We know it when we see it. And if you live in Pittsburgh, you see it all the time.
Sure, a drive through the East End can feel like there’s a new Legoland condo going up on every block and us old-timers will prattle on about the travesty of cranky old dive bars and red sauce Italian joints turning over into foo foo artisanal dining experiences with curatedwine programs—but it’s really not that way everywhere. Huge swaths of Pittsburgh aren’t seeing any new investment; real estate values have barely budged; vacant lots and condemned properties way outnumber lived-in homes.
That reality gets a whole lot more obvious as soon as you head up or down any of the rivers. To most outsiders, (ex-)industry towns like Monessen and Clairton, New Kensington and Ambridge are the very picture of Rust Belt devastation. These are places where the mill shut down 40 years ago and took most of the people who lived there with it. Nature reclaims whatever is left untended and ultimately the wrecking ball will finish the job.
“I don’t know if there’s a perfect word to describe it,” says artist Nathan Van Patter, whose current show Bound by Blight is an honest, loving, powerful meditation on life in another post-industrial borough, North Braddock.
“I chose the word bound because it has two meanings,” Van Patter says, “It means to be stuck—which is how a lot people in places like North Braddock find themselves. But it also has this other meaning of being bound together—people working to solve these kinds of problems as a community.”
Those dual themes—the weight of life in a crumbling physical landscape and the joy of that same life in a community where neighbors, bound together, truly look out for each other—inhabit every artwork in Van Patter’s terrific collection, even the ones in outer space.
Seeing the show, we experience enough of the hard stuff to get it. But Van Patter, who moved to North Braddock with his wife and kids four years ago, isn’t interested in “ruin porn.” The show is also full of the many many good things he’s experienced as a resident—a wall of portraits for various neighbors and community members, the metal shop and barber, sunflowers and urban farms, the big North Braddock sky.
Van Patter works in a medium we might call pictorial painted sculpture. You could also turn that around and say they’re paintings on wood constructions with sculptural elements. Van Patter just calls them paintings.
The pieces are literally rough—built on irregularly sized wooden boards with chips of rough cedar glued into place to approximate wood siding and stone, crumpled metal and bushy trees. The Orbit‘s photographs included here—or any photographs of Van Patter’s work—won’t do the 3-D elements justice, so we encourage the reader to see them IRL. (More about that below.)
The awkward chunkiness of the medium gives every artwork depth and texture, sure, but more importantly the fantastic quality that while we’re looking at real life subject matter—abandoned houses, police cars, utility poles—the scenes are distorted, dream-like, impressionistic.
That fantasy/reality divide runs through the full breadth of the show. Trees, fencing, and street signs jut out from a distorted North Braddock police car in Community/Police (above). Black-winged angels fly in the night sky above a fast food restaurant in the appropriately-named Angels Over Taco Bell (below).
Van Patter imagines an entire deconstructed home, including utility poles and power lines, packed-up and driven away in Moving Day 15104 (top). With The Nights are Too Big (above) an elaborate clock is made atop a grand day/night scene that contrasts the bucolic sunshine and flowers of the former with the symphony of sirens that score the dark night.
Blight is a heavy word. It’s a shorthand for the kind of urban decay that exists pretty much everywhere, but especially in depopulated, neglected areas where all those socioeconomic factors have very real world, visible effects. It’s also an outsider’s term—no one wants to describe where they live as blight.
“Blight, to me, is the combination of physical decay and intentional disinvestment in communities,” Van Patter says, “People know there’s a problem, whether they’d use that term or not … and it’s a word that gets used in community development a lot.”
Nathan Van Patter is a humble guy who thankfully doesn’t talk about his work with any level of art school mumbo-jumbo. He didn’t have to go looking for overgrown houses; they’re all real buildings right there in his neighborhood. The portraits are people he sees at borough meetings and his children’s day care. “Every time something bad has happened [in the neighborhood], something really good happens too,” Van Patter says, “I wanted to paint the portraits of people who’ve helped me and my family and are doing positive things for the community.”
Why insert medieval knights in armor on horseback into into several of the pieces? “I just thought it was cool.”
I think it’s cool, too—the whole thing. Nathan Van Patter, working a full-time job and raising a family, has invented his own very personal approach to creating a unique artistic vision. The artwork is both about the world immediately around him and stretches way beyond the Mon Valley—to knights in armor and sailing ships, angels in the night sky and the “Rust Belt futurism” of science-fiction space stations made from buildings right there in Braddock.
