Onions and Rabbit Ears: Pulling the Strings on The Dragon of Polish Hill

puppeteers Dave English and Will Schutze

Puppets of Masters: Dave English and Will Schutze, co-creators of the new puppet film “The Dragon of Polish Hill”

The only constant, “dark” philosopher Heraclitus was wont to say, is change. This prescient statement–issued a couple thousand years before anyone thought about a designated hitter, Kardashian regime, or beer sales in Pennsylvania grocery stores–is proven true over and over again. From macro tectonic shifts of global climate change and computer technology wiping out entire industries to weeds breaking through pavement in the back alley, we are all powerless against the gale force winds of change affecting things big and little, anywhere and everywhere.

That basic tenet–times will change and so do the people and places that exist within them–forms one of the themes running through The Dragon of Polish Hill. The puppet play-turned-puppet film experienced its own radical reimagining as the global coronavirus pandemic shut down a just-getting-started theatrical production and eventually spawned a no one-planned-it-this-way feature-length movie.

The story is very Pittsburgh: it’s got polka, old timers clashing with punk rockers, at least one urban legend, and of course it’s set in perhaps Pittsburgh’s most Pittsburgh of neighborhoods–Polish Hill.

In lieu of lots of busy schedules, we were limited to an electronic Q&A with co-creators Dave English and Will Schutze in advance of the film’s debut (online) screenings this week. They graciously answered The Orbit’s questions and provided all the great behind-the-scenes photos included here.

Full disclosure: publishing The Orbit is a labor-of-love; we pay the rent by scoring puppet shows. Orbit staff were involved with creating some of the music used in The Dragon of Polish Hill.

puppeteer with marionette on stage set including city buildings and smoke

Smoky city [photo: Renee Rosensteel]

Tell me about The Dragon of Polish Hill. Where did the idea come from? Is there a dragon in Polish Hill? How has the story changed since its original conception?

Dave English: The Dragon of Polish Hill is a 120-minute puppet movie based on a play written by Dave English and co-produced with collaborator Will Schutze. English a native of Pittsburgh and planted the roots of this show almost two decades ago in doodles of old Polish Hill residents, then further developed the concept as a Brew House Distillery Resident Artist back in 2010. The story combines reality and fantasy to create a post-industrial folklore where an old man made from onions and a rabbit-eared hipster punk get into a fight in coffee shop and then become buddies. The story has evolved over the years to include the pre-existing character, Willy James, a product of Schutze’s imagination and a puppet with his own life prior to playing the antagonist in this show. It also began as a play for a live audience but was canceled due to the pandemic. Now it has since been reimagined as a film. Yes: there was once a dragon in Polish Hill. The last time anyone saw it was 1964.

Will Schutze: The idea came from Dave. I believe that at its conception–years before I met Dave, Stanley Onion wasn’t an onion man. He was a regular guy who ran a livery service. The story was more focused on the end of a neighborhood. Now Willy James, a puppet I made gets to play the antagonist (in a way). Dave completely blew my mind when he sent me the script.

puppet stage set including four model buildings

Old Pittsburgh. Polish Hill street set.

The story deals with the sometimes ugly subjects of generational clash, gentrification, and displacement. Is there hope for the future?

DE: The story touches on gentrification, elder neglect, racism, and other typical power distortions because that’s what I saw everywhere. I wrote this whole thing years ago and revised it in 2017. It’s weird how many things in the play gained new relevance since then. What a time to write a play with a pandemic reference in it … before the pandemic happens.

Is there hope? Yes. I think the play ends hopefully. I am a hopeful person. I study history and I see trends and cycles. I see examples of the world being worse off than where we are right now. I have hope because I work with kids and I’m giving them the message they need to be better people than me. I have hope also because I believe in magic and miracles. Not as a nerd or a lunatic, but because that shit is real. Me and my buddy make little creatures come to life. We make people laugh and live insane lives. We’re lucky. We pulled off a puppet movie during a pandemic. But I shouldn’t be surprised because puppetry has already survived many plagues, so we’ll survive this one.

WS: Definitely. People get real with each other. They are forced to communicate just to make it through the day. We gotta figure it out.

puppeteers Will Schultze and Dave English costumed as butchers

Puppetry ain’t pretty–but it sure tastes good. Schultze and English butchering “The Dragon of Polish Hill.”

