Portrait of the playwright Tammy Ryan
Whatever you do, don’t call award-winning playwright Tammy Ryan’s recent productions a “sudden success.” Ryan appreciates the notice, but when people praise her as if she’s just won the lottery, she thinks, “Really? I’ve been at this for nearly 30 years!” In that time, Ryan has produced 15 full-length plays and 1 libretto.  Her newest play, Molly's Hammer, made its world premiere last month at the The Repertory Theater of St. Louis.

Last month also saw the production of Ryan’s play Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods by the Portland Stage Company. Lost Boys won the American Theater Critics Association's Francesca Primus Prize in 2012 and was produced here by Pittsburgh Playhouse.

When she first started out, Ryan, a longtime Pittsburgher with an MFA in playwriting from Carnegie Mellon University, found herself trying to write plays and get those plays produced outside of Pittsburgh, all while raising two small children. She describes her first staged production, Pig, as a “black comedy with sick humor, about a dysfunctional, working-class, Irish-American family in Queens.” Pig’s main character is a man, a veteran of the first Gulf War. After having her first child, Ryan’s plays began to reflect women’s lived experiences and were more women-centered. “And when I told my then-agent that I was pregnant with my second child,” she says, “he gave me a look and then dropped me soon after.”

Ryan says she internalized the negative reviews of “Pig” and her other early work. “I felt the criticism was because I’m a woman, because my women characters weren’t particularly likeable, and because the plays weren’t happy plays.”

But this was in the 1990s. Today, Ryan notes, the problem of the male gaze and a predominance of white male playwrights is being talked about and challenged. According to The Count, the Dramatist Guild of America’s annual study of who is being produced in American theater, only about 20% of plays produced in 2015 were written by women. Of those, less than 4% were written by women of color. “We have to listen to each other and balance the picture of who tells the stories in our culture,” Ryan says. “And younger theater artists are demanding change.” 

Ryan has drawn her own inspiration from a diverse group of playwrights including Caryl Churchill, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, and Sam Shepard. Like these playwrights, Ryan has kept going through bad reviews, demands of family, and other obstacles. “Plays get produced because of relationships,” Ryan says. “None of it is fair. Theater isn’t fair. It’s not a democracy. But you have to put that aside and persevere. Mark Clayton Southers started his own theater company, and he doesn’t just produce his own work, but others’ as well. Again, perseverance. Cream rises.”

Ryan says her breakthrough happened when she was “adopted” by the Pittsburgh Playhouse. “They committed to me, not to a single play. Before that, I felt isolated, and my time to write was limited because of my kids. There was a desire to quit. But it became a matter of survival. I said, ‘I have to focus on raising these girls and writing the next play. I can’t keep going to New York trying to get a reading. What I can do is write the next play.’”

Ryan’s daughters are now 14 and 23. And, since 2009, she has written a play a year, and to date, all have been produced. Ryan credits generous grants and fellowships from the Heinz Endowments, Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, The Pittsburgh Foundation, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for allowing her time to write and develop her work.

In the wake of the successful runs of Molly’s Hammer and Lost Boy…,Ryan has three new plays in mind to write. But she’s also doing something she’s never felt she had the luxury to do: Just pause. “I have a quote from Lorraine Hansberry on my desk,” Ryan says. “‘Never be afraid to sit a while and think.’ And that’s what I’m doing.”

Deesha Philyaw is a writer and a mama. She believes in seeing color, talking about race, and using the Oxford comma.

Photo credit: Martha Rial.


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facade of a brick church, from the street level
Since Mr. Smalls Theater opened in Millvale about 16 years ago it has become many things to many people. Housed in what once was St. Ann’s church, the 800-person capacity concert venue has welcomed all genres of music and supported local musicians. Through its Creative Life Support program it is running a summer camp for aspiring musicians and is working with the Pittsburgh Department of Human Services to conduct a workshop for former and current homeless and foster kids. And it has also helped the borough’s economy. 

“If you just look at it purely from a numbers standpoint, we’ll bring 60,000 to 80,000 people through our doors of Mr. Smalls Theater per year,” said Liz Berlin, musician and co-founder of Mr. Smalls. “That’s people who are coming to Millvale to a show that would not have been there. That’s a really huge increase in foot traffic and in business. We’ve had several business owners, when we run into them, mention to us how much they appreciate us being in Millvale and what a great benefit it’s been to the amount of business they’re able to get.”

