The Collectors: Mix and Mingle with Kris Kringle, Paul Schifino’s Secret Santas

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Wind-Me-Up Santa, Robot Santa, and Abnormally-Long-Torso Santa are all part of Paul Schifino’s massive collection

It’s about time Santa Claus turned the tables on us. We only have to remember one of him, but His Redness has to keep track of the names, addresses, personal wishes, naughty/nice status, and illegal home invasion strategies for every child on the planet.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
You Could Even Say He Glows Santa

A visit to one particular Lawrenceville row house reveals us mere humans as once again way over-simplifying the wide world of Santadom. Why, there’s not just one Jolly St. Nick! No, here you’ll find Robot Santa and Motor Scooter Santa, Glowing Cologne Santa and Tootsie Santa. They share mantle space with Santa-Wan Kenobi, Light-up Cookie Jar Santa, Wind-Up Articulated Santa, a two-dimensional Pepsi-Pimping Santa, and Santaralli—the nickname a portmanteau of Ol’ Bowl-Full-of-Jelly and the Italian holiday cookie affixed to his tin foil-wrapped belly.

In between, there are kindly Santas, smiling Santas, mischieviously-winking Santas, and slightly-menacing Santas. Tin spinning top Santas rub red-robed elbows with home ec project Santas, crafts-gone-wrong Santas, ceramic Santas, and various sleighs laden not with presents for good boys and girls, but perversely with even more tiny Santas as cargo.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Sad-faced Santaralli and Big Smilin’ Santa

“It’s because I love Christmas,” Paul Schifino tells The Orbit in one of the year’s most explosive revelations. That love started early. “When I was kid, there was this man in our neighborhood, Mr. Mayo, who would dress up like Santa Claus, visit all the houses with children, and every one of us got a toy.”

The artifice of Mr. Mayo attempting to fool the youth of 1960s Carnegie with his dime store red suit and add-on white whiskers mattered not. “I didn’t even care that I was lied to,” Schifino says, “I’m just such a fan of Christmas.”

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Crystal Bowl Full of Jelly Santa

The collecting bug began some forty years ago with a particular figure found at a long-gone Carson Street antique shop. That wind-up Santa, made of molded tin in 1960s Japan, moved in elaborate head-turning, arm-oscillating ways. Paul gave the original to his sister when he recently acquired a superior edition that included the original Merry Xmas sign. [See photo at top.]

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Santas upon Santas

Since then, the collection has grown, and grown, and grown. While this season’s display occupies both surfaces of a big, double-decker mantlepiece and nearby cradenza—let’s say hundreds of Santas—a less-restrained decorator could have taken over the entire house with what remains in the basement archives.

“I have enough Santas to do all of that,” Schifino says, motioning past a pair of big antique curio cabinets and additional shelving, “But I like that these get put away after Christmas and then I bring them out once a year for the holiday.”

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
A bouquet of Santas
detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Blow Your Horn Santa and Big Bunny Santa

It seems every Santa in Schifino’s collection includes an origin story. This little ceramic Santa was handed down from his grandparents, its legs glued back on after after a tragic fall; that one a gift from a neighbor. Some were mini craft projects recycling Santa-themed candy packaging; others were bedazzled by friends who know just who to gift a tiny Santa, wrapped in tin foil, with an ancient cookie strapped to his chest like a suicide bomber with a sweet tooth.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Old-school bobblehead Santa with a basket full of tiny Santas
detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Whole lotta Santa goin’ on

By far, though, the majority of the collection originates in the region’s flea markets, antique shops, and thrift stores. “Most of these cost two or three dollars,” Schifino told us. “Of course I could buy them on the Internet, but that takes all the fun out of it.”

“I buy Santas all year—especially during the off-season,” says Schifino, “The actor Don Brockett—he was Chef Brockett on Mr. Rogers—also collected Santas and when I’d see him at flea markets I’d always try to stay ahead of him so I could get to the Santas first.”

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Santootsie, Scooter Santa, and the gang

Christmas—and the holiday season, writ large—means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it is indeed “the most wonderful time of the year”—but we know that’s not a universal truth. For the rest of us, the emotions that kick in as soon as the days grow dark, the colored lights turn on, and Christmas music takes over the oldies station are much more nuanced.

Santa collector Paul Schifino in front of a portion of his collection
The Most of Christmas Present. Santa collector Paul Schifino with a portion of his Santa collection.

The sentimentality of the season may be the toughest nut for many to swallow. But even for your Bah, Humbug-curious author, seeing this mass of glowing, grinning Santas, lovingly brought out for their once-yearly starring role, is enough to warm the soul.

Each little Santa bears not physical gifts, but memories and imaginations—of who owned these figures before they came into Paul’s collection and how they arrived here, now. They’re souvenirs of Sunday trips to the flea market and mementos of friends and family past and present. That may be Santa’s greatest gift of all.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Glowing church with big little Santas

The Collectors is an Orbit series focused on interesting personal collections and the people who assemble them. If you know of someone with a great collection, please let us know.

See also: The Collectors: KISS and Tell with Bruce Gleason (Pittsburgh Orbit, June 23, 2019)

Automata Transmission: Ken Draim in the Membrane

detail of automata artwork of older sailor onboard ship
Detail from “Unterwasserwelt,” a hand-cranked kinetic artwork created by Pittsburgh artist Ken Draim

The little boat is lifted into the air on a delicate structure of thin poles and wire rigging. You’d swear it was aloft, but for the abstracted waterline letting us know we’re an omniscient third-party able to see the full depth of the craft as it navigates dangerous waters. At the bow is the unmistakable bloodhound jowls of Humphrey Bogart. He’s sporting the exact black hair, thick eyebrows, and three-day stubble we expect. Astern, a fully-coiffed Katherine Hepburn, barely holding in her contempt for the man she’s trusted with her life. A nameplate on the side of the rusty steamship tells us what any classic movie lover already knows—the craft is the African Queen.

large automata sculpture of steam-powered boat from the movie "African Queen"
“African Queen”

Resting on a tabletop, the sculpture is a beautiful objet d’art all on its own. But turn the little crank handle at the side and the whole thing bursts to life. The vessel doesn’t so much rock back and forth, but lurches in the awkward way that passing waves disrupt movement on water, tossing everyone and everything in their way. As this happens, the big engine propeller spins; buoys, bumpers, and trawling nets swing wildly; Bogey and Hepburn’s spring-loaded body parts are given a shake that will require the best chiropractors … if they ever make it to Kinshasa.

wooden sculpture of Humphrey Bogart in the movie "African Queen"
Bogey. “African Queen” (detail)

“It doesn’t have to be super complex to get a magical look,” Ken Draim tells us, “There’s a story to everything and that’s what’s important.”