Whether those leaky old windows can hold oxygen is debatable, but that I’d like to visit this vision of the future is not. Beam me up, have one of those jousting knights bring the Aldi’s crudité, and let me at that long view coming out of the Ohringer building floating a couple thousand miles off the edge of the Mon River.
Bound by Blight is up now at UnSmoke Systems in Braddock. There will be a final opportunity to see the full collection at a closing reception this Saturday, August 20, 6:00-8:00 PM.
UnSmoke is located at 1137 Braddock Ave. in Braddock.
Thirty years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Mary Litman, a woman who had experienced the physical danger and emotional trauma of an illegal abortion in the 1950s. What could have been a safe medical procedure for Mary instead became a months-long nightmare of shame, secrets, and life-threatening internal bleeding—all with far-reaching consequences.
When I interviewed Mary for the now-defunct In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, I was fresh out of college. While her story greatly impacted me, I don’t know that I ever truly considered that we as a country would ever go back to such a dark place, where anyone with a uterus is denied the basic choices about their own body. As Mary states in the interview, “When you have control over your body, you have control over your life.”
Now, with Roe v. Wade threatened at its very core by a looming Supreme Court decision, Mary’s story takes on heightened significance. The raw truth of this single story gives us a glimpse into a world without access to safe, legal abortions. When reading Mary’s story again, I am struck by the sense that her world is closing in on her; she is ready to face death, jail, or a lack of any viable future. With Roe v. Wade struck down, abortions won’t go away—they will go underground. Anyone facing an unplanned pregnancy will have their own life choices severely constricted. Without control over our bodies, we lose access to social, vocational, and financial freedom.
Please excuse the fact that the language in this 30-year-old interview is not as gender inclusive as it could be. I know the loss of Roe v. Wade would affect not just women, but also many non-binary folks as well.
My hope is that those who read Mary’s story, as well as countless others, will be moved—beyond sharing and posting on the Internet—to action, to the streets, and to the ballot box. In Pennsylvania, we have an election primary coming up on May 17. Please vote and know your candidates’ stances on matters affecting reproductive freedom. Our lives depend on it.
Kirsten Ervin, 2022
The Bad Old Days: One Woman Remembers How It Was
Originally published by In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, 1992.
Political issues often remain abstract until they are personalized. Certainly this is true of reproductive choice. How many women too young to know the realities of illegal abortion feel the same visceral attachment to the issue as those who remember? How clearly can today’s women envision life without reproductive freedom, as it was before Roe v. Wade?
Mary Litman, pro-choice activist and education director of Women’s Health Services in downtown Pittsburgh, agreed to share her 1958 illegal abortion experience with In Pittsburgh. Litman first went public with her story at a NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) speak-out in July 1989, just prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Webster decision. She has been featured, along with the patients and staff of Women’s Health Services, in the HBO documentary Abortion: Desperate Choices.
Kirsten Ervin: Why did you decide to finally speak out?
Mary Litman: I just decided that it was time I shared my story with other people—specifically with other women to remind them of what it was like to not have any place to turn for counseling, or help, or treatment, or even a pregnancy test. I knew there were some restrictions coming down, and wanted to have some impact on people’s consciences.
KE: How hard was it for you to first speak out publicly, at the NARAL event in 1989?
Mary: I spent about three or four days pacing my living room—because I had repressed so many of the memories, I didn’t want to think about it—trying to get the words to come out. I would sit on the bus and let the words run through me, and I would walk around my house and let the words run through me.
KE: Are you glad you spoke out? What changed for you in the process?
Mary: It’s like walking around with weights on your shoulders, and then it felt like they were gone. It was being able to look at the world and think, “It’s out there now, I have nothing to hide from you.” It also made me feel more of a sisterhood with the women who had had legal abortions. The other thing it did was inspire other women to speak about their own experiences, and they felt exactly as I did. [We all] were isolated from each other because nobody ever wanted to stand up and say, “I had an illegal abortion.”
KE: Could you describe the circumstances surrounding your abortion? What was happening in your life at that time?
Mary: I came from a very large, Appalachian family—very loving, but not exactly upwardly mobile. I was the first in my family to formally graduate from high school and I had a job in one of the big corporations in Pittsburgh.
