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.

Always + 4EVA: Valentine’s Day Hearts, 2020

deteriorated paper heart stapled to black wall

ing T en Hom Safe, Lawrenceville

If Pittsburgh has a ground zero for human pathos, it may well be at the southeastern edge of downtown, exactly at the point where the “Jail Trail” (aka Three Rivers Heritage Trail) earns its nickname.

There, on the thick concrete supporting The Parkway east and right along the bicycle/walking path, is a stretch of wall surface where loved ones leave messages scrawled in sidewalk chalk for the inmates at the county jail.

The text is reliably heartbreaking, often written in a child’s hand, and is clearly aimed at the missing parent or family member who, incarcerated somewhere on the floors above, may or may not have one of the river-facing windows to actually see what’s been left at ground level outside. Whether or not anyone residing in the big house overhead can actually read these hand-written tributes is beside the point; here, it’s the thought that counts.

chalk written message including two hearts and the message "BM + BM: always + 4EVA"

Recycled heart, BM + BM: always + 4EVA, Jail Trail

One day, we’ll do a full story on this wall as it’s got a zillion tales to tell. Until then, though, we’ve got this pair of artfully-rendered hearts, full of multicolor shading and texture, with circular connecting arrows that echo the message from BM + BM (no snickering!): always + 4EVA.

Depending on one’s relationship status and/or sentimental capacity, Valentine’s Day can be a dicey affair. But from the mass of hearts we run across all the time–red, white, pink, and yellow, spray painted on cinderblock and scrawled on dumpsters, embedded in concrete and taped to electrical boxes–it’s clear there’s a lot of love (or, at least, hoping for it) out there.

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all!

mural by Jeremy Raymer including a heart with keyhole and key

The key to your heart, Lawrenceville [mural by Jeremy Raymer]

heart images made from red and yellow tape on electrical box

Tape hearts, Bloomfield

graffiti image of combined tooth and heart

The rare electric tooth heart, Lawrenceville

sign for Valentines Day heart-shaped pizza at Amato's Pizza, Etna, PA

Heart-Shaped pizza: Amato’s, Etna

graffiti of two hearts with "S+V" written in them

Royal hearts, S+V, Millvale Street Bridge

heart-shaped sidewalk stamp from Allegheny Concrete Co.

Sidewalk heart #1. Sidewalk stamp by Allegheny Concrete Co., Brighton Heights

graffiti hearts painted on sidewalk

Sidewalk hearts #2, North Side

imprint of two hearts in sidewalk cement

Sidewalk hearts #3, Friendship

small painted heart on chunk of concrete

(Ex-)sidewalk heart #4, Friendship

graffiti written on green dumpster with the names "Hesh" and "Paul" in a white heart

Hesh + Paul dumpster heart, Strip District

graffiti painted heart on cinderblock wall

Chemtrail heart, Hazelwood

stencil images of hearts with wings on brick wall

Flying hearts, Bloomfield

large red heart painted on cinderblock wall

Cinderblock heart, East Liberty

small pink heart painted on cement retaining wall

Pink heart, California-Kirkbride

large spray-painted pink heart on garage door

Garage door heart, North Oakland

The Tooth Shall Set You Free! Dental Art, Part 2

mural painted on brick wall for Smiles by Hart dentist office including Pittsburgh imagery, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and the banner message "Brush, Floss & Be Happy"

Brush, Floss & Be Happy, Smiles by Hart mural by Tim Engelhardt, North Oakland

We watched it go up, day-by-day over a couple weeks in November. The new mural, painted by artist Tim Engelhardt on the brick wall of Smiles by Hart’s Centre Ave. office, appeared like an Orbit photo fantasy. It’s got a little bit of everything: sports team logos, greatest hits from the Pittsburgh skyline, a trio of red Valentine’s Day hearts, floating red lips, and the not-quite-what-you-were-looking-for life advice to Brush, Floss & Be Happy.

