Art from the Ground Up

Shuttered factories, abandoned warehouses and boarded up store fronts are being re-purposed as galleries and performance spaces by people with passion and vision. Art, From the Ground Up was created to provide a showcase for some of the most innovative members of Pittsburgh’s emerging arts community.

Art, From the Ground Up is hosted by Bob Studebaker and is a monthly series highlighting small grass roots arts organizations and individual artists that take non-traditional approaches to the creation, presentation, and even the definition of art.

Know an organization Bob should check out?  Email him with your suggestions.

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An event Thursday at Boom Concepts on Penn Avenue in Garfield combines a contemporary approach to music with a style that has been performed, pretty much unchanged, for centuries.

Courtesy Alloy Pittsburgh

Alloy Pittsburgh was conceived as a biennial laboratory where emerging artists in the Pittsburgh region would create temporary, site-based artwork that explore the creative reuse of the Carrie Furnace national historic landmark. Chris McGinnis and Sean Derry are the co-founders.

Courtesy Arcade Comedy Theater

The art of making people laugh and teaching people how to make others laugh come together at downtown’s Arcade Comedy Theater. This is a venue for performance that also includes “comedy education.”

Jethro and Kristy Nolen are two of the organizations founders, and they explained that ”comedy is a set of tools, but you can always increase that.”

Courtesy Dorey Whealan

The Saints Tour is a fiction inspired by, and then layered on to real places, and sometimes real people. Playwright Molly Rice creates this fictional history of Braddock around characters she calls “saints.”

“What’s special about saints is they are not angels,” Rice said. "They’re people who just did more.”

Courtesy photo

On a recent Friday evening, acoustic music was presented at Biddle’s Escape, a coffee shop in Wilkinsburg. Singer and songwriter Barbara Klein appreciates that the venue is “intimate and welcoming.”

Owner Joe Davis says, "We’re always looking for creative ways to showcase artists.”

Alexis Gideon is a multimedia artist who has recently relocated to Pittsburgh. The New Hazlett Theater is a center for collaboration as well as an incubator for new ideas. Together they recently provided Pittsburgh with a unique world premiere event.

"The Crumbling" is a 21-minute stop-motion animation video opera set in a surreal dream-like town following the trials of a librarian as she tries to save her city from crumbling down around her. Much of the music is performed live by Gideon.

Bob Studebaker / 90.5 WESA

The organization Global Beats strives to bring together “new” Pittsburghers from all over the world by celebrating the music of Africa, Latin America, New York City, and Cuba.

It’s an idea that began in 1999 when Carla Leininger began her show “The Brazilian Radio Hour” on Carnegie Mellon University’s radio station WRCT.

In ancient times The Silk Road was a series of trade routes linking east and west. Sun Gate was one of two westernmost stops before leaving China. It is also the name of a CD recorded as part of a unique musical collaboration, which merges ancient Asian melodies with jazz.

The producers feel the collaboration is emblematic of Pittsburgh’s growing diversity.

Harish Saluja, who is the founder of the cultural organization known as Silk Screen, assembled musicians familiar with both traditions and oversaw the process of growth within the band Silk Sound.

Courtesy of Slow Danger

Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight, who create both dance and music as Slow Danger, were drawn to each other’s willingness to explore new ways to interact with their art form.

Beginning with dance, they soon began creating their own music for their performances. Knight said it was inevitable for their art to “merge and intersect in that way.”

"The movement and the music, for us, goes hand in hand,” Knight said.

Thompson and Knight said their intention is to present an ambiguous identity that isn’t Anna, isn’t Taylor, but rather “this otherness that we create through.”

Courtesy image

With help from artists, geologists, lawyers and others, the Living Waters of Larimer initiative encourages people and government agencies to think of rainwater not as something to be disposed of but as a community asset with aesthetic and economic benefits.

It began in 2013 when environmental artist Betsy Damon had an exhibit at The Mattress Factory Art Museum on Pittsburgh’s North Side. While here she became aware of the work of community activists in the city’s Larimer neighborhood.

Bob Studebaker / 90.5 WESA

Iron City Aerials has performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Zoo, the National Aviary, the Science Center and the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. It all began when Kelsey Keller was earning her Ph.D. in biophysics.

Kelsey Keller is the artistic director for Iron City Aerials. They hang and perform from what are essentially silk scarves and amaze people at public and private events. You can even arrange for an aerial bartender. Kelsey describes what they do as a "combination of dance and acrobatics.”

Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

Before German immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the linotype machine in the late 19th century, type was assembled one letter at a time. But the linotype (dubbed the "eighth wonder of the world" by Thomas Edison) allowed printers to compose entire lines of text — hence the name "line-o-type."

Flash forward some 130 years, and we meet Brandon Boan, one of a growing number of artists and designers living and working in Wilkinsburg.

Bob Studebaker / 90.5 WESA

Poet Jessica Server likes the sense of freedom she gets from writing and appreciates opportunities to present her work to audiences. She considers it “an act of engagement that’s a step of the creative process.”

