When Glenn Olcerst unveiled his gift to his North Side neighbors Sunday, an extraordinary thing happened.
He was speechless.
“I said, ‘My art speaks for itself,’ ” recalled the full-time lawyer, part-time artist as his wife, Barbara Talerico, stood next to him, rolling her eyes.
“Now I have something to say,” he said, laughing.
The 61-year-old talked for more than an hour to a reporter about his stained glass, his photography, his woodworking and his cut-stone artwork, including his latest and most difficult piece, a 7½-by-3-foot tour de force that hangs on the side of the 150-year-old brick row house that he has been renovating and decorating since 1984. Lighted at all times, the large artwork greets passersby turning onto Resaca Place from North Avenue in the Mexican War Streets.
Its subject matter, inspired by a photograph he took of an altar in an Italian church, has no obvious connection to this urban neighborhood — columns, steps, tile floors, ceilings, balustrades and poplar trees rendered in Palladian perspective — but it speaks of the patience, self-taught skill and, yes, obsessive perfectionism of its creator.
He can tell you the number of pieces of granite and porcelain in it (2,150), the number of saw blades he broke (eight) and the number of times he had to start over on various sections because one piece cracked (six or seven). But this professional whose working life is measured in billable hours can’t say how long it took from start to finish. He purposely didn’t count.
Instead, he measured his progress by how much pain he was in from 20 tumors in his pancreas, discovered in early 2013.
“I’ve had a lot of pain this year,” he said. “Whenever I felt it, I’d go downstairs and make something beautiful.”
Downstairs is his basement workshop; he began that spring to design the wall piece, which he insists is not a mosaic because it’s not made entirely of small pieces of stone (though there are slivers of granite less than 1/8 of an inch long). He channeled both his physical pain and inner turmoil into the most intricate, challenging work he had ever done. And that’s saying a lot, considering all of the fireplace screens, surrounds, hearths, tables, sculptures, images and other artwork he has made.
It wasn’t the first time Mr. Olcerst had turned his emotions into art. In 1998, he began the first of seven stained-glass windows because his new bride wanted more light in the house. And in 2000, at his older brother’s funeral, he began designing the Japanese quilt-inspired patterns now reflected in granite tile on his bathroom walls.
“They’re strong emotions — mourning my brother, love of my new wife,” he said. “Emotions have always driven art.”
But what drives someone to create public art? To hang his pain on a wall for the world to see, and maybe mock?
Mr. Olcerst believes that art can bring people together, can change a neighborhood. He cites a master plan drawn up years ago by the Allegheny City Central Association to fill the central North Side’s vacant lots and empty buildings with diverse residents and businesses. Art can help do that, he says, and he puts his art where his mouth is.
Three years ago, Mr. Olcerst printed some of his photographs on vinyl and hung them in an alley behind his house. He hoped his Art in the Alley would encourage poets and other artists in the neighborhood to add their own public art. They haven’t, although his banner is still there, strung above shoots of bamboo growing in a rusted Corten planter.
Last year, he installed a plaque bearing a poem by Fotis Varelis about a tree that he and his wife discovered in a castle courtyard in Greece. It is displayed beneath an ‘Autumn Splendor’ buckeye that they planted after a street tree fell in the 2010 “Snowmageddon.” When a passerby stops to read the poem, a motion detector sets off an audio clip of a purring cat, as though the house itself is showing its approval.
Most people don’t know what to make of a house that purrs, but that’s OK with Mr. Olcerst. He believes it all contributes to the gradual transformation of his neighborhood into a thriving, diverse community of caring people. He and his wife gauge its progress by the number of baby carriages and dumpsters they see in the alley.
“I know art heals neighborhoods,” he said. “It definitely heals me.”
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978