Why puppets? Why polka?

DE: We’re puppeteers because it is in our DNA to make puppets. Both of us have some underlying evolutionary motivation to make inanimate objects come to life. Puppets are fantastic and allow you to tell stories that go to stranger places.

Why Polka? As a style and a theme polka is generally associated with an older population who largely moved away from urban ethnic neighborhoods in the mid to late 20th century. I live in Polish Hill and my neighbor blasts polka radio shows every Sunday afternoon. I also grew up going to polka events with my parents and their friends when I was a kid, I genuinely like polka.

WS: I think I can speak for Dave a bit as well and say that it’s what we are passionate about. We’ve chosen/been chosen by the puppets. It’s a mysterious thing. I actually gotta leave it at that.

puppet performance areas in large theater

“The Dragon of Polish Hill” film set at New Hazlett Theater

This started as a theatrical/live-action puppet show and has necessarily turned into a puppet movie (because of the pandemic). How has the transition between media been? Has anything in the story substantively changed?

DE: Some things have changed but nothing major. The butcher shop scene and the intro music were going to be a pre-show delight for a live audience finding their seats, That doesn’t work any more. The introduction of the dragon is very different. Overall we had to rethink a lot of things and continuously remind ourselves that the format is changed. It wasn’t easy but it happened surprisingly smoothly. I have to credit the talent around me.

WS: The story is the same, and actually, there was already a video element Dave wrote into the show early on. Dave and I had done some shows in the past using video projection behind live marionette performance. Dave included that technique in the script and Joe Serkoch and I both captured many video elements for the first installment of this show. I had already edited all the pre-recorded audio, which included amazing original music created by The Upholsterers. Dave wrote all the lyrics. I did some songs. So much stuff was prerecorded and, although intended for a live theatrical performance, it actually is going to totally work out in the filming and editing process.

It’s weird–like really strange that in the show, a central part of the plot is Stanley’s story having the potential of being turned into a movie. I could go on and on and on discussing the super deep meta-ness of this show and the way it’s coming together, but I’ll hold back. We are so grateful for the recorded voice work that was done on this show at such early stages when we were just beginning to put the pieces together. I was blown away by coming to this town from Texas and seeing the communal support friends, artists, and creators of all kinds engage in to make beautiful things happen. It happens in other places I’ve lived, but I have now had the privilege of collaborating with someone, Dave, who has put in the work to really know how to bring people together for a positive experience that is hopefully enriching for all involved. I’m so glad we’re at this point.

detail of puppet stage with marionette sitting in home setting

Sometimes a banana is just a banana

Is there anything else you’d like Orbit readers to know about the show?

DE: If you want to cancel culture us that’s fine but you shouldn’t have waited until the world was ending.

WS: It’s really good. It hasn’t been easy, but nothing has for anyone recently. It has definitely been fun and rewarding, and we hope that our puppet/music/theater/video alchemy yields something rewarding for all who watch.

puppeteer Will Schutze working on computer

Schutze at work, video editing “The Dragon of Polish Hill”

What’s next for the show? For each of you as puppeteers/artists?

DE: It is hard to say what is next for anyone these days. Our lives hinge between a global pandemic, a new social revolution, and a madman election that could lead to the end of our democracy. A puppet show like ours is a feather in the wind against these forces. We’re magical weirdos who feel damn lucky and privileged to even be doing any of this right now. So many other people had shows canceled and that was it. Too bad. But we got to finish the damn show and somehow ended up with a full length puppet movie. Our plan was to shop it to theaters all around the country and do a tour–the whole thing is built to fold up and be transportable–but theaters are closed. Audiences are reluctant. I don’t blame them. So now we don’t have a live show to shop around. Now we have a movie and for me that is new territory. So we’re shopping a movie around.

WS: This show has already gone through so many stages and permutations. I will be extremely happy once we complete the film and share it with folks. I truly believe it is going to have a good life. I definitely look forward to more adventures with Dave and I am so glad to be making these connections with all yinz too.

stage shot of marionette on film set

The outlaw Willy James

To watch any of the upcoming free (donations accepted) screenings of The Dragon of Polish Hill, register ahead of time here: https://www.crowdcast.io/newhazletttheater

There are three scheduled screenings:

  • Thursday, Sept. 24 at 8 PM
  • Friday, Sept. 25 at 11 AM
  • Friday, Sept. 25 at 8 PM

All photos courtesy of Dave English and Will Schutze, except where noted.