The person who I became pregnant with could not marry me, and I knew I couldn’t continue working at my job as an unwed pregnant woman. I didn’t want to go back home to my mother and be an extra burden on her. I just saw everything in my life I had strived for and worked for, and had attained, slipping away from me.
KE: How old were you?
Mary: Just a little past 20. I had never really heard about abortion. My sisters, when they got pregnant, they got married. My mother admitted to jumping off a couple of tables, and trying to fall down stairs, but she said, “If a pregnancy is good, it’s going to be good.” Abortion wasn’t anything I had ever heard about, except whispers about somebody dying or some awful thing happening to them. I trusted the person [I was involved with] because he was very sophisticated, very wise in the ways of the world. He told me he knew a good, safe place in Youngstown, Ohio.
KE: Did you consider abortion as an option only after he suggested it?
Mary: Exactly. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and there wasn’t any place like [Women’s Health Services] to come and talk about my options. So, trusting his judgment, and trusting his ability to know what the accepted norms were, I went to Youngstown with him and his friend, the contact person, to this classic scene of a house. I think it may have been the same house in the book Back Rooms, because there’s one story about a woman from Cleveland who goes to Youngstown for an abortion. When I read that, I kept thinking, “I would like to find this woman,” because I don’t remember all that happened to me, and I feel like if I could find her I could fill in the blanks.
[When I went to the house], this doctor was an old man, and there was gambling going on in the front room. There were the three of us, and they left me; I don’t know where they went. I went into this room, which I don’t remember a whole lot about. There was a table. There was a calendar on the wall with the year of my birth, 20 years ago. When I saw the calendar I was sure I was going to die. It was like some prophecy. I was so very frightened, I’m not sure where reality left off, because I don’t remember anything. I don’t remember that man touching me.
KE: Were you anesthetized?
Mary: I don’t think so, but I don’t know. I remember him telling me, “You’re going to experience a lot of pain. Don’t worry about it, just take some aspirin and stay quiet.” Don’t tell anybody was the message I got.
We drove back to Pittsburgh and I had a roommate. She really stayed with me through this whole thing, through the pain and the hemorrhaging. I remember Leigh coming into my room and saying, “You’ve got to let me call your mother. You’ve got to let me call the doctor. You’ve got to let me take you to the emergency room.” And I remember saying, “I can’t, Leigh. They’ll put me in jail. I’ll be all right.”
So rather than go to jail and admit I had broken the law, I was ready to die. I was convinced I was going to. But good girls don’t go to jail; good girls don’t get pregnant; good girls certainly don’t go to Youngstown, Ohio and have illegal abortions. So I toughed it out.
Finally the hemorrhaging stopped and I managed to go back to work for a while. Then I had this terrible infection and I smelled so bad. So I thought, “Well, I can go to a doctor because there’s an infection.” I still wouldn’t tell him I had had an illegal abortion. He tested me for venereal disease and said, “You don’t have venereal disease, but we need to put you in the hospital. You’re very anemic. If you lose any more blood, you’re going to have to be admitted immediately. We’re going to have to give you transfusions.”
[But] I went back to work, and I started to hemorrhage again. [This time] I was admitted to the hospital and had several blood transfusions, had my D&C*, and then I remember my doctor bending over my bed and saying, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I started to cry and said, “I thought you’d lock me in jail.” And he said, “I would have taken care of you. You should have told me.”
KE: You had no way of knowing who was going to be hostile and who wasn’t?
Mary: No, absolutely not. I thought, you break the law, you go to jail, period. So I went on with my life, sort of pushing it back. I never told anyone except my roommate. I got married in 1961 and I tried for a number of years to get pregnant and I never could. But in 1968 I adopted my daughter Tracy, and I don’t feel any lack of having children because I’ve got Tracy.
KE: How long after your abortion did it take you to get you back on your feet, physically and emotionally?
Mary: This whole procedure, from getting pregnant to being in the hospital and the D&C, was a four- or five-month period. Then, like everybody else, I thought, “Oh, I’m never having sex with anybody ever again.” I truly did repress it, the whole idea that it happened to me. I just put it out of my mind.
In 1972 or ’73, I picked up a copy of Ms.Magazine; a number of celebrities who had had illegal abortions were listed. I can still remember crying and reading. It was very important to me that I had tapped into a whole group of people who had had the same experience I did.
