Cut Up: The Secret Collage Work of Artist Mark 347

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including comic book characters, the devil, and patterned background

“Archie Gets Some Strange,” Detail of collage by Pittsburgh artist Mark 347.

If you’re headed uphill, in the evening, through Central Lawrenceville, look up. There’s one particular well-kept brick rowhouse where the light in the third floor window is reliably lit–its occupant compulsively at work with a stack of discarded magazines and product packaging, comic books and office supplies, an X-Acto knife and bottle of glue.

It is refreshing to know an artist like Mark 347 (not his given surname–“That’s my nom de Arte…from my pretentious, ’80s industrial roots”). In the me me me world of Internet self-promotion, Mark has been quietly making art–specifically collage–for decades, with next-to-no interest in anyone ever seeing it.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including man with strange face mask

“(Un)Consciousness”

It took well over a year of badgering before Mark showed up in my backyard one evening with a surprise gift-wrapped package containing dozens of his postcard-sized paper collages. The pieces are funny and beautiful, poignant and absurd. One can read a little or a lot into any of these little artworks and every one of them tells a story–maybe even a few.

We’re honored that Mark is letting us share his work with Orbit readers and that he agreed to discuss his background and method with us. As he says below, the work is entirely personal–both “therapy” and “self-medication,” so not generally for wider consumption. We also learned the word sigil from this piece. What started as a Q&A turned into Mark delivering a fully-realized process statement. We’ve to chosen to present that in toto here.

All original collage artwork and the text below by Mark 347, with permission of the artist. Mark has, reluctantly, entered the Internet age, so for more of his work or to get in touch, you can follow him on Instagram at @arbuswitkin.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including colonial-era figure with glass of milk and fez hat

“The Invention Of Headphones”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including man with giant megaphone and crazed cartoon head

“Killing the Messenger”

Collage began as a childhood game. Bored at Grandma’s, you grab some old magazines and start cutting. No one cared that you had a pair of enormous scissors in your hand, your mouth was shut and that was enough. I don’t remember actually gluing these things together, but moving the pieces around, making strange creatures and odd scenes morph into a soup.

Later on, my interest in art expanded with a voracious exposure to books, music, and film. The pre-Internet searching revealed a true web where threads connected and one artist led me to a film that influenced their work or a book that they read several times or an LP that changed their lives.

Complicating my education was my attraction to dark, underground outsiders, whose works were harder to get my paws on. The lesson learned was that truth and purity lie beneath the surface. What’s under the rock I find far more interesting than the qualities of the rock itself–no offense to rocks. Words for these abstract thoughts came from Kurt Schwitters, who proclaimed EVERYTHING is Art and William Burroughs’ declaring life to be a cut-up.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including three disembodie mouths, each with a cigarette, and the word ENJOY

“Enjoy”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including faces of Archie comics characters, crucifix, and Godzilla

“Juggie’s Bum Trip”

I believe everything is art and the constant stream of more and faster, bombarding every sense with stimuli is the cut-up, aka collage. We take every second and create memories of perceived reality that are, in fact, collages.

Dilettante that I am, I’ve been more or less cooperative with drawing, painting, sculpture, and assemblage, but I compulsively return to collage. I can’t stop accumulating raw material to play with juxtaposition, perception, and the complete destruction of context–and it is play. It’s also quite serious.

Collages are practical sigils, charged with enough energy from their creative process to manifest the will of their creator. (Be careful, kiddies. You get exactly what you want.)

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including photograph of Jackie Kennedy and man with skull head

“Camelot”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including disk jockey with a horse's head

“Music For Horses”

At the beginning of 5th grade, OCD came to stay and it feeds on control, order, and perfection, which, unfortunately, aren’t on the menu. I believe I do collage compulsively because it supplies control and order and…precision, but not always perfection. Two out of three ain’t bad. It’s therapy. Self-medicating with paper, scissors, and glue. (Digital collage can kiss my ass.)

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including checkerboard, Ace playing card, and woman listening through headphones

“Unorthodox Methods”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including patterned background, three-legged devil, skull, candle, and the letters IMI and E

“Witchdoctor Saturday Night”

Source materials come from anywhere and everywhere: junk mail, old comic books, vintage porn, true crime journals, advertising, trash, cereal boxes, and random packaging…anything. If it appeals to me on some expressive level, into the morgue it goes.

A two-drawer filing cabinet stuffed with various files holds my archive of appropriated ephemera. Categorized generally, for instance Heads or Medical, it reflects the chaotic puzzle with no box that might be created, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Or, it’s just a collection of bits and pieces to manipulate like a dictator.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including woman's hand holding a flower and packaging label reading "As Seen on TV"

“Not Available In Stores”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including man with red dots on his bare back

“Affliction (Catholic Guilt)”

I spend anywhere from minutes to hours every day starting, working on, or finishing a collage. No matter what else I’m doing at the time, scraps get fiddled with. While working on one, I’ll get an idea and start another. Some itch is being scratched and it relieves pressure like a martini after work…or three. I have no processes beyond chaos, chance, and magick. I’m anti-equipment and anti-technique, largely from ignorance, preferring to use discards and junky supplies to the finest canvas and a $300 spatula.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including alien figure and the word REVOLT

“The Future Is Revolting”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including crosses, wooden figure, and abstract painted background

“Tent Revival Love Affair”

I never plan ahead. but let my fingers do the walking, starting in any direction. It may lead somewhere illuminating or to a high cliff. Meaning and message create themselves. I’ve never sat down to create a specific, themed, or intentionally didactic piece, but if that’s what results, the means and the end can fight it out. Some, ultimately, present purposeful ideas, but I make things for me in my own time. If this were my job, it would lose all it’s goofy charm and I’d live for weekends.

portrait of artist Mark 347

Mark 347 at home [photo: Paul Schifino]

paper collage by artist Mark Janicko including layers of overlapping shapes and patterns

“Rock, Paper, Scissors”

If viewers enjoy my work, terrific, but most of it has never been seen and probably never will be. For them to be amused, intrigued, confounded or disoriented by its presence would be the highest compliment, but I’m not fishing. I just can’t help myself.

If there’s anything else to glean from collage, I’d stress that nothing is what it seems to be, head scratching is permitted, and, as Austin Osman Spare so aptly put it, “What does not matter, need not be.”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including man with chicken head and the word OFF

“Off”

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2020

artwork shaped like large claw hammer painted in red, white, and blue

hammer/flag, Mars

A six-foot tall wooden sculpture of a claw hammer is mounted in the arched brickwork of a turn-of-the-century commercial building in Mars, Butler County. It is both uniquely American in its roadside kitsch oversized scale and patriotic red, white, and blue but is also tasteful, fits the unique space, and manages to subtly advertise Pfeifer Hardware without any text at all.

There is plenty of subtext, however, if one chooses to go down that particular rabbit hole. Is America the land of tools, of ingenuity, where anything can be built and anything can get done? Or is it the love it or leave it country where we either worship the stars-and-bars or feel the hammer come down?

