Kid tested: Children's Museum's 'Tough Art' invites viewers into the picture

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In museum settings, the art is almost always strictly hands-off. But at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, a new exhibit of interactive pieces is designed to withstand kids' necessary roughness.

This is the second year for "Tough Art," a collection of interactive pieces opening Saturday created by artists who took part in a three-month summer residency program at the Children's Museum.

Last year's inaugural "Tough Art" exhibit featured locally based artists. This year, the residencies were open to artists across the country.

'Tough Art'
  • Where: Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, Allegheny Center, North Side.
  • When: Saturday through Jan. 18.
  • Information: 412-322-5058

In "Bullies in Our Woods," Pittsburgh-based artist Wendy Osher constructed a massive tangle of vines -- porcelain berry, wild grape vines and honeysuckle -- gathered from local parks. These are invasive plants that choke out diversity in natural habitats. In "Bullies," they're interwoven with bits of trash picked up during park and green space clean-up campaigns. Under the arbor of interwoven vines is a cushion, where children can sit and watch a projected video and hear recorded sounds associated with parks.

While the arbor is an inviting space for kids to crawl into, it also illustrates the impact of invasive species and human carelessness on wild habitats. Osher used the metaphor of bullies to drive the idea home, because it's a concept children can easily relate to.

Ben Bigelow's "A Day in the Life of a Tree" is a series of flat plastic panels shaped like trees. Colored lights are projected onto them, giving them greenery and leaves. As people move through the exhibit, they trigger sensors that change the lighting: The trees catch fire and become scorched and eventually regenerate and come back to life.

Bigelow describes the piece as "a 3-D popout book/video that kids can step into." Bigelow, of Los Angeles, majored in art at Carnegie Mellon University and graduated in May.

Portland, Ore., artist David Butts is an architect who now devotes himself full time to art and kinetic sculpture. He contributed a piece to Burning Man, the annual art event in the Nevada desert this year. The Children's Museum's puppet collection inspired him to create "Giant," a towering 10-foot wooden puppet figure with moveable parts. Hydraulic levers move the figure's head, torso, elbows and hands. The hands can be manipulated to grasp at a hanging star, moon and sun that light up when the hands come close to them.

Rick Gribenas, a Pittsburgh-based artist who teaches art at Chatham, Robert Morris and Carnegie Mellon universities, created "An Obscured Neutral Moment," which is actually three pieces -- two light compositions and one sound composition -- placed in different locations in the museum.

In one, tiny lights connected with ribbon cable twinkle on the ceiling in a museum walkway. The light patterns will change gradually over time in response to groups as they pass through the space. The second light piece is suspended from a ceiling in the gallery with the rest of the "Tough Art" pieces.

Gribenas spent a lot of time in the Museum's nursery during his artist's residency, and found it to be the quietest place in the museum, and at the same time one of the most active. That quality is echoed in the ever-changing sound piece he created, which will be played in the nursery area that inspired it.

A sampling of other works by the four Tough Artists will be displayed in the hall outside the "Tough Art" gallery.

Adrian McCoy can be reached at or 412-263-1865.


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