Barbie’s Dream Cult

collection of Barbie dolls displayed on chain link fence in the sunshine

Fun in the sun. A handful of the hundreds of dolls in Barbie’s Dream Cult, Polish Hill.

If you were a kid that played with dolls and ever wondered whatever happened to them, now we know. They ended up here, on an overgrown former basketball court in Polish Hill.

Barbie dolls are everywhere[1]. Placed into tree branches and tied to fencing, dangling from a basketball hoop and performing headless yoga in the buff. They appear in clustered groups large enough to field a sports team and as loners cast off into the mud. Some look joyful–in relaxed repose, absorbing the morning sunshine–others have been abused and contorted, stripped bare and dismembered.

And then, rising from the twisted, haphazardly-tossed little bodies at the rear of the space, is the motherlode. At least a hundred dolls–probably more–forming the shape of a giant Valentine’s heart across a wide section of chain link fence.

large number of Barbie dolls hung on a chain link fence in the shape of a heart

Big love. The heart at the center of Barbie’s dream cult.

“Part Marwen, part Jonestown Massacre,” was artist Lisa Valentino‘s brief description after coming across the collection of Barbies on one of her WATSOP (Walk All the Streets of Pittsburgh) hikes. That enticing teaser, plus a handful of photos, was all it took to send the Orbit on a mad dash to see for ourselves.

You could accurately call this little out-of-control diorama a Pink Plastic Crime Scene or maybe Return to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s both the oxymoronic street art in the woods and an exploded American fantasy. Ultimately, between the Druidic imagery of The Wicker Man and the visions of The Peoples Temple, Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate lingering in the cranium, we settled on Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Welcome-to-the-Cult Hostess Barbie

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence with wooden hex symbol

High Druid Priestess Barbie

Barbie has done a lot of things in her 60+ year history. Why, the Mattel Corporation is not so tone deaf here in the 21st century as to ignore expanding their flagship brand into all manner of dress-up outfits. One can now purchase Barbie the trial judge, astronaut, entomologist, astrophysicist, and robotics engineer. On her time off from drilling cavities and performing root canals at the dentist’s office, Barbie, D.D.S., enjoys beekeeping, pet-grooming, baseball, art, and tending chickens in the backyard. The list goes on and on.

That’s all great … but none of these focused, career-minded young ladies ended up here. No, among the hundreds of dolls scattered about, we spotted exactly one roller-skater, one Jazzerciser, and one apparent employee of Pizza Hut wearing a cropped t-shirt and miniskirt combo that almost certainly fails to meet the restaurant chain’s dress code.

Despite the wide array of careers and avocations Barbie is now free to pursue, the cult clearly appeals most to a more conservative–or, at least, traditional–young lady, almost entirely white and blonde, whose sartorial preferences lean toward pink party dresses and formal evening gowns[2].

dolls dressed in Pizza Hut shirt and roller skater gear

Sent-Home-With-a-Warning Barbie / Roller Skater Barbie

collage of Barbie dolls in fancy dresses

Formal dress Barbies

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that these are just plastic dolls that happened to end up the way most of their fellow children’s toys do: played-with, dropped in the dirt, broken-apart, and left behind. We find them in the street all the time.

That said, it has to be noted that today, in the #MeToo era, the image of so many post-adolescent/not-quite-fully-adult young women, lifeless, often stripped bare, and dramatically discarded in the woods, is somewhere between disconcerting and hardcore creepy. Hopefully you’ve never come across anything like this in real life, but watch any episode of Law & Order or Broadchurch–let alone the evening news–and it will often feature a similar-looking tragic young victim as Plot Point 1.

collage of blond Barbie doll heads on pavement

Heads-a-poppin’ Barbies

Barbie dolls dressed in bathrobe and exercise outfit

Rough Morning Barbie / Jazzercise Barbie

If Jan and/or Dean are still fantasizing over the mythical Surf City’s two-to-one gender ratio, they’ll completely flip their noggins when they arrive at Barbie’s Dream Cult. Kens do make  appearances here–both in the big Barbie art heart and tossed around the premises–but they’re easily outnumbered ten- or twenty-to-one.

