Kristen Wishon

Kristen Wishon


Profile of a seated woman, wearing glasses, a turtleneck sweater and blazer with a nametag, reading into a microphone, gesturing with her left hand, in front of a small screen.
MaryAnn Graziano, above, recently completed her 100th audio description of a live performance andThe Arts Blog interviewed her about this important volunteer work for arts patrons. This blog post is one of several leading up to the LEAD Conference (Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability), which is part of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. LEAD will be hosted by The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, July 31 – August 6, 2016.

MaryAnn Graziano, middle school Physical Education teacher with Seneca Valley, started volunteering about 12 years ago with Radio Information Services, reading on the radio for blind audiences. Another volunteer at the time was Marilyn Egan, longtime education director for the Pittsburgh Opera.  Marilyn asked MaryAnn if she’d be interested in giving audio description a try and MaryAnn said, "Sure, why not?"

But, MaryAnn said, “I didn’t know squat about Opera. I thought, ‘It looks kinda cool.’ I shadowed Marilyn on The Marriage of Figaro. I didn’t know how to read music, but I could follow the words they were singing. I told Marilyn: if you’re willing to teach me, I’m willing to learn.”

Not long after that 2004-2005 season, Diane Nutting hosted audio description training at City Theatre by Bill Patterson of the Audio Description Coalition, and asked MaryAnn to the training. There were eight willing souls at that training, and two are still doing it today – Kellee VanAken at the City Theatre and MaryAnn.

MaryAnn has since gone on to audio describe over 50 operas, plus three seasons with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and theatrical audio descriptions with City Theatre, PICT, and Bricolage Production Company. The Pittsburgh Playhouse recently had a spring production described and is looking to do more.  

The purpose of audio description is to describe the visual content of what’s happening on stage for people who cannot see the stage – it provides the missing visual information that is critical to understanding what is happening in a performance.

Sighted people generally do not think about what we take in, visually. But if you are visually impaired, being able to understand the action in the full sense of the production and staging is critical to understanding the plot, and helps visually impaired people understand the audience’s reaction.  For example, why did the audience gasp? Is a character quietly sneaking up on another?

Necessity is often the Mother of invention.  Marilyn Egan started audio description for the Pittsburgh Opera when a blind patron said that their friend sat next to them whispering what was happening on stage.  The patron enjoyed the singing, but couldn’t always understand the stage action. Their homespun methods of audio description were annoying to those around them, so a new solution was created to serve patrons with visual impairment.  

Those who need audio description receive an earpiece from guest services.  The audio describer, in this case MaryAnn, sits in the tech booth, listening to the performance and watching on a smaller screen, following along the score and describing the story and action to the person in the audience, who hears her voice directly in the single earpiece while the other ear is available to the live performance.

Over the years, MaryAnn has developed relationships with her opera patrons, people who trust her to interpret the performances with nuance and understanding.  As in life, it’s not always perfect, but MaryAnn welcomes the feedback; it’s how she has honed this craft, which, as she says, “…is a service, it’s about what THEY need.”

It can be fun, too. One of Mary Ann’s favorite fun moments was seeing the Lieutenant of Inishmore, at PICT. There was a humorous moment in which she timed her description perfectly to the staged humor so that her listener could join in the roaring audience laughter.

There is homework to prepare for that kind of timing. For example, for the Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Tosca, MaryAnn sat in the balcony and watched the dress rehearsal. She saw the lead character slide the knife into her sleeve – something she would have missed on the small screen in the tech booth, but she caught it in the dress rehearsal so she made note of it in the score and brought that scene to life for her listeners.

Most audio describers are volunteers, giving of their time to make the arts more accessible and enjoyable.  It’s an adventure for MaryAnn, too – she used to sit in the Opera’s pit orchestra storage room among the instrument cases - jokingly referred to as the Belly of the Benedum. She now sits in what she fondly refers to as the “Taj Mahal” – the sound booth in the back.

Audio description can be fun, too, like City Theatre’s audio description of Sister’s Late Night Catechism, a late night comedy played by a character who’s a nun. When asked to audio describe that production, MaryAnn said, “Heck yeah!”

Photograph by David Bachman 


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.


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!’




Casey Droege, Cultural Connector

Wednesday, 17 February 2016 12:26


woman with glasses in a grey sweater, laughing and leaning toward her left
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.

Maasai women walking in the countryside in Kenya, over a small hill
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.

long, largely empty room with a brick wall and wood floors, artist's easel and chair, a brown leather armchair and boxes

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. 