Draim is the creator of “African Queen”—and many others in its spirit. He’s been building kinetic art—automata—for at least the last dozen years. Draim’s creation of these little moving fantasy worlds follows decades as a painter, sculptor, builder, furniture maker, and tinkerer. We were lucky enough to catch a number of his still-available automatons at his home in Bellevue on the eve of delivery for exhibition.

automata artwork of small fishing boat tossed on sea
“Buoy Tender’

Pretty much everything in Draim’s artwork has been built from scratch—from the internal mechanics to the rusty hulls of tanker ships, cartoon-like motor vehicles, and carved wooden people. Much of the rusted and battered structural elements look like they were salvaged from the real thing but, to paraphrase Dolly Parton, it takes a lot of love to make something look this rundown.

Draim started as a painter—beautiful, dreamlike, cubist-inspired works that look not-unlike light refracted through stained glass—but gradually moved into the third dimension.

“I found an old pachinko machine which I wanted to rebuild into something different,” Draim says of an earlier project, “But with my limited engineering skills I couldn’t make the balls go where I wanted them to.”

“I got into boat-building,” Draim says of the big, table-top-filling fantasy ships he constructed in this period, “From there, it was just one more step to make them move.”

Just one more step. “Mystery Ship”

Let’s be clear: it may indeed be “just” one more step to make a sculpture of a boat move, but that is one big step.

“It takes time to do all this,” Ken Draim tells us, “It can take all day just to make a gear do a thing.”

We believe him! Watching these wood and wire sculptures come to life is magical. We are all naturally drawn to a little boat surfing wild seas right there before us but Draim very intentionally makes all the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of his machines visible. To see a crank turn an axle that holds a gear that works a cam or spins a belt or pushes a pole or squeezes a hose sparks its own how did he do that? curiosity. Like the repetition of train cars rattling across track or those old Pathé films of things getting made, the rhythmic movement of the gearing—and the gentle clicking that comes with it—is soothing and satisfying in ways that never make it to self-help guides.

Un bâtiment très actif. “Rue Lepic”

Ken and his wife, partner, and ace videographer Sara moved to Pittsburgh four years ago after decades of living, creating, and running a gallery in Taos, New Mexico. They had no specific reason to relocate to the Paris of Appalachia besides wanting some more city stuff, a larger potential art market, and an obvious big change in scenery. The Pittsburgh cliché “big city with a small town feel” seems to fit well with the couple’s taste.

Draim’s “10th Street Bridge,” a large piece with unique counter-directional spinning wheels/traffic lanes, was an early response to their new home. Ken and Sara landed first in the South Side flats before purchasing a home in Bellevue. The third floor of the house is now devoted to what Ken describes as “the best studio I’ve ever had.”

Welcome to Pittsburgh. “10th Street Bridge”

Ms. Orbit—our consultant for all things aesthetic and most things marital—was there for our tour. “What’s special about Ken’s work is that each one feels like it has a life of its own,” she says, “The movement is jerky; there is so much humor. Some of the pieces almost feel like they’re going to fall apart.”

“There are a lot of people making cutesy automatons nowadays,” Madame D’Orbit continues, “But they can be boringly unimaginative. Ken’s work makes you wonder ‘Who are these people? What is life like in this world?’ There’s a personality, a story, real quirkiness to each one.”

Motion simple. “The Ocean in a Crate”

That’s about as a good summary of the experience as we could ask for. So welcome to Pittsburgh, Ken and Sara. Unlike what some of the city’s detractors will tell you, hopefully you’ll find it neither boringly unimaginative nor about to fall apart.


Ken Draim currently has a number of available pieces at Exposure Gallery (412 Beaver Street, Sewickley) and one may reach him/see more videos of his other work at his web site, FaceBook page, or one of two YouTube channels.

Ken and Sara Draim holding an automata sculpture
Ken and Sara Draim with “The Bather”

Hyde and Chic: Talking Trash with Glendon Hyde

three assemblage artworks by Glendon Hyde made inside boxes with Barbie dolls and recycled toys
Garbage, this ain’t. “The Price is White,” an assemblage triptych made from recycled, discarded, and donated objects in artist Glendon Hyde’s current show at Spinning Plate, “This is Garbage.”

The large swan has its wings spread a full four- or five-feet wide as it rests atop a glass table. Unlike waterfowl one might find in the most idealistic of parks or if you’re just randomly lucky out in nature, this bird is both skeletal and glasslike, brutally jagged, and delicately bedazzled.

The graceful neck of the beautiful creature is an ornamented fantasy of deconstructed costume jewelry, burnt-out micro-bulbs, and little pearly leaves. The bird’s wings are aloft in waves of smoky sunglass lenses as eggs populate the eye sockets of an animal’s skull. Around the body swirls a tumble of shiny red Christmas ornaments.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde made with recycled animal skull, plastic beads, sunglasses, and Christmas ornaments
“Emerge” (detail)

“The show is a love letter to Greta Thunberg,” says artist Glendon Hyde, “At fifteen, she had this myopic determination to do something about the state of the world. I wish we could all manage to find the bravery in ourselves to do something important.”