Probably the creator of Pfeifer’s big hammer had none of this in mind. He or she may have just wanted to build a big hammer and decided to paint it in an obvious color scheme. While the jingoist use of the American flag always makes us feel a little queasy, the spirit of people taking a paint brush and star stencil to garage doors and retaining walls, porch art and–of course–discarded shipping pallets is something we’ll always get behind.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

wooden doorway painted like an American flag

door flag, Swissvale

One year, we’ll celebrate with a post entirely composed of that evergreen of folk-art patriotism: the pallet flag. Their complete dominance of greater Kittanning/Ford City’s lawn art scene suggests we could even go hyper-local with coverage from Armstrong County alone.

shipping pallet painted like the American flag

pallet flag, Mars

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Kittanning

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Ford City

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Kittanning

shipping pallet painted like American flag

pallet flag, Beaver

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

political pallet flag, Kittanning [note: just reporting here–Pittsburgh Orbit does NOT endorse these candidates!]

brick residential house with prominent American flag decoration

flag house, Kittanning

brick residential house with prominent American flag decoration

flag house, Kittanning

faded mural of bald eagle with American flag

eagle/flag mural, Marshall-Shadeland

section of wall mural including American flag

Allentown neighborhood mural

mural painted on cinderblock wall including American flag stars and stripes

Dougherty Veterans Fields, Etna

Row house window displays are reliably full of red, white, and blue this time of year, but The Plague has us mostly staying at home, tending vegetables in the backyard. Despite the lack of nebbing, we still managed to bag a few of these Old Glory old friends.

window with American flags

flag window, Lawrenceville

window with American flags

flag window, Lawrenceville

large plastic dinosaur lawn ornament with American flag in its mouth

dinosaur flag, Lawrenceville

skeleton decorated with green hat, Christmas garland, and American flag

multi-holiday decoration, Etna

Halloween skeleton decoration wearing long dress and red, white, and blue tie

America’s not dead … yet. Patriotic skeleton, Lawrenceville

Jeep grill made to look like American flag

grill flag, Lawrenceville

handmade sign reading "Honor the American flag"

pallet flag sign, Kittanning

Budget Christo: The Woodwell Street Streamers

house decorated with colored streamers

An electric aqua-blue shaft of light shoots from the heavens, down through thick tree tops, and ricochets from short rods pounded into the earth. The visible energy is focused and transformed back to a tree trunk, a brick pillar, a front porch fixture. Down the block, a full spectrum of color blasts overhead, making direct contact with a low hedge at the front of another house. The phenomenon continues up and down the street and around the corner–reconfigured, alternately arranged, and impressively coordinated so that no two homes appear at all similar.

In each case, the colored lines have the magical quality of both rays of light, frozen into fixed, timeless position, but also fluttering ever so slightly in the soft breeze as to trick the eye into seeing a bewildering array of subtle hues from even a single one of these mass-extruded plastic streamers.

house front yard decorated with colored streamers

Woodwell Street is a single, long residential block in North Squirrel Hill. Its tidy array of pre-war four squares and arts & crafts double houses are reliably well-maintained with groomed, flowers-a-poppin’ front yards and neighbors intensely tending to their hedge rows and raised vegetable gardens. The number of Bernie for PresidentAll Are Welcome Here, and Black Lives Matter yard signs says much about the demographics of its residents. [Whether any black lives actually, you know, own property here is a separate question.]

house decorated with colored streamers

The phrase keeping up with the Joneses has such a derogatory slant, but feels applicable here. One imagines the arrival of a new Prius or enameled 24″ Weber as front-page news on a street as uniformly kempt and free-of-strife as Woodwell. Neighbors appear loathe to allow the green grass any more than three inches in height before a regularly-scheduled haircut; there is neither peeling paint nor discarded litter anywhere to be seen. Good luck finding a statue of Mary.

So the introduction of bright plastic colors, freeform conceptual art, and public expression–if only within a tight set of coordinated parameters–seems like it must represent some kind of seismic shift in the community landscape of Woodwell Street. Each household must ask the inevitable existential question: are we traditionalists or are we with the color revolution?

house front yard decorated with colored streamers

“Surreal environmental installation artist” Christo passed away on May 31 at the age of 84. The Woodwell Street streamers were well under way by this point, so at best, we can consider these works a prescient or coincidental tribute to the artist who, along with his wife and creative partner Jeanne-Claude, achieved fame by creating elaborate, grand-scale works redecorating nature. The two covered an island in pink polypropylene, ran fabric fencing into the ocean, and constructed 7,500 safron-colored gates throughout New York’s Central Park in the dead of winter, among many other projects.

house decorated with colored streamers

While it’s tempting to title an article with the cheeky name Anti-Christo, that would do both the lawn decorators of Squirrel Hill and the namesake a disservice. These pieces are imaginative, fun, and achieve exactly what Christo and Jeanne-Claude were after: they get the visitor to look at both the built environment and the flora that surrounds it in new and different ways. They also manage to achieve that with the cheapest and most accessible of materials. For this, we’re going with Budget Christo.

tree decorated with colored streamers

While any time is the right time for fun walkabout/drive-by public art, it seems especially appropriate right now. We all want to get out and there’s nowhere to go; we all want to help out and that means staying home. By creating a no-contact, anyone-can-join-in open air art environment, the Woodwell Street neighbors have taken the challenge and created something beautiful from it. [Editor’s note: see last week’s story on Remly Way, the “Alleyway of Magical Delights,” for a similar but different project.]

Needless to say, Woodwell Street is looking good right now and the streamer houses are really something special and well worth a visit. By its very nature, this a temporary installation at best, so take the opportunity and walk on by.

house decorated with colored streamers

house front garden decorated with colored streamers

Getting there: Woodwell Street runs between Dallas and Barnsdale in north Squirrel Hill. You’ll find most of the streamer-decorated properties there, but also make sure to check out the neighboring, parallel streets Ridgeville and Kinsman, where there are more.

Thanks to Orbit reader and inveterate neighborhood walker Lisa Valentino for the tip on this fine project.

tree decorated with colored streamers

The Alleyway of Magical Delights: Remly Way

long retaining wall decorated with hundreds of organized objects

“Little people in Wilmerding can make something nice without spending thousands of dollars.” Remly Way, Wilmerding

If there is a single image that captures both the dedication to this awkward space and the keeper’s ability to warm up, beautify, and humanize the most lifeless of urban landscapes, it may be found in a tiny row of marigolds. The flowers are planted in a thin channel–there’s maybe five inches of arable soil–between the cement curb and an imposing retaining wall, scarred with decades of cracks, pockmarks, and vestigial stains.

Those tiny flowers, spaced neatly in a freshly-mulched bed, offer just a hint at what the first-time visitor will encounter in the next couple hundred feet, but they sure let you know someone is paying attention back here. What lies ahead is the most magical transformation of a mundane alleyway you’ll encounter anytime soon.

cement retaining wall with thin row of marigold flowers planted along the curb

“It used to be all weeds. I got sick of looking at weeds,” marigolds and cement

“It used to be all weeds. I got sick of looking at weeds,” says Carl Remly of his effort to clean up the little street that runs behind his house. Remly is a self-described workaholic who lives on the block and is “not too good at sitting around.” We believe him.