Forget Zombies. This is about Mind Control.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015 11:14


woman in black trench coat standing on the Roberto Clemente Bridge, wearing an eye patch and passing out leaflets to passersby, standing next to another woman holding a sign that reads, "Ministry of Truth"Bricolage Production Company strives to the very edge of theater, even producing theatrical experiences where the audience members are blindfolded and led across town. In fact that production, Ojo, which debuted as part of the 2014 Three Rivers Arts Festival, just finished a run in San Diego at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls Festival.  The talk of the festival, Bricolage may even remount Ojo in yet another location, furthering their creativity and innovation and broadening the national conversation about contemporary theater.

Bricolage’s brand of adventurous theater often extends to the company’s marketing and PR efforts, sometimes mirroring the shows themselves. This type of marketing is about taking risks, but how scary is that, when we need to get butts in the seats?? We’re dealing with a scarcity of arts audiences in the U.S. right now, with the NEA reporting 2/3 of Americans never participating or attending ANY arts events. What does this mean for the risk-takers? An opportunity, or a threat?

Bricolage’s PR Director Emily Willson’s take: “I feel like a great way to get the message out about an event or show is to give audiences little taste of it, to experience similar emotions to what you might feel during the show, itself.” Currently in the middle of mounting George Orwell’s 1984 in Bricolage’s signature Midnight Radio format, the dystopian story was recently mirrored by a form of um, dystopian marketing – if there wasn’t such a thing before, there is, now!

If taking to the streets with immersive theater is where it’s at, then why not do the same with promotions? Far more interesting than a static postcard or poster, immersive PR sounds fun, but can also present challenges - far less control with the audience, for one.

“We specifically picked the Pirates’ playoff game because we knew there would be a huge number of people crossing the bridge, like a captive audience, and we staged a demonstration, handing out the manifesto of ‘The Party,’ the oppressive government entity described in Orwell’s novel.”

Continues Willson, “We were out in the streets, staging a mock demonstration with actors to draw attention to the show, not knowing if we’d be arrested or if we’d encounter angry or overly curious people. We had a run in with one of the vendors on the Roberto Clemente Bridge during the ballgame. He didn’t understand what we were doing with the mock demonstration – he thought we were selling something and trying to take away his customers. With this kind of marketing, we have to be prepared for anything.”

Parag S. Gohel, actor and the creator of the demonstration, agrees, “One of the most successful aspects of this guerrilla marketing campaign was the collaborative process involved in both creating it and experiencing it:  the actors had to work together, using cues to fabricate the presence of Big Brother and the passersby in downtown also had to work together using cues to decipher what was actually happening.  

“At the surface for anyone who saw us, we might have looked like another group of extreme activists taking the streets to impose our beliefs, but when someone read our leaflet containing terms and quotes from Orwell's 1984, or conferred with those around them, or physically went to the window of 937 Liberty Ave (Bricolage) - as we instructed - they put the pieces together, which created more of a buzz than simply handing out information about the show itself.”  

During the “demonstration,” actors encouraged passersby to “See the future, go to the window!” meaning to visit Bricolage’s living art installation in the window at 937 Liberty Avenue. This art installation by R.B. Scott features a live person during the day and disturbing, “eyeballed worker” at night. Working tireless away under the watch of Big Brother, the installation shows viewers the future, as imagined by Orwell’s classic novel.

Demonstrations and installations – two tactics Bricolage brings that reminds us that perhaps art is the lens through which to get people into yet more art.

1984 opens Thursday, October 29th and runs through November 14, 2015 at Bricolage Production Company, 937 Liberty Avenue. For more information, visit

Performers in the demonstration: Parag S. Gohel, Tonya Lynn, Joseph Martinez, Connor McCanlus, Mary C. Parker, Jen Schaupp, Jennifer Tober, Sarah Wojdylak 


 Three Pittsburgh artists/arts administrators traveled to Charleston, South Carolina to meet with others like them to talk about artist communities, what they are, and what Pittsburgh has to do with that.

New Orleans microbus styleChristiane Leach, Artists Relations Coordinator, Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council
During the first year in my new role as Artist Relations Coordinator, I was looking for a conference that spoke directly to supporting artists, one-on-one, in submitting residency applications. 

