City Walkabout: Tours of public art cast neighborhoods in a different light
July 17, 2012 4:00 AM
About 40 children whose families are clients of the Parental Stress Center contributed to Laura Jean McLaughlin's "Dishing out Science" mural.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
I rarely head west past Whole Foods, mostly east, so on my own I might never have noticed Laura Jean McLaughlin's mosaic mural, "Dishing Out Science," on a setback wall that faces the market's parking lot.
On a tour that the Office of Public Art arranged for me, I got to see it with Ms. McLaughlin last week. The same East Liberty walking tour will be held on Friday for the public. (See bottom of column for details.)
The mosaic mural shows a child turning a somersault. In her hand above her head, a large bowl is spilling grapes, fish, bananas, an apple and a piece of chicken. Raining down, too, are their molecular structures. It is a lovely, whimsical piece that 40 children whose families are clients of the Parental Stress Center helped to create.
Kristin Hughes, associate professor of design at Carnegie Mellon University, instigated the project in 2005 to draw on the theme of nutrition with underprivileged children.
"She contacted me," said Ms. McLaughlin, a sculptor and co-owner of Awesome Books. "I had never done a mosaic."
Since then, she has done more than 50 mosaic murals and sculptures throughout the city. Last month, the Office of Public Art, which is housed in the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, initiated the first in a series of monthly walking tours to draw attention to the role public art plays in the built environment. Some of it jumps out at us, some is disguised -- for instance, the sculpture fountain at Whitfield Street and Baum Boulevard. We see it, but do we really look at it? And do we think of it as art?
The Office of Public Art started tours with one Downtown on June 22. It had a transportation theme and included Romare Bearden's ceramic mural in the Gateway T station.
The tours are intended to show people works that are traditionally considered art and work that many may not have thought of as art. The East Liberty tour's three stops include two unconventional artworks -- a pedestrian bridge and a tiny restaurant.
Sheila Klein's pedestrian bridge is a functional conduit between the Eastside shopping complex and Ellsworth Avenue. It is essentially a link between Shadyside and East Liberty. But its wavy fencing that bends backward and the round glass pieces that shine like sequins hanging from it make you want to sashay across it. Ms. Klein is expected to be on hand for the Friday tour.
"Her vision is to dress the world," said Renee Piechocki, director of the Office of Public Art. She added that the straight lines of paint on the deck of the bridge are not the final design.
The other stop, Conflict Kitchen, is the brainchild of artists Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski. Its tiny notch of lunch counter facing the sidewalk has a kitchen behind it. The staff and kitchen were shared with the Waffle Shop, which is closing this month.
Conflict Kitchen's future is uncertain now; a planned move to Downtown this summer has been delayed because the Urban Redevelopment Authority's lease of a vacant Fifth Avenue Wendy's to Conflict Kitchen would be limited. The URA and Mr. Rubin are still talking about the possibilities.
Conflict Kitchen serves $5 sandwiches and other one-shot meals from countries with which the United States is in conflict; the current offering is from Cuba. So it is a restaurant. But even to the most unwitting passer-by it suggests something else, with colorful, foreign signage.
But is it art? That's often the question, even in museums dedicated to art, and the question is one reason to study creative output. By asking the question in earnest, we can work our way toward an understanding.
The East Liberty tour begins at 7 p.m. Friday at the pedestrian bridge that crosses from Ellsworth Avenue to the upper level of the Eastside parking lot. If you pre-register, the tours are $5 for members of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and $7 for nonmembers. If you register upon showing up, the cost is $15.