Coker’s Gold: Art Sheds of the Wizard of Perry South

large metal shed painted in elaborate abstract panels
One of two sheet metal work sheds painted by the artist Coker, The Wizard of Perry South

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.

colorful abstract designs painted on metal shed panels
J-E-S-U-S, gold. Detail, Shed 1
colorful abstract designs painted on metal shed panels
Stars and bars. Detail, Shed 2

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.

colorful abstract designs painted on metal shed doors
Notation for an impossible score. Detail, Shed 1
colorful abstract designs painted on metal shed doors
C-O-K-E-R. Detail, Shed 1

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.

colorful abstract designs painted on metal shed panels
Gold stars. Detail, Shed 2
large metal shed painted in elaborate abstract panels
Shed 1, south profile

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.

metal shed painted with tributes to Barrack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marvin Gaye, George Benson, and the text "gin & juice"
Tributes to Barrack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marvin Gaye, George Benson, and gin & juice
Tribute to Frankie Beverly & Maze on metal shed doors
“Man Swamp”: Tribute to Frankie Beverly & Maze
painting of King Kong on metal shed
King Kong
painting of Donald Trump on metal shed with sign reading "Fake news scum-bag"
“Fake news scum-bag”
painting of downtown Pittsburgh skyline on wood panel on front porch of small house
Outside art / Pittsburgh skyline

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.

brick row house painted gold and silver
House Coker
abstract mural painted on masonry wall
Mural, House Coker (detail)

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.

large metal shed painted with elaborate abstract designs and text "Coker"
An arrow to the aether. Shed 2 profile

Send In The Crones

street art sticker in shape of heart with word "Crone"
Love is for us old people, too. A “Crone” heart, Lawrenceville

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.

large hand-created sticker with words "Aging is Sexy"
Read the news: aging is sexy. Lawrenceville

… 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.

large hand-created sticker with word "Crone"
Crone crystal, Oakland

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.

sticker on post reading "Menopause is hot"
Menopause is HOT, Lawrenceville

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.

large hand-created sticker with word "Crone"
Crimson crone crystal, Lawrenceville

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:

large hand-created sticker with words "Aging is Sexy"
A(g)ing is Sexy, Bloomfield

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.

large heart-shaped hand-created sticker with word "Crone"
Crone, Bloomfield

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.

large hand-created sticker with word "Menopause"
Menopause, Bloomfield

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.

large hand-created sticker with word "Menopause"
Menopause, Deutschtown

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.

large hand-created sticker with word "Menopause"
Menopause, Bloomfield

The Blight Stuff: Nathan Van Patter’s “Bound by Blight”

Artist Nathan Van Patter with a sculpture of moving truck holding an entire deconstructed house
Artist Nathan Van Patter with his sculpture Moving Day 15104

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 curated wine 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.

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of dilapidated house
North Braddock House 6

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.

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of dilapidated house
North Braddock House 2

“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.”

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter featuring clock, sunshine over house, housing tower, police car, and ambulance
The Nights Are Too Big

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.

painting/sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of blue sky with clouds painted on cracked wooden boards
North Braddock Sky #2 (Cracked Sky)
portrait painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of woman with houses running around his head
Lisa
portrait painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of man with houses running around his head
Sean

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.

sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of police car with fences and street signs growing out of it
Community/Police

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.

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of angels flying over Taco Bell restaurant
Angels Over Taco Bell (with self-portrait at bottom)

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.”

painting/sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of small metal shop
Studebaker Metals
sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of medieval knight on horseback in grocery store
Grocery Knight

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.”

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of medieval knight on horseback
Deer Dragon (detail)

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.

painting/sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of science fiction-like space station made from old buildings
Rust Belt futurism: Space Station 15104
sculptures and paintings in large gallery space
Hope on the Mon River and other pieces from Nathan Van Patter’s Bound by Blight show

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.

More on Nathan Van Patter at his web site nathanvanpatter.com and/or Instagram @nathanvp_art.

Bin There, Done That: Art, Down in the Dumpster

dumpster painted with television test pattern
Kill Your Television! … or, at least, watch it like it was a dumpster. Test pattern dumpster art, Clement Way, Bloomfield

With apologies to writer/poet Eleanor Farjeon:

Art is anywhere, any street, any stair.
Under tires, hung from wires, in a valley, down the alley.
On lonely walls and made from dolls, cleaning teeth and up in trees.
With the car, in the yard, cut from books, with focused looks.
Anywhere! It doesn’t care! Art is anywhere.

