This is a transcribed phone interview between Jen Saffron, Director of Communications for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, and Reg Douglas, Artistic Producer for City Theatre Company.
You're the artistic producer for a prolific theater company - I'm sure you've seen a lot of plays. What led you to Pipeline?
I remember when I saw the play in the summer of 2017 with City’s Director of New Play Development Clare Drobot – we are both friends with the playwright and in love with Dominique’s work – I was completely blown away by it. I so appreciated the honesty of the relationships and circumstances and experiences that Dominique was sharing. Pipeline is a wonderfully courageous examination of race, education, love, legacy, and America. I am so proud to be able to share this story with a Pittsburgh audience.
Pipeline centers on a relationship between a Black son and his mother, the hopes and fears that she has as he grows up. I really identify with that story – growing up surrounded by love in my household and family, but still often feeling at a loss as to how to best fit into this culture and this country where love feels denied for Black men in particular. Given the cultural assumptions about black male identity being rooted in anger and rage – which is not true – how does one find joy and hope in a society that is set up to only frame black men in terms of pain and loss? That is a question I am always interested in using art to investigate, as well as what are the limits of love? Are there any? I feel like Pipeline is an interrogation of these questions.
The play is a love story. Dominique has written a love letter to Black men and Black mothers. I think at the core of the play is how strong the bonds of family are. In the midst or in spite of both our country’s complicated history and present relationship with race, the play shows how love can still survive and thrive.
We're in a place and time in our society when art is becoming even more of a vehicle for addressing tough topics - racism and violence during a time of rising actions of White Nationalists, for example. How can a play, and in this case a newer play, help?
I think that the power of good theater, and that’s what we want to make at City Theatre, is to reflect the world as both it is and as it could be. I hope that our production is honest in is specificity, but also that it imagines a world that surpasses our own. Our job in the theater is not to put book reports and news reports on stage, but to create art, to use magic and music and theatricality to help us to better understand the facts as well as find ways to overcome them.
Twenty Black women - leaders in the arts and our communities - have been asked to lead Post-Show Conversations - what do you hope these conversations will inspire?
I hope that the conversations show that this story is a Pittsburgh story. I hope that they inspire a dialogue between people who are normally not talking to each other. The ultimate goal of these conversations is to foster empathy and unity. I think that’s the goal for many artists – to use art to create deeper understanding – and it is certainly the goal of this production. The post-show conversations create a space where audiences can go on that journey towards deeper understanding together.
The post-show conversations have been overwhelmingly amazing. One of the most inspiring things of my career at City has been to witness long-time subscribers, first-time theatergoers, young people, old people, people of diverse nationalities and neighborhoods being courageous enough to share their experience of the play and what’s happening in our city and our country. It really feels like a community coming together to think, engage, live differently and I could not be prouder to be a part of fostering that dialogue and spirit.
This play centers around a young Black man and you've collaborated with 1Hood, young Black men and also women, on the sound for this play. I often find that collaborations, when done well, transform and inform each participant. How was working with 1Hood transformative for you, and what do you think were some takeaways for them?
I knew early on that I wanted to use 1Hood’s music in the show. They were one of the first organizations that I encountered when I moved to Pittsburgh and I have remained a big fan. It was a dream come true working with them on this production. Their artistry, feedback, thoughts, and ideas have been vital to every step of the production process for me and for the whole artistic team, including our amazing sound designer Zachary Beattie-Brown. The word transformative is spot-on. I think that the collaboration working with 1Hood has transformed how City Theatre thinks about being a community leader and community connector. I think all of our staff echoes the desire to continue to connect meaningfully with local artists and to provide space for them to tell their stories and share their work on our stages.
Some of the 1Hood artists were actually just here in the theater today. They’ve become deeply impassioned about theater-making and have interests that I hope we can find ways to support going forward.
And you know, I think very critically as an African-American artist and arts administrator of color in this city, and one of the only ones on the artistic side at our local theaters, about who is given opportunity to share; who is taking up space where and when and how; who is in power; who is making decisions. I helped provide a group of extraordinarily talented African-American artists with power by offering space and resources to make their art and share it with new audiences. That is a dream come true.
What do you think educators here in Pittsburgh might say about Pipeline?
That’s a good question. We worked with quite a few educators on the production. We have two student matinees, and Pittsburgh Public Schools is sponsoring one of them. The teachers at Westinghouse High School also invited us to visit as a research trip and came to the show this weekend. And we have also worked with the staff at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. The education community in this city has been very supportive.