While the new painting fits all these categories, the most powerful graphic expression comes from the dentist’s office-specific inclusion of a dozen toothbrushes and half as many oozing tubes of what appear to be cadmium white oil paint … but in this context, we can probably assume as toothpaste.

The whole collection is set just so, arranged to form the meta image of a pair of giant disembodied wings. The painting seems to suggest that through a healthy regimen of dental hygiene, we may all be lifted into the aether. The tooth, the mural seems to say, shall set you free.

orthodontist sign with stylized images of teeth straightening, Richard J. Dahar, Avalon, PA

Pop art orthodontist: Richard J. Dahar, D.M.D., Avalon

Who knew? Lurking amongst the quaint, prewar housing, protestant churches, and discount retail in the near western suburbs lies a hotbed of the dental arts. Mere blocks from each other along Bellevue/Avalon’s main drag, reside four different professional offices engaged in a kind-of arms race of the teeth.

The sign for orthodontist Richard J. Dahar’s Avalon office (above) features a four-panel sequence of technicolor abstracted lips, teeth, and braces that clearly apes the super-saturated, square-format repetition of Andy Warhol’s silkscreens.

Just down the road, Bellevue Dental Associates have opted for a more classical design featuring the odd image of five figures engaged in what feels like a pagan ritual (below). The multi-color people hold hands to form a wide ring surrounding a bulbous tooth the size of a Hyundai. While a regular visit to one’s dentist is certainly good practice, this level of tooth worship may be taking it too far.

ornate sign for Bellevue Dental Associates with people forming ring around giant tooth

Ring around the root canal: Bellevue Dental Assoc.

dentist sign with stylized teeth in multiple colors, Bellevue, PA

Micucci can clean dirty teeth, but not dirty minds. Micucci Family Dentistry, Bellevue

awning for dentist John Debonis with tooth-shaped logo, Bellevue, PA

Blue tooth: John Debonis, D.M.D., Bellevue

Beyond greater Bellevue, we located some more of the themes we explored in part 1: glowing, neon tooth outlines, giant graphic silhouettes, abstracted gestural teeth, and one kid-friendly, colorful teeth-cleaning collage.

front window for dentist James M. Eiben with large neon tooth

Neon tooth: James M. Eiben, D.M.D., South Side

neon sign with large tooth for Beaver Dental Arts, Beaver, PA

Neon tooth, too: Beaver Dental Arts

Smile! That’s an order! Advanced Dentistry, Oakdale

stainless steel sign for Three Rivers Endodontics with stylized tooth logo

Silver filling: Three Rivers Endodontics, East Liberty

Sometimes it can feel like a grim world out there–and no one likes going to the dentist–but hats off to all the dental artists making the world a little more colorful, neon-lit, and, yes, toothy. “Brush, floss, and be happy” may not end up a Bobby McFerrin lyric, but there are worse credos to base one’s life on.

logo for Brungo Dentistry including colorful letters made to look like teeth, toothpaste, and a toothbrush

Brungo Dentistry, West View


See also: Incisor Edition: Dental Art (part 1), Pittsburgh Orbit, Aug. 5, 2018.

A High Five for the Skyline

mural by Baron Batch depicting cartoonish, colorful version of downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Real skyline above, fantasy skyline below. Dirty Franky’s Laundromat, Beltzhoover. [mural by Baron Batch]

You’d think the city would eventually run out of artist depictions and graphically deconstructed interpretations of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline. But … you’d be wrong.

No, four years on and five posts into the series, it feels like we’re just getting started cataloging every time we see clustered renderings of PPG Place, US Steel tower, the Highmark needle, bridges on either side, etc. That first story, from January, 2016, had a mere five examples in it. Looking back, our editors hang their heads low at this naively pathetic early offering–nowadays, we can bag that many skylines in a good weekend!

P*Town Bar sign including the Pittsburgh skyline

Silhouette city. P*Town Bar, North Oakland.