O.R. Bête
painting of man's face on dumpster, Pittsburgh, PA
Portrait of man with mustache and monocle, East Liberty

Consider the dumpster. It’s just a big trash can, hauled in when a house is getting gutted, rented out to construction sites, left out back in semi-permanent residence to contain ongoing retail and restaurant waste.

Like garbage bins of any size, dumpsters live brutally utilitarian lives, out of sight and out of mind. I’m guessing the majority of us rarely engage with industrial-grade waste receptacles. Sometimes—like Boyd Roll-Off Services’ breast cancer awareness dumpsters—the big steel bins get a tiny moment to shine. That’s the exception; not the rule.

dumpster with wheatpaste mask-like face
Mask up! Garfield

But, as we’ve already alluded-to in verse, if an object or environment can hold paint, be glued-upon or used to hang things from, performed in or danced-around someone will find a way to turn it into a venue for artistic expression. Big steel dumpsters are no exception … even if the audience for exhibition thereon is almost certainly random, and limited.

dumpster with irregular lettering spelling Waste / Residual / Municipal
Waste / Residual / Municipal (sic.), Poconos

Let’s call the patrons of these al fresco galleries of chance the real deal, seekers, culture vultures. Not content with a curated-by-the-man experience of a trip to The Carnegie or The Warhol, feeling confined by the lower-expectations, but still-commercial ambitions of a first Friday in Garfield, the connoisseur de carnage digs deep behind buildings and circles sidewalk skips looking for that one elusive scribble, one perfect stencil, one perfectly-dripped spray-paint doodle.

Whether you, dear reader, fall into this exclusive, sneakin’ Sally down the alley, pungently-fragrant coterie, know that The Orbit will be there—poking retail backsides, circling the big bins, and capturing this momentary, transitory artwork … before it all gets thrown away.

commercial dumpster painted with orange dinosaur
Trashasaurus Rex, Downtown
rat sticker on dumpster, Pittsburgh, PA
Dumpster rat, Strip District
graffiti stencil of person's face on pink dumpster, Pittsburgh, PA
Stencil face, Shadyside
detail of blue garbage dumpster with partial ad for spaghetti sauce, Pittsburgh, PA
Rizzo’s Spaghetti Sauce, Strip District
Big Wayne/Public Enemy, Lawrenceville
All hands, Glassport
painted graffiti eye on dumpster in alley
Keep an eye out for this dumpster, Bloomfield
large dumpster painted with colorful text reading "RANKIN"
Triton RANKIN dumpster, Garfield
dumpster with graffiti painting of man's head
Our old friend “The Dude,” Deutschtown
dumpster with graffiti drawing of mustached man's head, Pittsburgh, PA
Our old friend “The Dude,” Lawrenceville
graffiti drawing of human skull on exterior of trash dumpster
Big’Skull, Polish Hill
crude graffiti drawing of a skull on the outside of a dumpster
Skull, Sharpsburg
spray-painted smiling bear head on small dumpster
Happy bear, Strip District
commercial dumpster with sticker of Andre the Giant
This dumpster has a posse. Lawrenceville
graffiti alarmed face on commercial dumpster
Oh no! Bloomfield
commercial dumpster with graffiti "We need more black love"
“We need more black love,” Waterworks Mall
pink elephant wheatpaste on commercial dumpster
Pink elephant, Deutschtown
small dumpster with graffiti drawing of man's head
Rope skippin’ dude, Strip District
graffiti drawing of a raccoon in a trash can on commercial dumpster
Justa Trash Panda I, Strip District
graffiti drawing of a raccoon in a trash can on commercial dumpster
Jussa Big Ole Trash Panda II, Lawrenceville
commercial dumpster with graffiti of raccoon in trash can
Justa (trashed) Trash Panda III, Downtown
graffiti drawing of person with coat-hanger hat on commercial dumpster
Coat-hanger hat, Polish Hill
wheatpaste street art on dumpster of heart-shaped face with Xs over eyes
Sometimes love can get you down in the dumpster. Garfield
dumpster with graffiti of man's head and text "I see $ as the root of all people"
“I see $ as the root of all people,” Deutschtown
dumpster with sticker art and graffiti, Pittsburgh, PA
“[Love]? not [love] feelings or confusion about feelings,” Sticker Face I, Strip District
homemade sticker with simple drawing of face on dumpster, Pittsburgh, PA
Sticker Face II, Strip District

In the Land of Giants: An Orbit Day Trip to The Farnham Colossi

large statue of man carrying grocery bags with animal-friendly messages
The great grocer in the sky. One of many enormous figures at The Farnham Colossi in Unger, WV.