I think this play shows how hard many teachers are working to provide the best educational experience that they can. Something in the play that I have always been struck by is the respect that Dominique gives the teachers. She even dedicates the play to her mom who is a teacher. I have heard from educators in Pittsburgh and beyond about how much they enjoyed the play and I think that is because the piece allows them to see their lives reflected with honesty and dignity. Like the mother in the play, I think that many of the best teachers are leading with love, and I have the utmost respect for that.
Pipeline, by Dominique Morriseau, runs through Sunday with evening performances W-Sat and matinees Saturday and Sunday. Tickets, information about the play, and showtimes are right here.
1Hood Media will performThursday, November 15, 2018, 6pm at the Andy Warhol Museum at their Artivist Academy Showcase. Pay-what-you-can, information and reservations, here.
Photography by Kristi Jan Hoover, featuring the cast of Pipeline and members of 1Hood: Nambi E. Kelley (Nya), Krystal Rivera (Jasmine), Carter Redwood (Omari), Sheila McKenna (Laurie), Gabriel Lawrence (Dun), and Khalil Kain (Xavier). 1Hood portraits featuring Jacquae Mae and livefromthecity.
Dan Leers became the Carnegie Museum of Art’s second Curator of Photography in 2015, and has been getting us to look at photography in new and interesting ways ever since. Having just exhibited some of the world’s oldest photographs, the Carnegie Museum of Art will open a major exhibition of contemporary photography by Deana Lawson on March 15. Jen Saffron, Director of Communications at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and a photographer, herself, talks with Dan Leers about his vision for the photography program at the museum and what photographs might do for Pittsburgh.
So, Dan, the Talbot show just closed out – awesome exhibition and very rare, not just for Pittsburgh. How did that happen?
I realized in so many of those pictures there was such incredible detail – you could get up close and count the cobblestones in the street, read the signs posted at the construction site of Trafalgar Square. This detail is a lot of what photography actually was for Talbot, that he could take the lens off this machine and it would record everything much more accurately than his hand could have ever drawn it. When you’re talking about detail, you are talking about time, nostalgia, history and I think all of those elements are present in his work and that was one reason for doing a show like that – simply showing these incredibly detailed and early photographs.
Another reason is our relationship with a generous donor of the museum, William Talbott Hillman who is a collector of photography and a photographer, himself, from Pittsburgh – he has a great relationship with the museum, and owns several Talbot photographs. When I first visited him to see his collection in New York City, these early, early photographs sparked the idea that this was the very beginning of photography, this is the first time I am meeting Mr. Hillman, and this is the perfect way to solidify the relationship with the museum.
In the course of organizing the show I was looking at his collection but also building on it with loans from places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art to fill out the big picture of who William Henry Fox Talbot was – he was the quintessential Renaissance man. He was someone who knew a little bit about a lot – botany and chemistry and art history and astronomy – and all of that is in the photographs. I saw themes running through these pictures: the idea of place, his house, his home, his family, his objects, still life, genre-type photographs. So, I started arranging this show and it became 31 photographs. On its face that doesn’t seem like a lot, but these things are incredibly fragile, so 31 is the largest Talbot show in this country in the past 15 years.
You just mentioned place, home, objects, still life imagery. Fast forward, you’re about to open Deana Lawson’s show. While Deana’s work almost looks like a candid photograph, we know from studying her work that these are highly posed works – they are so different than Talbot in mood, tone, temporality, yet you can see the relationship. Can you talk a little bit about how that relationship works for you, as a curator, when you’re looking at such different/similar bodies of work?
Probably there are more differences than similarities in the work but you’re right, there are genres like portraiture and still life that are very much present in Deana’s work that exist absolutely in Talbot’s. We can go back to Renaissance and Medieval art, and ground ourselves in conversations about Deana’s work in those [periods], but understanding that it’s significant that she herself is an African American photographer, female photographer, making pictures of other African American or African diaspora people. She’s taking those very traditional genres or themes and inserting her own vision into them. [Her sitters] bear the weight of heavier conversations about beauty and what is beauty and what defines beauty. And, how do we indicate wealth? Is it purely material or is there spiritual wealth?
