Fall 2008
“I wanted each of the pieces to demonstrate that artists can act as powerful catalysts in the work of fashioning the new economic and civic metropolis.”
-Tom Sokolowski, director of The Andy Warhol Museum
By Meghan Holohan

A Heinz Endowments arts initiative, orchestrated by Warhol Director Tom Sokolowski, is contributing to Pittsburgh’s 250th extravaganza with a creative eye toward the future. 

For days, Los Angeles-based artist Glenn Kaino wandered around Pittsburgh, set loose by Tom Sokolowski, director of The Andy Warhol Museum, on a mission to create something unique for the city’s 250th celebration. He listened to people talk, gazed at the architecture, and simply experienced the city. This sparked an idea: He would sculpt a giant “Transformer” made of bridges.  

He shared his epiphany with Sokolowski, who asked, “A transformer? Is that what you plug your cell phone charger into?” In a flash, Kaino almost saw his concept go up in smoke. But Sokolowski quickly got it—and loved it.  

The kind of Transformer the sculptor eventually created is modeled after the 1980’s Japanese cartoon series featuring alien robots disguised as cars. When a Transformer such as Optimus Prime wanted to blend in on Earth, he took the form of the cab of an 18-wheel truck. Then, when he battled the evil Megatron, he transformed into a giant robot made of truck parts.

Kaino named his Transformer Arch and, rather than truck parts as limbs, the 20-foot steel-and-fiberglass sculpture boasts design elements that resemble the girders and brackets of Pittsburgh bridges. The towering structure will be installed in October at Seventh Avenue and Fort Duquesne Boulevard in the Cultural District, where for six months or so it will look out at many of its kin.

“While not looking human, it has human qualities,” explains Sokolowski. “It is benevolent; it wants to revive the city. Arch plays off the arch of 1758 to the present,” he adds, referencing the birth of Pittsburgh.

Kaino says he not only wanted to honor Pittsburgh’s storied history, but to look toward the city’s optimistic future.

“Literally and metaphorically, Arch is a bridge between the past, present, and future,” he says. “From the immigrants constructing bridges to navigate the terrain, to the steel industry and the rise of industrialism, to the robotics industry and advanced technology that exists there today and drives hope for the future, my goal was for Arch to be an iconic figure that embodied
that narrative—but that also looked really, really cool.”

In his kinetic sculptures, Kaino, who is Japanese American, often explores the merging of cultures and ideas in his art: What does it mean being of mixed cultures? What is beauty? What is hate? What is power? And in that, the artist proved a perfect pairing for Sokolowski, who was hand-picked by The Heinz Endowments to curate a series of arts projects in honor of Pittsburgh’s 250th anniversary.

"If you look at the 250th birthday and the breadth of the events celebrating it, you get a sense of Pittsburgh,” says Robert Vagt, the new president of the Endowments. “We hope that people will walk away from these arts projects and appreciate just how broad the arts community in Pittsburgh really is. We hope that it’s a gift that people will open, and not put on the shelf and ignore.”

Left to right: Artists Jamie Adams (left photo), Jesse Brown, and Delanie Jenkins work on a long-term etching project at Artists Image Resource, a print and imaging shop on the North Side. Photos: Tom Altany

Lasting Impressions

“What does it mean to be an American?” Sokolowski asks. “People come to America   to be something, but they may end up something else.”

This notion, and the idea of transformation through collaboration, is something Sokolowski thought a lot about as he commissioned works for the Pittsburgh 250th Anniversary Arts Project, the $1 million initiative funded by the Endowments. Two years ago, after committing to the idea of giving the city an enduring arts-related birthday gift, the Endowments’ arts and culture program staff looked to Sokolowski to make it happen—from start to finish.

“If you try to do vision by committee, sometimes that is not always the best way,” says Vagt. “A single person would yield the most expansive and creative outcome. … and Tom’s got an extraordinary love and commitment to the arts, and it’s his knowledge and creativity and pizzazz that made this turn out to be what it is.”

