Three Pittsburgh artists’ plans to get you to be careful for air pollution points

Artists often create works on nature to draw attention to the beauty in nature. But can their work also draw attention to pollution and the ways in which Pittsburgh’s environment can be dangerous?

On Tuesday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Office of Public Art convenes a group of three artists who have recently carried out projects in collaboration with local nonprofits to create art based on both their own creative skills and the environmental literacy of the nonprofits.

PublicSource spoke to the three artists about how they want to change the relationship between the public and the natural world.

In order to be able to participate in the Zoom Panel on Tuesday, April 13 between 4:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., registration is required.

“I think the upside is that we’re approaching these issues from an angle and a slightly different angle. So our creative response to these things will necessarily be different than if this were just some kind of didactic tool,” said Aaron Henderson. one of the artists.

Masks and manholes

In 2018, Ginger Brooks Takahashi posted a photo of herself wearing a mask on a farm she was working on in Braddock. In the photo she points to dark smoke from the Edgar Thomson Steel Works. It was a touchstone for local activists who spread their photo widely, she said. But it also sparked backlash, including from employees at the plant.

A screenshot from Brooks Takahashi’s Instagram post that led her to create a 10-minute piece of art that was eventually acquired by the Carnegie Museum.

“Their union hall is right next to the farm, so going to work was very scary because they are very threatening comments,” she said of the responses posted on social media.

Some commentators picked their race: “I assume the guy in the mask is from Japan, whose nuclear power plant is still dumping toxic waste into the ocean.” And “I’ve lived in Braddock my whole life. Eat your dogs and cats again. “

She turned her experience into a work of art about her decision to put on a mask to protect her lungs and the reactions it elicited.

Takahashi was already skilled at transforming the natural environment into provocative art when she walked through Wilkinsburg to learn more about the watershed of the Nine Mile Run. She was surprised to learn that there is an underground stream that runs through the neighborhood before it comes to the surface in Frick Park. There were once plans to bring the electricity back to the surface in several places, but they never secured funding.

She had never heard of illuminating a stream with natural light before. She had an “aha” moment when she noticed that there were already access points to the stream below: manhole covers. And when she lifted one, she said it was when she had entered another world.

“This beautiful brick shaft leads down and there this water flows underground. It was a different temperature, a portal to this subterranean world. To me I thought, ‘This is it, a finished work of art, it’s already there.’ “

Takahashi worked with Pittsburgh designers Clear Story to develop an ADA-accessible design for the manhole covers.  (Image courtesy)

Takahashi worked with Pittsburgh designers Clear Story to develop an ADA-accessible design for the manhole covers. (Image courtesy)

She found three manholes – in Hunter Park, Whitney Park and on West Street between Ross and Penn avenues – where the pipes only contained rainwater and were not contaminated with sewagehow it is in certain places along the creek when it rains. At first she thought a clear glass would let people see the electricity below, but the temperature difference made the glass fog up. So she came up with a steel subway grid with a water design and the words, “How do you connect to the underground stream?”

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Invisible air, bright lights

Aaron Henderson’s style of visual projection art works well for the problem of air pollution in the Mon Valleyhe said where groups sometimes have trouble getting the word out. “The things I do are very graphic,” he said. “I wouldn’t describe them as subtle.”

Henderson, an associate professor of studio art at the University of Pittsburgh, will not be completely renegade like artists who used projectors to stamp criticism of Donald Trump on his buildings. Henderson, who has worked with North Braddock Residents for our Future and the Breathe Collaborative, will get owner permission first.

Over the course of the summer, he plans to project giant words onto multiple buildings or structures to bring people closer to the images. And as people get closer to the words, he hopes they’ll listen to the sounds of community members whose voices will say those words.

“The idea is to take these individual stories and make them bigger,” he said.

The artist Aaron Henderson showed a prototype of his art projections in the Carrie Furnaces in 2020. (Courtesy photo)

For example, he said, a woman told him she regretted buying a white car when she moved to Braddock because it got so dirty every day from air pollution. Another woman took a slightly different view: she admitted that Edgar Thomson’s work laid the foundation for prosperity in the city decades ago, but still believes the work has a responsibility to consider its impact on air quality . He hopes these stories will appeal to a wider audience than activists or workers who might reflexively reject US Steel or protesters.

Henderson did a test run of the concept at the Carrie Furnaces last year and got some feedback: people wanted to know what they can do. So this time there will be groups dealing with air quality issues and giving people the opportunity to get involved.

He is still in the process of completing the projection sites, including one in downtown Pittsburgh, and hopes the projections will attract a large crowd this summer. “I really hope we’re in a position where people are out there and the city is slowly waking up and shaking off the crouching mentality we’ve been in for so long,” he said.

Dirty floor

The pandemic made Mary Tremonte’s art project more relevant than ever: everyone seemed to be gardening.

Tremonte worked with Grow Pittsburgh to create a zine (a magazine they created) on soil health and the toxins, such as: the lead often found in Pittsburgh soil. “Community gardens are often located on empty lots, so there is a high likelihood that the site will be exposed to heavy metal contamination,” she said.

Mary Tremonte used a risograph to individually print 1,500 copies of her zine in two colors, hunter green and fluorescent pink.  (Courtesy photo)

Mary Tremonte used a risograph to individually print 1,500 copies of her zine in two colors, hunter green and fluorescent pink. (Courtesy photo)

Tremonte and Grow Pittsburgh also wanted to connect isolated community gardens. But the pandemic made these stories harder to collect. She planned to use storytelling to bring community gardeners in different neighborhoods together. The hope was to build a community through a network of community gardens that create green spaces in impoverished areas.

Instead, she acted more like a journalist, interviewing local experts separately for her stories. She learned that serious gardeners said “earth” and hated the term “dirt”. And that the worms she was so proud of in her own garden were actually invasive worms that made plants difficult to grow.

It prints two issues, one on soil health and one on contamination, which will be available free of charge in community gardens, free libraries and events like this virtual seed exchange of the city.

The zines will also be available in the educational dirt cart she made with instructions on how to screen print dirt and make mud stencils. Through experimentation, she learned that she had to grind her soil in a coffee grinder to get the right mud consistency for screen printing.

Violet Gabriel prints with mud in the communal garden of Etna.  Mount Etna was the first local garden in which Mary Tremonte's teaching car was exhibited.  (Courtesy photo)

Violet Gabriel prints with mud in the communal garden of Etna. Mount Etna was the first community garden where Mary Tremonte’s teaching wagon was exhibited. (Courtesy photo)

There is a tension between teaching people to be careful with the toxins in untested dirt and encouraging children to get their hands dirty on safe and healthy floors.

“The toxins are there and people don’t know how to come in contact with them,” she said. “It is a public education project to protect people from poisoning. Children have an additional risk of exposure.”

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environmental and health reporter. He can be reached at or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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