If one is ever to meet a giant in real life, let it be like this. Big John greets every new visitor with a friendly smile. John’s big arms spread out to cradle four old-school brown paper sacks brimming with groceries. If that wasn’t enough, the great grocer is animal lover, to boot—we know this from the pro-pets messages printed on the shopping bags and his apron’s message Never eat anyone who had a mother.

At thirty feet tall (just guessing here) Big John is a fiberglass cast statue/advertisement for a retailer that we’ll assume no longer requires his services. The problem isn’t John—he’s in excellent shape. The large form is remarkably free of cracks or dings and the paint job—including that text on the bags and apron—is crisp and detailed.

"muffler man" painted like a lumberjack
Lumberjack muffler man

Colossus is not a word we generally hear in its plural form. Heck, we don’t even use the noun that much; its adjective gets most of the attention. Encountering a single giant is a rare enough occasion, how often does one experience two? or three?

Keep going. Unger, West Virginia has a tiny human population—I’ll bet it numbers in the hundreds—but when it comes to giants, that’s another story.

Unger, an unincorporated rural community just one mile from (regular) Virginia’s northernmost point, likely has the most per-capita giants in the country. They all live on the grounds of an old farmhouse along Winchester Grade Road. Collectively, they’re known as The Farnham Colossi.

large statues of "muffler man" holding muffer, beach man, and bikini lady
King Midas, muffler man (and friends)

The colossi come in many forms—human and otherwise—that spread around three sides of the property. There’s a giant apple painted with a faded mural of apple-harvesting, a colorful crab poised high in the sky, Yogi Bear’s supporting players, and a soaring pterodactyl that flies above a purple barn.

Mister Fifteen Hamburger Man, a rotund chef proudly hoisting a burger, stands in a large lawn with a circular ring of cast concrete statuary. Behind him is a mini roller coaster with one set of cars containing The Simpsons family, another a set of carnival clown game figures.

large statue of painted apple and smaller dog statue
Big apple / faithful friend

The whole thing’s a gas, but the attraction for many will be the exquisite pair of muffler men at Farnham. One is a legit muffler-holding mechanic with a Midas crown, the other appears in full lumberjack flannel, beard, and toque (but no Paul Bunyan axe).

Uniroyal Gal is the Mr. Pibb to Muffler Man’s more name-brand Dr. Pepper. She’s here too, wearing an electric purple bikini and go-go boots. Uniroyal Gal left the tire on the car, this time.

large statue of woman in purple bikini
Uniroyal Gal [photo: Kirsten Ervin]

Both Atlas Obscura and Roadside America have very fine entries on the history of The Farnham Colossi and the couple who seated them all here together, so we’ll not repeat those basic facts.

What we will say is that this part roadside attraction, part open-air museum of the dying history of the highway is a lovely place to visit when one finds him- or herself in the greater Berkeley Springs/Winchester/Cacapon State Park area of West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. Where else can one so easily walk among giants?

section of painted roller coaster cars with clown heads on them
Clown cars / bobblehead Santa
large statue of chef holding a hamburger
Big burger chef [photo: Kirsten Ervin]
large statue of man in sunglasses and swim trunks holding a can of beer
Beach dude [photo: Kirsten Ervin]
statues of characters from "The Yogi Bear Show" in front yard
Yogi Bear has a posse [photo: Kirsten Ervin]
large statue of crab
Sky crab
statue of pterodactyl on tall pole
The colossi are pterrific! Pterodactyl
large statue of Santa Clause toppled on his back
Santa down! [photo: Kirsten Ervin]

From the Wrinkles of the Face to the Interior of the Mind: Navigating Uncharted Waters with Artist Annie Heisey

oil painting of girl in lake by Annie Heisey
“Fathoms” (2020) by Pittsburgh artist Annie Heisey. The painting appears in Heisey’s current show Uncharted Waters.

