patterns and light rays communicate enough otherworldly visions that we can get along.
Getting along is exactly what we want to do—very much so. The work is striking and soothing, both chaotic and patterned, with obvious iconography and wild abstraction. Like waves crashing on the beach or mountaintops viewed from a neighboring peak, one may stare into the wide murals, let the eyes go into a glazed soft-focus, and drift off to a blissed-out zen state where nothing looks the same way twice.
The artist who painted the sheet metal sheds has signed the work only as Coker, his last name—this much we know. We’d love to do a full-on Orbit artist profile on the man—there are so many questions! Does he also make smaller works? paintings? sculptures? what’s inside the sheds? It feels like there simply must be an amazing story there.
But … the volume of No Trespassing and Stay Out signs posted around the property suggest Coker is, at minimum, wary of uninvited guests and this we respect. I’ve visited the buildings a half dozen times over the course of a year-and-a-half, on various early mornings, mid-days, and weekends and left notes for Mr. Coker. Alas, I’ve never heard back and never managed to catch him in person. So … we’re left to muse about The Wizard of Perry South from his (street-visible) painted walls alone.
Coker’s most profound work—to these highly-opinionated eyeballs—remains the large abstract wall sections. “They’re like (Marc) Chagall!” Ms. Orbit exclaimed when your author produced his first photographs of the remarkable structures. That said, the artist’s paint work extends to more representational fare as well.
A corner wall section of the first shed includes tributes to Barrack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marvin Gaye, George Benson, and Snoop Dogg (in the form of gin & juice, illustrated with musical notes). Another celebrates the music of ’70s soul group Maze and includes the band’s bizarre seven-fingered hand logo. Elsewhere King Kong tramples New York while a bloated “fake news scum-bag”—not sure who that could be—tramples democracy.
Just down the block sits the third unmistakable Coker property. It’s a classic Pittsburgh two-up/two-down brick row house—now having outlived all former neighbors on a half-block-long dead end. The front of the home is painted in Coker’s tell-tale gold, daringly paired with splotchy silver—a color combination that makes even pink & brown stand up and take notice. Around the side, Coker has continued the blocky, abstract themes begun on the pair of sheds, but this time executed in gold, black, and white.
We could all use more magic in our lives—of this I’m sure. Luckily, we live in a time and place where one may stumble upon just that, right out in the open, on a simple summer bicycle ride or autumnal constitutional through a city neighborhood.
If you’re lucky enough to live in The Perrys, you know where Compound Coker is already. For anyone who doesn’t, we’ll not spoil the surprise with a precise address or instructions for travel. There’s enough information right here to locate Pittsburgh’s buried treasure of gold (art), it’s up to you to go out and find it.
Aging, your author’s bluntly-honest, not-entirely-tactful, and dearly-missed father-in-law used to say, ain’t for sissies. As someone with more yesterdays than tomorrows, I can attest to this firsthand. The body starts breaking down in all sorts of unexpected ways; the mind wanders off to Lulu land more frequently than we’d like to admit; young whippersnappers run rings around us in all ways that whippersnappers may run.
… but I’m a dude—and that means it’s just easier for me. Older men are granted a kind of societal clout simply by virtue of their gender that women don’t enjoy. Graying men are often described as wise, established, and “silver fox” handsome. (Still crossing my fingers for that last one.) Women of the same age share no such common, stereotypical positives.
Far from it. American society is youth-obsessed, for sure, but it’s mainly obsessed with young women. Ms. Orbit—she of my same vintage—often describes the experience as one of “becoming invisible” and feeling “no longer relevant” to the outside world.
Just about one year ago, we spotted a small hand-written sticker attached to a residential parking sign post in Lawrenceville. The text was a simple double-entendre: Menopause is HOT. That got a snort-laugh out of yours truly and I bagged it for the road.
That little teaser was quickly followed by an array of more elaborate, hand-colored stickers spread on lamp posts and electrical boxes. They all contained simple messages proudly addressing the very uncommon subject—either in wider culture or here at the street level—of middle-aged women as real, present beings: Aging is Sexy; Crone; Menopause.
We don’t know who created these subtle, gently-subversive little works. None of the pieces we’ve found have any attribution and the Orbit hive mind was unable (or unwilling) to name names. We’re also left to interpret the artists’ message.
We do know the statements are attention-grabbing and hilariously out-of-context—seeing the word menopause bedazzled and glorified in the leftover spaces where taggers dwell is objectively funny.
Ms. Orbit and I have discussed the matter much in the course of our relationship, crossing into deep middle-age, and specifically with her experiences as a woman and an artist. For these reasons, I wanted to turn the rest of the story over to her:
Middle-aged women become invisible to a degree. But, rather than lamenting that fact, I’m enjoying the hell out of the invisibility, because it means a certain kind of freedom. It means the freedom of not having to matter to men, not worrying about being pretty, sexy, feminine enough, thin enough, demure enough, not too loud, not too opinionated. Men no longer care what I look like, sound like, say, etc. When I was younger, I often stepped outside the lines by being too loud, too bold, too feisty and was admonished by men and sometimes by other women. Now, those folks no longer care what I have to say or how I look and I feel the freedom to be fully myself, on my own terms.
There are a lot of younger women now who are proudly and publicly themselves in a “give no fucks” way and I love it, admire it fully—Lizzo comes to mind. Of course, I have had my moments of feeling the negative side of aging and have grappled with thoughts that “I’m no longer relevant,” but the flip side is you can choose to matter to yourself and the important folks in your life. It’s beautiful to live without needing external validation. I wholeheartedly praise the artist or artists behind these stickers because it’s a way of shouting “We’re here! We exist! We matter!” and being proud of that. Ageism is real—just like racism and homophobia and sexism—but you counter that ugliness by fully owning and celebrating who you are.