If you’re a Ken, that’s the good news. (I guess?) The bad news is the Kens have been brutalized as much as any of the Barbies. Missing limbs, heads, and all/most of their clothes, Kens are found covered in dirt, with their pants around their ankles, buck naked, and frozen into ice. Maybe Surf City was a better plan after all.

collage of Ken dolls resting on dirt

Hey, ladies! Pants-Around-the-Ankles Ken / Which-Way-to-the-Phish-Concert Ken

collage of Ken dolls frozen in an icy creek

What a way to go. Two versions of You-Messed-with-the-Wrong-Barbie Ken

The obvious question: what are all these Barbie dolls doing here? For this we need to declare an official Spoiler Alert. We received some insider information, but if you’d rather not know and just let it remain a mystery, feel free to skip ahead.

We were lucky enough to get this short history from a Polish Hill resident, intimately involved with Barbie’s Dream Cult:

The Barbie heart story started originally with a guy in the neighborhood who bought all the Barbies to make an art car. Other people in the neighborhood felt the car was creepy and people started to say things on the Internet insinuating he was some kind of pervert and that they wished him harm. So, the gentleman took the Barbies off his car and well, what else do you do with that many Barbies? He graciously donated them to the abandoned courts.

In the beginning they were all in bags and rubber tubs and they sat there for a while. I took em out to write my name in Barbies and photograph it. Since then, they’ve been getting thrown all over the place. The heart was made by another human who wanted to remain mysterious about its origins and meanings.

collage of broken dolls found in the woods

Headless Yoga Barbie / Arm-Where-It-Shouldn’t-Be Ken / Whole-Lotta-Pink-Hair Barbie / Half-a-Horse

Barbie dolls placed in thick vine wood

Run for your life! Escape-While-You-Still-Can Barbies

Now, it’s probably safe to say that not everyone in the neighborhood considers leaving bags of Barbie dolls outside for public dismemberment is a “gracious donation.” From our vantage point, though, it’s an intriguing opportunity.

We can think of a lot worse things than this little abandoned corner of Polish Hill becoming a kind of ever-changing Barbie art park, outdoor creative space, or just another weird Pittsburgh thing to discover. It could also be a one-of-a-kind, no-questions-asked Barbie lending library: Need a Barbie? Take a Barbie. Have a Barbie? Leave a Barbie.

Barbie doll placed in a tree branch

Footloose, fancy-free, and hanging in a tree Barbie

Barbie takes a lot of well-deserved heat–for her does-not-exist-in-nature body proportions, reliably Aryan features, and dress-up-and-look-pretty career goals. This is a chance to counter that–to take a tiny amount of the world’s Barbies and do something new and innovative with them.

The last thing Marine Biologist Barbie or Wildlife Conservationist Barbie want is for the mountain of molded pink plastic the Mattel Corporation has brought into the world to end up casually thrown out, minced up, and washed out to sea for an even larger Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the real doctrine of Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Naked and not ashamed. Nudist Colony Barbie


[1] We’re using the names Barbie and Ken generically here. The dolls likely come from many different sources and are not necessarily all Barbie® brand toys.
[2] In fairness, many of the dolls have been stripped of all clothing, so it’s impossible to establish if these may have originally worn different outfits.

The Protractor Files: One Last Big Score

protractor glued to Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield Bridge

Oh, their demon powers! The perfect arc, the cosine-solving magic, the eternal urban egg hunt! Wherever we go, that’s where we are–and so are they! Attached to the low wall of a concrete pedestrian walkway, stuck to the base of a lamp pole, glued to a park bench, painted red and white on a Polish Hill mailbox. Like the protagonist of any decent jewel heist flick, just when this blogger thought he was out, the Pittsburgh protractors held a dear family member hostage, blackmailing him back to the game for one last score.

protractor glued to base of light pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Squirrel Hill

protractor glued to electrical box, Pittsburgh, PA

#32, Strip District

When Pittsburgh Orbit first wrote about them last year, we suggested right in the post’s title that the protractors are “disappearing”. The existing stock seemed to be in the process of removal by authorities, stripped by trophy-seekers, weather-eroded, and/or painted-over with no replacements arriving to replenish the supply.