We must have walked/driven past the provocatively-named P*Town Bar on Baum Blvd. a zillion times, but have you ever really looked at the backlit, multicolor sign out front? It’s a perfect silhouette of downtown Pittsburgh’s tallest buildings forming an artful lineup against a pure white background. While it’s questionable that you’d get a vantage point to see these tall buildings in this exact arrangement, P*Town clearly gets an A+ for showing off city skyscrapers in all their glory.

It’s not alone. From Tow-tegrity’s giant hauling hook about to decapitate PPG Tower to the ambitious cyclist scaling the roof of Gateway Center for Bike the Burgh Tours, this batch of Pittsburgh city-scapes is almost entirely commercial in nature. Hey–it still took a (graphic) artist to put them together.

logo for Tow-Tegrity towing service including the Pittsburgh skyline and giant hook

Hooked on the skyline. Tow-Tegrity, Inc. “Towing with Integrity,” New Brighton.

If you’re going to include skyline imagery and call your business or organization Pittsburgh this or Steel City that or River City the other, you might as well go all-in with a patriotic color scheme.

This time around, there are plenty of signs rendered in Pittsburgh no-brainer black-and-gold.

logo for Pittsburgh Sheds N'At including the Pittsburgh skyline

Skylines N’At. Pittsburgh Sheds N’At, Gibsonia

black and gold logo for Steel City Cutting & Coring including city skyline

Pixelated Picksburgh[1]. Steel City Cutting & Coring.

black and gold logo for River City Church with three iconic downtown Pittsburgh buildings in silhouette

Skyline reduced to three buildings. River City Church, Swissvale.

logo for 412 Properties including the Pittsburgh skyline

412 Properties, Lawrenceville

sign for Bike the Burgh Tours with a bicycle rider on a silhouette of the Pittsburgh skyline

If you thought the complaining about bicycle lanes was bad now, check out this new plan. Bike the Burgh Tours, downtown.

waste bin plaque including the Pittsburgh skyline

A most livable skyline. City waste bin plaque.

Pittsburgh skyline on side of Ford truck with the message "the Official Truck of the Pittsburgh Penguins"

Pucks over Pittsburgh! Ford, the Official Truck of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

window painting of Pittsburgh skyline

Skyline looking south. Northside Community Development Fund, Deutschtown.

Of course, not every establishment felt the need to go with the de rigueur color scheme. Pittsburgh skyline logos also come in green and white; red, white, and blue; teal and violet; and green and blue.

No judgement here. These businesses are staking their claim as hometown products of Pittsburgh and should be rewarded for their effort. Hats–and in the case of The Cricket, lots of other garments–off to all of these places. This fifth time around, they all get a high five for the skyline.

painted sign for Cricket Lounge including skyline of downtown Pittsburgh

Even naked ladies like the Pittsburgh skyline. Cricket Lounge, North Oakland.

sign for Pittsburgh Community Services including the Pittsburgh skyline

Sci-Fi Sky. Skyline meets triangle + boomerang modern astral ring. Pittsburgh Community Services, Inc., Oakland.

logo for Pittsburgh Cares with caricature of the Pittsburgh skyline as fingers in a hand

Skyline as helping hand. Pittsburgh Cares, Lawrenceville.

blue and green logo for Greater Pittsburgh Real Estate Services featuring stylized version of downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Skyline as bar chart. Greater Pittsburgh Real Estate Services.

painting of downtown Pittsburgh at night

Skyline as public art. Irwin.

sticker on urinal with image of downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Hygiene City. Enviro-Master Total Hygiene Systems[2]. [photo: Lee Floyd]

neon sign for Welcome Pittsburgh including part of the downtown skyline

Neon skyline. Welcome Pittsburgh, downtown.