About 19 years ago, Berlin reported, “We started in a smaller location as a recording studio in Millvale, We were in a second-floor warehouse space on Grant Avenue. Even back then, when we were functioning as a recording studio, we would have recording sessions where bands would play a live show. Even at that early date we were doing live music. “

At the time Berlin and her partners were looking to expand their operation beyond the warehouse-based recording studio, Millvale owned the property but didn’t have St. Ann’s on the market. “We were at a local diner and I asked our partner what we were going to do when the lease was up on the studio and ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a church,’” she remembered. But at that exact moment, the mayor’s brother was sitting at the counter of the diner and came to their table to tell them that the borough had a church. Berlin and her partners spoke with the mayor and the council about the property “and our jaws were on the ground,”she said. “We were just astounded with the amount of space and the possibilities. They worked with us really nicely in selling the property at a reasonable price that we could handle. They’ve been very supportive of our growth over the years.”

Part of that growth has been the creation of the Creative Life Support concept (now a non-profit operation), CLS, according to Berlin, “is an umbrella for everything that we do and that we’ve ever done to support musicians who we love and have faith in and to support our friends who are musicians. Things like helping people to record their music, helping to set up shows, these are the kinds of things that we’ve always done because we wanted to and because we had the resources. So calling it Creative Life Support was putting a name to that desire.”

Creative Life Support programs include the annual Real Life Music Camp for young musicians. “We focus on the creation of original music,” she explained, “which I think is unique in the landscape of the many music camps that are out there. We really focus on finding your own creativity, on career preparation, and really providing guidance to what you actually need to do to get started as a musician. “

image of a young African American man, singing into a microphone in a recording studio

Another program, in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Department of Human Services, and taking place during the school year, is the We Rock Workshop. Current and former foster and homeless kids are brought into a recording studio for eight weeks to learn how to collaborate, write songs, and record. There are then 10 weeks of rehearsal and the project ends with a performance at Mr. Smalls.

“We’ve got some really nice success stories,” she said. “It’s really fulfilling to have all of these kids come in just where they are, beginners or whatever level they are, and watch them blossom and watch them make connections, meeting new people and learning how to collaborate. I think that we are able to impart a lot of direction, a lot of understanding of what the reality of embarking upon a music career actually entails. And that is our biggest goal with Creative Life Support.”


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image of vertical files that a viewer can thumb through, looking at flat works of art
Have you considered a painting by Cezanne for your living room? What about a Degas for your office? Or maybe art by Braddock native and MacArthur “Genius” grant winner LaToya Ruby Frazier? Well, good news: Through the Art Lending Collection (ALC) at Braddock Carnegie Library (BCLA)
, borrowing works of art is as easy as checking out a book. Anyone in Allegheny County with a valid library can access the collection.

“Checking out artwork to display in your home or business gives you a chance to come to the world’s first Carnegie library,” says Mary Carey, an Arts, Culture, and Information Facilitator for ALC. “The building is a work of art itself. And when you check out something from the collection, you get a pass for four to visit the Carnegie Museum of Art to see more artwork.”

Over the years, Carey has worn quite a few hats at Braddock Library. She first frequented the library as a patron and then became a volunteer for a program called Pop Art. For Pop Art, her title was “voice of the community.” From that position, she transitioned to BCLA’s staff as a library clerk. In 2013, Carey was offered the Arts, Culture, and Information Facilitator position. “It gives me the opportunity to learn about art as well engage more with people throughout the community. At the same time, I’m able to teach others the knowledge I’ve gained about art and artists.”

Carey’s ALC co-facilitator is writer and public speaker Jonathan Reyes. Like Carey, Reyes is a resident of the BCLA service area. The Facilitator positions are funded by the Heinz Endowments.

Works in the Art Lending Collection accumulate value through their free circulation and through conversations among patrons about the art. The ALC provides access to art and to critical arts discourse without the exclusivity typical of the arts economy.

The critical discourse fostered by the ALC is a cornerstone of the work of Transformazium, an artists collaborative led by Dana Bishop-Root, Ruthie Stringer and Leslie Stem. The ALC and other Transformazium projects “examine local systems of communication, exchange and resource distribution; redirect resources from an arts economy to a local economy; and participate in an active local arts discourse that includes voices currently underrepresented in more dominant arts discourses: young people, the elderly, communities of color, people from poor and working class backgrounds and those outside of the University education system.” Transformazium has had an embedded partnership with Braddock Library since 2009.

Nearly all of the artists featured in the 2013 Carnegie International are represented in the ALC; these works are permanent gifts to the Braddock library and are catalogued in the library’s collection. The ALC also includes works produced by artists from the neighborhood, including Jim Kidd, Regis Welsh, and Ray Henderson. Transformazium partners with artists and curators whose practice lends itself to community participation and engagement. The ALC expands by acquiring works by these artists, either individually or through workshops with library patrons as part of Transformazium’s  youth and adult education programs. The works in the collection rotate every two weeks.