Given a little time and perspective, though, reports of the protractors’ demise seem to be somewhat–if not greatly–exaggerated. Many of the specimens spotted in this spree–certainly the solid purple and yellow ones photographed here–appear to be new, unnumbered additions to the landscape since last we looked.

If so, why the change of M.O.? Did the protractor perpetrator just get lazy? Lose count? Or do we have a copycat on our hands? One Office Max dumpster dive plus a tube of Shoe Goo[1] and anyone could add to the city’s long-running street art mystery.

protractor attached to mail box, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield Bridge

And what a mystery it is! How does anyone keep their big yap shut for this long without spilling the beans?

Is there a message to the protractors we’re all just too blind to see? Do they actually mean something or is this just someone’s goofy prank? Like the Trump voter coming to the realization the pathological liar he elected was telling the truth in just enough horrifying ways, are we in on the joke, or the butt of it?

Ah, hell. Maybe that’s something that could–and should–be said of all art[2]. If these little plastic doohickeys glued to nondescript bridge joints and light pole bases get people off their keisters, stretching their gams, asking questions, and looking at the world a little closer, you know, I.R.L. we’ll be happy to take a few lumps for Team Humanity.

protractor attached to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to I-beam in city park, Millvale, PA

Millvale Riverfront Park

protractor glued to pedestrian overpass, Pittsburgh, PA

Pedestrian overpass, Bigelow Blvd.

purple protractor attached to "Receiving Entrance" sign on stone building, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

purple protractor attached to metal expansion joint on bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

40th Street Bridge

protractor attached to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to park bench, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

See also:
A Paean to the Disappearing Pittsburgh Protractors Pittsburgh Orbit, June 5, 2016.
A Protractor Bender Pittsburgh Orbit, June 30, 2016.


[1] “Sources say” this is the origin story and application method for the protractors, but that is not confirmed.
[2] That the protractors may be “art” versus, say, “prank” or “graffiti” is worthy of its own debate.

Down Under: The Bloomfield Bridge Troll

Silhouette of the Polish Hill troll, Pittsburgh, PA

Under the bridge, up in the sky. The Bloomfield Bridge Troll.

Every bridge should have a troll. Some may even deserve a couple.

It hadn’t ever occurred to this blogger that there was room for more than one of the creatures under any given bridge. That is, until he surveyed the fiefdom of The Bloomfield Bridge Troll. Down under that high span, on the steep incline of the Polish Hill side, it is obvious that there is room enough for neighboring Bloomfield to host their own troll to guard his or her side of the deep Skunk Hollow ravine in-between. The two “bridge buddies” may never even get to meet!

Boxy head with top hat of the Polish Hill troll, Pittsburgh, PA

Hard-headed, but well-dressed. The Bloomfield Bridge Troll in top hat.

Perhaps every bridge having its own troll is a little fanciful. Who’d want to get stuck under one of those featureless highway overpasses with a busy interstate rushing by and the only decoration being the reliable Trust Jesus graffiti? Not this bridge-under-hanger-outer, I can tell you that.

On the opposite end, consider some little footbridge over a culvert or babbling brook–no troll with any self-respect is going to hole-up in a hovel s/he can’t even stand upright in.

The Polish Hill troll and concrete support for the Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

The Bloomfield Bridge Troll and concrete bridge support, decoration by paint pellets

The Bloomfield Bridge is no great architectural marvel, but its span is so long and its gulf so deep that those with a fear of heights (ahem) can get a little nauseous just looking down on the long walk over it. From the bridge deck you can see sights in all directions: tall buildings downtown, The Strip District, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Schenley Heights, Oakland’s Cathedral of Learning.

Under the bridge is just as interesting: there are train tracks in heavy use, the East busway, and an assortment of the old industry buildings that dot the single road, which amazingly has three names*. It’s hard to get lost in a place that’s one-way-in/one-way-out, but Skunk Hollow will do its best to accommodate.

