Art Strengthens Our Communities

Friday, 19 September 2014 12:21 PM Written by

Cultural District Walking Tour Jane smiling 3 reduced
Recently, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, in conjunction with the Arts Education Partnership’s National Forum, hosted a special visit from Dr. Jane Chu, the newly appointed Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Dr. Chu is noted for her contributions to the Kansas City Kauffman Center for Performing Arts, including the management of a $400 million campaign to build the center. After the Senate confirmed Dr. Chu’s nomination three months ago she expressed her enthusiasm for, “connecting the arts to all Americans, and the importance of the arts in bringing communities together."

The room on the 7th floor GPAC offices was full of leaders from arts organizations, invited by Dr. Chu to share their stories about how the NEA has positively affected their work in the Pittsburgh arts scene and in our neighborhoods. Dr. Chu heard the stories of over 20 institutions, some in operation for over seven decades, and as the sharing concluded, all positively noted that the NEA had enabled the collaboration of many within the room.

This was a great opportunity to hear firsthand how art institutions influence communities, not just involved in the creation of physical artwork. Art is an integrated aspect of our neighborhoods that encourages interaction, aides in abating neighborhood hardship, communicates history and heritage, and inspires a better future.

So why is it still not recognized as the norm when the arts bring together community? If the general definition of Art-with-a-capital-A expanded to include community festivals, public art installations, free gallery openings, street performances, murals - we see how art fosters a community through inclusion and engagement. As America expands how it participates in the arts we need to expand our definition of art practice and its product.

Arts Day of Giving will be here in two weeks and as we get ready to support our arts non-profits, important point to consider is how much the arts impact our daily lives. Typically, art evokes an image of objects confined within the walls of a white box, but there exists an entire range of art found outside those traditional walls and in the fabric of our community – art that is intentionally accessible, created for the masses and designed to promote community strength. Katz Plaza in Downtown Pittsburgh is an excellent example of how a public space is enriched from the addition of publicly commissioned art by Louise Bourgeois. 

During the visit with Dr. Chu, project directors Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian shared about their art and science initiative, the Land Art Generator Initiative. At the core of their work is an initiative to bring together contrasting communities of the sciences and the arts to answer the question on how design and art can influence science and unite groups over a common goal, in a recent case, how to combat climate change.   

Another example of this influence happening on a local level is the work of Vanessa German and her Love Front Porch. This inspiring project combines art and community in a unique manner as Vanessa has purposed her front porch in Homewood into a professional studio for herself and the neighborhood children. She actively creates a space where “the community is the museum.”

As our world continues to globalize it becomes increasingly important to value community on a local and national level. To help facilitate this it is important that we unite to recognize that the arts role within community is truly a regular occurrence. Art is not just for artists or relegated to galleries and museums. As Dr. Chu shared during her visit, “Nobody helps make a community distinctive and vital more than the arts – the new paradigm is arts and community vitality are so critical to one another – the arts are there for everyone, they are a part of our everyday lives.”

Christine Smith runs the art blog, Treading Art.
Image: Dr. Jane Chu tours the Cultural District with Kevin McMahon, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

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Art and Industry: the Carrie Deer Project

Wednesday, 06 August 2014 03:58 PM Written by


carrie deer - rb - high

Ron Baraff is a Pittsburgh native, who like many Pittsburghers left the region for a number of years but discovered that there is no place like home. Mr. Baraff has been the Director of Museums and Archives for the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area since 1998. He is currently launching Save the Carrie Deer with a community event on August 16 to save the Carrie Deer, a large-scale sculpture of a deer head by the Industrial Arts Co-op, located on the site of the defunct Carrie Furnaces in Rankin. Jen Saffron of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council interviewed him briefly on his views on the role of the arts in preserving and reinterpreting our region's industrial heritage.

1. What exactly are the Carrie Furnaces and why is it an important place for artists? What is the Carrie Deer and what does it mean, to you?