I think Deana raises all of those questions in her beautiful and challenging and difficult way. I would say that most of the time her subjects look back at us and challenge us about what are accepted or stereotypical notions of beauty and identity. Part of it is about discomfort. I liken it to the car accident where you know you’re not supposed to look but you can’t help but rubberneck. That’s the sign of a good photograph, regardless of the subject, you want to look but you feel a little uncomfortable looking – you are challenged, you are on your toes, you are thinking in ways you may not have been thinking as a more passive viewer or a voyeur.
If we were take a 10,000 foot view of what you just said, it seems like you are interested in challenging the museum to think about photography in new ways, to reconsider its role in the museum and therefore think about the museum’s relationship to its audiences – what are you hoping to elicit from the audience? What do you think this show of Deana’s will elicit?
I’m interested in the different forms or functions of photography, and if you take Talbot as one book end then Deana is the other, and the history of photography happens in between. I think what’s really important is that I am trying to present different ways of looking at photography or making photography that people are probably familiar with at least in some way, but maybe they haven’t seen or thought about on their own. I am very interested in presenting a diversity of identities and perspectives that will hopefully serve a wide variety of the Pittsburgh local population as well as people coming to Pittsburgh from further afield.
I feel very fortunate that I work with photography in that it’s something almost everyone is comfortable with, now through our cell phones and it’s a way that most people feel like they can get a foothold in the museum. I’m looking for a hook, and photography can be that hook – when the subject of the photograph, like in Deana’s work, is looking right at you and you stop and lock eyes with them, then the experience may be more meaningful and different than you might have with any other kind of art work.
You’ve set about acquiring new artists and bodies of work for the museum’s photography collection. Knowing that people only see a fraction of the collection and the museum by its nature a collecting institution, what’s in our collection? You landed here as a curator and have this collection and also relationships with people outside the museum - relationships that can help shape the collection. What kind of collection do you want, and can you talk about some of your recent acquisitions?
Well, first off I will say that the collection here is an idiosyncratic one. We’ve got about 5,000 photographs, and about 75% of them are pictures of Pittsburgh or pictures made by somebody from Pittsburgh [and that’s not including the Teenie Harris Archive]. It’s certainly the largest holding of pictures of Pittsburgh in an art museum. And, rather than turning away from that, I am interested in embracing that and understanding that as our foundation.
That doesn’t mean we only acquire pictures of Pittsburgh. I’m interested in thinking about it more broadly. That can happen in a lot of different ways. If we think about pictures of Pittsburgh as pictures of a city, or pictures of an industrialized city, well that opens us to think about lots of places like NYC, Chicago, Birmingham, England or Birmingham, Alabama. We can also think about the concept of place - there are many photographers who lived in only one city and only made photographs in that place. What does that mean? What does that do for a collection of photographs?
I am also interested in expanding beyond what we could call the classic or canonical list of artists and movements in the history of photography. It’s only recently that museums have begun to think about vernacular photography or photography made by amateurs. One of the largest acquisitions I’ve made since I’ve come to the museum was about 200 photographs made by amateurs and hobbyists showing daily life. These are the kinds of photographs you have in shoeboxes under your bed. These are the postcards you see at the drugstore. This is the way that photographs exist for most of us. For most of us, we don’t have the pristine, framed black and white photographs, we have the family photo album. So, why isn’t that in our museum?
I’m also interested in expanding the collection in terms of the artists we are representing. Female artists, artists of color, LGBTQIA+ artists – people from these communities have been underrepresented in museum collections and exhibitions and I think that is a mistake. We’ve set about trying to build our collection by acquiring works by Deana Lawson and Mickalene Thomas and many other artists.
I’ve also expanded the collection to include work by African photographers because I’ve lived in and done a lot of research on photography on the African continent. These are important works that have traditionally been ignored by museums. It’s not about presenting competing histories, it’s about parallel histories. What was happening in South African versus what was happening in the U.S.? What was happening in Brazil during a certain period of time? What was happening in Japan? I am really keen to have our collection raise and perhaps answer some of those questions.
As you’ve been saying, photography is not in a vacuum and while some of what we do requires specialized gear and knowledge and science, the majority of photographs tare taken are taken by mothers of small children and we’re all taking photos with our phones. Photography is ubiquitous. So, what do you think is a healthy relationship between curators like you who are in a specialized world of collecting photographs for institutions and the galleries that support more local work and the local buyers? What does that ecosystem look like for you and how does that play out in Pittsburgh?