[1] While Steel City Cutting & Coring wears their hometown bona fides right in the company name and color scheme, this heavily-abstracted graphic may be a true Pittsburgh skyline, but it could also just be some generic city-like thing. We have to include it, though.
[2] Enviro-Master is a national company, based in Charlotte, NC. It’s unclear whether the small logo, featuring three buildings and an angled gesture, are part of the corporate identity or local branding. [I couldn’t locate the same image–or any company logo–on their web site.] Regardless, it looks enough like a nod to downtown Pittsburgh and the Point that we’re counting it.

Send in the Clohns: John Lee, The Cardboard Caravaggio

street art painting of figures with distorted faces and captions saying "All things are yours"

All things may be yours…but you can’t always take them home with you. Painting/wheatpaste by John Lee (aka “Clohn Art”), Munhall, 2016

January 1, 2016. This blogger has no particular memory of what was going on that New Year’s Day nearly four years ago, but the photographic record doesn’t lie. We shot a series of ghost pizzerias and No Parking signs at scenic locales from Homestead down, around, and over the river to Glassport.

The most intriguing find of the day, however, came calling out from the inside of a rusty metal shed along East 8th Avenue in Munhall. Completely open to the street, the little three-walled steel shack appears to be either an artifact of the area’s industrial past or a larger-than-average bus shelter–perhaps both. Either way, its open-to-the-public opportunity and hidden-from-the-cops privacy make the little lean-to an easy target for graffiti.

street art painting of woman with three eyes, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown, 2016

This piece was different, though. No mere copycat tag or delinquent’s de rigueur spray-painted wang, what caught the eye was a legit original artwork. The painted was rendered in bright acrylic color on thick brown packaging paper and applied directly to an interior wall of the shelter.

The subjects are three cartoonish human-like figures, their facial features randomly shuffled out of order. Eyes are stacked one on top of the other under a single brow; elongated oversize noses are lifted and askew; pursed graphic lips are highlighted like an offset print job.

The metal enclosure even makes its way into the artwork. Random rust spots permeate the unpainted surfaces of the wheatpasted paper media giving the three faces pockmarked or freckled blotches across their skin and through the bare sections of background. Each person has a word bubble with the same arch message: all things are yours. (See photo, top.)

street art paintings of man with five eyes and panda bear

Shadyside, 2017

The Munhall painting wasn’t the first piece we’d come across attributed to the cryptic Clohn Art–there had been a couple earlier finds along Penn Avenue (see photos, below)–but it was the one that put all the pieces together and it still remains a favorite.

After that, the floodgates seemed to open just briefly as we spotted more Clohn Art all over: a series of animal paintings on Chinese restaurant placements in an alley downtown; a three-eyed, green-haired woman fused to plywood; stray blue period paintings on the back of a Shadyside garage. And then … it all stopped.

street art painting of woman with three eyes, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown, 2016

street art painting of rhinoceros, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown, 2016

John Lee (aka Clohn Art) (it’s pronounced clone; not the way Pittsburghers say clown) is a hard guy to get on the horn–and it wasn’t for lack of trying! Three full years after initially getting shot down, in comes the most welcome–if apropos of nothing–comment on an otherwise unremarkable Orbit Instagram post. The artist is ready to come in from the cold and he’s just decorated Second Avenue in Hazelwood with a new batch of paintings.

street art painting of wise men with Christmas gifts, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville, 2015

street art painting of four people with missplaced eyes, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield, 2014

“There’s a quote, ‘Writers write,’*” John Lee tells me, “so I figured that painters paint. I should be painting.”

And paint he does, usually six days a week at his Lincoln Place home studio, churning out artwork on a variety of recycled media: packing paper, placemats, plywood, and flattened cardboard boxes. There are so many paintings that they need to go somewhere, and that includes the tasteful redecoration of underused buildings–here in Pittsburgh and wherever Lee travels.