Hyde is discussing This is Garbage, the first large-scale solo exhibit of his artwork in thirty years. It’s up now through the end of the month at Spinning Plate Gallery. The title is ironic, self-deprecating, but also sadly true. Most people would look at these raw materials–and perhaps even the odd but lovely artworks to emerge from them–as detritus. Don’t make that mistake.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of small baby in fantasy bedding
“Lohan and Child: How to Export White Jesus” (detail)
assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of strange creature in desert-like setting
“Baboon Assed Bush Pig” (detail)

Garbage, this ain’t. But there’s no denying the obvious environmentally-conscious connection here. One hundred percent of the materials making up Hyde’s large freestanding, ceiling-dangling, and wall-hanging sculptures have lived previous lives.

The component parts have been supplied by friends, donated by fans, and left on his doorstep by the in-the-know. They’ve also come mailed-in from far away and picked right out of curbside garbage bins ahead of city collection crews. Nothing in the show, aside from glue, Hyde tells us, was purchased at an arts supply store–or anywhere else for that matter.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde including baby doll, beaded wreath, false flowers, and image of woman behind glass
“Restorations Needed” (detail)
assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of ant on an apple
“Picnic Dilemma” (detail)

While claiming the show was for Ms. Thunberg, another theme keeps spilling out. Emerge is the action word Glendon Hyde uses most in our conversation. That concept comes up early and often throughout the show.

The aforementioned swan is a piece literally titled Emerging and its companion Ugly Duckling rests just across the space. The two creatures appear to be looking back at one another with a knowing hang in there, it gets better silent communication.

Elsewhere, an enormous sequined frog morphs from its tadpole state; a cicada, or Sir Cada, outfitted in something between bondage and biker gear, has sprung from the earth for its once-ever-seventeen-year bender. Babies emerge from the womb; an ant is poised atop a glass apple; jellyfish bob and weave in the boundless surf of a tinfoil sea.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of duck made from string, wire, and plastic bits
“Ugly Duckling” (detail)

In a world–especially one still well within a global pandemic–where everything feels like it’s moved to the Internet, there is an even more subtle touchstone for the exhibit.

“I’ve emerged to be a more stalwart person,” Hyde says of the ugliness around so much of world’s discourse right now. “Current culture is so abrasive I found myself wanting to get away from the arguing. The best thing I can do is play and share that experience with friends.”

Indeed, the show is blessedly free of any video screens; there is nary a #hashtag, @handle, or URL address to be found. Instead, the show is a grand expression of human-hands touching each and every piece, working the materials, wrapping, gluing, and stitching disparate elements into their final reconstructed forms.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of a flying insect made from false flower petals, beads, and jingle bells
“The Buddha Moth” (detail)

Part of the fun of This is Garbage is that each piece warrants a multi-level examination. There’s an establishing first-impression from a few steps back. The viewer sees the overall form and message–often in perilously-precarious balance–its visual language and suggestive humor.

But then you’ve got to get in close–real close–to see the intense level of detail, clever reuse of random materials, and each creative choice in miniature that grows, blossoms, and yes, emerges from its rooted center. This is where your author spent most of his time–looking at all the little beads, the curling folds of movie film, how plastic Internet cables wrap and blend with soft, frayed acrylic yarn.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of head, arms, and torso of a figure
“Don Quixote”
assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde with costume jewelry, glass rabbits, and a model airstream trailer
“Florida Garden” (detail)

Two years of Glendon Hyde’s life went into creating This is Garbage. It took him and a friend four days just to set everything up in the gallery space. (And he lives right upstairs!) That might seem like a long time for a gallery show … until you see this one. It is as dense and eye-popping, stuffed-to-the-rafters and meticulously placed as anything you’ll encounter anytime soon.

Whether the lofty concepts behind Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Hipster Tea Trolley or Thoreau’s Temple translate to gallery visitors is questionable. What’s not is that This is Garbage is a fantastic vision statement from an artist who is singularly endowed with the ability to spin gold from tinfoil, bring life from street debris, and coax spectacular joy from these desperate times.

assemblage artwork by Glendon Hyde of horned animal made from plastic beads
“Hoodoo Guru”

This is Garbage is up at Spinning Plate Gallery, 5821 Baum Blvd. in East Liberty, now through Sept. 30. Gallery hours are Thursday and Friday, 12-6; Saturday 12-7; Sunday 12-3. Hyde is holding a special second opening–let’s call it a re-emergence–this Saturday, Sept. 11, from 6-10.


A final note on the photographs:

It’s safe to say visual art is pretty much always best experienced up-close and in-person. To see the scale, true color, and individual brushstrokes of a painter; how different strands cross, meld, and blur in fiber art; the way sculpture demands to be seen from multiple angles; up close and from a distance. Photographs are excellent long-term documentation for the work, but they just don’t match up to seeing the real thing.

Glendon Hyde’s pieces really need to be seen in person. There’s just no way to photograph most of the work (especially in this particular gallery setting) and have it look like anything–that’s why we chose mostly detail shots. A bunch of really great pieces didn’t make it to this story for that reason alone. Do yourself a favor and get down to Spinning Plate while you can to see this fantastic show the way it needs–nay, deserves–to be seen.

* Special thanks to Paul Schifino for an assist on this story’s title.

Cut Up: The Secret Collage Work of Artist Mark 347

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

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

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

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

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

“(Un)Consciousness”

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

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

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

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

“The Invention Of Headphones”

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

“Killing the Messenger”

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

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

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

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

“Enjoy”

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

“Juggie’s Bum Trip”

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

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

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

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

“Camelot”

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

“Music For Horses”

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

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

“Unorthodox Methods”

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

“Witchdoctor Saturday Night”

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

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

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

“Not Available In Stores”

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

“Affliction (Catholic Guilt)”

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

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

“The Future Is Revolting”

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

“Tent Revival Love Affair”

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

portrait of artist Mark 347

Mark 347 at home [photo: Paul Schifino]

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

“Rock, Paper, Scissors”

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

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

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

“Off”

What’s Up with WATSOP? A Q&A with Lisa Valentino on Her Quest to Walk Every Street in Pittsburgh

artist Lisa Valentino posing with a completed walking map of a section of Pittsburgh

One down, 89 to go. Artist Lisa Valentino having just completed walking every street in Garfield.