The Carrie Furnaces are National Historic Landmarks - it is imperative that we preserve them to tell the story not just of the historical significance of this region, but of the site’s impact, nationally and internationally. The Carrie Furnaces represent the story of America's 20th century industrial power and its impact on the world. To that end, the Carrie Furnaces now can serve as an economic development tool and first day attraction for the region, bringing much needed tourism dollars into the surrounding former steel communities that so desperately need them.

The Carrie Furnaces present a prime opportunity to showcase the rich industrial legacy of the region, as well as show the impact of post-industrialism on the region. This is where the Carrie Deer really comes into play – this large scale sculpture is the poster child of post-industrial rustbelt America, answering the questions: what happens to these sites when the work goes away? How do the communities act and interact with these abandoned locations and what sort of meaning can be derived from these interactions? In the case of the Deer, its presence on the site of the Carrie Furnaces, within the architecture of a former bustling industrial generator, allows us to show what happens to these former places of work, and to learn from and use these interactions to open new and exciting doors for visitors to experience the site through the arts.

The Carrie Deer encourages the exploration of the site’s aesthetics and environmental impact (built and natural), because this sculpture is there and acting as the gatekeeper. The Deer and other artists and photographers interacting with the site allows us to continue the process of art-centric redevelopment at what was formerly a place of work, a place of production - a place that became something else entirely in its post-industrial life - a formerly derelict urban space that is now positioned to host numerous ventures that are seemingly removed as “art actions”, yet at the same time intrinsically related to the site's storied history.

2. With Pittsburgh working to shed its former identity as a steel town, how does preserving and showcasing a former mill site work for or against that?

For many years there was a movement to distance the region from its "gritty" past, but I think we have moved beyond that now - it is our history, our geography, our people, and our culture that grew up in industrial Pittsburgh, that has survived, and is thriving. It sets us apart and establishes our unique place within the American lexicon and certainly within the Rust Belt. This region is now experiencing a revitalization through tourism, innovation, and expanding population, because of who we are and where we came from in the not so distant past. I don't feel that Pittsburgh should or even is shedding its former identity as a steel town - it is what makes Pittsburgh and the surrounding region what it is and colors all of us with a profound sense of place, home, and a connection to our collective past.

Look at the gathering movement towards Urban Homesteading and Exploration of the "Rust Belt Chic" - communities such as Braddock, Lawrenceville and Homestead are being revitalized and energized. This is because of our industrial history and not in spite of it. Against this backdrop stand the Carrie Furnaces, a place where we can explore the past, and navigate the present and future of this region through historical tours and discourse; art installations and exploration; new and emerging technologies through installation of Solar Power and the introduction of environmental programming and landscape restoration – all at the site. All of these factors together define who we are and shape who we can be as a region.  

Ron Baraff

Ron Baraff, Rivers of Steel 

3. What other kinds of artistic programs or art has Rivers of Steel been involved in? What has been the response? What kind of artistic activity takes place at Carrie Furnaces, now?

At the Carrie Furnaces site we have hosted a number of different projects and programs that explore the aesthetics of the region (and life). We have hosted Alloy Pittsburgh where 15 emerging artists did site responsive installations; the Jazz Furnace, a day long interactive improvisational dance event conceived of and presented by the Pillow Project. We conduct Urban Art Tours that explore the graffiti (and the Deer) on the site and have also provided legal wall space for artists from all over the world. Photo Safaris regularly take place on site for photographers to come and explore the site, and over the years we’ve hosted numerous filmmakers, photographers, music videos, documentarians, and conducted sculpture workshops, iron-castings, and much more. Throughout its existence, Rivers of Steel has worked with traditional artists, assisting with festivals and events throughout the region, grant funding and exhibitions, foodways, and tourism. Preservation of the region's culture history and character is paramount to our mission, and artistic programs are as much a part of who we are and what we can be as our industrial history.

Throughout its existence, Rivers of Steel has been involved in artistic programming; working with traditional artists, assisting with festivals and events throughout the region, grant funding and exhibitions, a Sunday community market, foodways, art installations and tourism. We are really just scratching the surface of what we can do at and with the Carrie Furnaces - stayed tuned there is much, much more coming!