The Polish Hill troll with Bloomfield visible in the distance, Pittsburgh, PA

A troll’s eye view of Bloomfield across Skunk Hollow

Pittsburgh famously calls itself the “City of Bridges,” with varying counts putting us at one of the top four in total quantity for the world**. Given that we have between 446 and 2000 bridges, depending on who’s counting–and how–it stands to reason that we’d have an enormous troll population.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Aside from the uninspired Troll’s Restaurant*** (not quite under the 31st Street Bridge on Washington’s Landing), the Bloomfield Bridge Troll is the only one this blogger has encountered thusfar.

Cut out steel placard on the Polish Hill troll's concrete pedestal, Pittsburgh, PA

Prescription: Cisko. Steel placard on the troll’s pedestal.

In any case, hats off to whomever fabricated and installed the iron and/or steel Bloomfield Bridge Troll–an adjacent cut steel placard with the name “Cisko” may be a clue to that. With its jaunty chapeau, skeletal rib cage, defiant stogie, and drink-holder left hand (it was grasping a full water bottle when we visited–who says trolls only want to party?), the troll is a welcome surprise addition to always-mysterious Polish Hill.


* Lorigan Street > Neville Street > Sassafras Street.
** This is a major issue of debate among the bridge-counting set. Other cities vying for the title of most bridges include Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Venice.
*** Troll’s also has the bizarre status of being one of only a handful of dining establishments to actually take advantage of a position on one of the rivers.

Valentine’s Day Hearts

graffiti on brick wall of dozens of small hearts above a row of commercial trash bins, Pittsburgh, PA

Flying hearts (or maybe just flying flies) and trash bins, Oakland

Hearts. They’re just about everywhere this time of year, right? In shop windows, taped to cubicle nameplates, iced into bakery desserts, crocheted in red yarn and pinned on comfy sweaters. But try to find a real one–O.K., not a real real one, but an un-store bought/handmade/interesting representation of a heart–it ain’t so easy. There are some of them out on the street, though.

Neon sign of a red heart with green bands surrounding from a tattoo parlour, Pittsburgh, PA

Tattoo parlour neon sign, South Side

Love is a great thing, right? If so, why is Valentine’s Day such a loathsome event? [To call this a “holiday” is a major stretch.] It’s contrived from no clear history, crassly commercial, and oozes sickeningly forced sentimentality. No major shopping event between Christmas and Easter? Let’s sell some candy in February! Oh, and pink is just the worst, most nauseating color. This open-to-all-other-hues blogger shudders just thinking about it.

Valentine’s Day seems almost diabolically created to make single people feel bad and puts a lot of couples into a weird state of obligatory self-congratulation. Dear, I don’t subscribe to the man’s holiday, but I also don’t want you to think I don’t care. Being in a good relationship can be terrific, but it ain’t great every single day, and maybe it doesn’t just happen to be firing on February 14 each year–but you wouldn’t know it from the full tables at fancy restaurants and stacks of Whitman’s samplers at Rite-Aid.

Mural of human heart on cinderblock wall by Jeremy Raymer, Pittsburgh, PA

Mural by Jeremy Raymer, Lawrenceville

The heart is a strange symbol for love–although maybe not any more peculiar than anything else we (humans) might have selected. A heaving, involuntary muscle that looks terrifyingly freaky when we actually see a real one going at it. O.R. nurses and surgeons must get used to the sight, but I doubt this blogger ever would. The simplified, symmetric, cartoon representation we’ve adopted doesn’t look anything like a real human heart. If it did, we’d have to find another symbol for the emotion.

spray painted heart stencil

Spray paint/stencil, Bigelow Blvd. pedestrian overpass, Polish Hill

All this belly-aching, but valentines (the physical tokens of affection, not the day) can be pretty darn swell. Fold some paper, cut out some letters, whip out the glue stick.They’re probably one of the few ways (some) people still keep up their craft chops post-elementary school. Mrs. The Orbit never fails to deliver particularly creative, wonderful, and wacky inventions. [She could teach a class!] At least, we hope some other people still hand make theirs, or does everybody just buy a card at the drug store now? Well, if you do, don’t–it’s fun to make your own, it’s a really terrific gesture, and everyone likes to have something, uh, from the heart.