The combined do-good spirit and boundless energy led Remly from weeding to gardening (“I was never what you’d call a green thumb”) to decorating his tiny front yard with an oddball collection of dinosaur models, tiki figures, and bric-a-brac.

When he turned his sights on the back alley, though, Carl Remly managed to convert what was a typically ignored minor passageway into an incredible outdoor, curated art environment that is both magical and comical, wacky and serene. Don’t look for it on the map, but we’re going to refer to this highly-recommended destination as Remly Way.

brick row house with many lawn decorations

“It started with the dinosaurs in the front yard” Carl Remly’s house on Middle Street, Wilmerding

Miller Street is a three- or four-block-long, one-way alley that runs behind a stretch of century-old row house blocks in north Wilmerding. From gaps between the long buildings, you can look straight out across Turtle Creek (the creek itself, not the town named after the creek) and see several giant old Westinghouse factories. One imagines many of the folks who originally lived in these tight worker homes must have spent their days in the big brick Air Brake Machine Shop.

By chance, Miller Street also appears to be the only section of the borough Google didn’t (or couldn’t) make it down to photograph for their StreetView feature. Perhaps Remly’s work will bring the crew back for another well-deserved drive-through.

Christmas decorations in alley with view of former Westinghouse factory

View of the old Westinghouse factory from Remly Way

Part visionary garden, part art environment, and part open-air museum, Remly Way has at least four distinct stages. Each is approximately a half-block long following the contours of the big retaining wall holding up the Tri-Boro Expressway, above.

Section I: A Curious Entree (our name) is that single row of marigolds (and other flowers) at the far eastern edge where Miller Street meets Short Alley. One needn’t begin the exploration here–and if you’re in a car, you can’t (it’s a one-way, going the other direction)–but The Orbit recommends you walk it from that starting point for maximum dramatic impact.

In Section II: Christmas in June, the space between curb and wall expands just a little to give Remly the room to house larger plants, figurines, statuary, and a recycled artificial Christmas tree about every 10 feet. “A lot of Christmas trees are just a buck a piece at the thrift shop,” Remly says of his favorite decoration source.

concrete retaining wall decorated with artificial Christmas trees, flowers, and other items

“A lot of Christmas trees are just a buck a piece at the thrift shop.”

row of Christmas decorations against retaining wall in long alley

Christmas in June. Remly Way should ideally be experienced both during the day and all lit up at night.

Up until now, the alley has been a pleasant side trip–a creative way one neighbor is making the most of a thin sliver of neglected space. That all changes when we get to Remly Way’s third stage: The Museum. Here, Carl Remly’s genius for design and composition come into full form and the minds of passers-by are forever blown in the process.

On the PennDOT-sponsored shelving created by heavy steel corrugated wall sections, Remly has converted the negative space into intricate, curated collections of oddball figurines, decorative items, and topiary. There is a section containing nothing but model ducks; another with animals cast in brass and a frog fantasia. Still another groups together bald eagles, their wings reliably spread as if in imminent lift-off.

retaining wall with many model ducks

“I have a little bit of a theme to everything,” the duck display

retaining wall with many model animal figures

Brass/frog display

“You read the Sunday paper and somebody in Upper Saint Clair gets the garden of the year because they paid a lot of money,” Remly says, “I just wanted to show that little people in Wilmerding can make something nice without spending thousands of  dollars.”

In addition to being a workaholic, Remly also confesses to being a shopaholic who makes frequent trips to flea markets, junk stores, thrift shops, and Home Depot’s post-seasonal sales.

“I have two garages that are supposed to be for my (commercial door installation) business,” Remly says, “But now they’re the holding area for all my stuff.”

retaining wall with many model bird figures

Bird display

retaining wall with many model animal figures

Bunny/cat/rooster display

By the time you reach Remly Way’s final phase, Section IV: Re-entry/The Coming Down, one needs to give the peepers a rest after the eye-popping density of the previous collections. That comes in the form of a tiny parklet at the only space along the alley that will permit it–a small alcove of green grass, shaded by a bank of short trees above.

Here, Remly has included–you guessed it–more Christmas trees, plus big freestanding cartoon character decorations, a seating area in purple wicker, at least one light-up Big Foot cut-out, and a homemade sign that reads Stay Safe and Healthy. The sign is decorated with drawings of airplanes and battleships fighting the coronavirus by Remly’s grandchildren.

small parklet decorated with Christmas trees and lawn decorations

Remly Way parklet, Miller Street

cut-out Big Foot figure wrapped in Christmas lights

Light-up Big Foot, Remly Way parklet

More than a few times in our short conversation Carl Remly mentioned the desire to brighten the spirits of his neighbors and other visitors to the alley. He puts up a Christmas display every year, but with the arrival and uncertainty of everything around the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for a spring/summer pick-me-up was especially strong.

I’m here to tell you, it works. There’s a kind of magic in that little alley–a sense that if someone cares this much about his neighbors and fellow human beings that things just have to work out somehow. The experience is beautiful and surprising, free and accessible. It’s also exactly what we need more of right now.

Like the sign in Remly parklet says, stay safe and healthy, y’all.

back porches of row house with elaborate decorations

Memorial to Carl Remly’s late wife Wannitta and other decorations

porch lit with elaborate light display

The flying unicorns at night


Getting there: Our recommendation is to park somewhere around the 300 or 400 block of Middle Ave., Wilmerding (look for Fan Club Sports Bar), walk to Short Alley (note: there’s no street sign), and then left at the concrete wall (to Miller Street aka Remly Way)–you’ll see the flowers.

Skyline Fine Time: Six Ways to Sunday

hand made multicolor sign reading "Heroes at Work" over rainbow over downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Rainbow city. UPMC Children’s Hospital, Lawrenceville

There are only so many ways a blogger can say, man, does this city we like to include its downtown skyline on stuff or what? But as long as graphic designers are abstractifying and color-blocking the recognizable shapes of US Steel tower, PPG’s spiky glass horns, the Highmark building’s hypodermic needle, etc., we’ll be there to take the pictures and do our best at pithy photo captioning.

In this, The Orbit‘s (gulp) sixth time returning to this seemingly-inexhaustible well, those general building blocks, often bookended with the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne bridges, appear in business logos, commercial signage, product packaging, and even one delightful 3-D rendering as tribute for the Heroes at Work essential workers at Children’s Hospital.