“What I’ve always loved about writing is that it’s sort of a vehicle that can take you anywhere,” she said.  

Server, who lives in Friendship, said the most important qualities for a writer, especially a poet, are curiosity and awareness.

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After the murders of Sarah and Susan Wolfe earlier this year, a community of grieving artists and friends were faced with the question of how to move on from the tragic loss.

Matthew Bucholz, Sarah’s boyfriend, led the group to channel their grief into something productive. Inspired by the Wolfe sisters’ involvement in the Riot Grrl movement in the mid-90s, Wolfepack Goods sells the work of local makers to raise money for the charity Girls Rock! Pittsburgh. Girls Rock! stages empowerment-through-music camps for young girls.

Chris Squier / 90.5 WESA

Speaking about her self-published “In The Garden: A Botanically Illustrated Gardening Book,” Sandra McPeake says, “I want it to become a very dirty book … take it to the garden … learn how to plant.”

McPeake’s love of gardening is a family tradition, and it’s based on the food she likes to eat.

"What are we really hungry for and what do I normally harvest to cook with” are questions she asks herself before each spring’s planting.

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When Zak Kruszynski came across the phrase “bones and all,” he thought it got to the root of what he wanted to accomplish with a woodworking business.

That is, to reuse materials — often totally discarded — as often as possible, and to try to use every bit to reduce waste.

"Also, I thought it had a great ring to it,” he said.

Bob Studebaker / 90.5 WESA

NPR once referred to the Conflict Kitchen in Schenley Plaza as “an experimental public art project, and the medium is the sandwich wrap.”

It’s take-out food where you take away more than just something to eat. Conflict Kitchen only serves food from countries with which the U.S. is in conflict.

Co-directors Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski schedule events, performances and discussions that seek to expand public engagement with culture, politics and issues at stake within the focus country.

Music that is centuries old is being reborn as a new sound in Pittsburgh.

Silk Sound Asian American Jazz Orchestra is an amalgam of different cultures and musical traditions coming together under the direction of Harish Saluja.

Larry Rippel / Courtesy of the artist

Callán, a Pittsburgh-based traditional Celtic folk ensemble, is comprised of artists from a wide range of backgrounds.

Percussionist Kip Ruefle found his way to traditional music by following his interest in the bodhran, the traditional Irish drum. He brings decades of performing rock and jazz into the mix.

Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

Kristy Dubinsky, from Irwin, recently walked through the RAW/Pittsburgh exhibition enjoying the diverse collection of emerging artists.

“There’s definitely a collaborative nature and aspect to this,” Dubinsky said.  “They bring together everything from fashion to music to fine art, photography, film.  It’s just a great way to bring everybody together.”

Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

Kente Arts Alliance is an organization whose mission is to present art from the African diaspora. TV and radio personality Chris Moore says they are “a great civic resource” and believes that if they weren’t here, “there would be a void.”

Brooklyn native Mensah Wali and Pittsburgher Gail Austin founded the organization in 2007 and have presented a wide variety of artists to Pittsburgh audiences. 

Wali terms it a “weave of culture.” The word Kente is West African in origin and describes a type of cloth common in Ghana.

The Black Orchid String Trio is comprised of Amber Rogers, Rachel Smith, and Jennifer Sternick.

“We’re new musicians,” said Smith, the group’s cellist. “We do play classical music now and again, but part of a contemporary performance, especially, is to present it in a way that classical music isn’t standardly presented.”

“Cities of asylum” form a global network of support for oppressed and endangered writers.

In Europe they are supported by governments. In the United States they are usually sponsored by universities. City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, however, operates on a different model.

Bob Studebaker / 90.5 WESA

Vocal coach Daniel Teadt discovered his love of music when he was a student at the University of Illinois.

The early days of his career required traveling to many different cities, including a stop here as an artist in residence with Pittsburgh Opera.

Teadt, who met his wife in Pittsburgh, didn’t initially stay in the city. But now they’ve returned, and he’s feeling quite comfortable in his wife's hometown.

“We now have a family here and a great network here,” he said.

Bob Studebaker / 90.5 WESA

Ryan Neitznick and John Fischer comprise the production team known as La Harrier.

Their studio in Lawrenceville is also known as La Harrier, and it’s part of  a growing aspect of Pittsburgh’s arts community — nontraditional, independent music producers.

They each grew up and began their musical careers in Pittsburgh but actually met and formed their partnership about six years ago in Philadelphia.

The Pillow Project

It began nearly ten years ago as “an evolving experiment for improvisational free jazz movement, performance-happenings and new ideas in dance,” and The Pillow Project has never wandered far from its roots. 

Pearlann Porter heads the group that sees the word “jazz” as a verb. The group gathers the second Saturday of every month at “The Space Upstairs” in Pittsburgh's East End to perform.  Project members call the studio in a repurposed warehouse a “4,000 square foot canvas where audiences and artists interact.”