The Blight Stuff: Nathan Van Patter’s “Bound by Blight”

Artist Nathan Van Patter with a sculpture of moving truck holding an entire deconstructed house
Artist Nathan Van Patter with his sculpture Moving Day 15104

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 curated wine 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.

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of dilapidated house
North Braddock House 6

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.

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of dilapidated house
North Braddock House 2

“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.”

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter featuring clock, sunshine over house, housing tower, police car, and ambulance
The Nights Are Too Big

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.

painting/sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of blue sky with clouds painted on cracked wooden boards
North Braddock Sky #2 (Cracked Sky)
portrait painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of woman with houses running around his head
Lisa
portrait painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of man with houses running around his head
Sean

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.

sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of police car with fences and street signs growing out of it
Community/Police

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.

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of angels flying over Taco Bell restaurant
Angels Over Taco Bell (with self-portrait at bottom)

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.”

painting/sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of small metal shop
Studebaker Metals
sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of medieval knight on horseback in grocery store
Grocery Knight

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.”

sculpture/painting by artist Nathan Van Patter of medieval knight on horseback
Deer Dragon (detail)

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.

painting/sculpture by artist Nathan Van Patter of science fiction-like space station made from old buildings
Rust Belt futurism: Space Station 15104
sculptures and paintings in large gallery space
Hope on the Mon River and other pieces from Nathan Van Patter’s Bound by Blight show

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.

More on Nathan Van Patter at his web site nathanvanpatter.com and/or Instagram @nathanvp_art.

From the Wrinkles of the Face to the Interior of the Mind: Navigating Uncharted Waters with Artist Annie Heisey

oil painting of girl in lake by Annie Heisey
“Fathoms” (2020) by Pittsburgh artist Annie Heisey. The painting appears in Heisey’s current show Uncharted Waters.

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.

self-portrait oil painting by Annie Heisey with dog draped around the artist like a cloak
“Protector” (2022)

“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.

self-portrait oil painting by Annie Heisey with artist holding a bird
“Sacrifice” (2022)

“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?”

oil painting of young boy by Annie Heisey
“Paloma’s Technicolor Dream” (2021)

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.

oil painting of young boy by Annie Heisey
“Child of the Light” (2022)

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.

oil painting of child hanging by arms from limb of gingko tree by artist Annie Heisey
“The Gingko Tree” (2022)

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.'”

oil painting of woman surrounded by butterflies by Annie Heisey
“The Butterflies Will Drink Your Tears” (2022)

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.

abstract oil painting in blue tones by artist Annie Heisey
“Abstract No. 3” (2021)

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.

artist Annie Heisey in front of a wall of small portraits
Annie Heisey in her Lawrenceville studio with many faces from the “Experimental Portrait Project” [photo: Annie Heisey]

Uncharted Waters, Annie Heisey’s current show, is up now through the end of the month at Curio Cool, 113 North Main Street, Zelienople.

You can find more on Annie Heisey at her web site, Instagram, or FaceBook Internet locations.

Send in the Clohns: John Lee, The Cardboard Caravaggio

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

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

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

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

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

Downtown, 2016

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

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

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

street art paintings of man with five eyes and panda bear

Shadyside, 2017

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

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

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

Downtown, 2016

street art painting of rhinoceros, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown, 2016

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

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

Lawrenceville, 2015

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

Garfield, 2014

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

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

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

street art painting of totem pole of various animals on cardboard

totem pole, Hazelwood, 2019

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

Hazelwood, 2019

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

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

street art painting of cat in pajamas on cardboard

cat’s (in) pajamas, Hazelwood, 2019

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

bird of the West, Hazelwood, 2019

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

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

John Lee installing the Honor System Art Gallery, Garfield

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

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

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

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

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

street art painting of deer with large antlers on cardboard

Hazelwood, 2019

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


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

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.

