North Side cooperative provides a creative haven for young writers and artists


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On a warm Tuesday afternoon, Daniel McCloskey sat at the kitchen table of his North Side home, hunched over several sheets of paper, a collection of bristle brushes and ink. He was illustrating the second issue of his latest self-published comic book series, "Top of the Line," a story he describes as "straightforward science fiction monster fighting." Cluttered around a stack of finished comic panels by the ink and brushes lay an empty bottle of Sriracha chili sauce, a Pittsburgh mug, an old black laptop and some laundry detergent.

Sitting on the couch next to the table, Matt Whispers marked up a draft of a poem for an anthology he hopes to complete this month. Like all of his poems, this one, tentatively titled "Old School," meditates on contemporary urban life and its subcultures. Put another way: "I write about what it's like to be 24, play in punk bands and have a day job that you kind of hate," he said.

Mr. Whispers is the latest addition to 1200 Boyle St., a home known as the Cyberpunk Apocalypse, a cooperative for writers and comic book artists that relocated to this larger three-story brick building in April from a house in Upper Lawrenceville.

Originally from Chicago, he is part of the cooperative's visiting writers residency program, which allows one writer a month to live at the house for free while completing a creative project. He joins Mr. McCloskey and three other artists who pay rent and live at the house permanently: Nate McDonough, Max Wheeler and a woman who goes only by Artnoose, all in their mid-20s and 30s.

Since March 2009, when Mr. McCloskey founded the co-op, it has housed 25 writers and comic artists, visiting and permanent, who have published a variety of zines, novels, essays and comics. The house's first visiting writer and success story, Margaret Killjoy, used his time in Pittsburgh to finish a choose-your-own-adventure book, "What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower," which received praise from famed science fiction writer Cory Doctorow and the popular comic book writer Alan Moore.

Each visiting writer is expected to present a finished project in a showcase for house members and local artists at the end of the month. This August, the Cyberpunk House will receive a Heinz Endowments grant of roughly $8,000 to improve these visiting writer showcases, enabling them to be professionally recorded and posted online.

The house also boasts a take-a-book leave-a-book library, a letterpress print shop operated by Artnoose and a sporadically produced literary publication sold through its website.

The house at the moment is a jumble of old bikes, boxes of used books, broken light fixtures and unfinished staircases. The New York Times compared the project to Yaddo and MacDowell -- if those ritzy artist colonies lacked central air conditioning, leak-free roofs and painted walls. Or if the Cyberpunk house had tennis courts, private pools or large private studio space.

What the house does guarantee members, for about $140 a month, including utilities, is a room of their own, sometimes no bigger than the average-sized closet. But they don't mind. The rest of the space is shared, hectic and lively, with friends and other artists frequently stopping by to work on their own projects or to critique each other's work.

This afternoon, the house had one such visitor: Gunner LaBuff, 27, a previous resident of the Lawrenceville house, who had come to work in the unfinished event space on the first floor. A self-described "artist/stand-up comic/playwright/rap persona," she held up a piece of fabric, part of a set piece she was creating for a musical she had written.

"My favorite thing about this house is that it's a place where events can be set up anytime," said Ms. LaBuff, who also holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. "It's a really awesome atmosphere for creativity as well as for finding new artists to talk to."

Creating a house of art

The creation of the Cyberpunk Apocalypse was one part planning and two parts luck in the shape of unexpected inheritance money from a great-aunt Mr. McCloskey had met only once as a child.

"I found out I was inheriting $10,000 from this lady I didn't really know at the same time my friend showed me two houses for that price," Mr. McCloskey said. "Although I didn't end up buying them, I started imagining buying a house for people who wanted to make art together."

Mr. McCloskey modeled his cooperative after punk houses he had observed as a kid, in which band members lived together and couch surfed at other punk houses while on tour, creating a network of homes and like-minded friends. These were spots where musicians got excited about their work, inspired by the gaggle of artists around them. And now Mr. McCloskey -- a Pitt graduate in fiction writing and film studies -- wanted writers to join in the fun.