KE: The man you were involved with, was he a support for you?
Mary: No. If he had been, and not been worried about himself, he would have picked me up in his arms and carried me to the emergency room. But he didn’t do that. He came [to my apartment] and looked at me and looked at Leigh and said, “Is she gonna be all right?” and left.
Women are such strong creatures, though. Lots of other women did exactly what I did. We all managed to live through it and we all managed to go back to work, back to school, or whatever. It’s unbelievable how brave women are.
When people ask me whether the anti-choice people in front of our clinic make any women change their minds, I say, “Absolutely not. Women used to risk their lives to terminate an unplanned pregnancy.” Anybody who is going to change her mind about having an abortion will do it here in the privacy of the counseling session. And that often happens.
KE: Do you at all regret your decision to have an abortion?
Mary: The decision at that time was entirely appropriate. I wasn’t ready to be a parent and I couldn’t have handled it financially or emotionally. It was a good decision; I just wish it could have been done in the safety of a clinic with proper counseling, and proper care.
KE: How do you think your life would be now if you hadn’t made that decision?
Mary: I know that in 1958, having an illegitimate child was not accepted the way it is now. But how my life would have turned out, I really don’t know. It’s just one of those mysteries. I’m satisfied with the way my life turned out.
KE: Does your experience as a young woman have a lot to do with your working at Women’s Health Services?
Mary: Absolutely. Walking through that recovery room and seeing somebody have their blood pressure taken, seeing the counseling rooms filled up during counseling sessions, somebody else getting a pat on the cheek—I couldn’t get that kind of care, but other women are getting it now. That makes it all right.
KE: What message would you send to young women about this issue?
Mary: I think young women have got to realize what the broader agenda of the anti-choice movement is. They want to eliminate certain kinds of birth control, like the pill—low-dosage birth control pills act as an abortifacient and they also want to get rid of abortion.
Women have made greater strides since 1973 than in any time in their history. It’s no mistake that the anti-choice forces want to take away reproductive freedom for women, because if you don’t have reproductive freedom, you can’t really think about becoming a lawyer, becoming a doctor. When you have control over your body, you have control over your life. That’s what young women need to understand. It’s not about abortion. It’s about power over women’s lives.
* D&C: A dilation and curettage procedure, also called a D&C, is a surgical procedure in which the cervix (lower, narrow part of the uterus) is dilated (expanded) so that the uterine lining (endometrium) can be scraped with a curette (spoon-shaped instrument) to remove abnormal tissues.
Red on red. Firey hot, turbulent, scraped, and streaked—the glowing red of the insides of the eyelids after staring at the sun. The world is a dangerous place and we need only this background riot of warm orange-reds, seen-better-days pale pinks, and muddy maroons to remind us of it.
At the center of the oil painting is a woman’s face in ashen pale blues. Her expression is neutral—one could read anything from bored to sad, sleepy, desperate, or haunted into it. The woman’s eyes, though—enlarged, swirling balls of red—make her look transfixed, hypnotized, zombiefied.
Draped atop the figure is surreal cloak in another raft of deep reds. The head of a hound—looking very much alive, minus its lower jaw—with attached forelimbs morphs into a full body covering.
“I’ve never been accused of making myself look too pretty in a painting,” says Annie Heisey of her self-portraits, “And I’m OK with that.”
I am too. “Protector” and its sister self-portrait “Sacrifice” (below) both draw their power from the vulnerability of their subject—her imperfections and fragility. I’ve written in these very e-pages about carrying a lifetime membership in the Fancy Brain Club. I’d offer up these two paintings as Exhibits A and B in the defense of art as an expression of that which words cannot fully describe. Both are featured in Heisey’s current show Uncharted Waters at Curio Cool.
Looking at these two arresting paintings, I immediately identified with the experience. When you’re in the hole, the world feels like that big wall of discordant reds. In this state, a person is always just one misaligned action away from squeezing that delicate starling just a little too tight.
“Like everyone during the pandemic, I was paying more attention to my mental health,” says Annie Heisey about “Protector” and its faithful-companion-as-emotional-shield metaphor. Heisey has two large boxers, one of whom very much acts as a security guard against any perceived threat. “She’s so brave in a lot of ways I wish I was,” Heisey says, “I like the shamanistic idea of wearing animal skins as a protective layer between me and the world.”
