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.


Links:

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.”


Pink Potatoes will run for four performances December 5-8, at the Glitterbox Theater, 460 Melwood Ave. (North Oakland). There are no advance ticket sales, so get there early enough to secure a folding chair.

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.

Lift/Off: Kirsten Ervin’s Air Portraits Take Flight

Passenger Portrait Project installed in glass case at Pittsburgh International Airport

Kirsten Ervin’s Passenger Portrait Project at Pittsburgh International Airport

The third floor of Pittsburgh International Airport’s “land-side” terminal is a single, high-ceilinged, wide-open space devoted exclusively to ticketing and baggage check-in. It hasn’t gotten the deluxe terrazzo floor re-do the “air-side” received a couple years ago, so you’ll still find a dated, early ’90s color scheme in the floor’s clickety-clack tiles.

Appearing like a glowing apparition rising from the dull gray is a an enormous illuminated display case that nearly spans the entirety of the north wall. Inside the glass is a series of hand-drawn, brightly-colored, chalk pastel portraits. The subjects are young and old, of all complexions and hair colors, smiling and noncommittal, dressed in business attire and printed t-shirts. Together they’re all part of the Passenger Portrait Project.

collage of 9 chalk pastel portraits created by Kirsten Ervin

Some of the 65 portraits created for Kirsten Ervin’s Passenger Portrait Project

From the late summer through mid-fall, Pittsburgh artist Kirsten Ervin spent every Thursday at the airport. She wasn’t flying anywhere, nor was she there to drop-off or pick-up an air traveler. Ervin’s reason to make the trip each week was to meet strangers passing through the airway’s concourses. Those with an open mind and a few minutes to spare would have an original artwork created of them, right there on-the-spot.

“With passengers in a place like the airport you get such a wide cross-section of people, going different places, from many different cultures,” Ervin says, “It’s more diverse than, say, your average shopping mall.”

Artist Kirsten Ervin working on an "Air Portrait"

Kirsten Ervin in action at the terminal gate [photo: Pittsburgh International Airport]

The process began with three simple questions: Where are you going today? What’s the best trip you ever took? and If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? The participants’ answers to these are included alongside the final portraits.

From there, both artist and traveler/model were off on the brief but intense relationship that is a one-on-one, up-close drawing session.

“I really love the kinds of conversations that happen with people as you draw their portraits,” Ervin says, “You’re literally paying attention to every aspect of their face, their affect. You’re paying attention to every detail in a way that you don’t do with photography or other art forms.”

woman with dyed red hair holding partial portrait of herself

Passenger with in-process portrait [photo: Kirsten Ervin]

Ervin is a multidisciplinary artist who’s worked in paint and collage, hooked rugs and embroidery, puppetry and theater, as instructor and consultant. In previous work drawing “furries” at Anthrocon and an ongoing project having her Lawrenceville neighbors sit for her, Ervin is not new to quick-study figure drawing, either. That said, the Passenger Portrait Project is by far the biggest of these ventures, so far.

“Drawing or painting a portrait is a very deep meditation on another person as a human being,” says Ervin, “You have a very directed focus on a person for a period of time.”

male/female couple with partial portrait of themselves

Newlywed passengers with in-process portrait [photo: Kirsten Ervin]

The majority of the airport drawings were done in short 15-20 minute bursts when early-arriving passengers had some extra time at the gate before boarding. A photo was taken of each participant with their in-process sketch. Later, the 11″ x 14″ drawings received after-the-fact touch-ups, extra details, and filled-in backgrounds at home in Ervin’s studio.

The drawings preserve the rough, immediate energy in which they were created. They’re neither photo-realistic, nor cartoon or caricature. Instead, the subjects appear amused and disarmed, visibly pleased at the delight of this unexpected airport encounter and inevitably excited to be both engaging with a friendly face at the often-impersonal transit spot and embarking on a new adventure or returning home from a business trip.

Artist Kirsten Ervin with portrait subject at Pittsburgh International Airport

Ervin with portrait subject [photo: Pittsburgh International Airport]

You may have seen Tobey Fraley’s Robot Repair Shop and assorted other installations throughout the space, but that original artwork is created within the airport–expressly for exhibition there–may come a surprise.

In fact, Pittsburgh International Airport has an arts and culture manager (Rachel Rearick) and the Office of Public Art has a project manager (Derek Reese) who works in the space. PIT is among a very small group of international airports that support a full-time artist-in-residence program, complete with studio space at the terminal.

Ervin’s “air portraits” were created through the Art in the Airport program, which makes regular  calls for artists that provide visual art for several different display areas in the facilities as well as weekly live performances.

artist Kirsten Ervin looking at Pittsburgh airport's arrival information board

Kirsten Ervin at the estimated times of art board [photo: Pittsburgh International Airport]

Full disclosure: Pittsburgh Orbit has thrown out all journalistic integrity on this particular post. Kirsten Ervin is more than just some artist whose project we like. Over the years, she’s been a contributor, editor, and sounding board for the blog. Oh–and “Mrs. The Orbit” is married to one of our junior reporters.

That said, it’s safe to say we’d jump at reporting this story even if we weren’t living under the same roof. Kirsten’s excitement at engaging with strangers is infectious, as is her desire to skip the politics and get down to what’s really important–making connections between human beings. If that’s not what art–let alone air travel–is all about, well then maybe we should all just stay home.

Artist Kirsten Ervin in front of chalk pastel portraits of airport passengers

Kirsten Ervin with her Passenger Portrait Project installation

The Passenger Portrait Project will be up through late February, 2019. If you’re traveling by aeroplane between now and then, do yourself a favor and leave an extra few minutes early to check out the full display for yourself.


Follow Kirsten Ervin on Instagram @kirstenervinart and check out her web site kirstenervin.org