When first asked, Sokolowski says he was sure he could deliver on worthy projects but wondered if he could bring the arts community together, as the staff at the The Heinz Endowments hoped the project would. So after agreeing to the challenge, Sokolowski commissioned four projects, including Arch, after what he describes as a long, far-reaching exploration process.

“I wanted to create some of these projects to have systemic, lasting impressions,” he says, “and I wanted each of the pieces to demonstrate that artists can act as powerful catalysts in the work of fashioning the new economic and civic metropolis.”

A case in point is the YouthPlaces project, which is employing artists in a public service capacity, like the Works Progress Administration did during the Great Depression.

YouthPlaces is a Pittsburgh non-profit   that has served teenagers in after-school programs for more than a decade. As part of the 250th Arts Project, beginning this fall, artists of all kinds—musicians, writers, painters, printmakers, fashion designers, sculptors, and dramatists—will collaborate on public-arts projects with students at 10 YouthPlaces sites in economically struggling neighborhoods throughout the Pittsburgh region. Their work eventually will be exhibited and performed in some of the area’s premier arts venues.

Sokolowski chose to partner with the group because of the success its staff has had in engaging teens by involving them in decision making and connecting them with their own neighborhoods. He also hopes it has a real impact on the chosen communities—physically, maybe, with the addition of a mural or other public art; but, more important, in the way the kids feel about themselves and their ability to impact change where they live.

“This kind of community partnership has the potential to be mind-building and empowering,” notes Sokolowski, “and hopefully long-lasting.”

Living the Good Life

Vagt says his organization has long admired Sokolowski’s bold approach to just about everything, noting that’s one reason they put Sokolowski in the driver seat. “He’s thinking of newer, better, broader ideas to use art,” he notes.

Vagt was hardly surprised, then, that Sokolowski unapologetically searched near and far for artists and projects that would honor Pittsburgh’s big anniversary—including artists outside the country. Some local groups bristled at the thought. Still, Sokolowski believes the best way to improve Pittsburgh’s image is to seek out artists or groups that attempt to forward art.

“You can only have strong pieces if you recognize the best in the world,” he says, noting that some of the best are, in fact, Pittsburgh organizations and artists.

One of the best in the world, according to Sokolowski, is poet and lyricist Wendy S. Walters, who was also invited to stroll around Pittsburgh, harnessing an outsider’s perspective. A Detroit native, Walters visited city neighborhoods such as the Strip District, Polish Hill, and Bloomfield, striking up conversations and watching people interact. She even thumbed through the expansive photo collection at Carnegie Library, gazing at silent faces from Pittsburgh’s past.

“Even though some of the pictures don’t have captions, you get a lot of information from the visuals. Steel workers walking across an icy river without coats on says a lot,” says Walters, who is also a member of the African-American poetry collective, Cave Canem.

Sokolowski partnered with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) to produce an original symphony for the celebration, in part because of their shared interest in creating sustainable art. For years, the PSO has sponsored residency programs that fit composers with the orchestra and local music students. For this project, Carnegie Mellon University students got the call, along with Walters and composer Derek Bermel, all selected by the PSO. Sokolowski’s main directive: to produce a work that would appeal not only to Pittsburgh, but a much broader audience. No one wanted a repeat  of Pittsburgh Symphony, a beautiful piece by German composer Paul Hindemith commissioned for the city’s 200th birthday but rarely performed since.

On one of Walters’ many walks, she heard Pittsburghers speak of pride in the city and its accomplishments. People noted that they had the good life—specifically that they live the lives that their ancestors came to America to experience. Walters recognized a theme.

After crafting the text, she met with Bermel, a clarinetist, conductor, and jazz and rock musician known for drawing freely from a rich variety of music genres, who says the sounds of Pittsburgh echoed in his mind—jazz, metal being forged, and the industrialized music of Nine Inch Nails, a band formed by western Pennsylvania native Trent Reznor. Those sounds emerged in the composition in subtle ways. The result: The Good Life, featuring the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and singers Hila Plitmann and Kevin Deas, with Leonard Slatkin as conductor. It debuts October 17 and 19 at Heinz Hall.