Red on red. Firey hot, turbulent, scraped, and streaked—the glowing red of the insides of the eyelids after staring at the sun. The world is a dangerous place and we need only this background riot of warm orange-reds, seen-better-days pale pinks, and muddy maroons to remind us of it.

At the center of the oil painting is a woman’s face in ashen pale blues. Her expression is neutral—one could read anything from bored to sad, sleepy, desperate, or haunted into it. The woman’s eyes, though—enlarged, swirling balls of red—make her look transfixed, hypnotized, zombiefied.

Draped atop the figure is surreal cloak in another raft of deep reds. The head of a hound—looking very much alive, minus its lower jaw—with attached forelimbs morphs into a full body covering.

self-portrait oil painting by Annie Heisey with dog draped around the artist like a cloak
“Protector” (2022)

“I’ve never been accused of making myself look too pretty in a painting,” says Annie Heisey of her self-portraits, “And I’m OK with that.”

I am too. “Protector” and its sister self-portrait “Sacrifice” (below) both draw their power from the vulnerability of their subject—her imperfections and fragility. I’ve written in these very e-pages about carrying a lifetime membership in the Fancy Brain Club. I’d offer up these two paintings as Exhibits A and B in the defense of art as an expression of that which words cannot fully describe. Both are featured in Heisey’s current show Uncharted Waters at Curio Cool.

Looking at these two arresting paintings, I immediately identified with the experience. When you’re in the hole, the world feels like that big wall of discordant reds. In this state, a person is always just one misaligned action away from squeezing that delicate starling just a little too tight.

self-portrait oil painting by Annie Heisey with artist holding a bird
“Sacrifice” (2022)

“Like everyone during the pandemic, I was paying more attention to my mental health,” says Annie Heisey about “Protector” and its faithful-companion-as-emotional-shield metaphor. Heisey has two large boxers, one of whom very much acts as a security guard against any perceived threat. “She’s so brave in a lot of ways I wish I was,” Heisey says, “I like the shamanistic idea of wearing animal skins as a protective layer between me and the world.”

“Sacrifice” was inspired by a stained glass image included in this past winter’s Victorian Radicals show at the Frick Art Museum. In it, a woman clutches a bird to her chest in a way Heisey echoes in her self-portrait. “Sometimes I lash out at people,” Heisey says of her painting and the moods that inspired it, “When that happens, I wonder if I kill the things I love?”

oil painting of young boy by Annie Heisey
“Paloma’s Technicolor Dream” (2021)

If you’re familiar with Annie Heisey’s work, you know the magical children (that’s our term). The artist has four recurring youths—the children of her sister and a friend—who appear in states of blissed-out innocence and spellbound wonder throughout many of Heisey’s paintings in both the current show and past.

Often shirtless and alone, the kids are vulnerable in a way that’s hard to not to see as in-peril by our current awareness of stranger danger. Around these children swirl glowing lights and winsome creatures. It’s a rosy-eyed nostalgia for a childhood that may or may not have ever existed for anyone.

oil painting of young boy by Annie Heisey
“Child of the Light” (2022)

To spend any time with these paintings is to see there’s a real darkness beneath all those twinkling fireflies and carefree days at the lake.

In “Fathoms” (photo at top) a girl in a bathing suit wades in knee-deep water as glowing lights dance in the air above. It’s a lovely painting, but it’s no glamor portrait. The girl’s head is awkwardly cropped out of the frame and the vantage point is of someone standing on the shore—the subject clearly not aware of whoever may be watching. The subtlety of this perspective gives the artwork an off-kilter sensation where the girl is not the focus one might expect. Instead the viewer is left to complete a penciled-in narrative with only the slightest of details available.

oil painting of child hanging by arms from limb of gingko tree by artist Annie Heisey
“The Gingko Tree” (2022)

A youth dressed in black from neck to ankle dangles from a tree limb in full autumn splendor. The image likely comes from a playful real life experience, but in Heisey’s “The Gingko Tree,” (above) the figure is set against a pitch black background with the disturbed rustle of falling leaves. With the child’s face and upper torso obscured by yellow foliage, it’s hard not to worry that something more sinister is afoot.

Heisey describes her own childhood as “idyllic,” but wants the paintings to speak to a cautionary reality for children at this tender age. “I want to say to them, ‘This is how you are now—before you grow up. But bad things are going to happen, just like they do for everyone.'”

oil painting of woman surrounded by butterflies by Annie Heisey
“The Butterflies Will Drink Your Tears” (2022)

Heisey has had her own bad things to deal with. The triple whammy of depression, PTSD, and a recent diagnosis of ADHD all make their way into the artwork. Heisey’s painting “The Butterflies Will Drink Your Tears” (above) is an attempt to render the ping-pong attention leaps of the latter as fluttering creatures, beautiful but uncontrollable.