At the Orbit, we like to think we’ve, you know, been around. To have at least set a foot in all of Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods, sure, but also up city steps and down back alleys, poked behind dumpsters and into collapsing buildings, we’ve partied with weed-eating goats on the South Side and wild turkeys in Allegheny Cemetery, we know where the wild blackberries can be picked in June and the pawpaws fall in September.

All that bragging and when it comes to seeing Pittsburgh–like, really seeing Pittsburgh–we’re still holding Lisa Valentino‘s Olde Frothingslosh.

front yard decorated with homemade religious ornaments

IRL word cloud for the Orbit: Heaven and Hell, sin and blood. Front yard decoration in Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar.

Valentino is an artist by day and an urban hiker by … the other parts of the day. Five years ago she set out with the ambitious goal of walking all the streets of Pittsburgh. That project–usually shortened to the acronym WATSOP–takes an impressive amount of discipline, organization, and physical stamina, but we’re consistently bowled-over by Valentino’s oddball finds in the field.

Yeah, sure–I’ve been to Lincoln-Lemington plenty of times–but never came across the Heaven & Hell painted garden edger thingamagigs. And how about the Valentine’s Day skeleton of Brookline? It was Lisa who hooked us up with Barbie’s Dream Cult in Polish Hill.

SO, we thought it was high time to check in with Valentino and find out what’s up with WATSOP, how she came up with the project, keeps track of where she’s been, and what she’s learned along the way.

Editor’s note: Typically, for a story like this, we’d do a walk-along to chronicle the process. But between the timely need for social distancing and the fact that Lisa’s photos are already so great, this story involved zero field work. All photos courtesy of Lisa Valentino.

collection of Barbie dolls attached to chain link fence

Barbie’s Dream Cult, Polish Hill

How did you come up with the idea to walk all of Pittsburgh’s streets?

First, for four years I had been doing Project 365–take one photo every day and post on social media. At four years one exhausts everything familiar (yes, one day I photographed all the doorknobs in my house at the 11th hour). I was already in the habit of searching and exploring for something different and new to catch my eye.

Then I stumbled upon Félix de la Concha’s One A Day at the alumni hall at Pitt. His 365 paintings of the Cathedral of Learning from as many different perspectives got me really noticing when the iconic building would pop into view as I traveled in and out of the city. One day, while starting the climb to the slopes on a walk in the South Side I saw the Cathedral in the distance and wondered “from how many locations will I see a view of the Cathedral?” Then it hit me…. “Let’s find out!” And “what else will I find?” And “Why not walk ALL THE STREETS OF PITTSBURGH to SEE what I will find?!” And there it was!

long-distance view of Pittsburgh from hillside neighborhood

View of Oakland and Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning from the South Side Slopes

What are the parameters of the project?

When I set off to do this, the first hurdle was finding a map! Many Pittsburgh maps only encompassed areas close to downtown. Maps that included a bit of a wider range did not have enough detail to show every street. So I began to search for any map that would show and name my two block street in Point Breeze.

After settling on the perfect map, a Bike Pittsburgh Map, I started marking off my walked streets. If it’s on the map, I walk it. As the years have gone by several new streets have popped up that are not on my map, but more surprising are the number of streets that seemed to have disappeared. Most due to abandonment, I suppose. Overgrown with trees and weeds and barely a path to indicate a street was ever there.

I walk every street, alley, and dead-end in the city. I will not do the highways/parkways unless there is a patch that keeps me off those busy roads. I only do city steps if they get me from one street to another. Because they are not on the Bike Pgh map, I don’t count them as walking the streets. (Perhaps someone needs to come up with a Walk Pgh map?) Though I will say, there is nothing more delightful than stumbling upon a set of city steps to take me to the next street and avoiding doubling back from where I just came!

overgrown vacant lot between two brick buildings

“I walk every street, alley, and dead-end in the city.” Homewood

When did you start? Do you have an estimated completion date?

My first intentional Walking All the Streets of Pittsburgh walk was May 18, 2015. When I started I foolishly thought I could finish in one year. I suppose if I did nothing else in the year and suffered no setbacks I could have. I mean, it’s easy to walk 1000 miles in a year, right? Averaging less than 3 miles a day?! But life never works that way. Twice I lost months of walking due to back problems that left me unable to do much more than lay on the floor watching the Hays eagle cam for weeks at a time!

As I approach the anniversary with nearly five years under my belt, I would love to finish by May 18, 2020. But that looks unlikely. You know, life.

hilltop neighborhood view from Pittsburgh

View of Allentown and top of the USX Tower from Knoxville

How often do you walk (for the project) and for how long? How do you plan the schedule for the walks?

When I started walking, I walked everywhere I could from my house in Point Breeze: to Squirrel Hill for shopping and movies; to Regent Square and Shadyside for lunch and dinner dates with friends. To doctors appointments in Oakland. I jumped on any reason to walk from my house to anywhere I had to go.

Then any time I needed to get in the car to travel somewhere I’d squeeze in a chance to walk before coming back home. Visiting family in the South Hills had me stopping to cross off streets in southern neighborhoods. I’d Google laundromats and search for ones in outlying neighborhoods so I could walk between cycles. I looked forward to appointments and meetings as another opportunity to explore a new neighborhood.

The length of the walks and number of times I walked each week varied depending on my schedule, my health, the weather, and hours of daylight. I would stop to cross off one street in a sea of walked streets as I drove past a neighborhood, or, in the summer with its long hours of daylight, I’d do two big walks, one in the morning and one in the evening while the light lingered.
These days I find myself needing to drive about a half hour each way to get to a neighborhood where I need to walk, having completed most of streets in the Triangle (east of the Point).

lawn decoration of plastic skeleton with red valentine prop

The Valentine’s Day skeleton of Brookline

How do you track where you’ve been?