When Suzanne Werder and I did the Drawn Together: A Coming of Middle Age Story in 62 Portraits show this past April, the reaction from women over 50 who came to see the show was intensely positive, almost incredulous—they felt seen. “You showed your wrinkles, and bags under your eyes!” Now, we didn’t set out to make a point of our flaws, but in just drawing each other everyday, we can’t escape our truth: that we are getting older and we are not supermodels, and we’re okay with that.
That show did a lot to make me more comfortable in my own skin. There’s a lot of push back culturally against the notion that people are supposed to look or act a certain way, that our world is supposed to mirror the narrow scope of idealized bodies in traditional advertising. Now, it’s more common to see images of people of all sizes, colors, ages, abilities, and sexualities represented, and the power of that is huge. It makes us realize that we are all relevant and beautiful and always were.
We know it when we see it. And if you live in Pittsburgh, you see it all the time.
Sure, a drive through the East End can feel like there’s a new Legoland condo going up on every block and us old-timers will prattle on about the travesty of cranky old dive bars and red sauce Italian joints turning over into foo foo artisanal dining experiences with curatedwine programs—but it’s really not that way everywhere. Huge swaths of Pittsburgh aren’t seeing any new investment; real estate values have barely budged; vacant lots and condemned properties way outnumber lived-in homes.
That reality gets a whole lot more obvious as soon as you head up or down any of the rivers. To most outsiders, (ex-)industry towns like Monessen and Clairton, New Kensington and Ambridge are the very picture of Rust Belt devastation. These are places where the mill shut down 40 years ago and took most of the people who lived there with it. Nature reclaims whatever is left untended and ultimately the wrecking ball will finish the job.
“I don’t know if there’s a perfect word to describe it,” says artist Nathan Van Patter, whose current show Bound by Blight is an honest, loving, powerful meditation on life in another post-industrial borough, North Braddock.
“I chose the word bound because it has two meanings,” Van Patter says, “It means to be stuck—which is how a lot people in places like North Braddock find themselves. But it also has this other meaning of being bound together—people working to solve these kinds of problems as a community.”
Those dual themes—the weight of life in a crumbling physical landscape and the joy of that same life in a community where neighbors, bound together, truly look out for each other—inhabit every artwork in Van Patter’s terrific collection, even the ones in outer space.
Seeing the show, we experience enough of the hard stuff to get it. But Van Patter, who moved to North Braddock with his wife and kids four years ago, isn’t interested in “ruin porn.” The show is also full of the many many good things he’s experienced as a resident—a wall of portraits for various neighbors and community members, the metal shop and barber, sunflowers and urban farms, the big North Braddock sky.
Van Patter works in a medium we might call pictorial painted sculpture. You could also turn that around and say they’re paintings on wood constructions with sculptural elements. Van Patter just calls them paintings.
The pieces are literally rough—built on irregularly sized wooden boards with chips of rough cedar glued into place to approximate wood siding and stone, crumpled metal and bushy trees. The Orbit‘s photographs included here—or any photographs of Van Patter’s work—won’t do the 3-D elements justice, so we encourage the reader to see them IRL. (More about that below.)
The awkward chunkiness of the medium gives every artwork depth and texture, sure, but more importantly the fantastic quality that while we’re looking at real life subject matter—abandoned houses, police cars, utility poles—the scenes are distorted, dream-like, impressionistic.
That fantasy/reality divide runs through the full breadth of the show. Trees, fencing, and street signs jut out from a distorted North Braddock police car in Community/Police (above). Black-winged angels fly in the night sky above a fast food restaurant in the appropriately-named Angels Over Taco Bell (below).
Van Patter imagines an entire deconstructed home, including utility poles and power lines, packed-up and driven away in Moving Day 15104 (top). With The Nights are Too Big (above) an elaborate clock is made atop a grand day/night scene that contrasts the bucolic sunshine and flowers of the former with the symphony of sirens that score the dark night.
Blight is a heavy word. It’s a shorthand for the kind of urban decay that exists pretty much everywhere, but especially in depopulated, neglected areas where all those socioeconomic factors have very real world, visible effects. It’s also an outsider’s term—no one wants to describe where they live as blight.
“Blight, to me, is the combination of physical decay and intentional disinvestment in communities,” Van Patter says, “People know there’s a problem, whether they’d use that term or not … and it’s a word that gets used in community development a lot.”
Nathan Van Patter is a humble guy who thankfully doesn’t talk about his work with any level of art school mumbo-jumbo. He didn’t have to go looking for overgrown houses; they’re all real buildings right there in his neighborhood. The portraits are people he sees at borough meetings and his children’s day care. “Every time something bad has happened [in the neighborhood], something really good happens too,” Van Patter says, “I wanted to paint the portraits of people who’ve helped me and my family and are doing positive things for the community.”
Why insert medieval knights in armor on horseback into into several of the pieces? “I just thought it was cool.”
I think it’s cool, too—the whole thing. Nathan Van Patter, working a full-time job and raising a family, has invented his own very personal approach to creating a unique artistic vision. The artwork is both about the world immediately around him and stretches way beyond the Mon Valley—to knights in armor and sailing ships, angels in the night sky and the “Rust Belt futurism” of science-fiction space stations made from buildings right there in Braddock.
Whether those leaky old windows can hold oxygen is debatable, but that I’d like to visit this vision of the future is not. Beam me up, have one of those jousting knights bring the Aldi’s crudité, and let me at that long view coming out of the Ohringer building floating a couple thousand miles off the edge of the Mon River.
Bound by Blight is up now at UnSmoke Systems in Braddock. There will be a final opportunity to see the full collection at a closing reception this Saturday, August 20, 6:00-8:00 PM.
UnSmoke is located at 1137 Braddock Ave. in Braddock.