Keep well, y’all. To paraphrase the great Casey Kasem, keep your feet on the ground and keep looking at the skyline!

tavern window with reflection of city buildings above a skyline silhouette of downtown Pittsburgh

Skyline on skyline. Howlers, Bloomfield

logo for New City Commons featuring silhouetted buildings from the Pittsburgh skyline

Venn diagram city[1]. New City Commons, Downtown

University of Pittsburgh bus decorated with skyline of downtown Pittsburgh

A city on the move. University of Pittsburgh bus, Oakland

metal logo for Legends of Pittsburgh gym with weightlifter holding barbell with the city of Pittsburgh skyline on it

Clean and jerk city. Legends of Pittsburgh gym, Pittsburgh Mills mall

mural on art supply store with the downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Air conditioner city. Artist & Craftsman Supply, Squirrel Hill

logo for Metro Club featuring silhouetted buildings from the Pittsburgh skyline

Blue city. Metro Club, Downtown

tent sign for For for Thought deli including the Pittsburgh skyline

Black and gold city. Food for Thought deli, Oakland

logo for Pittsburgh Potty including the downtown Pittsburgh skyline and slogan "We run on natural gas"

Fart joke city. Pittsburgh Potty

window sign for Smokestack Glass including the Pittsburgh skyline

Glass city. Smokestack Glass, Lawrenceville

logo for Iron Lung vape shop that features the Pittsburgh skyline inside a pair of red lungs

Smoky/smoking city. Iron Lung, Bloomfield

label for bag of Pittsburgh Pasta rotini including a drawing of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Pasta city. Pittsburgh Pasta, Bloomfield Shur-Save

Greater Pittsburgh Plumbing van decorated with two different versions of the Pittsburgh skyline

Double skylines! Greater Pittsburgh Plumbing van[3]

sign for Steel City Line-X including the Pittsburgh skyline

Outline city. Steel City Line-X, Creighton

window painting for Civilization PGH including an abstract skyline

Vague notion of a city[2]. Civilization PGH, Lawrenceville

window sign for Steel City Craft Emporium featuring downtown Pittsburgh skyline

A city with a big heart. Steel City Craft Emporium, Strip District

printed sign for Pittsburgh Fitness Project gym including image of the downtown skyline

Domed city. Pittsburgh Fitness Project, Lawrenceville

sign for Bernard Dog Run with outline of downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Dogburgh. Bernard Dog Run, Lawrenceville

logo for C&M Roofing & Remodeling including image of downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Pittsburgh: the only city with a front door *and* a roof! C&M Roofing & Remodeling


[1] Not sure if this is intentional, but it’s been said that Pittsburgh sits at the Venn diagram between East Coast, Midwest, and Appalachia–and is none of them. If that was the goal with New City Commons’ design, we think it’s pretty clever.
[2] The outline depicted in Civilization PGH’s storefront window may or may not be taken from some neighborhood in Pittsburgh, but it’s certainly not downtown. Though we make it a policy to skip the generic/clip art cityscapes we come across all too often, we chose to include this one because … maybe it’s Pittsburgh?
[3] Orbit superfans will know we included Greater Pittsburgh Plumbing’s black-and-gold city skyline logo in a previous post, but this skyline-on-skyline double image was unique enough to warrant the re-up.

The Mother of All Mothers! A Mother’s Day Mary Super Round-Up

statue of Mary leaning against house

Leaning Mary, Bellevue

And when the morning of the warning’s passed, the gassed
And flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars

And does she want to see the stains, the dead remains of all the pains
She left the night before
Or will their waking eyes reflect the lies, and make them
Realize their urgent cry for sight no more

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

– Tandyn Almer, “Along Comes Mary”

statue of Mary in front of brick house

Classic “blue robe” Mary, Brighton Heights

Whatever else Tandyn Almer did with the rest of his life[1], he’ll have forever authored one of the greatest bits of twisted sunshine pop and doobie entendre soft rock to harmonize and flute-solo its way onto Top 40 radio and prime time television.

Now, it’s probably safe to say the inspiration for The Association’s 1966 toe-tapper was not the mother of Jesus Christ–and likely not even a woman at all. I think we can all assume that Mary’s middle name is Jane.

But the Mary–the O.G., blessed virgin, greatest-story-ever-told, gettin-it-done-in-a-manger Mary–indeed comes along all over the place, just about any ol’ time. Every front yard is Mary’s potential domain; any porch her possible perch. The city’s backyards are so full of clandestine, hidden Marys that we’ll never have a true accounting of them all. [You don’t know how that keeps a speculative journalist awake at night!] It’s enough to drive a Mary-curious atheist into confession.

So on this Mother’s Day, we return to an old favorite Orbit subject: Mary, the mother of all mothers, in some of her various occasions around town. Links to earlier coverage appear below.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mommas out there. While your kids won’t be able to take you out to lunch, may your empty cups taste as sweet as the punch.

house with small statuette of Mary by front steps

Tiny Mary, Troy Hill

statue of Mary with feet buried in garden mulch

Quicksand Mary, Sharpsburg

statue of Mary along alley

No Parking Mary, Sharpsburg

statue of Mary and flowers in pot

Flower pot Mary, Burgettstown

statue of Mary in front of house with condemned notice

Condemned Mary, Garfield

all-white statue of Mary on front porch

Monochrome Mary, Bloomfield

statue of Mary in large garden bed

Garden Mary, Saltsburg

statue of Mary in grotto with other statuary wrapped in black plastic bags

She’s Mary, wrapped in plastic. Bloomfield

statue of Mary in front of brick house

Solitary Mary, Friendship

statue of Mary in front of wood frame house

Sunbathing Mary, California-Kirkbride

older wooden house with statue of Mary by the front porch, Pittsburgh, PA

The last Mary in Larimer?

rear-view statue of Mary behind chain link fence

Have you seen the back? Mary, Bloomfield

Mary and friends

statue of Mary embedded in concrete in flower pot

Concrete shoes Mary, penguin, flag, Lawrenceville

statue of Mary with other lawn decorations

Gas meter Mary, et al., Millvale

front porch with multiple statues

Porch Marys (and friends), Lawrenceville

front yard decorated with many small statuettes, Pittsburgh, PA

Lighthouse Mary I, Morningside

front yard covered with decorative figurines, lighthouse, and Mary statuette, Donora, PA

Lighthouse Mary II, Donora

house with statue of Mary

Mary and daughters, Sharpsburg

house with statue of Mary among lawn decorations

Wagon wheel Mary, Reserve

Pedestal Marys

statue of Mary on pedestal in residential backyard

Backyard Mary, Mt. Washington

statues of Mary and angels in front yard

Bay window Mary, Lawrenceville

statuette of Mary on pedestal of bricks, Pittsburgh, PA

Brick pedestal Mary, Esplen

statue of Mary on cinderblocks in backyard

Up-on-blocks Mary, Lawrenceville

Christmas Marys

statue of Mary in front of house with Christmas decorations

Christmas Mary, Reserve

statue of Mary and large Christmas tree

Christmas/camouflage Mary, Millvale

Empty Mary Grottos

empty Mary grotto in front of brick house

Empty grotto, Brighton Heights

brick grotto created for statue of Mary

Repopulated grotto, Oakland

More Orbit Mary coverage:

statue of Mary painted silver

Mary of the berries, Chez Orbit


[1] Almer’s Wikipedia entry confirms that “Along Comes Mary” is indeed Almer’s biggest songwriting success, but that he “invented a waterpipe called the Slave-Master, described by Jack S. Margolis and Richard Clorfene in A Child’s Garden of Grass as ‘the perfect bong.'” So, you know, there were definitely some other hits.