After a walk I’d take a Sharpie to the Bike Pgh maps to cross off streets. I had one copy of the map I’d take with me on walks as reference, and one hung on my wall as a display. I soon began using the MapMyWalk app to track my route because it became hard to remember and focus on the route, especially while walking with friends. Then the map became hard to read. With all those Sharpie route tracings, it was a less reliable resource for where I still needed to walk. So I began marking my walks in Google Maps. While the travel map is tattered and torn beyond usefulness, I do still use it fas a prop or my final picture in a completed neighborhood. And the display map hangs proudly on my wall and is updated after each walk.

paper map of Pittsburgh with lines drawn to mark all streets walked

Valentino’s “display” copy of the Bike Pittsburgh map, marked with all currently-walked streets (as of some point in 2019)

Now that you’ve been doing this a while, what’s the biggest difference between your pre-project expectations and the reality of the walks?

Well, if the project started as a quest to see the various viewpoints of the Cathedral of Learning, I can say that I’ve added to that the many wonderful views of downtown beyond Mount Washington. Not just those northern neighborhood views that were entirely new to me, but also the delightful surprise of turning a corner in a southern Hilltop neighborhood to see the very tops of the tallest buildings peeking over the horizon or sandwiched between two houses.

I have also become quite obsessed with water towers. Not only for their unique design and a new appreciation for the engineering to keep satisfactory water pressure in our homes. But also as the best orientation markers the city has to offer. You can view the city skyline and the Cathedral of Learning as a compass pointing you to downtown and Oakland, but seeing the bulbous water tower of the Upper Hill and the Garfield water tower in the same view allows me to put in perspective all the neighborhoods at once.

Holy Hell, these hills! I know they say Canton is the steepest, but thankfully it is quite short. And when walking straight up them I can name a number of streets that seems to have access to the same claim (most of them also in Beechview)! It hadn’t occurred to me that such a hilly terrain is somewhat unique in this country until a friend from Illinois commented on them. I love the city for the hills and the views they provide, and I curse them when I’m tired and the only way to go is UP!

large set of crisscrossing public steps in Pittsburgh

Holy Hell, these hills! City steps, Troy Hill.

What is/are the biggest disappointment(s) you’ve experienced through the project?

Oddly enough, it’s been the number of warnings I’ve gotten to avoid certain areas. To date, I have never had a problem walking in any of the neighborhoods. And in “those” neighborhoods, if anything, I have found THE nicest, most friendly Pittsburghers!

house with yellow flowers and Easter decorations

Spring on the South Side Slopes

If you had an hour-long sit-down meeting with, say, Mayor Peduto (or other city planning officials) what would be your strongest recommendation for action based on what you’ve learned/seen in your project?

Preserve the city steps! This is such a unique, wonderful asset and a beautiful reminder of our pre-car days. [Editor’s note: A to the MEN!]

I love to walk, I love to bike, and I love having a car to get around. But I think people have forgotten that WE ARE ALL PEDESTRIANS and we are all pedestrians FIRST. Before we bike, before we own cars, we walk. And no matter how we get to our destination, we all need to walk those final steps. So I do hope the city continues to keep pedestrian accessibility a priority. Fixing city steps, maintaining and keeping sidewalks clear, dedicated crosswalks and other traffic calming measures to keep the pedestrians safe and motivated to travel by foot.

dog on leash on public steps, Pittsburgh

Valentino’s canine companion on a set of city steps, Perry North

Does such a close block-by-block inspection of the city make you more or less optimistic about Pittsburgh/America/humanity?

Humanity? I tend to run into very few people on my walks. I would say those that I do run into have been friendly, willing to talk and share stories and point out some things that might interest me. I always walk away with a newfound hope for humanity after those encounters, yes.

Pittsburgh? I know everyone has their preferences on this, but I am not excited to see all these big development projects popping up all over the place. Lawrenceville seems to be the worst of it. And of course there is displacement, which is a whole other issue. There is so much beauty and history that would be wonderful to preserve.

ornament of figure holding Bible and name "Rev. Murray"

Rev. Murray, Hazelwood

What do you feel like you’ve learned through the project?

EASY!! I’ve fallen in love with this city!

view of Pittsburgh's Greenfield neighborhood from above

Easy to love. Greenfield/”The Run,” Parkway east, and Cathedral of Learning.

I’ve heard there’s another person also attempting a similar walk-all-Pittsburgh-streets project (but I’m not in contact with her). Are you familiar? Have you ever crossed paths?

I am not at all proud of this, but my gut reaction was “someone is trying to steal my idea.” After I had committed about 4 years to this unique quest it hit me kind of hard. It has taken a while to come to terms with it, but in the end it helped me on my walks. Because we are often photographing the same quirky finds on our walks, it led me to feel less inclined to photograph everything. So on days that I’m being tangled by two puppies as I try to cover streets, I can let go of trying to get photographs. I know Megan will or has found those things already.

And, of course, her approach is much different than mine. She blogs about her walks with much detail and folks should definitely follow her. My approach has always been, as a visual artist, to explore and discover and photograph what I find interesting. My hope would be that by doing so I have encouraged people to want to go out and find or discover the hidden gems of this city for themselves. That is why I tend to give very little detail on where the photos are taken, beyond naming the neighborhood.

Lisa Valentino with crossed-off map of Pittsburgh streets

Valentino with map at the completion of walking Squirrel Hill

For more on Lisa Valentino’s art and creative projects, see her website LisaVCreative.com, Instagram @LisaVCreative, and WATSOP Facebook page.


Related: This story about one person’s quest to walk all of the things in the city can’t help but remind us of Laura Zurowski’s similar-but-different project to locate, climb, photograph, and blog about all 739 sets of city steps. More process, less volume, but equally fascinating. See: Step Beat: Talking Missed Connections and Mis.Steps with Ms. Steps (Pittsburgh Orbit, March, 2018).

Putting the Pieces Together: Jim Mellett, Jigsaw Puzzle Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

artist Jim Mellett working at his home studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Mellett in his UPS-driving days

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

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

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

Mrs. Garrett and the “Facts of Life” gang

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


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

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

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.