Heart-shaped gravestone, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

They called him “Teddy Bear” (maybe). Heart-shaped gravestone, Highwood Cemetery

The French Fry Sculpture: John Raymond Henry’s “Pittsburgh” (in snow)

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

John Raymond Henry’s “Pittsburgh” (aka “The French Fry sculpture”), Frank Curto Park, Polish Hill

To call reaching the awkward Frank Curto Park–on foot, in the snow–a “slog” makes every other legitimate slog seem like mere inconvenience. It’s just two miles from home, but the ascent of the Bloomfield Bridge, up and down through slick Polish Hill back streets, and then the final unpleasant half mile hike along busy Bigelow Boulevard on an uncleaned roadside walkway deserves its own taxonomy for journalistic hardship.

But we’ve had this one on the Orbit‘s big list for some time–and you don’t mess with a blogger’s list! French Fry Sculpture in snow the item reads and that’s what we were after. With this weekend’s first legitimate whitening coinciding with a gloriously obligation-free Saturday, well, the die was cast. We booted-up and made the super slog.

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

Officially titled Pittsburgh, John Raymond Henry‘s giant public art piece is more commonly referred to by locals as “The French Fry Sculpture.” That’s clearly a bit of gentle fun-making, but it’s not undeserved. Aside from the zip code it happens to reside in–and possibly the Aztec gold that echoes the color of the “three sisters” bridges (and others) downtown–there’s just not that much that cries out as any reference point to our fair city.

On the other hand, the long squared-off yellow pieces collide in a cattywampus pile as if tossed directly from roiling oil bath to serving tray by a giant. These can’t help but abstractly resemble a certain delicious deep-fried side dish this city takes with perverse seriousness. Pittsburgh: you’ve been rebranded.

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

According to PittsburghArtPlaces.org, Pittsburgh (the objet d’art) was “created as part of the 1977 Three Rivers Arts Festival Sculpturescape program. The work originally resided at the University of Pittsburgh near the Hillman Library” [before moving to Frank Curto Park the following year].[1]

The piece is very much of its time–and maybe that’s no coincidence. Henry seems to have in part defined that time as he was something a big name in the big public art world for a couple decades, starting in the 1970s. The artist has several dozen such “monumental sculptures” in public parks from Miami to Salt Lake, Washington, D.C. to Sioux City. Why, if you’re a second- or third-tier urban center without “a Henry,” you’ve probably got a lonely patch of grass and some bored public works crews.

Wooden Persephone Project sculpture in snow with John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in background, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

The Orbit remains undecided. The piece has been well-maintained by its owners (the city), but that’s not to say it’s aged gracefully. It has a certain generic modern public art feel and a clumsy scheme that makes one all too aware of its joints. Looking at Henry’s other works (similar in aesthetics and scale, but often more visually successful) this one just feels like it doesn’t hit.

That said, as a blast of high-saturation yellow, it reads well against the lush green of the park in the warmer months, and still pops when surrounded by white snow and bare trees, as we see here. It’s something you can appreciate whizzing by in a car on Bigelow (probably the way most Pittsburghers have experienced it) and still rewards actually stopping in the park and giving it a walk-around. And hell, who doesn’t like french fries?

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA


Note: There ended being a lot more to talk about here than we first expected, including our harrowing egress from the park and the obvious questions Who was Frank Curto? What’s up with this “park” that no one can get to? and What about the wild turkeys that hang out there? It also turns out the space has a number of other public artworks, as well as a art garden project–you just wouldn’t catch any of this through the windshield. We’re going to save all these for a future Orbit story.

Sources:
[1] Pittsburgh Art Places entry for Pittsburghhttp://pittsburghartplaces.org/accounts/view/628
[2] Frank Curto Park wiki entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Curto
[3] John Raymond Henry website: http://johnhenrysculptor.com/

Polish Hill’s Abstract Art Walks

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Bethoven Street

If Don and Phil Everly are to be believed, a man in Kentucky sure is lucky to lie down in Bowling Green. Well, you can bet your dupa that man, woman, and child sure are lucky to wake up in Polish Hill–its spectacular vistas, its legendary city steps, its cattywumpus streets clinging to the hillside. To this list, you can add one more bonus. The residents of Melwood, Herron, and Brereton get the year-round, open-air, free-admission modern art walks of Bethoven and Finland Streets.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Finland Street

