When last we left Woodwell Street—a single long residential block at the north end Squirrel Hill—it was full of bright color. Thin streamers from every point in the rainbow decorated lamp posts and trees like electric shafts of light. House after house, the community art project was a wonderful, safe, deep pandemic way to get out and experience little bursts of joy.
Woodwell Street is at it again, read the email from dedicated streetwalker Lisa Valentino, and she wasn’t kidding. (The block mounted a yarn bombing project between then and now, we’re told, but we missed that one.) Woodwell Street is currently host to an excerpt of Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” displayed (mostly) one word at a time, house-by-house, in block letters attached to front porches and dug into flower beds.
The poem, written for and first delivered at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, is a call to action. To merge mercy with might and might with right are fabulous words with terrific intention. Walking down Woodwell Street on a blessedly beautiful day like the one we happened to catch is a wonderful experience of community effort, but putting those heady words into action isn’t so easy. Let’s all see what we can do.
There is a melancholy to the exhibition: themes of darkness, loneliness, one very literal cry for help. Among the images, you’ll find birds soaring in flight and stretched-out cats, abstractions and twinkling stars–but these are the exception.
If Orbit staff were laying out a catalog for the collection, our cover would feature the image of a single small piece installed on a utility pole. In it, a figure has been cut from a tin can lid and painted a rich spring green. The devil’s horns are bent and rusted and his eyes are cut out to make us believe we can stare right through the back of his cranium. In hand-lettered paint marker is a simple descriptor alluding to exactly that: A Lost Soul.
Elsewhere, there are instructions to Give yourself to the nite (sic.), a pair of unoccupied dinette seats, our favorite tin can pole artist’s tell-tale devils, martini glasses, hearts, and arrows. The artwork is made from recycled metal bits and bobs, a discarded cutting board, even the door from a standard-issue mailbox.
It is artwork from the trash bin, placed deeply out-of-sight–as if thrown into the void–and likely only ever experienced by fellow lost souls who hear the cryptic pieces whispering from cracks in the wood … or maybe that’s just the way it seems.
Skunk Hollow, the deep valley that separates Bloomfield from Polish Hill and North Oakland, won’t appear on any regional cultural guides; you’ll not find it featured in glossy magazines or listed among Pittsburgh’s next hottest neighborhoods. In fact, “The Hollow” doesn’t even show up on maps of the city (at least, not by that name). Its derisive title is merely a people’s collective dismissal of the out-of-sight/out-of-mind not-quite-a-real-neighborhood.
There are some good reasons for all this. Skunk Hollow hosts one of the more convenient spots in the city to illegally dump a La-Z-Boy recliner or an old television–plenty of people have chosen to do just that. The handful of businesses located along Neville Street are not what you’d call boutiques–they’re more of the rock-moving, general contracting, and looking-for-new-occupants varieties. Japanese knotweed has completely consumed the steep hillside and makes an effective trap for all of the blown-around street trash as it washes over Bloomfield’s banks.
So if the Convention and Visitors Bureau wants to pitch Skunk Hollow as a special place for out-of-towners to explore on their limited time in the ‘Burgh, they’ve got their work cut out for them.
But for those of us waking up ridiculously early, obsessively walking many mental health miles at daybreak, the Hollow is a welcome open air experimental art detour. Its randomly-curated works speak to the solitude of the early hour and themes of escaping into the night, tiny devils playing hell with our synapses, and you are not alone messaging make for a kind of communal balm for the disconnected.
The Skunk Hollow Art Walk is not what you’d call accessible. There is one big hill, one Y-shaped flight of city steps (we’ll get to those), and a road surface with no accommodation for pedestrians. Worry not, though, it’s unlikely you’ll see any other human beings–with or without vehicles–during the length of your visit. Walking in the street tends to work out just fine when you’re the only one there.
Viewing the environment on foot is an absolute requirement as all the little objets d’art are scaled for up-close examination and located in the kinds of niche spaces one must poke around thoroughly to see at all. One of the photos here (I loved kissing her in the rain, below) was achieved only by climbing up the hillside, bearhugging a utility pole with one arm, and then using the dumb selfie camera so I could get a photo of a tin can painting that I couldn’t actually see from my precarious position.