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Thursday, 10 July 2014 01:29 PM Written by



On July 3rd and 4th, Boom Concepts, a new exhibition and art workspace in Garfield, kicked off their grand opening - a two day extravaganza featuring art, live music, free massages, and an Independence Day cookout. People from all over came out to join the Garfield community in welcoming their newest neighbor, Boom. Located at 5139 Penn Avenue, Boom Concepts is occupied by Pittsburgh based media company, Jenesis Magazine, and art duo, Magic Organs (D.S. Kinsel and Julie Mallis).

Boom Concepts is more than a workspace/studio/gallery, it’s also a hub for an underserved arts community. Boom is a studio where artists can congregate and create together. Visit Boom on any given day and odds are, you’ll see Magic Organs painting or Jenesis Magazine shooting an interview; you might also see Carnegie Mellon MFA students installing an exhibition or Rhinestone Steel hosting a vaudeville night. Maybe you’ll just see a bunch of artists shooting the breeze, eating Spak Brothers pizza, but it’s that kind of friendly environment that fosters connection and encourages collaboration.

On Thursday, the first part of the launch, Boom was in full-on gallery mode, exhibiting work from local artists during Garfield’s Unblurred gallery crawl. Upstairs, guests gathered to view the group exhibition featuring local artists: Applecubed, Mariann Colonna, and Makayla Wray. Downstairs, people toured the art studio where Magic Organs does their creating. Magic Organs is a multidisciplinary art team that uses paint, drawing, sculpture, music, video and performance to speak to and connect with young art enthusiasts and communities. Their studio, which houses D.S. and Julie's individual projects as well, was filled with painted canvases and unassembled installations being prepped for the next exhibit. Always busy, the pair had a retrospective exhibition at Bunker Projects on the same night and they had to pull double duty as hosts, going back and forth between galleries.


Friday evening, the opening ceremonies continued with a cookout and live music showcase. Rising Pittsburgh musician, Tairey, set the tone for the evening as the opening DJ, while Thomas Agnew, D.S. Kinsel, and Julie Mallis shared hosting and grilling duties, welcoming everyone into their new space. As the night progressed, a certified masseur set up a station and provided complimentary massages to those in need. Songstress Anqwenique Wingfield serenaded guests, followed by Tairey’s stage return, this time performing his original songs. The night closed with DJ sets from Alexis Icon, and DJ DGAFunk, obliging my Prince request with “I Would Die 4 U”. It was a great night with good people, highlighting why a place like Boom Concepts is important for creative community.

Boom is a classroom, too. With upcoming classes on subjects such as finance, technology and health, they’re committed to serving not just the arts community but the needs of everyday people, too. Jenesis Magazine and Magic Organs feel a sense of responsibility to making life better, as artists, and they’re using their talents to help others and give opportunity to people who might not otherwise have it. They understand that it’s tough for even talented artists to find places that will exhibit their work, which is why they're always willing to give up-and-comers a chance. This kind of collectivism and shared concerns for the health and well-being of neighborhoods is what makes Pittsburgh strong, and it’s what makes Boom necessary and worthy of our support.

While some Pittsburgh art places focus on the work of national and international artists, other organizations welcome local artists with open arms. A lot of these local-art-friendly places reside on Penn Avenue in Garfield, which makes Boom’s location pretty perfect. Not only are these Penn Avenue galleries such as Garfield Artworks, Assemble, Modern Formations, Mr. Roboto and Most Wanted Fine Art showcasing art from locals, helping them to make a living, they’re building and repairing communities. It’s important that we support organizations that are making an effort to give back to this wonderful city. On the first Friday of every month, the Garfield area hosts a free gallery crawl called Unblurred that takes place between the 4800 and 5500 blocks of Penn avenue. If you haven’t been, do yourself a favor and check it out, and be sure to stop by Boom Concepts.


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Kliptown Photography Project: Growing Quickly

Thursday, 10 July 2014 11:07 AM Written by

This is the final post from the Kliptown Photography Project, a week-long teen documentary project led by Pittsburghers Linda Dukess, Jody DiPerna and photographer Heather Mull in South Africa, which just ended July 4. Zanele Mashumi, South African gallery owner and curator will exhibiting photographs from the workshop opening on July 25 at Mashumi Art Projects, her gallery in Soweto. 