I then attended my first Alliance of Artist Communities Conference last year in San Jose, CA. Not only did I fall in love with California, I fell for the experience at the Conference. With sessions such as “Cultivating Community Beyond Diversity”, “Connecting Artists to Resources” and “Integrating Artists with Disabilities”, I knew that it not only aligned with the work that I do, but with other GPAC initiatives, such as the Increasing Accessibility in Pittsburgh Arts and Culture initiative and the Pittsburgh Coalition for Racial Equity in the Arts. Last year, the added bonus was keynote speaker, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, whose weekend long Performance Art workshop at Carnegie Mellon University I had the pleasure of attending a few years back, thanks to Tavia LaFollette of Art Up.  

Here I found Arts administrators who didn’t work from the top down, but on the “ground” level as liaisons between artists and their communities. Social engagement may be today’s buzzword, but it seems to be intrinsic to the very work that artist residencies do, that of connecting artists to communities, communities to art. While residencies provide a variety of experiences ranging from solitary to community engagement, to rural or urban, transformation occurs through embedded interaction with the environment, and people of a place leaving an artist, a community changed.

I left that conference feeling invigorated and part of a larger, community conversation dedicated to the role and experience of the individual artist. This year’s conference was no different, with the exception that I was accompanied by colleagues Dave English and D.S. Kinsel, who presented the Urban Engagement and the Relevance of Place panel, with our peers from New Orleans, Gia Hamilton, the Director of the Joan Mitchell Center and Alysia Savoy, Program Manager of The DISTILLERY Artist Residency.  

Dave English, Manager of Membership and Development at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council
The Alliance of Artists Communities Conference 2014 in Charleston, SC delivered on their promise to explore the ways in which we can advance today's artists and their role in developing healthy, vibrant, engaged communities. Our delegation from Pittsburgh joined 300 arts leaders, funders, policy-makers, board members, educators, artists, and others from across the globe for three days of performances, trainings, tours, and talks. 

This was my first year attending the conference and as conferences go this one was very good. The people really made the experience. It could have been more diverse for sure but the mostly white group openly recognized this as something that needs work. We were fortunate to meet a lot of cool people doing work worth knowing about.

D.S., Christiane and I aren't exactly shy so we had no problem making friends and getting straight to some real conversations. All three of us have continued to stay connected with new colleagues around the country and all three of us talked about attending again next year if possible. I think the curating of the programs, panels, and events created a crowd-flow that allowed people to make those connections. If you've been to enough conferences you've probably had the experience of feeling rushed, distanced from the presenters, you're not where supposed to be, you've missed something, or like you're at a trade show with tons of vendors, screens, gadgets, and tech. The AAC Conference was none of that. It was one of the few conferences where I felt relaxed enough to actually exchange experiences and perspectives with the other attendees enough to get to know them.

The panel that D.S. Kinsel and I were on, Urban Engagement and the Relevance of Place, was co-presented by two women who are leaders in New Orleans' arts community: Gia Hamilton, Director of the Joan Mitchell Center; and Alysia Savoy, Program Manager of The DISTILLERY Artist Residency. We each represented cities that have experienced decline and rebirth. One city in reaction to natural disaster, and the other coming out of post economic chaos related to the collapse of the steel industry.

While New Orleans and Pittsburgh are clearly very different places both cities credit the arts, culture, and tourism as a big part of their revivals. Both are in the midst of redevelopment issues relating to creative placemaking/placekeeping, gentrification and displacement, and we find ourselves having similar discussions about what progress means, for whom, and what role we play in making sure the creative class is accounted for. The conversation opened up to the audience and started a healthy dialogue about artists and arts organizations, policy makers and elected officials, foundations, and developers all being responsible community members.

The feedback we received was flattering to us as individuals and as Pittsburghers. We had a great team and did right by The Steel City. I would definitely do it again.

Darrell and guest

D.S. Kinsel, artist and co-proprietor of Boom Concepts 
The conference was a chance to test our coolness levels and exchange strategies with arts professionals from across the world. It was amazing to see people's reactions to our Pittsburgh ways. Oftentimes we don't believe that our theories and practices are ahead of the pack because we live them ery'day. But the conference was an opportunity to rise above the everyday and take a view "from the balcony" of the awesome things that Pittsburgh’s art community is accomplishing. We made lasting connections with colleagues from across the country working in organizations and cities of all scale and style. The opportunity to spend time and share experiences with peers from places like AS220 in Providence, The MacDowell Colony in New York, The Headlands Center for the Arts in Northern California, to name a few, opened doors that we may not have even realized existed before. 


Images: Microbus in Charleston; D.S. Kinsel and guest, talking over dinner during the Alliance of Artist Communities Conference, October 2014


Art and Industry: the Carrie Deer Project

Wednesday, 06 August 2014 15:58


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!




 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




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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