Behold the Hands of Holtz

Artist JR Holtz holding a painting of four women in bikinis

Artist J.R. Holtz with some of his sexy ladies

You may have run into J.R. Holtz just like we did (or do, quite often), out on the street. He sets up on Penn Avenue for the monthly Unblurred art crawls and every Saturday at the Artisan Market in the Strip District. At either location, you’ll find him camped out with an eight-foot folding table covered with dozens of his small- and medium-sized paintings. Each one comes in a repurposed picture frame–or even an entire wooden window–and they’re all for sale at extremely reasonable prices.

several small, framed paintings by artist JR Holtz

Holtz’ recent artwork for sale in the Strip District

J.R., who creates under the moniker Hands of Holtz, tells us he paints every day and he’s been at it since the mid-1980s. His subjects are all across the board: cartoon characters, superheroes, pop culture figures, nature images, family scenes, science fiction, and Pittsburgh sports. On our most recent visit, there were portraits of Prince, Jimi Hendrix, and Muhammed Ali; likenesses of Mighty Mouse, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. Several scenes from Star Wars made their way to Holtz’ glass panes, as had fad-du-jour Pokemon creatures.

painting of Prince in front of an open window with a purple sky and lightning by JR Holtz

Prince/purple lightning

2-color painting of Star Wars characters by JR Holtz

Star Wars

But let’s cut the crap: you’re going to notice the sexy ladies first. It’s hard to focus on Spider Man when there’s this much bare skin going around. Not since the glory days of Cinemax or those weird shaving cream ads they used to run during hockey games has there been semi-public soft-core erotica on display like this.

J.R. is the first to admit “I like the ladies!” and it’s safe to say he isn’t lying. There are strong warrior-princesses, tattooed big-boobed sports fans, tawdry hoochie-mamas, yoga posers with naughty underwear, and lots and lots of smiling, bikini babes–often with added glitter details and bonus Steeler emblems, just for good measure.

painting of woman wearing pink hat, gloves, boots, and skin-tight pants (but no shirt) bending over by JR Holtz

Pink Lady

Many of the images are taken from existing photographs, but Holtz says some of the ladies are friends who pose for pictures knowing they’ll be turned into future paintings. Individual requests and interests of the models are incorporated into the artwork, as are other extra bedazzled features including color-changing paints, glitterized jewelry, and inset photos.

I asked Holtz what the reaction is when unexpecting Saturday shoppers accidentally browse across the decidedly PG-13 content. “Some of them start walking real fast,” he chuckles.

Painting of man in 1970s clothes with caption "Back in the Day"

Back in the Day

J.R. describes his own artwork as novelty, and it’s tempting to overlook it as such. He paints directly on glass which gives the final images a glossy, finished look–almost like when you see framed “cels” from animation. The subject matter is as populist as it comes–you could imagine some of these pieces on sale in a turnpike gift shop. Matthew Barney or Damien Hirst, this ain’t.

But with the flat perspective, heavy black outlines, and single-color schemes, the end result reminds us of a different art superstar on the very other end of the spectrum, Howard Finster. Like Finster, Holtz’s style appears untrained or “naive”, but there’s a beautiful honesty to it–even when the subject is Jedi Master Yarael Poof*.

JR Holtz standing in front of his paintings for sale, Pittsburgh, PA

JR Holtz with more of his recent paintings, Strip District

Holtz is also one of the kindest and nicest artists you’ll meet. He wouldn’t ape for the camera, but don’t believe it–every time we’ve talked with him, J.R. is all smiles, high energy, positive vibes, and can’t wait to tell you about his work.

This blogger doesn’t know what he likes, but he knows art. We probably wouldn’t chose to decorate Chez Orbit with any of the beach babes–at least, we haven’t picked any of those up yet–but we especially love many of his portraits and simpler two-color work. When J.R. hits, it’s as serious as a heart attack and as true as an arrow.


* Not pictured, but among The Orbit‘s small collection of Holtzs.