Soweto woman

One does not pick up a camera, take a five day workshop and, on the sixth day, wake up being Teenie Harris or Dorothea Lange. That kind of skill is earned over many hours, many years behind the camera.

That said, our kids are seeing the camera, and the world around them, differently in a very, very short time. Whatever we're doing, we're doing something right.

At the beginning of this week, late Monday afternoon, when we gave the kids their cameras, our students started mugging and cheesing it up for the camera. It was fun for them, but they are very unnatural photographs.

Just a few days later, the kids are taking photos of different things, trying to capture different kinds of moments. Sure, some posed photos and selfies still show up -- after all, these are teenagers we're talking about. But their growth in a short, short time is amazing to witness.

Last night, we gave the kids an assignment to take two portraits -- one of a person they know (could be a family member, a friend, a close neighbor); and the second of a portrait of somebody they didn't know. They know their environment well enough to know who to steer clear of, but still, we wanted to give them a very professional photography assignment, the kind somebody like Heather would get. She told them that there are lots of ways to approach it, but being honest (explain that it's a school assignment -- it's not going to be in a newspaper or anything) is a good start. And that offering to show them the photo is a good way to gain trust, too. As with many things in life, being complimentary helps; simply telling somebody, "you have a great look" or "you have great style" is a good way to get a person to agree to let you photograph them.

This morning, the kids came back with great stuff. Some of them really got people to open up, connect with them. Which, although they didn't know it, was the point of the exercise. And they all really captured the person they know. Some took photos of cousins or siblings or grandparents. They were overall really wonderful shots.

Soweto portrait

Which is really a tremendous thing for us -- the entire team -- but particularly for me and Linda. I loved the idea of the project, but there were multiple points at which I wondered how effective the project would be? How much would we accomplish?

A month or so ago, I heard a TED Talk by Ernesto Sirolli, about the power of listening when going into a foreign location with the intention of helping. He started by telling a very funny story about when he worked for an Italian NGO in the late 1970's. They went to Zambia to teach the Zambians about agriculture. Being Italians, they arrived with tomato and zucchini seeds. (Sounds a lot like my family.) And they planted in beautiful soil and felt very good about the fact that they were there to help these Zambians who clearly didn't understand growing things. The tomatoes grew and ripened and just when they were ready to harvest, a herd of 200 hippos came through and ate them all.

The Italians said to the Zambians, "The hippos! Why didn't you tell us about the hippos!" To which the Zambians replied, "You didn't ask." Sirolli went on to say that he felt awful about the Italian folly in Zambia, until he learned of the follies of the Americans and the Brits and the French. At least the Italians, he thought, fed the hippos.

There were times when I thought to myself, "Well, we are giving our kids breakfast and a snack every day, so we may end up like the Italians -- at least we fed somebody for a week!" That was my baseline, the worst that I could expect from the week. Although I didn't really think that would happen. What I really thought would happen was that we could connect with one kid, maybe two.

I think we've connected with more than that. They are all very proud of their new knowledge and, though we've really just scratched the surface with them, I feel like a few of them may make photography a life-long pursuit (either as a vocation or an avocation). But for entire class, I believe we've planted a couple of seeds, cultivated an interest in looking at the world in new ways. For me, that's what education is all about. It's also what art is all about.

There are twelve students -- 14 to 16 years old, plus three members of the staff, all in their very early 20s. And I think we've really hooked many of them, at least two-thirds of our students. Maybe more.

Several of the kids, our high school students, show up early. After one day of seeing how we wanted the classroom set up, they set the classroom up. They tidy up. They help us get breakfast ready. As we're showing slides in a room without blinds, we have to block the light with cardboard. The kids set that up, too. When we give them breaks, at least five or six of them hang out in the classroom, talking to our instructors. One of our students even got work photographing this weekend -- she has been asked to take photos at a birthday party. She will be paid very modestly, but it is paid photography work. And she's also been asked to take photographs for her church, for which she will also be compensated.