“With cardboard art you always have an outlet,” Lee says, “It’s the most respectful form of street art–you’re not really damaging anything.” Lee prefers to staple his cardboard paintings to the plywood covering windows and doors of abandoned/unoccupied buildings, though he’s also used wheatpaste to effectively glue paper artworks directly to wall surfaces. The results will still wash or peel away eventually, but they last a little longer.

street art painting of totem pole of various animals on cardboard

totem pole, Hazelwood, 2019

street art painting of polar bear in a brown dress suit on cardboard

Hazelwood, 2019

John Lee’s art has a couple common subjects: people–often with their facial features irregularly rearranged–and animals. You’ll also find a blending of the two as the series in Hazelwood included: a panda’s head on human body wearing a brown suit; a cat-man in pajamas; a person in western wear with a bird’s head costume. “You don’t know,” Lee says of the ambiguity in man-beast representation, “They could be anything.”

Other oft-repeated motifs include a sort of jointless free-floating position in the slender bodies–arms and legs extended, folding, and curved backwards in a kind of weightless space yoga–and stiff, awkward hands as if the characters are just forming their first words in sign language or attempting to flash caricatures of gang symbols.

street art painting of cat in pajamas on cardboard

cat’s (in) pajamas, Hazelwood, 2019

street art painting of bird wearing jeans and western-style shirt on cardboard

bird of the West, Hazelwood, 2019

In several instances, John Lee has set up what he calls the Honor System Art Gallery. Beyond just street art, the typically-smaller, often framed artworks are bundled together at a common location with instructions to Take one art work now and then pay (what you like). Details on purchasing via various app-based electronic payment systems is included.

artist John Lee (aka "Clohn Art") installing Honor System Art Gallery, Pittsburgh

John Lee installing the Honor System Art Gallery, Garfield

… and, because we didn’t have a “real” gallery show or other public event to hang this story on, John Lee suggested he set up a new Honor System Art Gallery just for the occasion.

That went up two days ago on the rough plywood of a condemned building on Penn Avenue in Garfield and I’m here to tell you it looks great. It’ll be a heartbreaker to see those little paintings disappear–however that happens–because they are such an obvious civic improvement to the old boarded-up Heavenly Cuts storefront. But … John Lee would also love for you to have a piece of his artwork displayed somewhere in your life.

artist John Lee (aka "Clohn Art") with Honor System Art Gallery, Pittsburgh

John Lee with a brand new Honor System Art Gallery, Garfield

An earlier “gallery” Lee set up on a chain link fence in Seattle currently holds the record for the best response/most (financially) appreciated artwork. So, c’mon Pittsburgh! We can’t let those latté-sniffing West Coast jagoffs hold a title over our (adopted–John Lee is originally from Albuquerque) home town guy! Get your keister to Garfield and buy a piece of street art!

street art painting of deer with large antlers on cardboard

Hazelwood, 2019

John Lee can be located online via the @clohncount Instagram account, clohnart.com web site, and clohn Patreon page.


* Best as we can tell, the quote is by Ralph Keyes and goes, “Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.”

Lest We Forget: One Year On

large portrait of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

Portrait of Bronia Weiner (b. Romania, 1919). One of 60 large-scale photographs of Holocaust survivors in Luigi Toscano’s “Lest We Forget” project, Oakland

It is almost what you might call a Mona Lisa smile. The face on the canvas is warm, but contains a hundred years of ups and downs, tragedy, triumph, and vigor—at least, that’s what we’re seeing. The woman’s emerald green eyes stare straight back at you. Her white hair is cut short and styled—or maybe it just goes this way naturally—in a loose wave that would look fashionable on a woman a quarter her age.

But it is the upturned curl at the corner of the woman’s mouth that gives her away. This cheshire grin suggests no matter how much heartache she may have experienced, there is an indomitable human spirit alive, well, and ready to release an outrageous tall tale with joyous laughter.

Bronia Weiner is a Holocaust survivor and it is no accident that her portrait is on public display here in Pittsburgh, now.

Robert (Bob) Behr (b. Berlin, Germany, 1922)

A partnership between The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh has brought German-Italian photographer Luigi Toscano’s project Lest We Forget (or Gegen das Vergessen in the original German) to Oakland.