The ALC also features works by Charles Bibbs, Jacob Lawrence, Alice Patrick, Barbara Richardson (of Regent Square), Henry Taylor, and others.

As ALC Facilitators, Carey and Reyes conduct individual and collaborative research, assist patrons in selecting artwork, develop arts-related programs, and acquire new works that shape the collection’s growth and keep it relevant to the community. The collection specifically “fills in some gaps in the dominant arts discourse” with artworks that embrace political and African American themes. The result is a collection that reflects a diversity of ideas and aesthetics within Braddock and beyond.

“The collection includes art from students at Hunter College whose professor gave them an assignment to make a piece of art specifically for the Art Lending Collection,” Carey says. “We have pieces made out of crayons depicting Andrew Carnegie. One student gave us a piece that comes with a boom-box and music sheets in Braille. Also, some guys from the State Correctional Institution in Fayette lost their art program, and they wanted to donate pieces that they had created while incarcerated--nearly 90 pieces.”

Select ALC artwork is showcased through BCLA’s Artist of the Library series. “The artist has an opening reception, and we display their artwork for about two months,” Carey says. “The artist invites family and friends, and we invite patrons. The artist talks about their art and everyone asks questions and engages in the conversation.”

Carey is currently working with a number of artists to bring their work into the collection. “Ginger Brooks of Braddock will be doing her artwork in the library. She’s going to engage patrons in a sit-down conversation, getting to know them, and then create signs [showing] something special about their character. The art will be on display, and then given to the individuals once the show is over. [Previously], people had a blast helping Jacob Ciocci of North Braddock create and watching him make several pieces right here in the library. He’s a visual artist, performance artist, and musician.

“I’ll also be working with Natiq, an artist I met at Exposure: Black Voices in the Arts, hosted by Pitt [Fine Arts] students. We have a piece by Natiq from that show in our collection, and [we lent] pieces from the collection to that show. Natiq will be our Artist in the Library in July through August, and his art piece is one of my favorites in the collection. For the month of June, we will be hosting some very talented young people from the Braddock Youth Program.

“In the fall, I will be working with Darrell Kinsel, an artist who [co-operates] a gallery in the Garfield area, BOOM Concepts. Then our last artist in the Artist in the Library series for 2016 will be Mrs. Mary Jean, an illustrator, painter, and teacher.”

Carey doesn’t have a single personal favorite from the collection, “but there are a few that I continue to check out. Swoon’s Alixa & Naima. Natiq’s “complexity.” James Kidd’s Chillin with Matisse. And Raymond Seybert’s Bob Marley, but this piece goes out a lot in “Hanging Out in the Community,” which is a program I started where pieces from the collection [are placed] in businesses.”

To learn more, visit the Braddock Carnegie Library, a national historic landmark, at 419 Library St., Braddock, PA.

Deesha Philyaw is a writer and a mama. She believes in seeing color, talking about race, and using the Oxford comma.

image: Braddock Art Lending Collection, courtesy of Transformazium


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Greater Pittsburgh at National Arts Advocacy Day

Monday, 21 March 2016 11:30 AM Written by


group shot of 10 people standing in front of a stage while people are arranging microphones
The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council annually leads a delegation of arts advocates from SWPA to National Arts Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.  This event is organized by Americans for the Arts, the nation’s arts service organization.  Issues we advocates bring up with Congressmen, Senators, and elected officials are federal funding for the arts and humanities for SWPA, what the new federal educational legislation—Every Student Succeeds—means for local STEAM programs, and tax deductibility for donors to the arts. 
Among the members of our delegation this year were two first-year Master of Arts Management students from Carnegie Mellon University.  Here are their recollections of Arts Advocacy Day on March 8, 2016.   

Anna Okuda, Master of Arts Management, CMU (’17)
in the image above, back row, third from right

Working in the theater, I have long been interested in collective action. Arts organizations and individuals tend to compete with each other for limited resources and audiences.  Although it is important that each organization makes efforts to survive and thrive, I believe that it is equally important that we all work together to make the industry as a whole prosper. Arts Advocacy Day gave me insight into how artists, arts administrators, and board members, could act together for the development of the industry.

Participating for the first time, I was impressed by the fact that hundreds of arts leaders traveled from across the country to work together for the whole industry’s development. In advance we were provided with lot of facts and figures citing how the arts affect the healthy growth of children, how the arts contribute to community development, and how the arts generate economic impacts.  Equipped with these data, we met with legislators or their staff, to promote the importance of the arts to their districts and the Commonwealth.  I hope that our passion and the convincing data on the educational, social, and economic impacts of the arts will prompt positive action for the arts by the legislators we met with.