Bear in mind, none of these kids had taken any serious photos. Some of them had not been behind a camera ever. It is an astonishing amount of growth in just four days. I am, quite frankly, blown away.

Is it possible we've been able to teach some young people to see and tell new stories? Have they learned that it's okay to take a step back (or a step forward) and open their minds to a new way of seeing?

And even though I had made my peace with the idea that we might just end up feeding the hippos, I think we may be able to do more than that.

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Soweto, Day Two: Using Light

Tuesday, 08 July 2014 02:18 PM Written by


Jody DiPerna is one of three Pittsburghers leading a teen documentary photography workshop in Kliptown, a South African township. Read more about the Kliptown Photography Project, here.

July 01, 2014  

We didn't know what we could reasonably expect. We really didn't. How could we? We were traveling to an informal settlement to teach students ages 14-17 who we didn't know at all. We were working with one very seasoned photographer who had no experience teaching. And three other photographers who we only knew through their work and email. All four photographers are wonderful. We loved their work. And I had worked with Heather, so I'd seen her connect with people. I think it's really a strength -- just set her loose in a place and let her talk and connect and use her camera.

But honestly, when I think about it, what were we thinking?

Fortunately for us, our instructors are incredible, intuitive teachers -- I think because they really love photography. It is evident how much joy they get from using a camera, problem solving, figuring out different ways to connect with a subject or shoot an object, how to use the light and any other material they have at hand. That passion is infectious and it turns out they are all natural born teachers.

We let our students take their cameras home last night. The instructors gave them an assignment:  simply take photographs of some people close to you and then show us your three favorite photos. This afternoon the instructors got to look at our students work. As we were working in the KYP computer lab, we broke into groups -- three students and one instructor. I floated around, checking in on some of the work. The kids did great. Each one had at least one really good photo. Many of them had more than that.

And to think, I was worried that we wouldn't have enough good stuff for an exhibition.


Our kids are also amazing at taking in all kinds of technical information. I think I might have been inclined to dumb things down, or, at the very least, keep it very, very simple. Fortunately, I don't get to make those kinds of decisions. The instructors decided to throw a master class at the kids this morning, as a way to illustrate how a camera works the way that your eye works, which is to say, the interpretive engine of light.

Heather explained how a camera shutter works like your eye, opening in dark settings to let in more light, and closing in brighter settings to limit the light. And how a camera is just like that. She taught them how to make a make-shift reflector with cardboard and foil, so that they can reflect natural light onto a subject (could be human or inanimate) in a dim setting.

Patrick taught the kids how to use light on a subject -- front light, side light, and back light. I should add here, that while each instructor make take the lead for a short moment, the class is very interactive. All the instructors explain things, feeding off of each other, expanding on one thought or another.

They even taught the kids about the principles of photography -- ISO, aperture, shutter speed, film speed, etc. It was a master class and I have to admit, the kids were really keeping up with the ideas. In fact, during the classroom work, we thought we should give them a five minute break, just to stretch their legs and blow off some steam, but most of them stayed in the classroom, talking to Tila, Patrick, Jerry and Heather.

Admittedly, it's just fun to shoot pictures, but they're taking to all of it -- the theory behind it, understanding light and how they can use it, thinking about depth of field and framing (but we'll get to more of that tomorrow), and how photographers tell stories.

As Patrick told the students, "The writer uses pen and paper; but as photographers, we write with light."