The installation features 60 large-scale color photo portraits mounted on semi-translucent screen. Designed for outside exhibition, the photos, stretched on big wooden frames, line the broad walkways between The Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel. Additional portraits are indoors at The Carnegie Museum and Chatham University library.

large portrait of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

Shulamit Bastacky (b. Vilnius, Lithuania, 1941)

Up close and in person, the photographs read as the kind of opaque, hiqh-quality prints that one might find on art gallery walls. From any distance, however—especially on a bright sunny day—the fine mesh of the media allows background elements to bleed through the images.

The lush green of the Cathedral lawn colors a sun-dappled face. Eyeballs pop out from university infrastructure. Cloud-like white hair disappears into arching tree limbs, autumn leaves, and blue sky.

large portrait of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

Sofija Goljand (b. Perejaslaw-Chmelnyzkyj, Ukraine, 1924)

We have no idea if this was the intended artistic effect or just a simple accident of the medium. Either way, the result is a beautiful and haunting way to portray these elder survivors and simultaneously address the mortality all of us inevitably wrestle with.

Toscano’s subjects range in age from their late 70s to 100 years old. Their time here—like all of ours—is limited. As these rich, detailed photographs dissolve into the wider landscape, it’s impossible not to think of the dust-to-dust return to the earth that will claim us one way or another.

large portraits of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

“Lest We Forget” portraits near Heinz Chapel

As of today, it’s been exactly one year since a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue and committed an act of hate-filled violence that will forever affect every Pittsburgher.

With the Lest We Forget portraits, it is impossible not to see the sad irony that the 60 individuals pictured here survived Nazi concentration camps—not to mention everything else life throws at a person over eight or nine decades—and yet eleven of our neighbors were murdered at a Shabbat prayer service in Squirrel Hill.

large portraits of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

“Lest We Forget” portraits on Cathedral of Learning lawn

Whatever you end doing today—be it attending the Tree of Life vigil or just parked on the couch with a bowl of popcorn—please keep all of these folks in your mind. Better yet, take a walk over to the lovely Cathedral lawn to see the installation for yourself. This remarkable collection of faces, each containing more life experiences than we could possibly know, will help you remember just what you have—and what we all lost exactly one year ago.

large portrait of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

Elena Anfimowa (b. Smolensk, Russia, 1923)

Q: Who Can Take a Rainbow and Make the World Taste Good? A: The Randyland Can

elaborately painted former storefront, now Randyland, in Pittsburgh, PA

All the colors, all the time: Randyland, Arch Street, North Side

Even on one’s second, third, or fourth visit, there is still a lot left to take in. Dangling fruit and topiary flora; psychedelic pattern-over-pattern detail and wooden animals spinning their wings in the breeze; funhouse mirrors elongate space and disembodied mannequin heads make sure someone’s looking out for you at all times.

With all these competing attention-grabbers, what will stay with you most are the colors. The phrase “every crayon in the box” comes to mind–but it’s not quite accurate here. You’ll find no dour grays or bland beiges, nor any ugly browns or heavy black. The colors are more like an exploded rainbow dipped in a dream: big, bright, and bold, fully saturated with no restrictions on theme or palette.

wooden backyard arbor decorated with plastic fruit at Randyland

Arbor fruit and psychedelic stairs

By now, Randyland needs (almost) no introduction. The North Side house of many murals, its open-to-the-public garden art environment, decorated fences, adjoining buildings, and extending-to-the-street pole art have been featured in travel sites, airline magazines, city visitor guides, and a zillion Instragram selfies.