National Arts Advocacy Day 2016 was an excellent opportunity for me to experience the power of collective action.

Anne Marie Padelford, Master of Arts Management, CMU (’17)
in the image above, front row, far right

I had heard about National Arts Advocacy Day (AAD) last year when I was researching various arts management programs around the country to apply to.  My reasons for going to AAD this year were two-fold: 1) I don’t know much about DC and I wanted to know more, and 2) I wanted to know more about what it means to advocate for the arts.  I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I realized that many of my colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University and other universities nationwide were on the same journey of discovery.

The beginning of my trip was marked by running into a student in American University’s Arts Management program who I had met last year. She met my CMU colleagues and we ended up meeting up several evenings in DC. So, already, my link to the city and policy was getting stronger!

The training we got from AFTA before visiting legislators was quite long, but I was impressed at the organizers’ efforts at disseminating and explaining the important facts and reasons we would be talking with our elected officials. Meetings with legislators and their staff were exciting from a first-timer’s point of view!  I had never been inside our nation’s capitol much less inside a representative’s office.  I enjoyed seeing different staff members’ attitudes toward the arts and various legislative bills we were promoting.

I am now aware of the importance of my role as a citizen: to encourage those who represent me and to tell them what is important to me and to my community and why.


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You Wouldn't Expect?

Thursday, 17 March 2016 02:31 PM Written by

black and white drawing of a tree with the word Eugenics across it, detailing the root causes of eugenics, which include human selected evolution

From Displacement/Replacement exhibition at the Carlow University Gallery to Miss Julie, Clarissa and John at Pittsburgh Playwrights, to You Wouldn't Expect by demaskus theater collective, we Pittsburghers may find ourselves reminded of the fact that art is often a lens through which to think about and talk about the complicated issues of race, class, power, and gender. Here, Dr. Megan Overby from Duquesne University addresses the topic of eugenics in relation to the world premiere of the play You Wouldn't Expect, to take place March 26 at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

As pointed out by Marilyn Singleton MD, JD, past director of the American Academy of Physicians and Surgeons, modern eugenics is most often associated with Adolf Hitler and his quest for a master race – a perfect citizenry comprised of only the most physically and mentally qualified. However, eugenics (the philosophy of “good breeding”) has deep historical roots; the notion that a society has the right and duty to refuse life and reproductive rights to those considered weak or undesirable extends as far back as early Greco-Roman times. Spartan newborns who did not meet expected physical standards for a bellicose Spartan society were killed, either directly or through abandonment and exposure to the elements. In ancient Rome, the Twelve Tables of Roman Law directed infanticide for children with obvious deformities; and in his blueprint for an ideal society, the Republic, Plato writes of the need to legislate selective breeding to only those people with desired traits, just as with horses and sporting dogs to obtain the best stock.  

In 1869, Sir Francis Galton (sometimes now called the “Father of Eugenics”) wrote Hereditary Genius in which he argued that because the less intelligent were more fertile than others but had less social worth, social pressures should be exerted to limit reproduction by this less intelligent ‘class.’ His views, heavily influenced by Mendel’s discovery of the principles of heredity and by Origin of the Species authored by his cousin Charles Darwin, led the way for a scientific rationale for the sterilization of the mentally deficient, criminal, promiscuous, or people otherwise believed unfit to reproduce. Response to this new social climate was sweeping. In 1901, Indiana passed a bill authorizing enforced sterilization of wards of that state. Soon after, African American leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois espoused eugenics as a means to improve the moral fiber of the black race and at least two feature films, The Black Stork (1917) and Are You Fit to Marry (1927), portrayed the benefits of eugenics and the chilling and terrifying consequences of uncontrolled reproduction. The time was ripe for a systematic approach identifying those likely to bear, and pass on, undesirable genetic traits. 

Such a systematic approach was the mission of the Eugenics Records Office (1910-1939), founded by Charles Davenport. The office was entrusted with identifying the physical, mental, and moral trait pedigrees of hundreds of thousands of Americans confined to institutions (i.e., colonies) because of mental illness, feeble-mindedness, being orphaned or poor. Because of society’s certain belief that degenerate or undesirable traits were inherited, 35 states eventually enacted legislation for compulsory sterilization of state wards identified with degenerate or undesirable traits. By the time this practice ostensibly stopped in 1974, over 60,000 Americans had been forcibly sterilized. A majority of those were African American women.

