Grandma's belongings live as art installation in Lawrenceville

CMU fine arts student Daniel Pillis creates an art installation that's a bit creepy but engaging and fascinating

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If you didn't know Daniel Pillis lives alone, you would swear he lives with his grandmother.

And in a way, he does.

Except for his clothes and personal effects, everything in the duplex half he rents in Lawrenceville came from the New Jersey home of Hester Rubano, his 93-year-old grandmother who now lives in a nursing home, where her memories are being stolen by dementia.

"I couldn't bear to have her get rid of all her belongings," said the 29-year-old Carnegie Mellon University student. "I spent last summer giving her interaction. I helped her put together archival photos and have been scanning images. These memories would have disappeared into fuzz."

When he moved to Pittsburgh last fall to begin work on a master's degree in fine arts, he brought two moving vans filled with her household -- everything: the 1960s-era basement bar and stools, boxes of knickknacks, photos, newspaper clippings, kitchenware, old TVs, chairs, beds, toys, memorabilia and the fabric of a lifetime spent taking good care of things.

With the rise of the "nuclear family" in the last half of the 20th century, families scattered and took their stories and artifacts with them. Most of their belongings aren't kept by kin. Which makes Mr. Pillis' living space unusual and kind of creepy when you first enter it. It's like the comfy home of a grandma of a certain era but with a perceptible tilt of contrivance.

Every Sunday in May from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Mr. Pillis will hold a yard sale and offer free tours at 4022 Woolslayer Way. The yard sale will include lamps his grandmother collected and rewired.

"I had no intention of living in a replica of my grandmother's home when I brought her stuff to Pittsburgh," he said. "I just brought it to have it and use for art."

But with an epiphany artists often have, he began decorating to approximate his grandmother's house as an art installation. It became his first-year master's project.

The living room is cave-like and cushiony with afghans covering the ceiling. A child's voice chirps from a looping video of a family movie in which Mr. Pillis is the child. A console stereo, shelves of knickknacks --one is a Santa figurine in a ceramic swan -- and a peg board tacked with memos, clippings and a portrait of John F. Kennedy line the walls of the dining room.

The kitchen curtains are a '60s brown-and-orange design. The canisters, jars, cups and plates Mr. Pillis used as a kid on visits to his grandmother are the ones he uses now.

Upstairs, his bedroom pays homage to her practice of mending. Her ironing board is open, fabric strips lie on the floor and sewing machine bobbins sit on a table by the door. The spare bedroom is a scene of transition decorated with his and his mother's toys, from his stuffed animals to her dolls.

"Living in this installation has given me an insight into what it means to be older and living alone," he said. "It has engendered a deep degree of appreciation for the wisdom of experience, the magic of those who have lived through an entirely different world.

"People in my generation are prone to discarding and replacing, but my grandmother grew up in the Great Depression and she had tenderly taken care of her objects."

A small cathode-ray TV still works, playing old movies in a loop. The home movie looping in the living room, a looping video in the dining room and a player piano that scrolls without sound are all references to the exploration of identity as a looping feature of a family loop.

"I think it is one of the most compelling art projects I have ever seen from a student," said Jon Rubin, an associate professor of art at Carnegie Mellon and Mr. Pillis' adviser. "It's a really complex, difficult, compelling and evolving work. He's interpreting and paying homage but also transforming things into a new poetic narrative -- a documentary and a collage.

"The work is a manifestation of a lot of things about Daniel. He's incredibly sweet and smart and insightful and a little creepy even by his own admission, and he is interested in dark subjects and very sentimental. His childhood is a character within this project.

"When I first walked in I was visually overwhelmed, seduced and repelled simultaneously," Mr. Rubin said. "Then you see the relationships he is producing, with at least three points of view. That's a wonderful trait of interesting art."

Mr. Rubin said most artists don't create such rich veins they can mine for a long time. "I am in love with the work."

Mr. Pillis describes his grandmother as "a Rosie the riveter" who went with her sisters to Charleston, S.C., to get factory work during World War II. There she met her husband, who was stationed in the Army. They lived on Spring Street in Wall Township, where he died 10 years ago.

Both were prolific amateur photographers who left an archive that reveals the mobility and expectations of the mid-20th century. The Instamatic camera opened the way for increasingly casual use of technology but it had no delete function to reject photos. Mr. Pillis said delete functions threaten society's record of errant and uncomfortable images that connect us to the variety of ways we see things.

"I have been thinking about allegiance to objects and being a steward," he said. "The installation and identity are parallels I want to keep thinking about." Despite the lip service many people give to family devotion, he said the practice of devotion "is off-putting, culturally. In another time, it would have been more normal" for a young adult to live with his grandmother.

He sees examples of that old-fashioned continuity in Lawrenceville; some of its decor even mimics his. But his current lifestyle has not been easy.

"It's been pretty intense emotionally to live like this," he said. "My grandmother is losing what I am trying to keep alive, and I think that's how memory should function -- as the longtime carry-through of family history."

He knew nothing of Lawrenceville before last summer, has no ties here and could move the installation to another house at some point, he said. "But I think the social fabric of Lawrenceville would have been a good fit for my grandmother."

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at

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