You hit on it by calling it an ecosystem. The Museum and I are a part of a constellation of outlets that support photography, whether it is Silver Eye or the Mattress Factory or Concept Art Gallery or the PGH Photo Fair all of those are different places where people experience or see photography. Not to mention all of the colleges and universities and their photography programs. I am very interested in being a contributing part of that constellation. We might have the ability, resources, and desire to show photography in a way that other institutions might not but that’s not better or worse, that’s just different.
I am also always interested in seeing what artists are doing – I take my cue from what photographers and artists are thinking about. I am a curator but I am also a person. I like meeting people and hearing what they are interested in. They make other introductions for me to artists and ideas I didn’t know about and I am eager to learn about, and I hope that it’s a two–way street. I hope in turn they can come here and learn something from us.
I don’t want to turn my back on the fact that Pittsburgh forms the backbone of our collection. I am eager to engage with local makers and have started conversations about acquisitions with local artists. I think an artist working here has just a viable practice as an artist working in New York City or any other place. These artists are sometimes even more interesting to us as we can connect it to our collection and our communities. If I find ways to make those local connections and expand them more broadly, then I am doing my job.
Photo captions, in order of appearance:
William Henry Fox Talbot
Nelson’s Column under Construction, Trafalgar Square, first week of April 1844
Salted paper print from a calotype negative
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Anonymous Gift and Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts; 2004 Benefit Fund; W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg Gift; The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund, through Joyce and Robert Menschel; Susan and Thomas Dunn and Constance and Leonard Goodman
© 2018 Deana Lawson
The idea of art made from reused materials may summon up images of beer-can sculptures and wire-hanger mobiles. But visitors to Drap-Art, an international arts exhibition featuring works made of reused materials set to open this weekend as part of the Re:NEW Festival, are in for a surprise if those are their expectations.
“These are not at all the most obvious ways of reusing materials,” said Russell Howard, vice president of special events and development with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, and one of the key collaborators involved in bringing the esteemed international exhibition to Pittsburgh.
You have only to look around the Drap-Art exhibition at the PPG Wintergarden, located in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, to see examples of what Howard means.
Using strategically painted egg cartons, artist Veronica Arellanocreates a life-sized portrait. Ironing boards adorned with discarded silverware are the canvases for scenes of domestic life. Artist Irene Wolfi creates landscape “paintings” out of strips of labels and discarded plastic—in the middle of an ocean scene, the blow-up valve from an inflatable raft or beach ball juts out of the artwork.
Elsewhere in the expansive Wintergarden space, the more than 60 artists showing their work incorporate materials as varied as piano keys, light bulbs, television parts, electronic circuits and discarded computer keyboards, neon tubes, salvaged wood, corrugated cardboard, scrap metal, and rusted chains.
It would be easy for a visitor, taking in the exhibit’s 130 pieces, to forget that the accomplished international artists, working in a wide array of styles and media, had anything at all in common.
The exhibition will make its North American premiere in Pittsburgh during the Re:NEW Festival, a month-long celebration of creative re-use that will include art exhibits, public art tours, markets for upcycled goods, performances, and more. Drap-Art, whose name comes from the Catalonian “drap” for “rag,” has exhibited extensively across Europe and in Asia since its first exhibitions in 1996.
The Wintergarden gallery (http://www.ppgplace.com/directory/wintergarden/), populated by lush plants and housed within peaked glass roofs, will be open from September 9 through October 8, beginning at 10am each day and closing at 4pm. Monday through Thursday, and at 6pm on Fridays and Saturdays. The gallery will be open until 9pm during the gallery crawl on Friday, September 23.
Tanja Grass, curator and president of Drap-Art, will mark the exhibit’s opening day on Saturday, September 10, with a 1pm talk in the exhibition space. Her talk will be followed by presentations from exhibiting artists Marcel-li Antunez, a painter and performance artist, at 2pm.; Imanol Ossa, sculptor and artist, at 3pm.; Karol Bergeret, sculptor and performance artist, at 4pm,; and Dolo Navas, fiber and fashion artist, at 5pm. All talks are free.
On Sunday, September 11, Grass and Antunez will speak on the history and highlights of Drap-Art. Their talks will be held at the Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Oakland, from 1 to 3 p.m., and are free to the public.
On Saturday, October 1, the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Re-Use will hold a hands-on art-making activity for artists of all ages in the Wintergarden gallery, drawing on the Drap-Art pieces for inspiration. The event is free and runs from noon to 4pm.