“The whole concept of the good life sounds mawkish,” Sokolowski says, but he notes that it’s all about immigration, change, and wonder”—themes that resonate in Pittsburgh, but also reach well beyond Steel City.

“The goal was not to make a ditty for Pittsburgh, but a piece of music that is played for years and years, like the 1812 overture,” Sokolowski adds.

What If …

“Looking at the next 250 years, how can we take art and culture and build on it?” asks  Delanie Jenkins, as she recalls the question Sokolowski posed when inviting her to participate in the final project. “I really like Tom’s idea because of it being about the future, not about the past.”

Jenkins, a professor of sculpture and chair of the studio arts department at the University of Pittsburgh, is one of two local artists participating in a portfolio project titled If Haley’s Comet Failed to Show.

She and 11 other artists working in a  variety of media will create a museum-quality print portfolio that will exhibit at The Warhol in early 2009. Beginning this fall,  the dozen artists will work in residence at Artists Image Resource (AIR), a print shop and studio space for local artists on the North Side, responding to the question of what would happen if “everything that we were sure of didn’t work anymore.”

Sokolowski says he posed the question while again considering the bridge between the city’s past and future. “I’m interested in how Pittsburgh, in the last 250 years, is emblematic of the situation of cities around the world—how it went from a rural existence to its heyday, decline, and is now reinventing itself again. If Haley’s Comet came tomorrow or never at all, we’d want to know why it didn’t follow its pattern, because we think science is predictable. What if it’s not? I’ve asked artists to address what that would mean for our future.”

Since 1996, AIR has encouraged many artists, like non-printmaker Jenkins, to explore art using different media. When she first showed up on their doorstep in 2005, she recalls carrying a box that contained six white paper towels with different patterns embossed on them. She had hoped to re-create the textures as if the towels were shallow relief sculptures—projecting from a two-dimensional background. Co-founders Robert Beckman and Ian Short encouraged Jenkins to try printing plates, plaster casts, and silicon molds, resulting in several series of “towels,” including some made of white chocolate.

It’s this kind of creative collaboration Sokolowski sought—supporting a remarkable but relatively unknown arts facility, with working artists who could create memorable, and collectible, art for Pittsburgh.

“We don’t have a large number of collectors in Pittsburgh,” Sokolowski says. “Prints are an affordable way of having a small collection, something this city needs more of.”

In addition to Jenkins, other artists exploring the Haley’s Comet quandary include Pittsburgh illustrator John Ritter; Kay Rosen, Chicago; Takashi Murakami, Tokyo; Rosemarie Trockel, Cologne; Piotr Uklanski, Warsaw and New York; Langlands and Bell, London; Isaac Julien, London; Lari Pittman, Los Angeles; Alfredo Jaar, New York; Mark Tansey, New York; and Daniel Martinez, Los Angeles.

“I think this is a great opportunity for people in Pittsburgh to see a high caliber of work by locals working right next to national and international peers,” says Ritter, whose illustrations have appeared in countless publications, including The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Mother Jones. “I don’t think there’s an awareness of some of the quality  of art in Pittsburgh.”

Sokolowski no doubt agrees. “Of course, this milestone celebration needs to honor how far the city has come, but the arts can be particularly good at pulling us away from the rearview mirror and pushing us to imagine what a vibrant future city looks like.” n
Also in this issue:

Dream Machine  ·  Burb Appeal  ·  Speaking Their Language  ·  President's Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Now Showing  ·  Face Time: Andy Mack  ·  Artistic License: In the Name of Hybrid Theater  ·  Science & Nature: The Herp House  ·  About Town: A Road Map to Scientific Treasure  ·  Another Look: The Child Mummy