For the directionally-challenged, don’t worry about getting lost in Skunk Hollow. There is only one road that traverses the short distance between Bloomfield’s backside and the old Iron City brewery. In typical Pittsburgh fashion, it goes by three different names–Lorigan, Neville, and Sassafras–in its approx. 3/4 mile run.
Most of the art is found along sloping Lorigan Street, from the Ella Street steps down to the bottom of the hill, so a greatest hits visitor could drop in for some tin can pole art and still make it to Tessaro’s for an early dinner. But really, why not go “full Hollow” and walk the length of it. It’s a little more spartan at the bottom, but by the end you’ll be rewarded with some great wheatpaste pieces on the old brewery.
The last time The Orbit reported from Skunk Hollow we were on the step beat, there to check out the great Ella Street (aka the “Try Try Try”) city steps. We’ll not go over all that here, but this bit of you can do it self-affirmation infrastructure is totally of a piece with the collection of street art that surrounds it.
What’s been added to the steps (since that 2015 story) is its own terrific set of oddball ephemera. The bolted-on scrap parts truck (photo above) is thankfully still there, right at the lowest landing. It’s been joined by a tiny sculpture of simple chairs, placards, handrail ramblings, one repurposed wooden puppet-like thing, and a mystery mailbox.
A fancy art museum, this ain’t–but then again, no one visiting The Carnegie gets to experience the thrill of risking both poison ivy and tetanus in their bloodthirsty pursuit of new tin can pole art. As combined art happening/aerobic workout, Skunk Hollow is hard to beat. Plus, the hours are great and the price is right.
Yes, attendees of the Skunk Hollow Art Walk will have to negotiate some broken glass and a few salty words committed in spray paint on the jersey barriers along the roadside–oh, there’s also that mystery odor. But, like poking through a thrift shop or digging through used records, a visit rewards the patience of the art lover willing to do a little work for a commensurate dose of oddball magic.
An electric aqua-blue shaft of light shoots from the heavens, down through thick tree tops, and ricochets from short rods pounded into the earth. The visible energy is focused and transformed back to a tree trunk, a brick pillar, a front porch fixture. Down the block, a full spectrum of color blasts overhead, making direct contact with a low hedge at the front of another house. The phenomenon continues up and down the street and around the corner–reconfigured, alternately arranged, and impressively coordinated so that no two homes appear at all similar.
In each case, the colored lines have the magical quality of both rays of light, frozen into fixed, timeless position, but also fluttering ever so slightly in the soft breeze as to trick the eye into seeing a bewildering array of subtle hues from even a single one of these mass-extruded plastic streamers.
Woodwell Street is a single, long residential block in North Squirrel Hill. Its tidy array of pre-war four squares and arts & crafts double houses are reliably well-maintained with groomed, flowers-a-poppin’ front yards and neighbors intensely tending to their hedge rows and raised vegetable gardens. The number of Bernie for President, All Are Welcome Here, and Black Lives Matter yard signs says much about the demographics of its residents. [Whether any black lives actually, you know, own property here is a separate question.]
The phrase keeping up with the Joneses has such a derogatory slant, but feels applicable here. One imagines the arrival of a new Prius or enameled 24″ Weber as front-page news on a street as uniformly kempt and free-of-strife as Woodwell. Neighbors appear loathe to allow the green grass any more than three inches in height before a regularly-scheduled haircut; there is neither peeling paint nor discarded litter anywhere to be seen. Good luck finding a statue of Mary.
So the introduction of bright plastic colors, freeform conceptual art, and public expression–if only within a tight set of coordinated parameters–seems like it must represent some kind of seismic shift in the community landscape of Woodwell Street. Each household must ask the inevitable existential question: are we traditionalists or are we with the color revolution?
