Sculptor's public art helping to transform Pittsburgh's Uptown

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James Simon wants to show Pittsburgh that public art can be a tool for urban renewal. For proof, all he has to do is point out his window.

"Public art is my profession," he said. "I am someone who believes that public art is good for a neighborhood and city."

Mr. Simon, 59, started a project more than 10 years ago, Art on Gist Street, which has helped put the Bluff back on the map. More people are paying attention to the once-deteriorating area a couple of blocks east of UPMC Mercy. Passers-by wonder what will show up next.

"His contribution to the vibrancy of the community has been immeasurable," said Jeanne McNutt, executive director of Uptown Partners in Pittsburgh, a community-based organization that aims to clean, rebuild and encourage new development in the Bluff.

"I believe his art has the power to transform communities," she said.

Mr. Simon is among Pittsburgh's best-known sculptors. Over the years, he and other artists have worked to establish a collection of sculptures and paintings, including "The Liberty Avenue Musicians," "Fallen Heroes Memorial" and "Bass Man and the Moon."

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His work also includes the "Welcome to Braddock" sign at the Rankin Bridge on Braddock Avenue, created with the AmeriCorps group Braddock Youth Project. It was a winner of Best Neighborhood Public Art in Pittsburgh Magazine in 2009.

His work also goes beyond Pittsburgh -- from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Vallauris, France -- and is colorful and silly, giving the viewer a feeling of lightheartedness, even in a decaying urban environment.

"What grounds my work is the belief that art is a celebratory experience that can create joy despite adverse conditions of social injustice, poverty and war," Mr. Simon says in a statement on his website,

Mr. Simon uses intuition to create sculptures, adding meaning to his work. "What inspires the project -- the subject matter, the site and the neighborhood -- is always meaningful to me."

The artist grew up in Stanton Heights and graduated from Peabody High School in 1972. He then hitchhiked to California, Oregon and Canada and later traveled through much of Europe, the Middle East, Australia, Brazil and Mexico. Along his journey, he learned carpentry, mosaic and violin making.

When Mr. Simon came back to Pittsburgh in 2000, the Bluff had boarded-up businesses and many vacancies. "There were prostitutes and pimps on the road, day and night."

Pittsburgh police reported that prostitution in the Bluff was at its highest in 2008. It has since dropped significantly.

Mr. Simon bought his studio, "a raw warehouse that I fixed up," from Antoine Lynn, a former resident whom Edward D'Angelo at Forbes Auto Body called "the mayor of Gist Street."

Mr. Lynn will never be forgotten, thanks to a Renaissance-style portrait of him done in 2007 by John Fleenor, fellow artist, friend and neighbor to Mr. Simon. The portrait is nestled in a wooden frame on the side of Mr. Lynn's former residence, next door to the Simon studio.

Mr. Simon's first large work on Gist was "Baby Kong," a gorilla peeking over the garage. A few people came to snap pictures. Now, the street is a tourist attraction.

"A lot of people stop to see what's on the street," Mr. D'Angelo said, adding that the artwork adds to a sense of community.

When a 200-pound wiener dog statue that sat on the sidewalk outside of the auto body shop was stolen in June 2013, "everyone on the street took action to find it. It's important to them," he said. It eventually was found.

"A woman moved to this street just because of the art," said John Hearty, who works at Forbes Auto Body.

The most recently completed work was "Bass Man and the Moon" with ACH Clear Pathways, a nonprofit that offers programs in sports, the arts and leadership at discount prices for low-income families in the Hill District. ACH honors founder Tyian Battle's son, Amon Cashmere Harris, who died in 2009 at age 8. This project was part of ACH's Creative Camp last year.

"Working with kids [to make] community projects that are displayed in a distressed community is invaluable," Ms. Battle said. "Especially in an area where you drive by and see trash on the street."

Recognition of his efforts goes beyond what is around Pittsburgh. In 2011, Mr. Simon received the Neighborhood Leader Award in memory of the late Mayor Bob O'Connor. Mr. Simon was nominated by Ms. McNutt of Uptown Partners in Pittsburgh.

His latest project, a mosaic of children skateboarding, will be part of the Uptown Lofts by Action Housing. One of the buildings will be affordable residences for young adults moving out of foster care.

Nikki Pena: or 412-263-1280.

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