One of the most well-known legal cases surrounding the eugenics movement was Buck v Bell (1924). Carrie Buck was the illegitimate daughter of Emma, who had been committed to a state colony for feeble-mindedness. Carrie was diagnosed with epilepsy and feeble-mindedness, and at age 17 had an illegitimate daughter, probably as the result of a rape. Carrie’s daughter, Vivian, was determined to be mentally deficient at 8 months because she did not look normal. Although most historians now agree that Emma, Carrie, and Vivian were uneducated and poor and not feeble-minded, The United States Supreme Court upheld the decision by the state of Virginia to sterilize Carrie. In writing for the majority, Justice Oliver Wendell Homes Jr. infamously noted: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” This particular legal case has never been over-turned.

This long-festering history brings us to today’s production, You Wouldn’t Expect. Because historical documents and statistics can lead us to intellectualize what should be powerful moral lessons, Marilyn Anselmi’s play helps us see, and feel, the human toll in the eugenics movement. When I learned this production was coming to the August Wilson Center here in Pittsburgh, I was thrilled because of the potential for dialog and change it could bring. As a professor, I was particularly pleased to see this production because I discuss the eugenics movement in my class at Duquesne University, including particulars of the movement’s effects in North Carolina. I will encourage my students to see this production.  In seeing this drama, perhaps they will feel in their hearts what I cannot explain in words: that our souls are strengthened when we embrace, not fear, our diversity; our souls are hardened by prejudice; and our souls are lost unless we guard and hold compassion close.

Megan Overby, PhD, CCC-SLP is an Associate Professor of Department of Speech-Language Pathology at Duquesne University.
Image credit: Logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference, 1921, depicting eugenics as a tree which unites a variety of different fields. - Wikipedia




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Victorian era men and women sitting in a museum room filled with cases of lifesize people

Let’s get rid of diversity initiatives.
With these words in her inaugural blog post for Incluseum, Porchia Moore had my attention. Moore, a PhD candidate in library and information science and museum management, employs critical race theory to frame her advocacy for inclusion in the museum world. She’s a regular blog contributor at Incluseum, a Seattle-based project dedicated to advancing “new ways of being a museum through critical discourse, community building and collaborative practice related to inclusion in museums.”

So why the call to end diversity initiatives? Moore dislikes the term “diversity” because she finds it racially coded for “all sorts of confusing sentimentalities and hidden agendas.” Further, she laments that some people of color only visit museums when there is programming or an exhibition featuring African American, Latinx or Asian artists or culture, usually as a result of special marketing targeted to their church, neighborhood, or organization.

Instead of these occasional invitations, Moore calls on museums to cultivate “lasting relationships with communities of color; and be certain that we are not just targeting them when we deem their participation to be culturally congruent. All culture is connected.” The role of museums, she says, is to promote and preserve shared culture, not perpetually display a dominant white culture and invite people of color in to see exceptions from time to time.

Moore cites a Center for the Future of Museums report that found that racial minorities make up only 9% of the core group of museum visitors. As non-white racial groups grow in number nationwide, Moore says that in order to survive “museums will need to restructure because the core group of white visitors to museums will eventually decrease.” In a post published in early March, Moore added that intersectional, race-based inclusion should not merely be a “need to” for museums, but a “want to.” She writes, “Excellence in museum work is inclusive, [and] being culturally responsive is ethical.”

In her inaugural post, Moore calls for inclusion efforts to be rooted in the act of co-creation between museums and communities--as opposed to “invitation” or “participation”--in order to address historical and systemic barriers related to perception, power, and privilege.

Moore’s call to action came to mind recently when I heard about “Race and the Museum,” an upcoming workshop from Collecting Knowledge based at the University of Pittsburgh. Collecting Knowledge is Pittsburgh’s consortium of universities, museums, and libraries “pushing the frontiers of collaborative research, teaching, and public engagement with the world of objects.” In a week-long workshop in May generously funded by a grant from the A.W. Mellon Foundation, a cohort of twelve Pitt faculty and graduate students will explore the Carnegie Museums’ collections and talk with museum educators, curators and the broader Pittsburgh community.The goal? To re-think and re-imagine the museum world and its role in society.The cohort, representing nine departments ranging from anthropology and history of science to English and art, will address such questions as:

  • How have museums, as collections and as institutions, created, supported, or challenged constructions of race and racial identity?
  • How are museums and their objects implicated in the history of slavery, indigenous peoples, and race relations? 
  • How have museums represented and interpreted these issues? 
  • How can and should museum collections tell different stories? 
  • What can museums do to combat white privilege, and become more inclusive in their institutional structures and in their audiences?

These are weighty questions, but workshop co-leader Kirk Savage says that “Race and the Museum” is not a philosophical exercise. “We want to change the model of the museum world.”

