Don’t Look Down
Pittsburgh native Katherine Young had left Pittsburgh to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. She returned following the completion of her degree and in addition to practicing her art, wanted to find an opportunity to become more civically engaged. Unsure where to begin, she chanced upon a Sprout Fund “Ideation Session” one afternoon and watched as community members discussed implementing innovative projects in the city. The encouraging sight of Pittsburghers uniting to create positive change made her realize Sprout could serve as the perfect bridge to civic engagement.
The success of Sprout Public Art has been the result of a collaboration of dedicated individuals including artists, community residents, Public Art committee members, facilitators, and Sprout staff. Thanks to their work, 56 different Sprout Public Art projects now adorn the landscape of the city, enhancing 40 unique neighborhoods.
For some Sprout Public Art artists, participation in the program meant not just an opportunity to paint a mural, but to experiment with a new medium and become more involved with their region. This was the case for Young, the artist behind the 2008 The Night Garden mural in Sheraden, as well as the 2007 Urban Flora mural in Shadyside.
Young initially hesitated to apply for the Sprout Public Art program as she had never worked on a large scale before, but was encouraged to find the Sprout staff was willing to meet with her, reassuring her that her unique voice was exactly what the program was looking for.
For her first mural proposal, Young found a community with a vision she strongly identified with and carefully crafted her design around it. Particularly compelled by the Shadyside community’s self-description as both “contemporary” and “historical,” Young combined classic design elements like a damask pattern with a sophisticated, modern color palette and metallic finish. Her thoughtfulness paid off when the community fell in love with her design and selected it.
Once Young began to work on the mural, overcoming the technical challenges of working in a new, larger medium came quickly (like finding her preferred method to transfer the design onto the wall—chalk). However, one unanticipated obstacle proved more difficult to defeat: a fear of heights. The wall’s scale required that Young work on a cherry picker, and once she climbed 15 feet up, she found herself unable to raise the lift higher. The back-and-forth motion of the platform and proximity to power lines unsteadied her, and she made a call to Sprout‘s Curt Gettman, who joined her on the lift, took it to maximum level, and rocked it slightly to the reassure her of its stability.
“I quickly realized that the problem wasn’t technical. It was with me, not the lift,” Young now jokes.
Young appreciated Gettman’s accessibility and support and, though she had never considered herself an aerial artist, came to treasure the experience of working with a sky view.
“You’re too high up to talk to people on the ground, and the activity of the world is just going on below. The lighting and the moment are beautiful, and the peace and isolation allowed me to feel a connection with the work.”
Now with two Sprout Public Art works behind her, the civic engagement Young sought is central to her career. As Fellows Program Member with the Coro Center for Civic Leadership, Young has the opportunity to engage young people from Pittsburgh and nationwide to explore solutions to local policy issues that lead to stronger communities.
“Through Sprout Public Art, I learned that civic engagement can be a creative process,” Young says. “I get to be creative every day in my job by figuring out how to get people more involved, and I don’t see it as that different from the artistic process.”
It’s not only artists who have grown through Sprout Public Art. Alison Oehler, a resident of Greenfield who has served as a Sprout Public Art facilitator, community applicant, and committee member saw her entire neighborhood develop through its participation in the program.
In 2007, Oehler and her neighbors decided that a Sprout Public Art mural could provide visual interest in their small community. The program application was the first task their new community organization, Connect Greenfield, took on.
Oehler first became involved with Sprout Public Art while earning her Master’s degree in Arts Management from The Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University. As a program facilitator, she helped to moderate conversations between artists and community members, so she knew what to expect from the process when Greenfield was chosen to receive a mural.
“We were very excited. It felt like a kicking-off point for the community group,” she remembers.
The mural allowed Connect Greenfield to engage community members it had yet to reach, like older residents for whom regular meetings weren’t easily accessible. Members of the group brought voting boxes to senior centers, installed a public voting box on the side of the PNC bank building that would host the mural, and posted an online poll to ensure that all parts of the community’s opinions were accounted for. A total of over 300 residents voted for their favorite design—the largest number of community members to weigh in on design selection in Sprout’s Public Art history.
Ultimately, Greenfield residents decided on an innovative and fun design by artist Will Schlough that captured their neighborhood’s tight-knit nature. In the mural, homes, fences, and sets of stairs intertwine in an M.C. Escher-like effect to show the area’s interconnectedness.
The community was so pleased with the result that in 2009, Connect Greenfield applied for a second mural. Oehler let another group member lead the application process so that she could serve as a facilitator again, and later accepted an invitation from Sprout to serve on the Public Art Committee. This time around, community members faced a greater challenge selecting a design with five possibilities, but Oehler encouraged the use of some of the decision-making practices she learned to help the process run smoothly.
The selected design by artist Ian Thomas featured a series of lunchboxes comprised of boldly lined shapes, representing Greenfield’s working past. Continuing to forge new connections through the program, Oehler took the opportunity to invite local children to help Thomas with his work. Arriving at the mural wall, the kids were ecstatic to see a black-lined grid filled in with numbers representing each color in a large-scale paint-by-number activity. “It was such a nice moment in the community where public art was really public,” Oehler reflects.
For the past four years, Oehler also tied her involvement with the Sprout Fund into her job at The Concept Gallery in Regent Square which hosted Preliminary Design Exhibitions featuring potential mural designs in a gallery show enabled artists, community members, and the public to stop in and see the proposed designs for the year.
“Public art is very different from what I do in my everyday job,” Oehler says, “Normally I’m selling small works of art that people keep in their houses. What Sprout has accomplished through the process is to coalesce communities around art, which is very hard to do because art is so subjective. It’s something that you look at on your wall every morning, so finding something that resonates with a whole community is very hard work.”
Now, the results of this hard work can be seen in Pittsburgh every day. In Sheraden, a high school student stops to talk with an older woman he met at a mural kick-off event. In Shadyside, a boy who carefully observed Young’s mural progress tells his parents he hopes to become an artist. In Greenfield, kids draw with sidewalk chalk at an annual block party held in front of the lunchbox-painted mural wall they helped create.
No matter what shape or form their involvement has taken, individuals like Young and Oehler have been able to make a lasting impact on their community. Both agree—it’s not just the murals, but these connections that reveal the true beauty of Sprout Public Art.