And on Friday, October 7, the Wintergarden will host a Fashion Extravaganza featuring garments, accessories, and jewelry crafted from reused materials, with designs by local fiber artists, fashion designers, and Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts 6–12 students, who worked with Drap-Arts exhibiting artist Dolo Navas while she was in residency at the school. The event is free and runs from 7 to 9 p.m.
The exhibit is among the highest-profile attractions of the Festival, which runs from September 9 through October 9 at locations throughout the city. Drap-Art’s participation underscores the international character of Re:NEW and of the emerging idea of creative reuse. With artists from Spain, China, India, England, Austria, Germany, Argentina, and the United States, among other nations, Drap-Art highlights the increasingly global emphasis on responsible stewardship of natural resources, embodying the notion that reuse should be at the center not only of daily activities but of creative endeavors as well.
Bringing Drap-Art to downtown Pittsburgh has been a long-term aspiration for Howard, who returned to Pittsburgh three and a half years ago to assume his role with the Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership. It was while helping hang a Drap-Art show in Barcelona several years ago (alongside partner Bill Miller, a Cleveland-born artist who has frequently exhibited with Drap-Art and is exhibiting in the current show) that Howard thought of what a good fit the exhibition would be in Pittsburgh, whose recovery from economic depression is often praised as itself an act of reinvention and creative reuse.
“There’s a deep history here of working with and reusing things,” Howard said.
Reaching out to Jen Saffron at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, the two forged a steering committee and community partners too numerous to name and, two years in the making, Drap-Art makes its debut, this evening at a VIP reception in the Wintergarden with artists from Spain, Argentina and China present along with local art and business leaders, celebrating Pittsburgh's deep history and its renewal.
Cultural Connectors, Cultural Producers, Curators: who and what are they? Casey Droege – artist, curator, events producer – has a clue.
Originally hailing from Spring Hill, Droege’s art explorations took her to the prestigious Cranbrook Academy, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiber. Returning to Pittsburgh, Droege co-founded CSA PGH, and invented the dinner series called Six x Ate, a where artists share their ideas and current work over dinner conversation with patrons, other artists and cultural connoisseurs. A mainstay in Droege’s repertoire of creative endeavors is applying her fiber background to teaching fashion at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
It’s there where she encountered Tereneh Mosley, daughter of famed sculptor Thaddeus Mosley. Droege reached out to Tereneh to speak to her students and share about her business to bring people together for common cause through economic development, design, and fashion. While Mosley has showcased her work in NYC during Fashion Week and has built her business in the fashion industry, her work lands outside the traditional market, incorporating a community model into the design and production of garments: empowerment of women, community development, and collaboration.
Droege was, and remains, inspired by Mosley’s commitment to working with the Olorgesailie Maasai women’s artisan group in Kenya, where they work in concert to develop accessories and clothing designs. Mosley continues with her Idia’Dega line, too.
“After Mosley spoke with my class, we kept in touch – there’s a passion for her concept and I love the way she’s approaching a collaborative design process with Kenyan women and now the Oneida nation in New York.”
After Droege hosted a fall 2015 Six x Ate at the Mattress Factory Museum, museum director Barbara Luderowski offered up a small property adjacent to the Museum for a series of short artist residencies. Droege is choosing artists and creative workers to come, stay, do a collaborative project, and share it with the public.
This Friday kicks off the first one in the series with Tereneh Mosley’s designs, showcasing her long term project to work in concert with communities of women in Kenya. Droege and Mosley developed the layout for the exhibit, thinking through the relationships between garments, photography, and history of the women Mosley works with in Kenya.
Of interest to this exhibition, which opens this Friday, February 19th, is the coming together of ideas – a hybrid between business, fashion, fine art, and community empowerment. Mosley may not think of herself as a fine artist, more so a fashion designer and collaborator. However, original funding for Mosley’s first collection came from an Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant, funded by The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.
The term “cultural producer” crosses many ideas and genres, the goal of which, as Droege shares, “It’s about bringing people together for dialogue.” She adds, “My personal goal with all of this stuff is to bring people together around an idea/event to engage with each other. Hopefully, they’ll go off and start a project, meet a future collaborator. I really want our community to grow, and part of that is intersecting with every sector of this city, and that happens in conversation.”
Jen Saffron is a photographer, writer, curator, and the Director of Communications at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.