Savage, a history of art & architecture professor at Pitt, co-leads the workshop with Shirin Fozi, assistant professor of Medieval European art and architecture. Savage likens the museum world to art history as a discipline: “Art history is exclusive, almost all-white in leadership, donor base, and audience. ‘Race and the Museum’ is, in part, an opportunity to train a new generation of scholars and museum professionals to start out thinking about who their audience is and how to foster relationships within the community.”

And unlike “diversity initiatives” that come and go, the individual and collaborative projects developed as part of “Race and the Museum” will live on beyond the May workshop. The projects may take the form of an exhibition or publication, a community engagement experience, a revised course for undergraduates, or a new partnership between the museum and a local institution.

The culture change envisioned by “Race and the Museum” has huge implications for the participants, museums, universities, the city of Pittsburgh, and beyond. Savage notes that counting community and cultural engagement alongside research and teaching as factors in tenure and promotion could transform the way scholars and museum professionals approach their work.

To learn more about “Race and the Museum,” visit http://constellations.pitt.edu/entry/race-and-museum-pittsburgh-workshop.

Deesha Philyaw is a writer and a mama. She believes in seeing color, talking about race, and using the Oxford comma. 
Image: 1908, "Ethnology Room" at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History


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Exterior of a public building at dusk, with a blue lighting and sign that reads, "Panza"
Mark Panza, an artist and framer, moved his Panza Gallery from Etna to Millvale 15 years ago. The business started out as Panza Picture Framing, a service he clung to as he tried to be an artist and make a living. “You have to do something to make some money,” Panza said. “So picture framing I felt was something I could do.”

After deciding to move to Millvale in the mid-1990s, “I found this wonderful building here, an old German social hall, a wonderful social hall that I was able to adapt into my picture framing business and gallery and arts studio.It was welcomed immediately by this town – people wanted to bring art into this town,” he said.

Panza is a photographer but one who doesn’t care for very much for that designation. “I hate to call myself a photographer,” he declared. “I like to call myself an artist who uses a camera since I don’t do portraits and weddings and things like that. But I take imagery and I overlap things with them and I play around with them in the computer. The Photoshop of today is what the darkroom used to be for me in the earlier days.

“Since I have this picture framing studio,” he continued, “I can create three-dimensional things like light boxes with my photography which is hard to describe verbally but to see them is really fun.” (light box pictured: "Tree Memorial" by Mark Panza)
Vertical sculpture that lights up, featuring an image of the front of a cathedral window with a forested motif behind it, greenish in color

Panza laughed as he remembered what the arts scene was like in Millvale when he got there: “It was kind of a depressed little town -- which made it affordable for me which is a big reason I came over here. But I also looked for the potential for the future.” That potential includes developments such as Arts MODE: The Social Arts Incubator, with New Sun Rising, a social entrepreneurship organization that operates out of Millvale.

Panza got involved in the community and joined a design committee that got the Sprout Fund to finance the painting of murals by local artists in the town. According to Panza, the borough started to build community awareness and “I brought an element of art to it,” he said. “There really wasn’t anything other than music with Mr. Smalls Theater. We both came into this town at a similar time.”

In addition, the Millvale Borough Development Corporation, a non-profit organization, has been creating opportunities for artists. “We now have Millvale Studios which isn’t really well-known yet,” Panza reported. “Right across from the French bakery here is a building that used to be Kitman furniture store and is now Millvale Studios where artists can rent spaces to work. I’m the manager of that building. We’ve created a gallery in the front where artists can exhibit their work, they can have an event there, and people can come in and browse around and see them working in their studios if they choose.”

Panza Gallery also does its bit to bring people into town. In addition to exhibiting the work of other artists, including the work of the Pittsburgh-based abstract collective Group A, the gallery offers life-drawing sessions three times a week. “Any artist at any stage in their art career, from the student to the established artist, can come and draw a live model,” Panza reported “We get about 15, 20 artists that come. That’s bringing people from outside Millvale.”


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Dreams Made Real: Hill Dance Academy Theatre

Friday, 04 March 2016 11:26 AM Written by

Five young African American dancers sitting and kneeling around their ballet teacher, who is seated cross-legged on the floor, reading them a book about dance

Hill Dance Academy Theatre has been activating young minds, bodies and spirits for about 10 years. Founder and Director Ayisha Morgan-Lee started in 2005, founding the organization with a couple of goals in mind – one is to give dancers and students a chance to dance who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it. Here, she shares what drives her, HDAT, and the dream to send her students to Los Angeles. Shares Morgan-Lee:

Celebrating the Black Dance tradition - for me, it’s celebrating as people of African descent to celebrate our legacy through movement. There are a number of Black dance companies that are happening around the country and within those companies they have schools and are training dancers – HDAT is part of keeping that tradition alive.

