Eye-catching creations transform empty storefronts in Greensburg

Public art project enlists Seton Hill students to enliven Greensburg's downtown


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An unexpected transaction prevented the unveiling of an art project in Greensburg from occurring as planned last week. But it didn't bother Steve Gifford. In fact, as executive director of the Greensburg Community Development Corp., he probably would welcome more glitches of that type.

The artwork was to have been installed in an empty storefront window across from the courthouse on North Main Street to call attention to the building's availability. But before the scheduled ceremony took place, Mr. Gifford received word that the building had a tenant.

The large-scale artwork was the final piece in the second phase of a public art project, "Seeing Greensburg Through a Different Lens," a partnership between Seton Hill University's advanced graphic design students and the Greensburg Community Development Corp. During the first phase, artworks were installed in five windows along Pennsylvania Avenue and Main Street. Four window installations were created for the second phase, all of them in the heavily trafficked block of North Main.

Mr. Gifford said the GCDC would look for an alternative site for the unhung work but that may be challenging because the windows vary in size and character and the art is site specific. He said there are vacancies on other streets and when funding is secured, a third phase will be established to put art in those windows.

Maggie Ozzello, who designed the undisplayed artwork with DJ Beckage, graciously fielded ribbing that this was good preparation for working with clients who are likely to make changes to projects. The 21-year-old Jeannette native is a senior who will receive her bachelor's degree in graphic design in May. She will be graded on the work and it will enter her portfolio.

Ms. Ozzello said her class began the semester-long project by brainstorming words that represent Greensburg. After receiving locations and measurements of available windows from the GCDC, students divided into teams based upon their window preferences. They then chose a word and developed a design. Her team selected "dynamic" as their word. Others are "invigorating," "lively" and "energetic."

The hexagonal shape of a bee honeycomb runs throughout the works in the second as does a shared palette of yellows, oranges, greens and blues.

Sister Mary Kay Neff, Seton Hill professor of art and graphic design, teaches the project class and has been involved in both phases. She said it's a "good opportunity for the students to create a service that will help the community and to work with a client in a professional setting." Also, the project pieces are of a larger scale than what the students usually work on, which challenges them to "stretch their creative muscles a bit," she said.

Ms. Ozzello agreed that overall the project "seemed to have worked really well" and provided good experience with an actual client. She lives on campus, and she and her friends frequently go into Greensburg to dine or shop. "It's getting more and more lively."

That's music to Mr. Gifford's ears. The Greensburg Community Development Corp., established in 1974, is a private nonprofit that partners with the city but is a separate entity. In 2005, he said, the mayor and members of council decided they wanted the community to be more aggressively marketed. They hired Mr. Gifford and the organization grew from a part-time office to full time.

The GCDC's major focus is threefold: making developers aware of sites and structures available for purchase; making businesses and entrepreneurs aware of space available to lease; and being a champion for the city to attract visitors -- and residents. To date this year, eight properties within a four-block radius of the courthouse have been purchased with a total value of $1.5 million, and 18 leases have been signed, within what Mr. Gifford called the Main Street District. That's divided into the Shopping District of independently owned specialty shops clustered south of the courthouse along South Pennsylvania Avenue and Second Street, and the Cultural District, which includes the Palace Theatre, Seton Hill University Performing Arts Center, Westmoreland Museum of American Art and Robertshaw Amphitheater. In January, Seton Hill will break ground on its second downtown academic building, a dance and visual arts center.

Projects such as "Seeing Greensburg Through a Different Lens" form alliances among different community factions and offer benefits to all involved. Seton Hill students contribute to their city and gain real world work experience. The city advises the students and gains eye-grabbing artwork in place of dirty windows. Greensburg company Sign-A-Rama volunteers labor to hang the artworks and gains attention to its product and processes.

Robert Gonze, owner of Sign-A-Rama, said the firm couldn't have produced work like the window art 15 years ago. Technological advances have brought new inks, lamination processes and digital printing methods.

"A lot of customers have seen [the artworks] and liked them," Mr. Gonze said. "It's good for our industry."

Mr. Gonze said he enjoys showing new technologies to the students.

"Visual communication is so much more dramatic than written," he said. "Exposing kids to this whole new media gives them a great tool to use. They see how they can use color and images as part of their messaging."

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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