Something Dramatic: The Orbit Interview with Monessen Mayor Matt Shorraw

four-story building mid-way through being torn down

“We need something dramatic.” Downtown Monessen building, mid-tear down, 2019

Even a broken clock, the saying goes, is right twice a day. That’s true enough … unless one of the hands is missing.

It wasn’t until I was looking back at the quick couple of photos I’d taken last weekend that I realized the City of Monessen town clock–manufactured over a hundred years ago by the Brown Street Clock Company, right here in Monessen–had lost an appendage.

Now, that could happen anywhere and I’m sure it will be fixed soon enough, but this clock–not even right once a day–is about as perfect a metaphor for disjointed local government as you’ll find.

City of Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw in front of downtown clock

Even a broken clock is right twice a day…unless the minutes hand has fallen off. Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw and the town clock.

River City: We got troubles.
Monessen: Hold my beer.

With apologies to “Professor” Harold Hill and the gang, Monessen would love to have a new billiards parlor–or any other business, for that matter–set up shop in town. The small city, 30 miles upriver from Pittsburgh in the Mon Valley, has lost two-thirds of the population it had at its peak in the 1940s. The mills started closing a couple decades later and the real death blow came when Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel finally pulled out in the mid-‘8Os.

Downtown Monessen, a nine- or ten-block-long by two-block wide stretch of what was once bustling Main Street America, is now a gap-toothed poster child for the fallout of big industry in the Rust Belt. The remaining storefronts are equal parts gorgeous late Victorian and between-the-wars brick-and-stone, crumbling with decades of neglect, and newer, obviously-out-of-place attempts at mid-century modernization. In between are gravel-filled vacant lots and collapsing sibling structures, biding their time until the city has enough money to tear them down.

large ornate building in bad condition

“We need something to spark a conversation.” The “HEALTH” building, downtown Monessen.

“This is a great place to live. I like it here,” says Matt Shorraw, the 28-year-old mayor of Monessen, midway through his first term in office. “A lot of family members have told me, ‘Get out–there’s nothing left here,’ but I’m not leaving. I feel like I have to be here.”

Say what you want about millennials–and believe me, Mayor Matt’s constituents are saying a lot about one particular millennial–but a young person committing to a life of service in the home town his own family is begging him to leave does not fit any negative stereotype of the generation.

Shorraw continues with a boundless optimism about the past-is-prologue potential of his home town. “It’s not an accident that Monessen was centrally located between five different county seats. We have easy access to I-70, rail lines, and we’re right on the river.” Shorraw also cites the low cost of living and the city’s location between metro Pittsburgh and the Laurel Highlands as virtues. “Eventually the success of Pittsburgh is going to make its way down through the Mon Valley.”

Monessen mayor Matt Shorraw's tattooed arm including image combining downtown Pittsburgh with flaming smokestack of Monessen

“I’m not leaving.” Shorraw’s left arm tattoo combines downtown Pittsburgh with the flaming stack of Monessen’s ArcelorMittal coke plant (and a certain starry night).

The last 30 days have been eventful for the young mayor. In December, he released an exhaustive 103-page document titled Monessen: A New Vision–The Mayor’s Strategic Plan. The comprehensive vision statement covers everything from nuts-and-bolts city issues like what streets to prioritize paving and park maintenance details to long-term, broad aspirational goals. These include the creation of a light rail transit link from The Mon Valley to Pittsburgh and a tech-focused “innovation district” downtown.

“I know it won’t all get done,” Shorraw says of the plan, “But we need something dramatic. We need something to spark a conversation. If we could only get the tax base, we could do incredible things.”

“We’re constantly doing damage control,” the mayor says of trying to keep up with the flood of maintenance issues in the city, “We’ve only been able to focus on paving roads and tearing down houses. We’re not looking 10, 20, 30 years into the future.”

row of identical wooden houses, all missing windows and overgrown with weeds

“We’re constantly doing damage control.” Empty houses on Sixth Avenue

So, Monessen has an enthusiastic young mayor, immersed in a hands-on crash course on public policy, realistic in the short-term and committed to a long-range vision of revitalizing the city he’s vowed to remain faithful to–what’s not to like? Well, the city doesn’t have a coffee shop, or a movie theater, or a bowling alley, but it does have a particularly large elephant residing in this Mon Valley room.

Immediately after taking office, in January, 2018, things “got real” with the Monessen city council. New Mayor Shorraw immediately spotted what he saw as “improprieties” with regard to how management of the city police pension fund was being conducted and responded by alerting the Pennsylvania state auditor general.

From there, it got real ugly, real fast. Shorraw details the council’s threats, attempts to force his resignation, and then impeachment. (Not sure that last one is really a thing.) The mayor responded by refusing to attend any council meetings for the next 20 months.

large ornate building in bad condition

Nature’s Pathway Taxidermy, downtown Monessen

While Mayor Matt wasn’t at the official meetings, he didn’t stop, you know, mayoring. Shorraw was still out in the community and maintains that he was fully available, just a phone call or email away. Part of the ongoing work was authoring a series of essays, posted publicly on Medium.com, detailing a level of local government chicanery and sausage-making that most of us lay folk are never exposed to.

The seven-part (and counting) series, all under the title Fighting City Hall From Within, offers a brutally-frank, unfiltered insider’s view of city government–and the corrupt actions of its members–the likes of which you’re unlikely to see anywhere. The posts are thick with first-hand details and Shorraw is not afraid to name names–of council members, legal entities, business partners, and the like.

City of Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw in front of the old Monessen Municipal Building

You *can* fight city hall … if you’re the mayor. Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw in front of the old Monessen Municipal Building.

Now, your author is not a constituent of Shorraw’s, so he has no “skin in the game,” as they say. But I can imagine a very strong two-sided reaction to this whole thing if I were. On the one hand, it is incredibly refreshing to see a young, inexperienced politician come into an old-boys we’ve always done it this way environment and both start asking hard questions and then actually do something when he sees real governmental corruption. In this case, report it to the authorities and let the citizens know what’s going on.