“Surreal environmental installation artist” Christo passed away on May 31 at the age of 84. The Woodwell Street streamers were well under way by this point, so at best, we can consider these works a prescient or coincidental tribute to the artist who, along with his wife and creative partner Jeanne-Claude, achieved fame by creating elaborate, grand-scale works redecorating nature. The two covered an island in pink polypropylene, ran fabric fencing into the ocean, and constructed 7,500 safron-colored gates throughout New York’s Central Park in the dead of winter, among many other projects.
While it’s tempting to title an article with the cheeky name Anti-Christo, that would do both the lawn decorators of Squirrel Hill and the namesake a disservice. These pieces are imaginative, fun, and achieve exactly what Christo and Jeanne-Claude were after: they get the visitor to look at both the built environment and the flora that surrounds it in new and different ways. They also manage to achieve that with the cheapest and most accessible of materials. For this, we’re going with Budget Christo.
While any time is the right time for fun walkabout/drive-by public art, it seems especially appropriate right now. We all want to get out and there’s nowhere to go; we all want to help out and that means staying home. By creating a no-contact, anyone-can-join-in open air art environment, the Woodwell Street neighbors have taken the challenge and created something beautiful from it. [Editor’s note: see last week’s story on Remly Way, the “Alleyway of Magical Delights,” for a similar but different project.]
Needless to say, Woodwell Street is looking good right now and the streamer houses are really something special and well worth a visit. By its very nature, this a temporary installation at best, so take the opportunity and walk on by.
Getting there: Woodwell Street runs between Dallas and Barnsdale in north Squirrel Hill. You’ll find most of the streamer-decorated properties there, but also make sure to check out the neighboring, parallel streets Ridgeville and Kinsman, where there are more.
Thanks to Orbit reader and inveterate neighborhood walker Lisa Valentino for the tip on this fine project.
Consider it a wild weekend with woebegone weeds or First Fridays for forgotten ferns. Heck, this may even qualify as the Make a Wish Foundation for misunderstood moss. Whatever you call it, there’s a new street-level contemporary art walk on exhibit now–for what may be a very limited run–in Central Lawrenceville.
pipe cleaner fern and moss frame
Someone has taken the fascinating step of constructing simple colorful rectangular frames from mismatched pipe cleaners and attached them to an old stone retaining wall along 45th Street, bordering St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery.
Their placement on the soot-blackened stones is no haphazard act of vandalism or careless littering–no, they’ve been very precisely curated to frame and highlight the kind of the minute nature dioramas that appear around us everywhere, all the time, but usually go unnoticed. In lieu of anything more witty, we’re calling these fern frames.
popsicle stick fern frame
Nature is an absolutely amazing thing–and one that we can reasonably trust to outlive and survive the appetite-for-extinction behavior of the human race. In every sidewalk crack, a burst of life; on each block of pavement, itty-bitty creatures scurrying around, just doing their thing. And yes, in the thin vertical spaces between wall stones and mortar joints there exist tiny blasts of green in the form of soft fuzzy moss, delicate miniature weeds, the spindly leaves of little ferns.
pipe cleaner moss frame
We have no idea what motivated the person or persons responsible to construct and place the fern frames–they come with neither attribution nor artist statement. So we’re left to speculate on what’s going on with these simple displays. Are they a goofy stunt with leftover crafting materials? Psychological experiment? Candid Camera-style prank where The Orbit is the butt of the joke?
Anything’s possible, but to the imaginative mind what these little pieces seem to say echoes Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s famous couplet I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree. You can put a lot of effort into painting a picture, singing a song, or–gulp–writing a blog post, but you’re not going to top Mother Nature. Look around! Keep those peepers open! The world is a wonderful and mystifying place.
It can be really hard given the news of the day–you name the day–and, yes, people have all kinds of heaviness they’re dealing with. But what these little fern frames seem to say is, don’t just stop and smell the roses–those sell-outs already get enough attention!–put your schnoz right down in between the cracks in the sidewalk and up against the stones in the wall. There is so much beauty all around us, but sometimes it takes an anonymous stranger with a couple pipe cleaners to point it out to us.