Putting the Pieces Together: Jim Mellett, Jigsaw Puzzle Artist

detail from jigsaw puzzle with pop culture images of the 1980s

Icons of the 1980s: Sam Malone from “Cheers,” Jim Mellett, and J.R. Ewing from “Dallas”

Jim Mellett is one of the absolute icons of the 1980s. In the panoply of political and cultural figures, news events and technological innovations of the decade, Mellett is right up there with Ronald Reagan and The Terminator, Prince and Madonna, the Rubik’s Cube and Sony Walkman.

That’s true, at least, if you’re solely going by The Eighties, a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle whose artwork is a hand-illustrated collage of some hundred-plus pop culture references from the period. There, sandwiched between Sam Malone from Cheers, the Chrysler K-Car, and Time magazine’s Whodunit? (aka “Who shot J.R.?”) cover, is a young Jim Mellett, dressed up in a jacket and tie for his high school yearbook photo.

artist's drawing table including finished artwork for a jigsaw puzzle

Jim Mellett’s workspace and original artwork created for the puzzle “Music”

As a committed dissectologist–that’s someone who likes to do jigsaw puzzles even when it’s not Thanksgiving or a global coronavirus pandemic–I came across Mellett’s work in the most innocent of ways. Just having completed The Eighties, the box was sitting by the front door, waiting to be passed on through the Puzzle Underground™, when mutual friend Paul piped up to announce he not only knew the artist, but that Mellett likes to draw himself into his puzzles as a cameo. In this case, he’s right above Ted Danson’s left shoulder.

By this measure, Jim Mellett pretty much owns the last half of the twentieth century. You have to look close, but there he is in The Sixties, as a boy in a red jacket next to the lava lamp, and then wearing a striped shirt for the next decade’s puzzle. Mellett is pictured with his daughter in the 90s and at the beach with the family above Usain Bolt’s outstretched arm for The New Millennium.

Artwork for jigsaw puzzle "The New Millennium" by Jim Mellett

“The New Millennium” jigsaw puzzle, artwork by Jim Mellett

Jim Mellett has been a commercial artist for over 30 years and created original illustrations for over 50 jigsaws, all published by White Mountain Puzzles. Each finished puzzle takes around three months for Mellett to complete, from inception and background research to sketches and final production.

“We both kind of know what one another is thinking,” Mellett says of his long-running collaborative relationship with White Mountain. For any given puzzle subject, “They come up with a list, I come up with a list–we work things out.”

line drawing by artist James Mellett of collage to be used for jigsaw puzzle

Initial line drawing in advance of coloring to be used for Mellett’s “Music” puzzle

Each artwork is hand drawn on a single big 24″ x 30″ board–the exact size of the final printed puzzle–and filled in with a combination of gouache (opaque water color paint) and colored pencil. The precise masthead lettering that spells out Television Families or Broadway Musicals or The New Millennium is all done by hand as part of the finished piece. There is no computer manipulation, Photoshop, or external typography added to the painting.

In the old days, Mellett would ship the finished artwork to White Mountain’s New Hampshire office for photographing. Now that work is done locally, allowing him more hands-on review of the final production image.

artist Jim Mellett working at his home studio

Jim Mellett at his home studio working on his next puzzle, “Iconic America”

“I’m a Pittsburgh guy,” says Jim Mellett from his home studio in Mount Lebanon, “So I always make sure to put a bunch of local things in my paintings.”

True enough. You’ll find a Heinz ketchup bottle in at least a couple different puzzles and various Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins turn up all over the place. Somehow Bubby Brister didn’t make the cut for The Eighties, but Mario Lemieux did.

Music includes a tour poster for The Eagles ’79 concert at the Civic Arena and The Movies makes sure to get in Slap Shot‘s Hanson brothers. Mellett’s Great Americans puzzle features an entire column of western Pennsylvania folks. Some of these–Andrew Carnegie, Fred Rogers, and Andy Warhol–may be more name brand than, say, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, or Rocky Bleier.

“[White Mountain] never told me, ‘Don’t put so much Pittsburgh stuff on there.'”

artist Jim Mellett with his original artwork for the jigsaw puzzle "Great Americans"

Jim Mellett with his original artwork for “Great Americans” featuring *lots* of western PA folks

Jigsaw puzzles are, as they say, “having a moment.” A recent NPR story on the topic mentions sales jumps in the hundreds of percents since the coronavirus left us all homebound and nostalgic for simpler times. Try buying one anywhere right now and this truth will be confirmed. Target’s puzzle shelves are bare and online you’ll likely see a similar message to the one on White Mountain’s site warning of limited supplies and delays in order processing.

“Like a lot of artists, I worked a second job,” Mellett says of his 14 years driving for UPS while simultaneously creating original artwork. Those days are done now, though, as artist has become a full-time job and the virus-driven spike in sales has been an unexpected boon for the puzzle illustrator.

artist Jim Mellett in the driver's seat of a UPS delivery van

Jim Mellett in his UPS-driving days

As a veteran of the Puzzlesphere®, I can tell you Mellett’s designs make for top-quality piece-putting-together. At Chez Orbit we don’t cheat–that means no looking at the box–so one achieves the sublime experience of assembling on the pure feel of what fits where, based solely on a puzzler’s intuition and raw gumption. You couple that solving strategy with the anything-could-be-anywhere collage layout and a non-stop parade of pop culture a-ha! moments and it’s a recipe for a socially-distanced good time.*

Mellett is currently at work on a new puzzle for White Mountain called Iconic America. That should be available some time in the next few months. Maybe–just maybe–we’ll see Jim Mellett’s face among yet another set of icons.

detail of "The Eighties" puzzle showing illustration of characters from 80s TV show "The Facts of Life"

Mrs. Garrett and the “Facts of Life” gang

Orbit pro tip. To multi-dimensionalize the Mellett puzzle experience, get one of White Mountain’s collage puzzles, hide the box (or course), relay the theme (ex: “Broadway” or “The 1960s”) to your puzzling group, and have each puzzle solver make a prediction list of what they think will appear in the final image. When you’re done, count up the correct answers, make fun of the people who haven’t heard of, you know, John Hinckley or Leona Helmsley, and call someone a winner!


All photos and original puzzle artwork courtesy of Jim Mellett. For more of Mellett’s art, see his website melart.com.

All of Mellett’s in-print puzzles can be found at the White Mountain Puzzles website. Just be aware that everyone else is also trying to buy the world’s last remaining available puzzles, so many are currently out-of-stock.

Walk This Way: Jeremy Raymer’s One-Man Arts District

mural of Andy Warhol and peeled pink banana by artist Jeremy Raymer

Peel slowly. Warhol/electric banana mural by Jeremy Raymer, Mulberry Way, Lawrenceville

We can still go for a walk.

These are–take your pick—strange, scary, stressful, uncertain, even apocalyptic times. But we all know a daily dose of leg-stretching and fresh-air-breathing is crucial to both our physical and mental health during even the best of days. Make no exception now; you need those things more than ever.

