This is a story about three extraordinary individuals. All are accomplished artists who have achieved considerable celebrity. But there is a stronger thread that connects them.
One. Art House. On one of Pittsburgh’s bleakest intersections, where public displays of violence are part of the daily grind, internationally known poet, sculptor, performance artist Vanessa German is the living embodiment of her work. One imagines that she could be elsewhere should she choose – her gigs take her to far flung places. But Vanessa German lives here, where she has committed herself to enriching the lives of children in Homewood.
Two. Manchester Bidwell Corporation. Making art – in this case, working with clay – turned Bill Strickland’s life around. His story has been told many times: as a teenager on Pittsburgh’s distressed North Side, he discovers, simultaneously, ceramics and the value of a good teacher. He puts those ideas together; university followed, then the founding of Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, then Manchester Bidwell… Fame, acclaim, a Macarthur Genius award. And a lifetime’s commitment to the neighborhood he grew up in, and where he still lives.
Three. Randyland is transformational. In an advanced stage of disrepair when Randy Gilson bought the house in 1995, Randy fixed it, and then reinvented it. It is a visual cacophony, part painting, part sculpture, part garden paradise. It is Outsider Art that has drawn the neighborhood together. It is laughter.
For most of us, professional success might offer a passport to a more “desirable” address; for German, Strickland and Gilson, it was an opportunity to strengthen the neighborhoods in which they live. The three people featured in this projcet have each consciously woven their life’s work into their surroundings, and their surroundings into their life’s work. In Homewood, Manchester and the Mexican War Streets, theirs are lives lived by example. Rather than simply doing good deeds, they are being good.
With their customary generosity, Vanessa German, Bill Strickland and Randy Gilson have welcomed us into their lives, for which we are tremendously grateful. It has been our privilege to get to know them. And while it would take years to do justice to our subjects, our hope is that the images presented here, offering the briefest of glimpses into their lives, might serve both as a celebration of their work, and as an inspiration to others.
Click on the images to view the project.
Randy Gilson. Photographs by Brian Cohen
Vanessa German. Photographs by Lynn Johnson