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Steve O’Hearn





Steve O’Hearn has a level of creative energy eclipsing that of most mere mortals. An industrial and environmental designer,
a set designer, and a public art developer (he just completed a scale model of the Allegheny Valley as a stainless-steel relief handrail that extends over 900 feet at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center), he might be most famous for his role as
co-founder and artistic director of Squonk Opera, the definition-defying musical entity that lives to break performance art boundaries. O’Hearn has received more than 50 project grants, art commissions, and awards, both independently and with Squonk Opera co-founder Jackie Dempsey, and he is halfway through an innovative, 18-month partnership with The Andy Warhol Museum as its first Creative Heights Artist in Residence, a position funded by The Heinz Endowments.

What exactly is an industrial and environmental designer?
It’s sometimes equated with product design…things we have in our homes. When I was an industrial designer, I was designing some products and clothing, shoes, and buttons. As an environmental designer, I created theater sets, fountains, and interiors.

How did you get into set design and public art development?
I decided I was very unhappy as an environmental designer. I was working for a company that developed food courts. I decided I would do work that was self-initiated, work I was proud of. It’s a lot more insecure, but much more exciting.

You have a very diverse background in art, design, music, and performing. Which is your first love?
I don’t separate art and design. That’s the quandary with the museum world and the industrial design world; they think of them as two different paths. Mostly, I’m a visual person. Theater and music are such big collaborative efforts. I spend most of my time running Squonk Opera with Jackie (who creates the music). That requires 10 people on the road and 30 in production. But I like working solo a lot—in part because I don’t do it much. At The Warhol, there are two very different acts. Most of the work I’m involved in is done with eight people in a room having meetings, figuring out what’s next and what’s needed. And then I go home and work on it by myself. Both parts are enjoyable, and they’re great in contrast to each other, but I would go crazy without having time to invent on my own.

How did Squonk Opera come to be?
Jackie and I and one other person started working together 12 years ago and decided we wanted to do shows. I’d just done some wacky installations and little shows at some place on the South Side that’s not there anymore and at Metropol (the former Strip District club) when Jackie approached me about working together.

When she approached you, did you have a clear idea of what you’d be doing?
Not at all. But over the first couple of years we discovered that it was
a very appropriate mix, essentially mixing a band making original music with avant-garde visual theater. And that’s, in essence, what Squonk Opera is, but we didn’t know it at the time. What we discovered is that together we make something really great and that’s why it’s lasted for 12 years.

What led you to apply for a Creative Heights grant to work with The Andy Warhol Museum?
I remember asking myself, ‘what Pittsburgh cultural institutions interest me?’ The Warhol ended up at the top. So I just gave The Warhol Museum Director Tom Sokolowski a call. He was very responsive right from the get-go.

What are your goals/objectives for your residency at The Warhol?
The project I recently designed, Seeing Double, was driven by very direct educational needs for the public visiting the exhibition. That was kind of limiting in some ways. What I want to do next is to think more broadly about what kind of experience it would be coming into a museum.

The Warhol is already charting a new path where museums have some of the tone of other large group activities, like going to a rock concert or a club. It would be great to have events of some kind that peer groups—and at The Warhol, there are a couple of clear groups like youth and gays— could attend regularly. One of the primary things I’m working with the staff to do is make the museum an even more vibrant and contemporary environment.

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