On the other hand, you just can’t walk away from the office and expect to either affect change or earn the trust of your constituents. “Eighty percent of life is showing up,” they say, and it’s really hard to imagine anything in that elaborate city plan getting done from the couch at Chez Shorraw.

roofline of Foodland grocery store with flaming smokestack behind it

Foodland Fresh and the eternal flame of ArcelorMittal coke works, downtown Monessen

That absence ended dramatically the week before last as Shorraw returned to a calamitous city council meeting that included the abrupt firing of the city administrator and solicitor. The proceedings, in front of a standing-room-only crowd, devolved into a gavel-banging group shouting match. “I had to scream or nothing would get done,” Shorraw says. You can YouTube the whole thing if you’ve got the stomach for it. “I’m back. For good.” Shorraw told us.

Let’s hope that’s true. There are a whole lot of reasons why The Orbit makes the hour-long drive down to the Mon Valley again and again. As an outsider, it’s an incredible place full of lovely people, deep, important history, terrific old-world culture, and a brutal, tragic beauty. We’ll add that’s it’s also got some of the best pizza on the planet–well worth the trip for that reason alone. We wish the absolute best for Monessen (and its sister Mon Valley ex-steel towns) and really just hope that everyone can find a way to get along.


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Tap Shoes and Unicorns: Teresa Martuccio Serves Up “Pink Potatoes”

playwright Teresa Martuccio feigning exasperation while writing on a manual typewriter

America’s greatest playwright—at least, we think so. Teresa Martuccio finds the inspiration for her next masterpiece.

There is a wisdom, passed down in theater circles from high school drama clubs all the way through to the backstages of Broadway. Death of a Salesman: good play; could have used some robots.

It’s true. Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams wring the pathos from human existence, but who is speaking up for the world’s mice, slugs, and garden vegetables? Chekhov never had the, ahem, integrity to spew the front row with space jism. And sure, Shakespeare made witches central to the plot of Macbeth, but it would take a true visionary to turn them into full-contact action heroes.

actresses dressed as space unicorns in the film "Strange Noodle"

Sara Banach and Jen Cooney in the film “Strange Noodle,” 2016.

Something truly unique and special is happening in a converted industrial products showroom in North Oakland called The Glitterbox Theater.* There, for the past three years, local playwright Teresa Martuccio has been producing a series of her own original plays that truly defy any categorization.

While we were fumbling for the words, Ms. The Orbit chimed in here on our read-through describing Martuccio’s productions—and the whole Glitterbox oeuvre—as “true do-it-yourself fringe theater all the time,” “fully realized pure creativity,” and “incredibly daring and accessible … the best kind of outsider artist.” We couldn’t agree more, nor said it any better.

Teresa Martuccio in costume as bregastone in the play "La Strega"

Martuccio as a Bregastone in “La Strega,” 2018 [photo: Chris St. Pierre]

In a world where color is illegal, a renegade band of dissidents defy the law of the land by secretly hoarding the remaining bits of contraband hue in an underground resistance. In this dystopian near-future, the government has been taken over by a mega-corporation called Amazono that rules with authoritarian brutality.

“It’s a feminist sci-fi musical,” Teresa Martuccio says about her newest original play Pink Potatoes, “… with tap dancing.” Pink Potatoes opens this Thursday.

The Wind is a major character in the play, as is a “wind whisperer”/aeronaut. (“That’s a hot-air balloonist—I didn’t know they were called that.”) Martuccio warns that the story is sad, but ultimately hopeful. It’s also difficult to imagine the sets remaining black and white through the final curtain.

actress in robes with sign reading "Pope Secret"

Martuccio in “Love, Betrayal, and Dying: the Wool Story,” 2016

actress dressed as mouse with large piece of cheese

Valerie Herrero in “Meow,” 2016 [photo: Teresa Martuccio]

If you haven’t seen any of Martuccio’s other productions, this Handmaid’s Tale-meets-Busby Berkeley narrative may seem awkward, or unfocused, or novelty. In lesser hands that might be true.

Teresa’s plays are indeed rag-tag and acted with let’s put on a show enthusiasm, but they have a tremendous depth and heart, message and moral. Shows are also reliably wacky, ridiculously-costumed, milk-coming-out-of-your-nose funny, and include great original tunes. Martuccio is a student of both history and folklore, so you just might learn something while you’re at it.

group scene from play with actors against colorful handmade stage set

Group scene from “Sea Turtle in Space,” 2018 [photo: Chris St. Pierre]

The kitchen sink/more-is-more approach may align closer to the zaniness of Sid & Marty Krofft or Bollywood film than classic theater. That is, inevitably, the product of an extremely active creative mind.

“I’m always on to the next thing,” Martuccio says. The next next play is already written and there’s another movie, Siren City, in the works.

In the spring, Martuccio will return to playing defensive end/offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Passion and she’d like to bring them into the creative space as well. “My dream is to produce a play with my football team.”

playwright Teresa Martuccio feigning exasperation while writing on a manual typewriter

Always on to the next thing. Martuccio at “work.”

Pink Potatoes will be at least the tenth full-length play Martuccio has written/produced/acted-in over the last five or six years. [Earlier shows were put on at various community spaces prior to the opening of Glitter Box.] That same period has been additionally busy with contributions to the regularly occurring Ten-Minute Play Fest events, sections of the Wilde Gone Wild cut-up performances, and creating Strange Noodle, an hour-long movie where an ex-Olympic gymnast leaves her mundane life to be a slug in a technicolor dream world.

Martuccio, with her three co-managers, also organizes and coordinates countless other events at The Glitterbox Theater, where the new play will run next weekend.

actress in space suit and crash helmet with time machine prop

Martuccio with time machine in “Amelia,” 2014 [photo: Caldwell Linker]

“Every time I say I want to keep the next one simple,” Martuccio says about the complexity of organizing another large-scale production, “And then I’m looking for breezes, tap shoes, and unicorns.”