“All the (magical children) paintings are self-portraits,” Heisey says, “A lot of artists use big ideas or philosophy as the basis for their art. My (reference) folder is my brain. All of my paintings are things that happened in my life.”

It doesn’t take Carl Jung to connect the dots between adult-grade trauma and wanting to revisit the safe innocence of an idealized youth—”Big time,” Heisey says of the relationship. Understanding this informs each painting with a depth way beyond its gorgeous palette and economical just enough composition.

abstract oil painting in blue tones by artist Annie Heisey
“Abstract No. 3” (2021)

Amazingly, being a realist painter in the twenty-first century is to be way out-of-step with the art world. Go to the next Carnegie International and I guarantee you’ll see plenty of broken chairs, paint-splattered mattresses, and grainy photographs of eddying mud pools—all served with academic prose that seems designed to make anyone without an MFA hate the art world. Oil portraits that reach deep into souls of everyday people? Notsomuch.

What Annie Heisey achieves with her artwork is daring and exciting. By taking her immense skill as a realist painter and then abstracting color and composition, removing excess detail, and creating space for the viewer to participate by filling in the blanks, we’re invited on a tantalizing journey that takes us from the mundane to the sublime, from the wrinkles of the face to the interior of the mind. Can’t ask for much more than that.

artist Annie Heisey in front of a wall of small portraits
Annie Heisey in her Lawrenceville studio with many faces from the “Experimental Portrait Project” [photo: Annie Heisey]

Uncharted Waters, Annie Heisey’s current show, is up now through the end of the month at Curio Cool, 113 North Main Street, Zelienople.

You can find more on Annie Heisey at her web site, Instagram, or FaceBook Internet locations.

The Art of the Wheel: Master Mechanics, Amateur Painters

hand-painted sign for TNT Monster Mechanic, Beaver Falls, PA
Who wouldn’t want the Tasmanian Devil fixing their timing belt? One of many examples of great auto repair artwork. TNT Monster Mechanic, Beaver Falls

The Tasmanian Devil—all sinister fangs, seething anger, and whirling destruction—seems an odd candidate for the kind of precision work required for automotive repair. But there he is—crazy eyes, giant jaw agape, and squeezed tube of toothpaste body—clutching a box socket in one hand and a crescent wrench in the other on the brick wall of TNT Monster Mechanic in Beaver Falls.

Taz, as the popular Looney Tunes character is sometimes known, has a well-documented following that way outreaches the limited run of his original short cartoons. He’s a famously popular pop icon who exists in a sweet spot between lovable cartoon character and hyper-masculine bad boy who acts first and thinks … never. The podcast Decoder Ring did a terrific episode on tattoos that talked about Taz’ stranglehold on the upper arms of young men. Some of those biceps work on cars.

mural of automobile shock absorbers on brick wall of garage
It’s shocking where you can find great art, but you mustache yourself if you’re really looking. North Side
mural for auto repair shop of two mechanics working on car engine
Blue period. Neal N Tony’s Automotive Repair, Larimer

Auto repair shops are, almost always, structures of pure utilitarian economy. Typically constructed of brick or cinder block and lit by big fluorescent shop lights, they often contain no windows aside from what comes through the office door, garage openings, and the occasional glass block. This leaves a lot of exterior wall space available for decoration.

Most garages are as down-to-basics on the street-facing walls as the buildings that house them are plain … but not all of them. There is a particular phenomenon where mechanics have set down the wrench and picked up the paintbrush (or found others to do so) to elaborately advertise their businesses in ways both humorous and boastful, triumphant and goofy. These murals, 3-D painted cut-outs, and custom airbrush jobs all make up The Art of the Wheel.

handmade artwork of car wheel with fire attached to masonry wall
This wheel’s on fire—even if it’s where birds nest. Hobbs Tire & Supply, Chester, WV
mural of dog's head fused onto speeding wheel
This dog’s rabid … and thankfully still on the chain. Big Dawg’s Performance, Vandergrift

Auto Repair artwork is a gift that just keeps giving. There seem to be piston-packing Picassos and revved-up Rembrandts just about everywhere people drive cars. If you’ve got a favorite we didn’t get to (this time), give us a holler and we’ll bag it for the inevitable sequel.