The works are created and maintained as a joint effort between some number of indefatigable spray paint-weilding taggers and what we imagine is a combination of city D.P.W. “graffiti busters” and concerned citizens taking matters into their own hands. This cat-and-mouse adversarial partnership ensures that every season the palette will shift, the structure will renew, and the layers will be reborn yet again.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Bethoven Street

The quirkiest thing about these artists is exactly what makes the whole thing work. A graffiti cover-up team could easily just invest in bulk orders of battleship gray exterior primer. End of story. That’s what it’s like along the jail trail, down in “The Run,” and a bunch of other places*. One clean sweep every spring. If so, there’d be one less blogger loitering at the top of the hill.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Bethoven Street

But it ain’t like that in Polish Hill. Instead, the clean-up crews (whoever they are) seem to use whatever extra paint they just happen to have laying around. I don’t see any green or black in these photos, but just about every other color in the spectrum is represented. The way these layers peel, flake, and erode suggests they may just be using leftover house paint, rather than some heavy-duty, element thwarting, highway-grade pigment.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Finland Street

Further, the painters use an irregular approach to the graffiti cover. Sometimes roughly squaring off big fields, others targeting individual spots just as needed. The effect is to give the abstraction a loose (if undefined) composition that wouldn’t have been there without the smaller details.

Mark Rothko "Yellow, Cherry, Orange" (1947)

Mark Rothko “Yellow, Cherry, Orange” (1947)

Maybe you have to mentally crop the big retaining wall-sized sections down into more digestible chunks, let the eye focus go a little soft, relax a little bit for it to make sense. But you really don’t have to stretch too far to imagine these pieces sitting side-by-side the great abstract expressionists. I imagine a Hans Hofmann or a Franz Kline or a Mark Rothko being quite pleased to share wall space along Bethoven Street.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Bethoven Street


* In fairness, the city uses a few different shades of white and gray and some of the results are still interesting…but they’re not like these.

Step Beat: The Shortest Street in Pittsburgh

Jewel Street city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

“Little” Jewel Street in Polish Hill: Pittsburgh’s shortest street (we think)

Years ago, this blogger attended a dinner party at a house on the steep hill high above upper Lawrenceville. I remember very clearly that there were fifty-six exterior stairs to get from the street to the (second floor) kitchen door where people entered the house. Man, I thought to myself at the time, that’s a long way up to haul your groceries.

It’s funny to think that one home’s front entrance walk (up) would be four times the length of an official city street, but that seems to be the case. Though I don’t know it for sure, at just thirteen steps, plus one short walkway at the top, tiny Jewel Street* in Polish Hill is very likely the shortest street in Pittsburgh**.

Jewel Street city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Looking down the full length of Jewel Street, all thirteen steps of it

Back in May, when The Orbit reported on the remarkable intersection of Romeo & Frazier, we got all urbanophysical about what a “street” really is. Little Jewel Street seems to push that notion over the top, and then some. Let’s not worry that no vehicles are traveling on this particular thoroughfare and just consider that it has only ever served one house. There are likely other public streets in the city that have just one address on them now, but I’d wager that most of them were built back in the day when there were rickety worker houses up and down every pointy hill and slanted dale in the ‘burgh.

Jewel and Flavian Street city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Jewel Street from the Flavian Street steps

How the first residents of the only house on Little Jewel Street managed to swing the deal where they didn’t have to build or maintain their own steps is beyond both my knowledge and researching capacity. But if they hadn’t, Pittsburgh would be stuck with some anonymous half-block-long shortest street that no one would even blink an eye at. To you, Little Jewel Street, keep on keepin’ on. We’re on your side.


* There is a two-block-long alley across Melwood Avenue which becomes a substantial set of city steps, both marked as Jewel Street. But here’s the thing: from the spot we’re talking about, you have to travel down an entirely separate street (the Flavian Street city steps) and make a hard left to get to this other Jewel. Each is an entirely separate entity. Even seemingly all-knowing Google Maps isn’t aware of this set. So we think it’s fair to count the very short residential section of Jewel off Flavian as its own street, despite the repetition in name.

** The Internet has very little to say about Pittsburgh’s shortest street, the main nominations being a pair of streets in the South Side–one of which no longer exists–both well over the length of Little Jewel.