Portland To Pittsburgh Artists Find The Steel City Fosters Creative Work

Dec 14, 2017

After struggling to make a living in Portland, Ore., artists Drew and Alyssa Kail moved back to Pittsburgh and found the area to be friendly to creators like themselves. 


“I think that space access is a huge factor but also the community here feels very supportive,” Drew said.

The couple said in Portland, artists were more aggressive in their approach to selling their wares. Plus, it wasn’t economically viable to live there.

“We're all sharing our customer base and it's nice,” said Alyssa. “Portland felt very competitive and very closed off and very cliquish. Also the cost of living is sky-high so it's difficult to take risks. For instance starting a new creative business or taking time to invest in your creative practice.”

The Kails own Camp Copeland Studio in Braddock, Pa., where they produce contemporary home goods and accessories made out of glass and wool. Drew is often found scoring and snapping glass, which will become colorful kiln-formed plates and bowls.

“Our items are functional but we often hear that people buy them and they're like I'm just going to have them out to accentuate this table,” said Drew.

Arts communities play a vital role in helping cities and regions revitalize their economies. Portland and Pittsburgh are often compared, but Candace Opper, a writer and recent arrival from the west coast city, said she agrees with the Kails, and hopes the city comparisons don’t translate to the arts scene.

“When I first moved here a lot of people asked me if I thought that Pittsburgh was going to be the next Portland. And my immediate reaction to that was ‘I hope not.’”

Opper said that the sheer number of artists trying to make a living in Portland makes it hard for individuals to stand out.

“There are so many artists there and so many creative people and things going on - which can be really inspiring, but it's also really easy to kind of disappear into the mix of that,” said Opper.

Beyond making a name for oneself, Pittsburgh painter Danny Ferrell said he feels like the city and its foundations make an effort to welcome artists. He moved from Altoona to Pittsburgh and says the city fosters a climate that encourages artists.

“[There are] a lot of opportunities for grants, which is something that artists really, really need,” said Ferrell. “I feel like they're doing a lot to encourage artists to come here, apply for grants, do projects in the city. So there's … the sort of subliminal and overt message that Pittsburgh sends do is it just it feels good and feels like you're valued.”

In 2015 the Forbes Funds website stated that the region had more than 7,000 artists, and hundreds of arts nonprofits.

One of them is the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council is an advocacy group that works to expand artists’ reach and impact. Arts Council Artist Relations Manager Christiane Leach said they have a number of grants available to artists, including the Project Stream, Program Stream and Artist Opportunity Grants.

“I think there's really two or three grants like this in the nation that provide support for you to take advantage of an opportunity that involves you traveling somewhere or starting with her best teacher,” explained Leach of the Artist Opportunity Grant.

She said these grants remove barriers between artists and professional development that will help them advance their careers.

The former Portland artists agreed it’s too early to see if Pittsburgh can avoid the challenges their old home city faces, but said that maintaining affordable housing, providing grants to artists and continuing to welcome newcomers will help the region succeed.