Luckily, she gets a lot of help. Believe it or not, staging big productions in a tiny room for a four-performance run—with absolutely no grant funding or other outside sponsorship—doesn’t generate much profit. So Martuccio and her cast and crew of 20-or-so are all volunteers who collaborate on rehearsal, set building, costume making, promotion, and everything else. The money made from the last big play was just enough to cover a party with cheap champagne and rides on a mechanical bull.

actors wearing costumes of vegetables

Martuccio, Tenley Schmida, and Rachel Dingfelder in “Meow”

We are all lucky. Whatever else is going on in your life, be glad to live in a world where we can express ourselves with any crayon in the box; where no one needs a secret supply of cast off candy bar wrappers, torn bits of fabric, and crumpled magazine ads just for a taste of color.

We should also consider ourselves fortunate to be alive when Pink Potatoes are dug from the earth and served up however Teresa Martuccio plans to present them. We know it will be delicious.

promotional poster for original play "Pink Potatoes" perfomed at Glitter Box Theater, December, 2019

Promotional poster for “Pink Potatoes” by Steph Neary

costumed character with "Welcome" sign

All are welcome. Dream landscape from “Strange Noodle.”


 * Update (Summer, 2021): The Glitterbox Theater was another in the long line of conoravirus casualties, having to permanently move out of its Melwood Ave. space during the pandemic. Martuccio is currently looking for a new home and will continue producing and sponsoring local theater however she can.

Photos from past productions courtesy of Teresa Martuccio. Special editorial guidance from Kirsten Ervin.

Let’s Get Small: Parvaneh Torkamani’s Abstraction in Miniature

detail from miniature painting by Parvaneh Torkamani

Stream of consciousness abstract art with no end.” Detail from one of  Parvaneh Torkamani’s “A Thread in the Night” paintings

Get in close. Even closer. No, I mean take your glasses off and push your schnoz right into the screen.

There, in tightly organized brushstroke rows are multicolor clusters of dits, dots, dashes, and squiggles; abstract shapes that appear like sentence fragments in the calligraphy of an exotic language; hieroglyphic messages encoded only for the in-the-know.

Pittsburgh artist Parvaneh Torkamani has been painting in this style of miniature “stream of consciousness abstract art with no end” for nearly thirty years. You’ve got a rare chance to see her work on display–with a dance performance, to boot–this Friday, during the monthly Unblurred art crawl in Garfield.

artist Parvaneh Torkamani with wall of paintings

Parvaneh Torkamani with paintings in her home studio

On a page of a pocket-sized notebook, Torkamani has detailed an elaborate painted storyline illustrated in just the smallest gestures committed in silver acrylic paint. It’s a setup that reads like ancient history–or mythology, perhaps–Slave and Queen abut Slave with Child and Husband King. The action really gets going when Kimono clad princess stands on the back of a servant being coached by head servant, supported by other servants.

Yes: there is a lot going on in this little space and one definitely needs to use her or his imagination to see it come to life. Is the first-time viewer really expected to get all of this? Torkamani explains:

The viewer will see whatever they will see. Sometimes they will experience what I was seeing, but the art is more abstract than not. The idea sometimes gets lost in the abstraction, but I try to create an atmosphere.

detail from notebook of Parvaneh Torkamani

notebook detail

Resident Persian, the title of Torkamani’s show–as well as her Instagram handle–is “an ironic reaction to being surveyed for being foreign.” It’s also a very literal description of the Iran-born, U.S.-matured artist who has one foot each in these two worlds. Fluent in the languages of both nations, Torkamani’s English is delivered in a soft-spoken voice with the gentlest of Middle Eastern accents. Bon mots on “the arch of an eyebrow, the bend of a shoulder” seem to echo the subtle, suggestive forms of each connection between tiny brushstroke and frizzled paper target.

To this curious outsider, it is the artwork that reads as the most obvious reference to Torkamani’s Persian heritage. The delicate brushwork is nonrepresentational, but in its ordered, linear presentation, it can’t help but resemble the beautiful curlicue scripts of handwritten Persian, Arabic, or Urdu. Iran has a long tradition of miniature painting, but, according to Torkamani, “I don’t have that training.” We’re not so sure she didn’t absorb it anyway.

detail from miniature painting by Parvaneh Torkamani

detail from “A Thread in the Night” painting

While the tiny works of art in the “A Thread in the Night” series–each Cinemascope-shaped painting in the current show is around four inches wide by eighteen inches long–reward a very very close reading, they also work from farther back.

Torkamani might be insulted by the suggestion of these original pieces as purely decorative artwork, but it’s undeniable that they’d look fantastic in reproduction. In their linear patterns, interlocking script and ornament, alternating color and space there is a hypnotic quality that one can’t help but wish were blown up to wrap walls and make textiles, decorate pretty paper and hip upholstery, animate motion graphics across screens big and small.

detail from miniature painting by Parvaneh Torkamani

detail from “A Thread in the Night” painting

Obvious passions for Torkamani are the intertwined causes of homelessness and food insecurity. For the the Boom Concepts show there will be an installation piece consisting of cardboard and brown paper. On one of these is a poem titled “On Homelessness” dealing beautifully and bluntly with that subject.

Blasting winds of winter / Breaths of Hades / Penetration beneath clothes under skin / You whisper death is about as harrowing an opening salvo as this poetry-curious blogger has ever tripped across.

detail of poem about homelessness painted on cardboard

detail from Torkamani’s poem/installation “On Homelessness”

Torkamani hopes to raise awareness for these issues with the show. “To do art is to have a cause; art in a vacuum is nothing but vanity. I hope people who care about these causes will come out and help me start something,” Torkamani says, “With the help of volunteers who would tell me about food insecure people they know and those who would carry the food to them, I plan to be there for this cause.”

These are noble and ambitious goals–and it’s not entirely clear how they would come together. Sometimes, however, to go big, you need to get small.

artist Parvaneh Torkamani holding a painted canvas

Parvaneh Torkamani with a recent painting


Parvaneh Torkamani’s Resident Persian Project opens this Friday, March 1, at Boom Concepts (5139 Penn Ave., Garfield). The opening runs 7-10 PM with a special dance performance by Torkamani at 8:00. The show will be up for the month of March.