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Soweto: Day One

Saturday, 05 July 2014 11:40 AM Written by

This is the first of a series of posts from Pittsburghers Linda Dukess, Jody DiPerna and Heather Mull, in the field in South Africa working with photographers and youth from Soweto on the Kliptown Photography Project.
Greetings from Soweto!
We are back at our home away from home, B&B Nthateng in Orlando West. Today, we got rolling at the Kliptown Youth Project. We met the teens and started the day with breakfast, which we will be doing every day. Today was simply rolls and cheese and oranges. Tomorrow, we are going to bring a local favorite called fat cake, which is a kind of fry bread. I have to admit, I'm quite intrigued to try them myself.
It was an exhilarating day for us! Read more about our first day here.
We've spent the last year of our lives talking about this project, the Kliptown Photography Project, examining it from every angle, working out details, prepping, fund-raising, traveling, researching cameras and on and on:  it felt a bit like looking for El Dorado or the search for the Holy Grail.
But today, to see it happen, to see the students engage, to see Julie and Heather teaching, watching Tila, Patrick and Jerry connecting with the kids, was truly phenomenal, one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives.
The kids have homework tonight and, I have to admit, I am very curious to see what they will bring back! Things are going really well here. My only regret is that we have only five days with our students. I'd like to stay indefinitely. 
It's hard not to think ahead, but when we get back from this amazing week, we have to continue our fund-raising efforts, so that we can pay for the exhibitions of the work. If you've donated to us, we cannot thank you enough. Please pass on this information, our blog, our site and our indiegogo information (below) to anybody and everybody. 
Ulwimi ululodwa alonelanga - One language is never enough

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 heather in the classroom final

As the region’s arts council, a membership organization comprised of many non-profits and artists, we receive calls and requests of all kinds, all in the name of helping our region’s arts community thrive. This spring, after having run into fellow photographer Heather Mull and hearing about her plans to go to South Africa, I received an email from Linda Dukess, Heather’s colleague, asking to talk about their wild idea to teach documentary photography in South Africa. Having taught media in the field in Northern Ireland, Jamaica, the Navajo Nation, and Alabama, my interest was piqued.

There is nothing quite like looking through the lens of a camera, in the field and working with young people, if you want to instantly cause intercultural learning, global awareness and serious reflection about one's place in this world. The photographs are usually good, even for a short term, immersive project, but the profound takeaways – compassion, humility, gratitude, and self-determination – are better than good. People think cameras are about the gear. Think, again - cameras are literally about seeing, teaching a person to observe, consider, and reflect.

Linda and I met, and she shared her passion project, the Kliptown Photography Project, involving herself, her partner Jody DiPerna, Heather, and their friend Juliana Kreinik. Moved to do something to help the situation in a South African shantytown, their plan is to work with South African photographers Jerry Obakeng Gaegane, Patrick Selemani and Tila Nomvula Mathizerd with South African curator Zanele Mashumi and let the power of the documentary image take hold. Together, they would enact a week-long photography program for teens in Kliptown, one of the most impoverished townships in South Africa. In the mix is the Kliptown Youth Program, helping the photography project work with teens in the area and providing a space for the project within the township.

Linda and her colleagues are in Kliptown, now, and I asked them to share their stories with The Arts Blog readers to raise awareness of their efforts to make a difference, and to broaden our understanding of how the arts function within a set of larger community concerns, such as poverty and racism. Find out more about the project, here, and we will post three blog posts from their adventures, today and into early next week. 

Jen Saffron, Director of Communications at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council



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Ojo - Opening eyes with theater

Monday, 30 June 2014 11:47 AM Written by

One of the more evocative, challenging art pieces I have seen in years took place as an “immersive theatrical experience” during the Three Rivers Arts Festival a couple of weeks back, and my mind is still working it out.

Ojo Bricolage Production Company’s immersive theater piece created for this year’s Three Rivers Arts festival provided an exceptional sensory experience of the streets in and around the Festival. The journey began gradually, taking me from building to building, street to street, space to space – with actors asking me to listen for or memorize the clues that led me to my next destination, be it a person playing drums in the street or a payphone or a doorway. After about 30 minutes, the sensory scavenger hunt, including other languages being spoken at me and pedicab ride through an alley while wearing blinders, ended in a dark cozy bedroom where the adventure truly began.

After having a bedtime story read to me with an eye mask on, we left this safe interior bedroom space, eye mask intact, and until the cast bade us farewell, those engaged in Ojo either wore a light tight eye mask or were accompanied by a person who does not have sight, sharing their stories of finding their way through life and through art. This exceptional immersion theater provided us with a perspective on our city that most of us do not want - living, traveling, eating, acting - without sight.