That level of publicity usually takes a location out of our purview … usually. But Randyland is also such a special place–so individual, fun, giving, personal, positive, and, yes, colorful that we also can’t not include it in The Orbit‘s broader map of Pittsburgh’s you need to see this cultural high points. Plus, we’ve been negligent on including a Mexican War Streets story and it’s high time we right that wrong.

map of the North Side of Pittsburgh rendered as 3-D mural at Randyland

3-D Central North Side map (excerpt)

However it happened, Pittsburgh’s North Side ended up with an outsize share of the city’s big name cultural and tourist attractions. The Andy Warhol Museum, National Aviary, Children’s Museum, and Carnegie Science Center are all within (long) blocks of each other, as are the ball parks for both The Steelers and Pirates. The North Side also hosts slightly less name-brand amenities like The Mattress Factory, St. Anthony’s Reliquary, The Hazlett Theatre, Bicycle Heaven, and the newish (but terrificish) Alphabet City. It would be negligent to not mention that that the city’s only casino also ended up on the far “North Shore.” (Sigh.)

direction signs outside Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

All roads lead to Randyland

So it is entirely fitting that Randyland is right here, on Arch Street, at the absolute geographical center of The North Side. This place–both visionary and as grass roots and down-to-earth as they come–seeks to be a welcome beacon to all of Pittsburgh’s disparate citizens, as well as all of her visitors. Those who come to our fair city and ignore the Land of Randy in favor of a roll on the slots or pre-game beers in a parking lot do so at their own peril. You’ve been warned.

handmade welcome signs in many different languages at Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

Section of “The largest international welcome wall in America”

Whether The largest international welcome wall in America can really claim that honor is probably up for debate. Regardless, Randyland has the interior of the Arch Street fence fully decked out with hand-painted arrows that bienvenidosmurakaza nezaüdvözöljük, and haere-mai visitors from around the world into Randy’s little corner of it.

The property’s side shed is well-stocked with shelves full of blanks ready for visitors to decorate with new welcome messages. A sign by the project mentions the creator’s welcome message  “must be your ancestry,” suggesting a United Nations-like visitor count has already made Randyland a stop on their American adventure.

wooden painted cutout of a musician playing a horn at Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

Play, baby, play … and then dream big

Around the east and south sides of Randyland, facing Arch and Jacksonia Streets, are big sections of wooden picket fence. It’s likely the first thing you’ll see after the Randyland pseudo-storefront right on the corner. Like everything else on the property, these are decorated in multiple layers of swirling psychedelic bubbles, little round fish eye mirrors, and spinning whirligigs on off-kilter poles.

Atop all this are a series of life-size, 2-D wooden cutouts of musicians and dancers. Wearing fabulously groovy patterns, caught mid-stride and in full blown-out jam mode, they seem to all be at a swinging good-time party no one would want to miss. Among all the eccentric oddball entries scattered about Randyland, these painted cutout figures are a really incredible collection of work that would stand on its own in any environment.

hand-painted cut-out of man playing long trumpet at Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

Play, smile, laugh, dance, love, believe, grow

Messages painted directly on the figures’ body parts, clothes, and instruments are a not-too-subtle thesis for Randyland writ large. Dream Big, reads the bell of a saxophone; Believe U Can, the inscription on a dancer’s necktie. A cubist trumpeter with a punk rock hairdo implores us to Play, Smile, Laugh, Dance, Love, Believe, Grow. The message on a frenetic dancer’s long flowing dress is simply Be Happy.

metal letters spelling L-O-V-E in sand at Randyland

We IOVF Randyland! Love letters in the sand.

That kind of relentlessly earnest optimism and you-can-do-it positive encouragement is both a rare thing in this age of cynicism and easy to dismiss as hopelessly naive. It may also be a tough nut to swallow for those suffering from a blues that can make tossed-off statements like “be happy” feel like either an insufferably shallow temperature reading or an insurmountable obstacle to achieve in a real world outside the boundaries of Randyland.

art robot with outstretched arms

HUG-BOT 2.0

But…that’s why Randy created the HUG-BOT 2.0–and a garden’s worth of oversize art flowers, goofy takes on where to hang one’s lawn furniture, and how to look at the sky in its mirror opposite. If you can manage to visit Randyland, take your time speculating on the preposterous occasion of a suit of armor with a necktie, giant flies on telephone poles, mannequin heads in sunglasses and lip gloss and still not feel any better about the state of the world, well, you may just need to turn around, look at that wall of arrows one more time, and know that this is a place where you’re always welcome to try again.

collection of mannequin heads wearing sunglasses at Randyland

Here’s lookin’ at you! The future’s so bright, even the mannequins gotta wear shades.