About 10 years ago, my mom [Dr. Veronica Morgan-Lee] told me to get a job, so I went throughout the Hill District and found people who wanted to dance and started teaching, calling it Dance on the Hill. When I was done with Howard University in 2005, we started HDAT out of Grace Memorial Church with about eight students and myself, and throughout the 10 years, we’ve really grown, really faster than I expected.

We have students who have been with us since they were young and we can now see their growth and how the arts have helped these young people. A part of HDAT is that we want students who are hungry about dance to find out what it’s like to be a professional dancer - that this can be their reality, too.

We use dance as a core element and teach other core aspects that support dance – costume design, physical education, music, theater, and nutrition - so that students, before they get on the stage, have a full appreciation of all that dance encompasses – these students can become a costume designer, a stage director, a lighting person because they have had this knowledge of dance.

I’ve been dancing since I was three years old. I started out in a school in South Hills, and most of the places I went to, I was the only Black girl. I went to Civic Light Opera academy, and there I took jazz, ballet, and tap and met Ms. Leslie Anderson  Brasewell, my first Black ballet teacher. Some of my other influences were Buddy Thompson and Tommy Cousins, my jazz teachers. The beautiful thing about these three people is that they are now teaching at HDAT! They encouraged me to pursue my dance career – push me and give me the technique and discipline and they are now teaching HDAT students ballet and jazz.

We just had one young lady receive a partial scholarship to study at Dance Theatre of Harlem and Joffrey Ballet. We have choreographers who are on the national circuit who are now recognizing the gifts and talents in our students and want to come to Pittsburgh to choreograph for our students and companies.

Many opportunities come across our desk, all the time.  Part of helping students become professional dancers is accessing these opportunities. Our students generally do not get to see opportunities, for many reasons.  I received a notice from Debbie Allen that we could have a master class with Misty Copeland and other artists and I showed it to my mom, then shared it with our very strong parent group, saying we wanted to send the HDAT company to Los Angeles to dance and learn from not only Debbie Debbie Allen but Misty Copeland of American Ballet Theatre – ABT's first Black prima ballerina.

When I told the students we wanted to take them to LA and meet Misty Copeland, they could not believe it – they all have Misty’s book, her picture on their phone – they all want to be her, they want to be the next Misty Copeland. We decided that just like we rally around our Steelers, we want to rally around these dancers and get them to LA! On Saturday, March 5, 8pm – 1am in St. Benedict the Moor’s social hall, we’re hosting a Blue Jeans on Pointe Cabaret and we’re hosting a GoFundMe Campaign online, right now. Sometimes this work becomes a challenge – raising money, giving students as many opportunities as we can.  My older ones [students] show me that all of this work is worth it – we are really growing these young women.

And, the 3 and 6 year olds definitely inspire me because they are the next generation coming up – they want to do everything and they are really big on this LA trip, even if they are not going – I know what they are thinking: ‘That could be ME, one day!’




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“We like to say we empower the leaders who make Pittsburgh great,” said Daniel Stiker, Director of Fiscal Sponsorship + Arts Mode at New Sun Rising. 

After 10 years, the organization, based in Millvale, is beginning to impact communities all over Allegheny County.  But it began with a project further down South.

“We started to raise funds for a music foundation after Hurricane Katrina,” reported Stiker. “At that point, the two people who started it, Scott and Brian Wolovich, noticed that there was a need for this type of organization to help other projects. So it started as a fiscal-sponsorship organization so we could help other people get their projects get off the ground using our non-profit status for them to access funding opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Through a variety of projects, New Sun Rising started getting into the field of social entrepreneurs and creatives, including the Arts Mode project which is a professional development workshop for artists and arts organizations.

And how does New Sun Rising decide to select an arts group to participate in the Arts Mode project? “As long as they make an impact in the Pittsburgh region, and they have some sort of social good or arts component, those are the ones we would sponsor,” he explained. “So we’ve sponsored everything from the zombie opera to farm delivery service. Anyone who will help make Pittsburgh great. It’s a wide variety -- but the majority of them, currently, are actually creatives and artists.”

Among other things, participants in the Arts Mode project receive mentoring to help with what they are currently working on. If an artist is just starting out they will be helped with their development as well as an artist statement, business plan, or common grant application. Artists and arts organizations that are already established can get help with their organizational development. Artists and arts organizations also receive a membership with the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

“One of the things that I really like about Arts Mode is the process,” said Leigh Solomon Pugliano, founder of Barrels To Beethoven.