The daily constitutional also happens to be one of the few things we can still do–outside of the home–that is just as freely available now as it was a month ago, before the plague set in.

mural of cartoon horse wearing suit by artist Jeremy Raymer

Log! Mulberry Way

Don’t look for any streets signs marking Raymer Way; you won’t find it on any maps. That’s just our name for it. But there exists a three-block stretch of lower Lawrenceville that fully deserves one of those ceremonial placards, like the zoo’s One Wild Place or Amazing Kids Way in Squirrel Hill.

It’s there, on two long stretches of Mulberry Way, an alley running parallel with Butler Street, plus another short block of 35th Street, where rock-and-roll mural artist Jeremy Raymer has created a one-man, open air arts district. It’s yours for the perusing any time there’s enough daylight to read the (often very dark) wall surfaces–and you won’t encounter enough other people to worry about social distancing.

identical brick row houses, one with elaborate mural across the entire front, Pittsburgh, PA

The house that started it all. Chez Ray, 35th Street

Jeremy Raymer, over email, describes the evolving process:

The entire thing started from the previous owner of the warehouse at 35th and Charlotte seeing me painting my house [across the street] and asking if I wanted to paint on his warehouse. I said yes and started covering the [35th Street] side with the heart, eyes, and Hedy Lamarr murals first, then wanting more space and moving into the [Mulberry Way] alley.

Once this was covered I did want more space, so a few months back, I approached the owner of Morcilla and asked about doing a small piece on the alley entry to the restaurant, so I did that and then I wanted to see about more space, so I approached the Perlora warehouse and after a little bit of convincing (from me and some of their employees who are fans), they agreed to give me free reign on the alley portion of their warehouse. The initial intent was just a practice space for me and its just organically grown into what it is now.

mural of man's face on service entry to restaurant

David (?), Morcilla back entrance, Mulberry Way

If you’ve spent any time in Lawrenceville, the Strip District, or central North Side, you know Raymer’s work. Think of the giant image of (super hero) Magneto along AAA Scrap Metal’s Penn Avenue building and fence, the full wall Roberto Clemente on Verdetto’s Bar in Spring Garden, or the big Deutschtown Sasquatch. There are also a ton of smaller pieces–of sports figures, wild animals, and art references–that turn up on commercial storefronts, restaurant interiors, and pocket parks around the city.

If those are the final, big marquee commissioned pieces, Raymer Way is the sketch pad, the studies and scribbles. “I am basically allowed to do whatever I please,” Raymer says of his agreement with the Lawrenceville property owners, “I am given permission, but no sponsorship and it has all been on my accord and at my own cost.”

Mural of human heart on cinderblock wall by Jeremy Raymer, Pittsburgh, PA

Purple heart, 35th Street

Raymer’s murals fall clearly in the world of pop art. They’re big, over-saturated with electric color, using spray paint–the medium of choice for street art–that often has a certain airbrushed quality, and focus on subject matter around celebrity, movie characters, cartoons, and visual puns. He also has a particular affinity for the color purple.

At their best, Raymer has an incredibly deft hand and soft touch with a can of Krylon. He’s got a great color sense for what’s going to pop from a cinderblock wall or read through the roll-up mechanism of a retail security door. His portraits of real people are arresting, vivid, and fill the walls with an obvious holistic vision that treats the space as a broad canvas to be considered in toto. Raymer’s goofier stuff shows that he’s got a sense of humor and doesn’t take any of this too seriously–something altogether missing from so many artists.

Jeremy Raymer mural on cement block wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Purple Hedy Lamarr, 35th Street

mural of large mouth in purple by artist Jeremy Raymer

Big purple mouth, 35th Street

mural of man's face by artist Jeremy Raymer

Purpleish man, Mulberry Way

mural of purple witch painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Purple witch, Mulberry Way

mural of purple bunny by artist Jeremy Raymer

Big purple bunny, Mulberry Way

mural of block of blue cheese painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Blue cheese blues, Mulberry Way

Now, I’ll be the first to say I don’t love all of Raymer’s murals. Do we really need wall-sized portraits of the green Ghostbusters slime monster, Simpsons characters, or–sorry, Star Wars fans–Yoda? A matched pair of Buffalo chicken wings with a halo is kind of funny … kind of.

But let me say this: I have tremendous respect for anyone who goes out there and does their thing and gets this much stuff done, over and over again. To spend one’s free time–not to mention money–on materials, in negotiating with landlords, and decorating the alley backsides of anonymous buildings, is a tremendous gift to Lawrenceville and the city at large.

… and that gift is yours, whenever you’re ready to take that walk.

mural of Yoda painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Hrmmm, on walls he paints. Yoda, Mulberry Way

mural of green monster by artist Jeremy Raymer

Bustin’ makes me feel good! Mulberry Way

mural of chicken wings with an angel's halo painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Chicken wings/halo, Mulberry Way

mural by Jeremy Raymer including a heart with keyhole and key

The key to your heart, Mulberry Way

mural of multicolor skull by artist Jeremy Raymer

Skull, Mulberry Way

Getting there: The Raymer Way murals are on Mulberry Way, lower Lawrenceville, between 34th and 36th Streets, as well as 35th Street, between Mulberry Way and Charlotte Street. There are plenty of other Raymer murals in near walking distance throughout Lawrenceville and The Strip District. There’s even a map of locations on his web site.


Follow Jeremy Raymer on Instagram at @jeremyMraymer or @raymerarttours. For contact information and a map of his Pittsburgh murals, see jmraymer.com.

Related: see also “An Orbit Obit: Where the Buffalo Roamed,” Pittsburgh Orbit, Dec. 12, 2015.

Something From Nothing: Remembering Artist DeVon Smith with Filmmaker David Craig

artist DeVon Smith with sculpture of UFO in front of his home in Wampum, PA, 2001

“He created something out of nothing,” artist DeVon Smith in front of his home in Wampum, PA, 2001

Editor’s note: In these social distancing/life-during-wartime days, one’s opportunities to responsibly poke around wildly are substantially compromised. However, this pre-Orbit era story of Western Pennsylvania outsider artist DeVon Smith comes from a time that feels like another planet: when no one was blogging, no one (I knew) had a cell phone or a digital camera, and we all just sat around waiting for Mark Zuckerberg to give us something to click on. DeVon Smith, though, is absolutely the kind of guy that made me excited about writing, picture-taking, exploration, and adventure … even if there was no outlet for it.


Twenty years ago your narrator found himself abnormally focused on the intense activity of an older gentleman, down on his hands and knees, fidgeting with a snarl of electrical cords, blinking lights, and repurposed oscillating fans. It was there, by the entryway of The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, that DeVon Smith was fussing with a “family” of six human-sized art robots, two of whom were to be wed in a ceremony at the museum later that same day.