Until then, keep your foot on the gas and your eyes on the garage walls.

ghost sign of mechanic repairing flat tire
Back when mechanics wore bow ties. Mechanic on Duty/Tires (ghost sign), Homestead
auto tow truck painted with image of cartoon tow truck
(Big Daddy) Henry’s*, McKees Rocks
mural of auto engine on exterior wall of garage
Bernie’s Garage, Polish Hill
painting of large spark plug on cinderblock wall
Plugged-in. Bernie’s Garage, Polish Hill
logo for Transmission Magician of cartoon man in top hat, black suit, and magic wand
Hocus Ford Focus. Transmission Magician (before the building was repainted), Bloomfield
hand-painted sign for German Motor Werks including large gear
Sprockets. German Motor Werks, Strip District
hand-painted sign/mural for Halblieb Automotive
Give ’em the hook! Halbleib Automotive, Hazelwood
hand-painted mural of engine on cinderblock wall
… and the shaft! Halbleib Automotive, Hazelwood
mural on cinderblock wall of 1960s Ford Mustang for Auto Works repair shop
Stay chassis**. Auto Works, Munhall
brick building with advertisements for auto supply shop
(unknown) Auto Supply, Donora
"Auto Parts" sign painted on masonry walllll
Auto Parts, Hill District
mural for All American Transmission Company with company name in giant waving American flag
All American Transmission Co., Millvale
hand-painted sign for Uneeda Tire Co., Beaver Falls, PA
No, YOU need a tire! Uneeda Tire Co., Beaver Falls
"Hydraulic Hoses" sign painted on masonry walllll
Hoses simple. Hydraulic Hoses, Hill District
entrance to mechanic shop including wooden model car
Model Model-T, Sacco’s Automotive Services, Sharpsburg
hand-painted sign for Peck Auto Electric, Logan, Ohio
Peck Auto Electric, Logan, O.
graffiti-style sign reading "Window Tint" on garage
Window Tint, Ambridge
brick auto repair garage with name in painted brick
Zovko’s Garage, South Side
barely readable sign advertising bodyshop
Ghost bodyshop, Lincoln-Lemington

* The artwork for Henry’s feels like a clear homage to the over-the-top cartoon hot rod artwork of Ed “Big Daddy” “Rat Fink” Roth … but maybe it’s just coincidence.
** Yes, the mural for Auto Works, featuring the body of a 1960s Ford Mustang, does not include the chassis.

Attend Me: Collage Dropout in Deutschtown

colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Detail from large collage installation on East Ohio Street, Deutschtown

Attend me, hold me in your muscular flowering arms,
protect me from throwing any part of myself away.

These words, from self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde, are printed and duplicated—silk-screened, most likely—in an ornate, curlicue typeface and accented by fronds of unknown origin.

The cut-out text is layered atop a riot of dozens, hundreds maybe, of other screen-printed elements. Torn paper with the same couplet printed over and over again; images of skulls and boxers, eyeballs and ghostly figures; photographs cut from magazines bedazzled with after-market patterns and paint jobs.

They’re all part of a new(ish) installation on the North Side that, by its very nature, won’t be around for too long. Just like Ms. Lorde, attend it while you can.

colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Collage (detail) including Audre Lorde quotes, Moravian Way
colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Ghost boxer

The 400 block of East Ohio Street has seen its fair share of change, even in just the last few years. Google Streetview reminds us the retail storefront at 404 E. Ohio was Ike’s Barber Shop and then Mosley’s Barber Shop until going vacant in 2015. The larger building at the corner was the old Peanutz Bar & Grill, which closed by 2016. In between the two, Alex’s Ice Cream held on longer, but seems to have become a victim of the pandemic lockdown just two years ago.

The most recent time Google documented the street, in August, 2021, it included another interesting detail. 408-410 E. Ohio hosted a large, double-door-sized collage piece on the temporary plywood covering the entrance. This is unmistakably the work of the same artist(s).

two vacant retail storefronts in disrepair
406-410 East Ohio Street, most recently Alex’s Ice Cream and Peanutz, in August, 2021 [photo: Google Streetview]

As observers, curiosity-seekers, speculators, we naturally look for meaning and theme when a piece this elaborate is exhibited—and there is plenty to work with here, if that’s your bag. Black icons Jack Johnson and Audre Lorde are an obvious entry point as are reverent photos of everyday folks and revolutionaries, updated with kente cloth, polka dots, and leopard skin patterns.

