You were on your daily commute to work. Or maybe you planned to catch a show at Heinz Hall. Perhaps you heard something was going on in empty storefronts Downtown and wanted to check things out.
Whatever might have brought you to 210 Sixth St. over the past 17 months, you are likely to have been surprised by what you saw. A storefront previously used to store a neighboring restaurant's patio furniture is now -- but not for much longer -- Fraley's Robot Repair.
My art installation is part of Project Pop Up: Downtown, a project of the mayor's office, city planning, the city Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. The idea, which launched in November 2011, was to fill 11 storefronts with quirky shops and exhibits.
Of the thousands who pass by each week, most probably glance into Fraley's Robot Repair and keep walking. Some dismiss it instantly. Many never realize it is there. But a few will stop for a minute -- maybe a few minutes -- and peer inside. They might see something familiar, such as a tool or lunch pail, but the overall scene is probably at least a little puzzling.
It is a shop stuck in a time warp -- a scene from an alternate reality simultaneously in the 1950s and the future. The shop's owners seem to have gone on some sort of extended vacation, leaving disassembled robots on the worktable.
One of the captive droids, never officially named but often referred to as the Lonely Robot, has occupied his time by hanging Christmas lights, drawing a picture and building a house of cards. He seems to be in good working order. Possibly his owners just dropped him off for a software upgrade and for an unknown reason never came back for him. About every week or so, the robot moves on to something new to busy himself. Details are added and current events referenced, all in order to make the outrageous story seem plausible.
My dad collected Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines from the 1930s to 1960s, and I remember flipping through them as a kid. A recurring theme seemed to be that in the future, we would have flying cars, jetpacks and robots working in our homes. Sadly, those things really still belong to the future. I imagine that if we did have robots working for us, we would pay to have them repaired. We would take them to the shop, much as we once did with televisions and vacuum cleaners.
Development of my shop began with a 3D computer rendering. I incorporated vintage treasures, such as the old X-ray machine from a dentist's office that used to sit on my mantle. I created the posters and box labels to look like graphics I remembered from science and technology books and magazines. All told, it took about six weeks to build the installation with some help in the carpentry department from my father. It was completed in time for a grand opening on Light Up Night 2011.
Over the months, I continued to add little details to the shop -- a Robot Service Manual here, a pair of goggles there, making it a true work in progress. Things would catch my eye as perfect little additions, more props to add to the narrative. I worked in details from my family history, included references to movies or music that meant something to me and made little shout-outs to family and friends.
For many pieces of art, the story ends once they're hung on the wall or moved into place. I've made nearly 70 robot sculptures, most of them private commissions. Project Pop Up was a special opportunity to tell a story over a period of time. It gave me a chance to react, or have the robot react, to events ranging from Neil Armstrong's passing to my mom's birthday.
Some passersby are clearly perplexed about the need for a robot repair shop Downtown or wonder how the shop can stay in business when it never seems to be open -- until somebody explains that it is an "art project." I have heard about every commentary possible and seen the full gamut of responses. I've stood on the sidewalk for hours at a stretch, just watching people's reactions.
Sometimes, when I'm inside late at night changing the scene, someone will open the door or tap on the glass and tell me what they think or tell me that they've been waiting for me to come back from vacation. Other people sought me out at the Three Rivers Arts Festival, where I had a booth in the Artists Market, because they "just had to meet the person who came up with this stuff." I've even received a few email inquiries about repairing a swimming pool or duct-cleaning robot.
I had hoped that the shop would brighten someone's day or prompt people to consider something they hadn't before, such as the many public art installations I enjoy.
The response exceeded what I ever imagined possible. The shop has logged more than 150 "satisfied customers" who have submitted photos via email or Twitter and are featured on the project's website, www.pghrobotrepair.com.
I received a handmade card with words of encouragement from employees of the Renaissance Hotel. I received a Christmas card featuring a family photo taken in front of the shop. These are the things you never think will happen when you set out on a project like this.
A father and son visited my booth at the arts festival to say hello. The dad explained that they travel Downtown by bus once or twice a week to see what in the installation has changed and to talk about it. "It is a good learning experience for him and bonding experience for us both," he told my fiancee. She still can't repeat the story without getting choked up.
Project Pop Up: Downtown was meant to contribute to revitalization efforts Downtown. Generous landlords of vacant storefronts offered spaces at no or low cost to artists, eateries and retail startups. The hope was that some would become permanent fixtures or entice other businesses to take over the spaces.
The project can be considered a success. Many pop-ups are still operational nearly a year and a half later. In my case, the owners of the popular Meat & Potatoes are opening a second restaurant in the robot repair space.
After being torn down, the repair shop will go into storage, but it might just make a comeback or have a reincarnation down the road.
I know that when I dismantle the shop, it will be sad to pack up all of the little mementos that are no different in some respects from those any real shop accumulates over the years. I joked that this was my one shot to see my name on a building in Downtown Pittsburgh, but the experience has been so much more than that for me. I'm fortunate that it's been enjoyed and embraced by so many. I want to thank the residents, workers and visitors to Downtown for making this project so much fun.
I'll be at the shop for a gallery crawl Friday, and the installation closes May 6. I hope fans of the project will stop by to see how the story -- or maybe just this chapter -- will end.
As a way of giving closure to the Lonely Robot's story, I have decided to let him escape. I believe that to show him moving on is a better ending than just allowing the shop to disappear.
The robot now has a map on the workbench and a suitcase packed with essentials, and he's begun digging a tunnel to freedom. His hand-drawn map shows an escape route taking him to the Greyhound station, then off to California as the first stop on his new life on the outside.
Although he works in ceramics, photography and painting, Toby Fraley is especially interested in public art and sculptural storytelling. His robot sculptures are on display at Literary Arts Boom in Garfield and Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville. In January, he will have a solo show at SPACE gallery, Downtown. He may be reached through tobyatticusfraley.com. First Published April 21, 2013 4:00 AM