After saving up money working at parking lots, freelance writing and selling Bob Marley posters to college students, he bought two small houses in Upper Lawrenceville for $41,000 on Dec. 31, 2008. By the following March, the project had begun to take shape, and the Cyberpunk Apocalypse lived happily at 5431 Carnegie St. until this year, when he began to crave a bigger space. He bought the new house cheap from a friend for $1,000 less than he paid for the smaller place in Lawrenceville.

For Mr. McCloskey and his fellow residents, the Cyberpunk house has always transcended its physical space. Its mission statement, "to aid and abet writers and comic artists in Pittsburgh," informs the ethos of the place wherever its geographic location. The house is about a feeling, a sort of creative counterculture at once radical and genuine.

Nate McDonough, a comic book artist who moved into the house last September, said the house's members defy simple counterculture classifications like "punk" or "hipster" -- although some do share many of those groups' stereotypical trademarks, like tattoos, oversized plastic framed glasses and a penchant for the avant-garde. Mr. McCloskey, for his part, sports a fauxhawk and the beginnings of a beard. He says he rarely showers.

According to Mr. McCloskey, the "punk" in "cyberpunk" really has little to do with punks at all. "Cyberpunk" originally referred to 1980s science fiction that portrayed a future of rapid technological change. He chose it partly because the name "sounded cool."

Mr. McDonough, who has published 23 editions of his own comic series, "Grixly," said the house has always allowed him to do what he loves most: draw.

"I love what I'm doing right now in this house," he said. "One of my friends was just telling me that she's about to buy a house, start paying mortgages and begin Weight Watchers, and I was jealous of her ability to express her goals so concretely. But then again, what should I be doing? Get married, get a 9 to 5 job, learn to like football? I'm happy now."

Affordable dreams

The brick building at 1200 Boyle tells a larger story, too, of a city in flux, a city that officials say is becoming younger, more artistic, more hip. In June, Business Insider named Pittsburgh the next hot haven for hipsters, joining Portland, Ore.

Christiane Leach, the artist relations coordinator at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, attributes the recent influx of artists chiefly to cheap rent, available studio space and an art scene that is both engaging and supportive. As more and more artists decide to stay, more and more group together to form collectives like the Cyberpunk house.

Artnoose said it is precisely this collaborative quality that drew her to the house. When she sees Mr. McDonough working on a comic or Mr. McCloskey writing a novel, she said she is inspired to work harder on her own letterpress zine, "Ker-bloom!", which she has printed herself for 16 years.

Shaun Slifer, a member of another Lawrenceville artist collective called Just Seeds, said his group moved to Pittsburgh from Portland to be able to afford operating space. He estimated that Just Seeds' average monthly expenses come to just $550, including rent and utilities.

"In Portland, we could only afford to be run out of a basement of one of our members," he said. "We moved here because we could have our own space without being overrun by storage. We thought about moving to Brooklyn or San Francisco, but we just couldn't afford it."

For some, like ToonSeum director Joe Wos, Pittsburgh's artistic rise is the inevitable result of a city that has always been preoccupied with art and pop culture. Viewed this way, the Cyberpunk Apocalypse is simply the latest development in a city that has been home to Andy Warhol, Stephen Foster and the Warner Brothers.

Room for the muse

Back upstairs at 1200 Boyle, Mr. Whispers worked on revising the final stanza of "Old School." The last lines evoked the life of a struggling artist: energetic and liberating but also poor, adrift, reckless. It's an idea that, perhaps as much as the art itself, has captured the imagination of many of the house's residents.

"Alcohol tickles my muse," he wrote. "I'm talking / seven beers in, smoking a lip-biter / against the winter's chill -- that's when / the good stuff comes to me."

Then, putting his pen down, he looked up. Mr. McCloskey was still drawing at the table and Ms. LaBuff was putting the finishing touches on her set downstairs.

"It's really rare to have time like this to really work on a project from beginning to end," he said. "It's really rare."

artarchitecture

Nikita Lalwani: nlalwani@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1280.


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