There’s also plenty of grim, foreboding imagery here. The repeated use of skulls, a menacing monster-like figure with its giant jaw agape, what may or may not be a nuclear blast, and the Virgin Mary in a hostage-taker’s ski mask.

colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront

We’ll not make the mistake of assigning any specific message to the collection. The artist (or artists)—there is no attribution on any of the pieces that I could find—kept themselves anonymous (although, we have our suspicions). So there’s no one to go to for clarification, which is fine.

Update (March 19, 2022): Following initial publication of this story, Pittsburgh Orbit was informed that the artists involved are Quaishawn Whitlock, Bekezela Mguni, and Darrell Kinsel. The three have a current show called Alchemical, created as part of their residency at AIR: Artists Image Resource on nearby Foreland Street.

colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Collage (full), Moravian Way

Whether we’re supposed to think anything at all about a stirring work, heavy on the iconography, or just enjoy the blast of layered color from a voracious screen-printer cleaning out his or her workspace is missing the point.

Someone created this, and it’s beautiful. It’s also unexpected, fun, head-scratching and gets us out of our heads and into the world. It’ll also be gone before you know it. The wheatpasted paper is already peeling at the corners and between unpredictable Pittsburgh weather and a property manager trying to rent the spaces, the whole thing will disappear before you know it.

Protect me from throwing any part of myself away feels like it might be a way of life for whoever did this. Embrace the piece by holding its visage in your muscular flowering arms, err … thoughts, dreams, and travels.

colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
The noses know this
colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Mind/blown
colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Mary Maskstillon
colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Collage installation at 406 East Ohio Street

Skyline Times Nine, Part 2: Signs, Designs, and Outlines

sign for Pizza Burgh including logo with slice of pizza and Pittsburgh skyline
Pittsburgh: the city with gray skies and extra toppings. Pizza Burgh sign/logo including the skyline of downtown Pittsburgh, Munhall

Sweet Jesus! How much more can we say on the evergreen topic of Pittsburgh’s downtown skyline getting stylized, abstracted, and turned into commercial art? If we didn’t run out of things in last week’s post (about murals), then we most certainly did if you go back to the previous eight editions of skyline roundup preceding it.

Finding skylines out in the wild and collecting photographs of their many representations is still a labor of love slash limitless egg hunt. Writing about them—again—is like describing the contents of one’s sock drawer. There’s just not that much (more) to say.

So we’ll keep this extra short and get you onto what Orbit faithful have been pining for: graphic representations of downtown Pittsburgh on food trucks and banks, law offices and pizza boxes. Keep warm, be safe, and look up.