DeVon spoke in a fascinating stream-of-consciousness blur that intermixed is-this-guy-for-real? anecdotes of a wild life of round-the-world hitchhiking, bizarre health prescriptions, and an absolute dedication to the life of his creations that felt as legit as anything in, you know, the “real world.” It turned out that DeVon had come to the museum from his home in Wampum, PA, just up the road from Pittsburgh, in Lawrence County. He invited me to visit any time.

art robots created by DeVon Smith

The World’s First Family of Robots, part of the permanent collection of The American Visionary Art Museum [photos: Dan Meyers]

I got to know DeVon just a little bit, visiting him at his DIY compound in Wampum, helping transport his robots in a flatbed truck to the opening of a new Wal-Mart, and buying him a real lunch at a nearby King’s Family Restaurant where he insisted he would have been just as happy with a no-cost meal of “ketchup soup.”

Filmmaker David Craig and I met with DeVon in the late winter of 2001, which is where he captured DeVon doing his thing while I acted as unprepared interviewer. A link to the short video that came out of that appears below and is highly recommended. The photos I took–you can hear my old 35mm snapping away at various points–appear lost to time; at least, I can’t find them anywhere. (Sigh.) But you’ll get the idea.

David Craig was kind enough to do a little Q&A about his recollections of the visit and making the short film.

Q: How did you first hear about DeVon Smith?

Let’s say it’s all a bit murky. I went to AVAM (American Visionary Art Museum) regularly–every time there was a new show–so if the robots were there I saw them, but there was always so much other stuff I was interested in seeing, like which Howard Finster piece they were showing. You had talked up DeVon. You and [Ms. The Orbit] offered up some suggestions for the public access show I was doing. I mean if you said anything like, “There’s a guy in the country who makes robots,” I was there.

In the original video I set it up by showing us going down this long stretch of winding road and in the narration, using this world-weary tone, saying, “Here we are setting out to find another folk artist.” That wasn’t really the case. Coming out of the zine world and doing some writing, I was always interested in checking things out. But with the show I had more of a reason to seek out stuff to cover. I don’t recall having any particular expectations but you probably built up a little bit of a legend about DeVon. Ultimately the visit was your idea and you had to figure out where he lived. I just brought the camera.

front window of DeVon Smith's home in Wampum, PA with six robot sculptures on display

World’s 1st Family of Robots–the 1st Recycled Family on display at DeVon Smith’s home, Wampum, PA, 2001

Q: Tell us about the visit to Wampum, PA where you filmed him.

It was March, 2001, around St. Patrick’s day. I know it was the week before he took the robots to Wal-Mart. The one thing that was interesting–that I had forgotten until I looked at all the video footage again–was we arrived fairly early that morning. No one was around. It was his compound with some sheds and a trailer and the robots out in the open behind a long glass window. I shot some video and then we went to New Castle where you scored a thrift store art painting of a horse. It was beautiful. We went back, still no one.

I think we came real close to calling it a day when DeVon’s junk truck rolled up. Then that was it. DeVon was totally accommodating, willing to talk and hang out. I had that thing where there was only one battery so we went inside his place to recharge it for awhile. It was all about keeping the camera rolling. The quotes were great and he introduced us to the “family.”

“Devon Smith, Robot Man”

Q: Nowadays, Orbit readers can watch your short video on the Internet, but what was the purpose/outlet for these kinds of videos in a pre-YouTube world?

The piece was produced for my public access show Odds & Ends in Fairfax County, Virginia. Back then if you wanted people to watch you had to reel off a list of random days and times but it would be screened other times too, not that it wasn’t cool to have a show on TV. I was more into the idea of channel surfers stumbling onto things like the Robot Man.

When I moved to Portland, OR about nine years ago, I edited it again as a calling card, proof that I was a “filmmaker.” I had it at a couple of local screenings and it even won an award at the Teeny Tiny Film Fest in Estacada, Ore. When I first moved to Portland, I was in a Lance Armstrong P.S.A.(!) and a guy asked me if my stuff was online and I was like, “Ah, no.” I realized in order to network I needed to put my videos online. Robot Man was the first thing and with it being close to ten minutes long it may have been too long for YouTube at that time so it was originally posted in two parts.

filmmaker David Craig with video camera

Filmmaker David Craig at St. Nicholas grotto, North Side, c. 2000

Q: I understand the American Visionary Art Museum has contacted you about the short DeVon Smith video you produced. How did that connection happen and what will they be doing with the films?

I was contacted by AVAM through my YouTube channel so maybe they were doing a search. I had sent them a copy, possibly VHS, years ago. They’ve been really complimentary about the film and I’m honored because I was a big fan of the museum. I’m hoping they show it on a loop. DeVon really comes alive. All I had to do was turn the camera on. It wouldn’t have worked to have him talk to the camera so I’m glad you were there to keep him talking, which was not hard, but a lot of times you’d ask a follow up so he’d elaborate.

He was more comfortable talking to someone than at a camera. He was a great subject because he was willing to tell us his whole story. He had all kinds of time for us. Looking over all the footage, I think there some more material that could be a separate piece. I think the film was the right length and my instincts were good. I just loved the old style, 1950’s Jimmy Stewart way DeVon talked and I hope to share more of the outtakes at some point.

artist DeVon Smith in front of his home in Wampum, PA

“A big coffee drinker, about 8 cups a day,” DeVon Smith

Q: Do you have any other lasting memories of DeVon Smith that you’d like to share with Orbit readers?

It’s still about the way he said stuff, the way he stretched out his words and his excitement, his spirit and his energy. In the movie he talks about doing stuff under the worst conditions possible and I think about that because he had his trailer and his robot family and maybe some other family around but he survived. He was a junk man and seemed to be into tinkering with stuff and getting by on very little. So he’s an inspiration.

I think you asked but we found out DeVon was a big coffee drinker, about 8 cups a day. I always have that in my mind as some kind of benchmark. Being a part of his legacy is really cool because I’m not sure how many people shot video of him and his home. That’s the thing, as folk/outsider artists go he wasn’t the most prolific or famous but he had a charm and the Robot family and that “double wedding of Robot offspring” is hilarious. I think his story would make anyone feel good.

He created something out of nothing. I think it’s important to know you can create with very little. He was working on a book, one of those crazy, handwritten autobiographies and I wonder if that ever came out. [Editor’s note: it did. Amazing Amusing Adventures of World Traveler DeVon Smith was self-published shortly before Smith’s death in 2003; we’ve never found a copy to read.] I feel like I lucked into documenting something that’s important regardless of how many people know about it but people at AVAM are the niche audience for sure. I think it goes back to your suggestion and AVAM’s interest in DeVon, which you were aware of, that sparked this whole thing.

artist DeVon Smith talking in front of his home in Wampum, PA, 2001

“Willing to tell us his whole story,” DeVon Smith

Postscript: We hipped journalist Julie Mickens to DeVon’s story around this time and she wrote a terrific piece for Pittsburgh City Paper called “DeVon Inspiration.” That May, 2001 article is sadly not available in CP‘s online archive, but Mickens’ obituary for DeVon Smith, from June 12, 2003, is.


David Craig is a writer, filmmaker, musician, and runs our sister blog The Portland Orbit. All video still photos provided by David Craig.

Barbie’s Dream Cult

collection of Barbie dolls displayed on chain link fence in the sunshine

Fun in the sun. A handful of the hundreds of dolls in Barbie’s Dream Cult, Polish Hill.

