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