Pugliano is a consultant, business development specialist, trainer, and also a musician. “I’ve played the steel pan  -- which is the basis of my organization Barrels To Beethoven  -- probably since I was about five,” she said.

people standing up, playing steel pan drums together, looking intently at the drums

Barrels To Beethoven came about after she put together an exhibition about her father who makes steel pans. “In order to do the exhibit, I wanted to make sure I did research, not only of the past of the steel pan but also the future,” she said. “One of the things I realized as I was doing my research is the instrument has gained so much popularity as far as the amount of people who play it, but the makers are decreasing. There have been concerns throughout the Caribbean about passing on the art form.”

She started Barrels to Beethoven as a way to expose the community to the steel pan. She also hoped people would learn how the instrument is made, inspire new makers, inspire new players and, hopefully, sustain and develop the instrument over time.

When Pugliano discovered that New Sun Rising was helping people make an impact in their community, she got in touch with the organization and applied to be part of the Arts Mode project. “With their help, I’ve been able to build an organizational structure. So thinking about things like a budget -- which I had but not on a larger scale -- so I now have a two-, three-year budget that I’m using when I’m doing grant writing. We talk a lot about grant writing and funding. We’ve learned a lot about building a board -- I hadn’t even thought about building a board and now I’m interviewing and asking people to be on an advisory board -- which is something I wouldn’t even have thought that my organization was ready for.”

“I feel like the structure and building the foundation of my organization after I already had the creative part and the community outreach was exactly what I needed at that point,” she said in summing up her experience with New Sun Rising.


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"Formation" Invites a Bigger Conversation

Friday, 19 February 2016 09:59 AM Written by

Beyonce final
As a black woman originally from the South who has carried hot sauce in my bag, I find the public outrage in response to Beyoncé’s Formation video to be ridiculous, though not surprising. But leave it to Saturday Night Live to ratchet up the ridiculousness in a recent sketch: In a faux movie trailer, “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” white people aren’t just shocked by the video’s messages and images. They’re shocked to learn that Beyoncé is black.  In the wake of the Formation video, all hell breaks loose and white people lose their damned minds. The scenes are reminiscent of a disaster flick with white people running amok in fear of a black Beyoncé.

In one scene, a white woman struggles to understand the lyrics in Formation. Her colleague says with alarm, “Maybe this song isn’t for us.”

“But usually everything is!” the woman says, in full panic mode.

The exchange is funny, but also full of truth. Pre-Formation Beyoncé with her blond weaves, light skin, and club-friendly woman-power anthems could comfortably be enjoyed by everyone. No confusing, celebratory references to black culture and black power. No reminders of unpleasant topics like Hurricane Katrina. No pesky graffiti imploring cops to Stop Shooting Us to make things, you know…awkward.

Why would Beyoncé do this to white people?

Because she can. Because she felt like it. Because she’s an artist, and artists, at their best, defy expectations.

Because, as my grandmother used to say, everything ain’t for everybody.

But what is the cost to the artist for defying expectations? If you’re Beyoncé, it might be the cost of private security for a stadium in Tampa because the local police refuse to work your concert. But what about the rest of us?

Making art that isn’t for everybody--in particular, art that isn’t for white people--can be risky business for artists not named Beyoncé. But some of us are brave. Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison is unapologetic about who her books are for. 

“I’m writing for black people,” [Morrison] says, “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.”

Morrison isn’t writing for everyone, but everyone can (and should) still read Morrison because she is a master storyteller and her books reveal things about history, race, and the human condition that no other books reveal.

I recently interviewed National Book Award finalist Angela Flournoy who advised black writers to “write whatever black-ass thing you want.” As Pittsburghers, we don’t have to go far to see what that looks like. Like Morrison, August Wilson was once asked if he felt limited only writing about black people. And like Morrison, Wilson’s answer was “no.” He said: “There's no idea in the world that is not contained by black life. I could write forever about the black experience in America.”

If what James Baldwin said is true--that artists are here to disturb the peace--then defying expectations is our job.

So the real questions are bigger than the biggest pop star on the planet. Beyoncé is just the messenger, whether she intended to be or not. Can we as artists and as audiences embrace nuance and hard questions and painful truths? Can we embrace criticism as a necessary part of the artistic process? Here in Pittsburgh, specifically, how can we pursue equity and justice through art? These are the transformative conversations I look forward to having in this space.

Deesha Philyaw is a writer and mama. She believes in seeing color, talking about race, and using the Oxford comma.
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photo credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times, originally printed 2/7/16 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Caption:

Doug Mills/The New York Times

 "Beyonce, Coldplay and Bruno Mars perform at halftime during Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina, Sunday."


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