If you were a kid that played with dolls and ever wondered whatever happened to them, now we know. They ended up here, on an overgrown former basketball court in Polish Hill.

Barbie dolls are everywhere[1]. Placed into tree branches and tied to fencing, dangling from a basketball hoop and performing headless yoga in the buff. They appear in clustered groups large enough to field a sports team and as loners cast off into the mud. Some look joyful–in relaxed repose, absorbing the morning sunshine–others have been abused and contorted, stripped bare and dismembered.

And then, rising from the twisted, haphazardly-tossed little bodies at the rear of the space, is the motherlode. At least a hundred dolls–probably more–forming the shape of a giant Valentine’s heart across a wide section of chain link fence.

large number of Barbie dolls hung on a chain link fence in the shape of a heart

Big love. The heart at the center of Barbie’s dream cult.

“Part Marwen, part Jonestown Massacre,” was artist Lisa Valentino‘s brief description after coming across the collection of Barbies on one of her WATSOP (Walk All the Streets of Pittsburgh) hikes. That enticing teaser, plus a handful of photos, was all it took to send the Orbit on a mad dash to see for ourselves.

You could accurately call this little out-of-control diorama a Pink Plastic Crime Scene or maybe Return to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s both the oxymoronic street art in the woods and an exploded American fantasy. Ultimately, between the Druidic imagery of The Wicker Man and the visions of The Peoples Temple, Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate lingering in the cranium, we settled on Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Welcome-to-the-Cult Hostess Barbie

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence with wooden hex symbol

High Druid Priestess Barbie

Barbie has done a lot of things in her 60+ year history. Why, the Mattel Corporation is not so tone deaf here in the 21st century as to ignore expanding their flagship brand into all manner of dress-up outfits. One can now purchase Barbie the trial judge, astronaut, entomologist, astrophysicist, and robotics engineer. On her time off from drilling cavities and performing root canals at the dentist’s office, Barbie, D.D.S., enjoys beekeeping, pet-grooming, baseball, art, and tending chickens in the backyard. The list goes on and on.

That’s all great … but none of these focused, career-minded young ladies ended up here. No, among the hundreds of dolls scattered about, we spotted exactly one roller-skater, one Jazzerciser, and one apparent employee of Pizza Hut wearing a cropped t-shirt and miniskirt combo that almost certainly fails to meet the restaurant chain’s dress code.

Despite the wide array of careers and avocations Barbie is now free to pursue, the cult clearly appeals most to a more conservative–or, at least, traditional–young lady, almost entirely white and blonde, whose sartorial preferences lean toward pink party dresses and formal evening gowns[2].

dolls dressed in Pizza Hut shirt and roller skater gear

Sent-Home-With-a-Warning Barbie / Roller Skater Barbie

collage of Barbie dolls in fancy dresses

Formal dress Barbies

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that these are just plastic dolls that happened to end up the way most of their fellow children’s toys do: played-with, dropped in the dirt, broken-apart, and left behind. We find them in the street all the time.

That said, it has to be noted that today, in the #MeToo era, the image of so many post-adolescent/not-quite-fully-adult young women, lifeless, often stripped bare, and dramatically discarded in the woods, is somewhere between disconcerting and hardcore creepy. Hopefully you’ve never come across anything like this in real life, but watch any episode of Law & Order or Broadchurch–let alone the evening news–and it will often feature a similar-looking tragic young victim as Plot Point 1.

collage of blond Barbie doll heads on pavement

Heads-a-poppin’ Barbies

Barbie dolls dressed in bathrobe and exercise outfit

Rough Morning Barbie / Jazzercise Barbie

If Jan and/or Dean are still fantasizing over the mythical Surf City’s two-to-one gender ratio, they’ll completely flip their noggins when they arrive at Barbie’s Dream Cult. Kens do make  appearances here–both in the big Barbie art heart and tossed around the premises–but they’re easily outnumbered ten- or twenty-to-one.

If you’re a Ken, that’s the good news. (I guess?) The bad news is the Kens have been brutalized as much as any of the Barbies. Missing limbs, heads, and all/most of their clothes, Kens are found covered in dirt, with their pants around their ankles, buck naked, and frozen into ice. Maybe Surf City was a better plan after all.

collage of Ken dolls resting on dirt

Hey, ladies! Pants-Around-the-Ankles Ken / Which-Way-to-the-Phish-Concert Ken

collage of Ken dolls frozen in an icy creek

What a way to go. Two versions of You-Messed-with-the-Wrong-Barbie Ken

The obvious question: what are all these Barbie dolls doing here? For this we need to declare an official Spoiler Alert. We received some insider information, but if you’d rather not know and just let it remain a mystery, feel free to skip ahead.

We were lucky enough to get this short history from a Polish Hill resident, intimately involved with Barbie’s Dream Cult:

The Barbie heart story started originally with a guy in the neighborhood who bought all the Barbies to make an art car. Other people in the neighborhood felt the car was creepy and people started to say things on the Internet insinuating he was some kind of pervert and that they wished him harm. So, the gentleman took the Barbies off his car and well, what else do you do with that many Barbies? He graciously donated them to the abandoned courts.

In the beginning they were all in bags and rubber tubs and they sat there for a while. I took em out to write my name in Barbies and photograph it. Since then, they’ve been getting thrown all over the place. The heart was made by another human who wanted to remain mysterious about its origins and meanings.

collage of broken dolls found in the woods

Headless Yoga Barbie / Arm-Where-It-Shouldn’t-Be Ken / Whole-Lotta-Pink-Hair Barbie / Half-a-Horse

Barbie dolls placed in thick vine wood

Run for your life! Escape-While-You-Still-Can Barbies

Now, it’s probably safe to say that not everyone in the neighborhood considers leaving bags of Barbie dolls outside for public dismemberment is a “gracious donation.” From our vantage point, though, it’s an intriguing opportunity.

We can think of a lot worse things than this little abandoned corner of Polish Hill becoming a kind of ever-changing Barbie art park, outdoor creative space, or just another weird Pittsburgh thing to discover. It could also be a one-of-a-kind, no-questions-asked Barbie lending library: Need a Barbie? Take a Barbie. Have a Barbie? Leave a Barbie.

Barbie doll placed in a tree branch

Footloose, fancy-free, and hanging in a tree Barbie

Barbie takes a lot of well-deserved heat–for her does-not-exist-in-nature body proportions, reliably Aryan features, and dress-up-and-look-pretty career goals. This is a chance to counter that–to take a tiny amount of the world’s Barbies and do something new and innovative with them.

The last thing Marine Biologist Barbie or Wildlife Conservationist Barbie want is for the mountain of molded pink plastic the Mattel Corporation has brought into the world to end up casually thrown out, minced up, and washed out to sea for an even larger Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the real doctrine of Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Naked and not ashamed. Nudist Colony Barbie


[1] We’re using the names Barbie and Ken generically here. The dolls likely come from many different sources and are not necessarily all Barbie® brand toys.
[2] In fairness, many of the dolls have been stripped of all clothing, so it’s impossible to establish if these may have originally worn different outfits.