“Sacrifice” was inspired by a stained glass image included in this past winter’s Victorian Radicals show at the Frick Art Museum. In it, a woman clutches a bird to her chest in a way Heisey echoes in her self-portrait. “Sometimes I lash out at people,” Heisey says of her painting and the moods that inspired it, “When that happens, I wonder if I kill the things I love?”
If you’re familiar with Annie Heisey’s work, you know the magical children (that’s our term). The artist has four recurring youths—the children of her sister and a friend—who appear in states of blissed-out innocence and spellbound wonder throughout many of Heisey’s paintings in both the current show and past.
Often shirtless and alone, the kids are vulnerable in a way that’s hard to not to see as in-peril by our current awareness of stranger danger. Around these children swirl glowing lights and winsome creatures. It’s a rosy-eyed nostalgia for a childhood that may or may not have ever existed for anyone.
To spend any time with these paintings is to see there’s a real darkness beneath all those twinkling fireflies and carefree days at the lake.
In “Fathoms” (photo at top) a girl in a bathing suit wades in knee-deep water as glowing lights dance in the air above. It’s a lovely painting, but it’s no glamor portrait. The girl’s head is awkwardly cropped out of the frame and the vantage point is of someone standing on the shore—the subject clearly not aware of whoever may be watching. The subtlety of this perspective gives the artwork an off-kilter sensation where the girl is not the focus one might expect. Instead the viewer is left to complete a penciled-in narrative with only the slightest of details available.
A youth dressed in black from neck to ankle dangles from a tree limb in full autumn splendor. The image likely comes from a playful real life experience, but in Heisey’s “The Gingko Tree,” (above) the figure is set against a pitch black background with the disturbed rustle of falling leaves. With the child’s face and upper torso obscured by yellow foliage, it’s hard not to worry that something more sinister is afoot.
Heisey describes her own childhood as “idyllic,” but wants the paintings to speak to a cautionary reality for children at this tender age. “I want to say to them, ‘This is how you are now—before you grow up. But bad things are going to happen, just like they do for everyone.'”
Heisey has had her own bad things to deal with. The triple whammy of depression, PTSD, and a recent diagnosis of ADHD all make their way into the artwork. Heisey’s painting “The Butterflies Will Drink Your Tears” (above) is an attempt to render the ping-pong attention leaps of the latter as fluttering creatures, beautiful but uncontrollable.
“All the (magical children) paintings are self-portraits,” Heisey says, “A lot of artists use big ideas or philosophy as the basis for their art. My (reference) folder is my brain. All of my paintings are things that happened in my life.”
It doesn’t take Carl Jung to connect the dots between adult-grade trauma and wanting to revisit the safe innocence of an idealized youth—”Big time,” Heisey says of the relationship. Understanding this informs each painting with a depth way beyond its gorgeous palette and economical just enough composition.
Amazingly, being a realist painter in the twenty-first century is to be way out-of-step with the art world. Go to the next Carnegie International and I guarantee you’ll see plenty of broken chairs, paint-splattered mattresses, and grainy photographs of eddying mud pools—all served with academic prose that seems designed to make anyone without an MFA hate the art world. Oil portraits that reach deep into souls of everyday people? Notsomuch.
What Annie Heisey achieves with her artwork is daring and exciting. By taking her immense skill as a realist painter and then abstracting color and composition, removing excess detail, and creating space for the viewer to participate by filling in the blanks, we’re invited on a tantalizing journey that takes us from the mundane to the sublime, from the wrinkles of the face to the interior of the mind. Can’t ask for much more than that.
Uncharted Waters, Annie Heisey’s current show, is up now through the end of the month at Curio Cool, 113 North Main Street, Zelienople.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.]
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 Mark347 (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.
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.
“The Invention Of Headphones”
“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.
“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.)
“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.)
“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.
“Not Available In Stores”
“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.
“The Future Is Revolting”
“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.
Mark 347 at home [photo: Paul Schifino]
“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.”
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.
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.
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!
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!
“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.
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).
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
Rev. Murray, Hazelwood
What do you feel like you’ve learned through the project?
EASY!! I’ve fallen in love with this city!
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.
Valentino with map at the completion of walking Squirrel Hill
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).
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.'”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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 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.
“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.
“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.