Getting there: Randyland is located at 1501 Arch Street in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood of the North Side. It’s free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to dusk pretty much every day.

Ask the Dust: An Orbit Vacation Postcard from New Mexico’s Roadside Memorials

Taos

There is only one way to drive from El Rito to Abiquiu, in north-central New Mexico. You’ll take state road 554, a curlicued up-and-down route through wild and beautiful country that may as well be another planet for us “back East” folks. Gorgeous mountain views and scrubby desert vegetation join rugged canyons, dry river beds, and dramatic wind-scarred buttes.

What you won’t see much are signs of human existence. Sure, we’re on a two-lane blacktop that someone had to build, but there aren’t any other vehicles on it, nor will you find gas stations, billboards, graffiti, guard rails, or reflectors. You may come across the occasional stand-alone house, a stretch of elevated power line, or barbed wire fencing marking a property boundary, but often, that’s about it.

Pilar

So the memorials that appear with alarming regularity–some dozen or more on the short, sixteen-mile stretch between El Rito and Abiquiu alone–pop from the roadside as the most tender of touches in a landscape otherwise devoid of human intervention. The shapes–vertical and angled in a world of broad horizontals, colored in eye-popping reds, pinks, yellows, and purples found nowhere else around these parts–make the tributes jump from the scraggly earth.

There are some simple wooden crosses, sure, but most of the memorials are unique elaborate displays that include custom ironwork, closely arranged stone formations, photographs, religious dioramas, plastic funeral flowers, garlands, flags, and treasured personal mementos of the departed.

Fabian Lawrence Mata, Ojo Caliente

A little Googling proves that, surprise surprise, Pittsburgh Orbit wasn’t the first to take notice of New Mexico’s descansos, the Spanish term for this tradition. New Mexico Explorer, a kind of NM Orbit, has a nice intro with some good photos and the Albuquerque Journal ran a 2015 piece about Pam and Doug Rietz’ documentation of descansos (but no links to see the pictures!) There are plenty of photo collections out there.

So why cover it here? Well, for one thing, we’ve written about roadside memorials back home a couple of times [see our Memorial Day 2018 and 2019 stories], so the subject is near and dear. Also, we’re jealous–with all due respect to the loving displays on Pennsylvania’s rural routes, New Mexico’s descansos are just so much more–excuse the apparent contradiction–full of life*.  Each one is unique, glorious, heartbreaking, and beautiful in its own way.

And yes, it’s a good way to squeeze vacation for an Orbit story.

El Rito

Abiquiu

Jeffrey Zamora, Ohkay Owingeh

Abiquiu

El Rito

Phil Snow, La Madera

Dylan Romero, Abiquiu

Abiquiu

D.D.H., Rio Grande gorge

Jamie, Hernandez

Juan Mariscal, Abiquiu

Gilberto “Beto” Maestas, La Chauchia

Baldino Elizardo Gomez, Ojo Caliente

El Rito

El Rito

Hernandez

El Rito

Abiquiu

Kenneth and Elmer Martinez, El Rito


* In fairness, though, the relentlessly dry sunny weather in New Mexico naturally elongates the lifetime of a descanso. Pennsylvania’s omnipresent rain and thick humidity, plus winter snow and ice, make all SW PA memorials de facto temporary installations. For what it’s worth, it is also true that New Mexicans die in motor vehicle accidents at greater than twice the rate of Pennsylvanians. [Source: https://www.iihs.org/topics/fatality-statistics/detail/state-by-state]