Despite there still being questions about the fate of the Dreamers under the DACA program and a decision from the Supreme Court on President Trump’s immigration ban being handed down later this year, the Pittsburgh region continues to be a welcoming place for refugees from around the world.
Last Spring, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s Office of Public Art, with funding from the National Endowment for the Art’s “Our Town” grant, awarded four artists-in-residencies. Our Town grants are creative placemaking grants, designed to strengthen communities through arts, culture, and design strategies.
“We did a call for organizations that served immigrant refugee communities,” said Sallyann Kluz, Director of GPAC’s Office of Public Art. Christine Bethea is working with the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh, Mary Tremonte is working with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, Molly Rice is working with the Northern Area Multi-Service Center (NAMS), and Lindsey Peck Scherloum is working with United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh.
“They’ve been collaborating for maybe nine or ten months of the residency so they’ve gone through a process of community engagement, a getting-to-know-each-other phase, and then community engagement activities,” Kluz reported. “And then they’re trying some different ideas for projects before they put together their final project proposal which will be coming up in the next couple of months. Once they’ve made their final project proposal, and it’s got everyone’s final sign-off, they’ll have a year to implement that.”
According to Kluz, the Bhutanese and Somali community organizations deal with specific populations and NAMS performs senior outreach, outreach within the community, and the region’s largest refugee resettlement program. The Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council conducts English as a second language programs and Tremonte is working with teachers who are in those programs.
Recent changes in U.S. government as they apply to immigrants and refugees have certainly had an effect on the communities taking part in the current Artist in the Public Realm program.
“It’s really been an intense period,” admitted Kluz. “And particularly looking through the lens that we have of seeing people coming in, I know that NAMS has seen some fluctuation in terms of the number of refugees they anticipate to be resettling. They still have a pretty steady stream of folks though because of how things were in the pipeline.
“But there’s a lot of stress in that community of people who are serving and trying to help refugees,” she continued. “My sense is that the Bhutanese and Somali communities certainly have family and people that they would like to come here. But they are not necessarily dealing with day-to-day immigration flow in the way some of these other agencies are.”
The importance of public art to address issues like these that are critical to the Pittsburgh region have been recognized since 2007 with the Mayor’s Award for Public Art.
At GPAC’s recent Response/ABILITY Annual Convening, Mayor Bill Peduto announced that this year’s award would be given to artist Andrea Polli and collaborator Ron Gdovic of WindStax for their “Energy Flow” light installation on the Rachel Carson Bridge from November 2016 - April 2018.
In an interview for a GPAC blog post last year, Polli said: “For me, some of the most exciting things that are happening with science and technology include our ability to monitor and understand our environment. So how do you try to make something visible more visible or bring that awareness to the public of something that is actually having a big impact on them but they don’t necessarily see it? That’s where I think public art can be really valuable.”
Energy Flow. Image: Jason Cohn
“We wanted to go in and find a new story, the stories that aren’t being told,” said Jeffrey Carpenter, Artistic Director of the Pittsburgh-based theatre company Bricolage, when asked why their most recent production took place as a bus and walking tour in Braddock. “It’s been a really exciting process in that regard and finding all of the different layers that we didn‘t even know were there.”
The company’s most recent production Saints Tour (with the tag line “there’s something in the dirt”) closed earlier this month after a sold-out run.
For writer Molly Rice’s experience-driven play, which has been performed in other cities prior to Pittsburgh, a decision needed to be made about which local community would work, here in our region. “My reaction was Braddock,” said Carpenter, “and that’s for a variety of reasons -- just the fact that Braddock has these unbelievable vistas, geographically it lent itself to this.”
“When we think of saints we’re sort of borrowing a tradition,” he said. “But this project is really about the everyday saints in our lives -- the ones that often go overlooked. It’s not religious-based though there is definitely a spiritual component.”
Carpenter also mentioned that writer Rice borrowed the idea from old medieval plays in which troupes would travel from community to community, transforming it for a modern audience. “There are a lot of metaphors in this piece and Braddock in general and we felt it was really perfect for the tour.”
The Saints Tour project grew out of the evolutionary process of Bricolage -- which is all about creating a sense of involvement for an audience. “This led directly to a new genre called immersive theater, which is a style of theatre where we put the audience in the center from which everything else spins,” he explained.
“This particular project is unique in that it is a project for and by the community in which it is presented,” continued Carpenter. “We worked for a year and a half and went out there on a weekly basis to meet people, develop relationships, and work with community partners to create this immersive project.”
In developing the project, Bricolage worked with local visual artists, a performing-arts education organization based in Braddock, and a youth group that works with Americorps volunteers. Members of the community also performed in the show. “The project has just been an incredible testament to the community,” he emphasized.
Over 400 residents went on the tour, and according to Carpenter, their reactions were very interesting. In addition, the project ended every night with a community meal, made by Tami Dixon, Bricolage’s Producing Artistic Director, in which the residents were able to share stories and memories of growing up and living in Braddock.
“It’s been a really wonderful way to engage with the community, to know the people there,” Carpenter said. “It’s been a really wonderful partnership.”
Photographs by Jen Saffron, top to bottom: Aerialist Kristin Garbino completes her scene in the Allegheny Cemetery in North Braddock; Actor Bria Walker as the Tour Guide on the Saints Tour bus; Children play with actor Tami Dixon in Gardweeno, a community garden for youth; Players on the Saints Tour enjoy a community meal in back of Unsmoke Systems on Braddock Avenue with tour goers and Braddock residents.