Ojo cropped

As the leader of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s ”Increasing Accessibility to Pittsburgh Arts and Culture Initiative,” I spend much of my working life helping arts and culture organizations best serve people with disabilities, for example someone without sight, so that they can participate in our creative community. As a part of our 2014 accessibility work, GPAC highlighted the work of artists with disabilities, promoting the idea that art of all disciplines can shift opinions and attitudes simply by presenting a different perspective on our world.Ojo showed me that despite years of guiding people without sight through our world and specifically the Art World - I really have a lot to learn.

During the short 1.5 hour immersive theatrical journey, I was abandoned at a simulated crowded party by a “friend” after she asked me to hold her drink – except I was wearing a completely light tight eye mask and couldn’t see a thing.  My children, who journeyed together but separate from me were taken to the same party (also with eye masks) and invited to entertain themselves at the party by completing a number puzzle they could not see, and enjoy themselves by eating popcorn from a bowl they could not find. I strained to hear my kids’ voices - instinctively searching for some sign they were OK, but felt helpless and dumped off at a pretend lively party where no one wanted to talk to me.

These moments during Ojo, I realized with regret the memories of socializing with my friends without sight and some with sight, seeing myself in the actors who were “glad to see me” - the blind one - but didn’t really want to engage in my world.

Art can change our world for the better with beautiful experiences that shed some light on what it is like to be someone else. Looking at the world through another’s eyes builds empathy, reveals barriers, changes the way we see the world. Ojo did that by closing my eyes.

Read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's review of Ojo, here


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These last weeks of the school year have moved me into a reflective state on my childhood school days. As my daughter and I dig into college planning I find myself trying to remember how I made such big decisions at a young age. How did I end up where I am right now – a Visual Problem Solver?!

I found part of my answer at an event for GPAC, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, where I created visual notes for a roundtable discussion about Arts Education. I found the conversation interesting and important, but what was most serendipitous during that session is my art teacher from elementary school happened to be an attendee. We chatted for a bit about life, art and education before the session began. As the evening went on I had this feeling I couldn’t quite define. I said my good-byes and went home, but I could NOT sleep that night – I just stared at the ceiling trying to figure out that feeling which was bringing me to the brink of tears.

Emily Marko-1

How could a small interaction with a person I hadn’t seen since elementary school affect me so much? I also wondered how is it that I actually remember this teacher so vividly and not only her, but also a piece of artwork that I created in her class close to 30 years ago.

As I pondered this, I had flashes of more memories from my childhood and into my college years. It wasn’t a bad feeling at all. It was a mixture of gratitude, love and feeling so VERY fortunate – fortunate to have been influenced by some really Significant People.

So how did I get here? With a lot of different experiences – the great and not-so-great ones. Some experiences I fell into, others I was pushed into and there were a few I worked so hard to have. The combination of all of those experiences, plus Awesome Family and some Significant People is what got me to right now. Many of those Significant People were only a blink in my life. Some were teachers who I really only knew for 180 days or less, but left a lasting impression and truly helped carve out my path.

The Arts have always been prominent in my life in some form. My parents (part of the Awesome Family) raised me with craftiness. Who else had retro lamps made out of deodorant bottles or a one-of-a-kind RV made completely out of spare airplane parts for their Barbies?!

But I also realize now there was a huge influence in the Arts that came from those Significant People. They may not remember me, but I sure do remember them. So, Thank You….

  • Dr. Sarah Tambucci for fostering my creativity and independence in art at the very beginning of my school days.
  • Mr. Bowman for trying your best to teach me how to play the drums. Sorry I just did not have enough rhythm to get the beats down.
  • Mr. Edward Nemec for sharing your love of books, theater & jelly beans.
  • Mr. Robert Rodrigues for assigning visual projects like designing a newspaper so I could learn about history.
  • Mr. Hugh McGinn for teaching the skills of photography and the awesomeness of Hootie and the Blowfish.
  • Mr. Mark Barzan for giving me the opportunity to try out different art forms and the courage to choose art in college.
  • Mrs. Lisa Trainor for the opportunity to help create the school yearbook. Who knew that would be the start of my love for page layout & design.
  • Professor Rick Heisler for growing my photography skills and giving me an opportunity to teach others.
  • Professor Howard Lieberman for teaching me how to draw naked people with a three-foot stick.
  • Professor Lauren Lampe for guiding a lost transfer student through the graphic design journey.
  • Professor George Founds for scaring the bee-gee-bees out of me, but at the same time expanding my vocabulary and truly teaching great graphic design.