Strictly Pittsburgh board game box with illustration of downtown Pittsburgh
Empire City. Strictly Pittsburgh board game, c. 1979, Hoechstetter Printing Company, Inc.
decal on food truck including downtown Pittsburgh skyline with fork, knife, and spoon
A city ready to eat. PGH Halal Truck
window decal for Evo's Sports Bar featuring silhouette of downtown Pittsburgh
Black-and-gold city. Evo’s Sports Bar, Charleroi
sign for Gateway Cafe including silhouette of downtown Pittsburgh
Sunset City. Gateway Cafe, Downtown
window decal for law firm including stylized image of downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Little big skyline against big little skyline. Shadyside
logo for 3 Rivers Brick Pointing including skyline of downtown Pittsburgh
The city with loose mortar and giant masons. 3 Rivers Brick Pointing
signage for food truck including densely-packed depiction of downtown Pittsburgh buildings
Dense City (not). Romeo’s Eat N’ Roll food truck
food truck painted with skyline of downtown Pittsburgh
Southern City (not). Walter’s Southern Kitchen, Lawrenceville
van for Vintage Church featuring silhouette of downtown Pittsburgh
A God-loving City. Vintage Church, Mt. Washington
sign board featuring downtown Pittsburgh skyline
An over-the-hill city. Overhill Lane, Strip District
City Co. Federal Credit Union window decal featuring silhouette of downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Block City. City Co. Federal Credit Union
box truck with background silhouette of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Garden City. Grounded/Neighborhood Allies PGH Mobile Toolbox, Larimer
window decal for Float featuring buildings from the downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Sensory Deprivation City. Float, Shadyside
door sign featuring digitized image of downtown Pittsburgh skyline
8-bit City. 1 Live Radio, Marshall-Shadeland
pizza box including logo of downtown Pittsburgh skyline
City of the original cheesy bread. Giovanni’s Pizza & Pasta
sign for apartment building including Pittsburgh skyline
City of the rising sun. Skyline Terrace, Hill District
logo for Pittsburgh Plumbing and Sewers including skyline of downtown Pittsburgh in a crescent wrench
The city with a leaky faucet. Pittsburgh Plumbing and Sewers
mobile performance stage with silhouette of downtown Pittsburgh skyline
All outlines, no filler. City mobile stage, Schenley Park
decal for Restoration City. Pittsburgh Restoration & Construction Services, Inc. on pickup truck door
Restoration City. Pittsburgh Restoration & Construction Services, Inc.
logo for Pittsburgh CitiParks including downtown skyline
Parks in the front; buildings in the back. Park/City. CitiParks logo
sticker for the Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books including stylized version of downtown Pittsburgh skyline
A downtown bookended by bridges … and books. Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books
logo for medical marijuana dispensary including downtown Pittsburgh in rainbow
Rainbow City—now with medical marijuana! Maitri Chevy
logo for City of Bridges High School featuring silhouette of downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Black-and-gold city, City of Bridges High School, East Liberty
logo for Kerpec Management including downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Glowing City. Kerpec Management, Oakland

Skyline Nine Times, Part 1: Let’s Talk About Murals

detail of mural depicting stylized downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Bright lights, mid-sized city. Mural depicting downtown Pittsburgh … or, at least, PPG Tower is represented, Uptown

Tall towers thrust skyward into a night sky lit up in aurora borealis-like technicolor fantasia. The buildings, black in darkness but each lit from hundreds of glowing window insets, cant in wild directions with the hyperextended angularity of so much German expressionism.

The painting covers a full exterior wall on a little building on Gist Street, Uptown. Whether or not it’s supposed to represent downtown Pittsburgh is questionable, but with the spiky spires of PPG Tower clear in the foreground the mural must at least be inspired by its host city.

mural on brick wall with downtown Pittsburgh skyline and the Eiffel Tower
The Paris of Appalachia. Frenchi’s, Oakland

Like tribbles, vape shops, and yes, Omicron cases, art and design representations of downtown Pittsburgh’s skyline seem to mutate and regenerate at an exponential rate. Why this, our ninth story on the subject, had so many new skylines collected in just the last few months that we’re breaking the recent arrivals into two parts.

This then is Part 1: Let’s talk about murals where we get down with original artistic creations painted directly to brick, cinderblock, and plaster (plus one “outside art” painting). Next week, we’ll be back with Part 2: Designs, Signs, and Outlines.

Until then, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the skyline.

detail from mural featuring downtown Pittsburgh in shades of purple
Erotic City I. Strip District
Mural of downtown Pittsburgh with monkeys holding wrenches
Erotic City II (with monkey mechanics!). Apex Auto, South Side
Mural of Gulf Tower on rounded brick wall
If you have to pick just one skyline element… Gulf Tower, Strip District/Downtown
detail from mural featuring downtown Pittsburgh with jigsaw puzzle pieces
A puzzling city. Uptown
mural depicting yellow bridge and downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Revolution City! Spirit, Lawrenceville
mural of yellow bridge and downtown buildings
Roaming City … but parking is reserved for K-2 employees. K-2 Market, Garfield
mural of woman, farm, vegetables, and downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Earth Mother/Vegetable City. East End Food Co-op, North Point Breeze
painting of downtown Pittsburgh skyline on wood panel on front porch of small house
The city that makes a great impression…istic art subject. Outside art, North Side
detail from mural featuring tops of downtown Pittsburgh's tallest buildings
A Strip District view of the city. Strip District
detail of mural including section of downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Green City. Uptown
mural including crude rendering of downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Flood City. Beltzhoover
shipping container painted with mural including Pittsburgh skyline
The city aglow. Mobile stage, Three Rivers Arts Festival
detail from mural featuring downtown Pittsburgh skyline
A sketch of a city. Salem’s Market, Strip District
large mural including skyline of downtown Pittsburgh
The city with a little bit of everything. Manchester