Thank You for helping me get to today. I have made my own mistakes, successes and decisions, but I believe the memories, lessons, and inspirations I took from all of you have added shape to who I am as a person and Visual Problem Solver.

So, how have the Arts influenced you? Who are your Significant People?


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Christiane and Edith


How do artists make art – what do they DO? At last week’s Living the Artist Life with NEXTPittsburgh, a sizable group gathered to explore that question at the Mine Factory’s gallery at 201 South Braddock Avenue – indeed, the entire Mine Factory building is chockablock rooms with artists holed up in their studios, working away – artists like Bill Miller, Barbara Weissberger, Alexi Morrissey and Carin Mincemoyer.  Within sculptor Ryan Lammie’s exhibition entitled Origins & Gravity, about 75 of us snacked and talked our way through creative conversations about “practice” – what we actually DO to make art. How does it happen? Artists Seth Clark, Fabrizio Gerbino, Dee Briggs, Ron Copeland, Ramon Riley and Ayanah Moor shared their practice and philosophies with us through their artist statements and projections of their work in various mediums.


At core, art is the exploration of space – of recreating a scene or person (landscape or a portrait), of building something (sculpture, public art), of exploring the relationship between 3D and 2D (photography), of making sound (music, moving through space) and the ideas that emerge from considering all of that. Sounds simple, and is not. Most artists spend their lives in raw, sometimes unheated spaces like garages, basements, attics, warehouses –the studio: where artists explore space and make things that hopefully communicate their ideas.


While some artists primarily work in studios, some also work in the field of “social practice” – that is, inquiring into social concerns, and making art in direct response to those concerns through methods that look more like anthropology or community process than art - gathering community input, exploring neighborhoods, researching historical events. Social practice artists like Naomi Natale and the One Million Bones project involve non-artists in art making, commenting on serious social issues and working collaboratively with citizens to produce and exhibit works outside of the traditional gallery or museum context. The art of the social practitioner is often seen within the fabric of a community or at a public venue, and viewers sometimes wonder, “Is it art?”

In Pittsburgh starting next week with the Three Rivers Arts Festival, two local artists, Christiane Leach and Edith Abeyta will showcase two works involving this kind of community involvement, both meant to bring awareness to the viewers about social issues in our own city.

Christiane Leach collected over 100 complaints about Pittsburgh from regular Pittsburghers – everything from potholes to racial equity issues – and together with her collaborators, Phat Man Dee, Andrew Laswell, Doug Levine and Deryck Tines, they wrote a song, the Pittsburgh Complaints song. Who will sing it? Well, the Pittsburgh Complaints Choir, comprised of citizen singers of all stripes and sizes. You can hear them sing and swing with lines such as, “Most livable for whom?” Look for them throughout the duration of the festival, on stages and bridges.

Edith Abeyta will raise awareness about water usage and the fashion industry in her piece, o:ne:ka, amassed from 3,000 t-shirts donated by Pittsburghers and transformed into a public installation in Point State Park. Her aim in installing this piece at the confluence of our three rivers is to bring awareness to important environmental facts such as the fact that it takes 700 gallons of water to produce a t-shirt. Look for her piece - you probably won't miss it as you enter Point State Park.

Pittsburgh, home to many artists – more per capita than other cities our size – and home to supporting entities such as the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival and the Office of Public Art, who helped support Leach and Abeyta’s involvement, is ripe for more interactive, social practice art making, and it’s without doubt that we can look forward to experiencing more of this kind of art, in the future. 

Photograph of Christiane Leach and Edith Abeyta, courtesy the AP Collector


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