Empty storefront, desperate robot provide whimsical art: 'Fraley's Robot Repair'

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Walking past the storefronts on Sixth Street across from Heinz Hall, on a day when the hustle and bustle isn't too much, glance at the windows at No. 210 and don't be surprised if you are stopped in your tracks. Believe your eyes: That is, indeed, a desperate robot, whose wooden fingertips are clawing at the window of Fraley's Robot Repair shop.

The installation is courtesy of Washington, Pa., native Toby Atticus Fraley and Project Pop Up Pittsburgh , which awards grants for otherwise empty Downtown spaces to be filled by art projects, retail shops, restaurants, educational initiatives or a combination. Robot Repair has been surprising passers-by since it opened for a yearlong run on Light Up Night, Nov. 18.

Mr. Fraley observed reactions as people walked by his public art installation that first night. "It just seemed like a lot of amusement, and flat-out shock at first," he said.

The artist began his career as an oil painter but also had been collecting vintage household objects and repurposing them as display robots and other forms of sculpture. The venture started as a lark, but when the first robot sold quickly, and the next, and the next ... "It snowballed, and there was a demand," he said. "I honestly never thought five or six years ago I'd still be making robots."

You may have seen his booth at the Three Rivers Arts Festival or his offbeat clocks with sculptures made from clay and wood for sale at the Society of Contemporary Craft. But you've probably never seen anything like his installation on Sixth Street.

The sense of whimsy is evident in the details, including the small sign in the storefront that reads, "Away on vacation, please check back," but there's plenty to see. Robots and parts are in various stages of repair or disrepair, including one in pieces on a table with X-ed out eyes, and the one at the window, longing for life in the outside world. There's also the moving shadow of a robot at the door, trying to get into the shop. Shelves are lined with items such as matched thermos sets atop wooden shoe inserts -- stylish limbs for a needy robot? The cork board above a desk has the type of child's drawing that you might see displayed by the proud owners of any shop and Mr. Fraley's favorite detail so far, a Fortune Cookie forecast that reads: "There is a Robot in our future!"

The space was made available by Pop Up Pittsburgh, a collaboration of Mayor Ravenstahl, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Department of City Planning and Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, which has been keeping otherwise empty Downtown storefronts busy by awarding grants for these types of ventures.

Mr. Fraley applied for the spot on Sixth because he thought it would work as a repair shop whereas, say, a vacated cupcake shop would not have been so robot-friendly. For smartphone owners who want more info on the spot and have a QR reader app, scan the matrix bar code on the window and find your way to www.pghrobotrepair.com , which includes an inside tour of the shop -- and watch for updates. The artist intends to keep tweaking the installation during its yearlong run.

"There are a lot of little details I want to add, and the robot with the blue eyes [at the window] is articulated, so it can do different things," he said. "I expect to get in there biweekly, late on a Sunday, and keep trying something different. It's not a static space."

As for that frowning robot and his silent plea for freedom, well, there may be a happy ending in store -- or not.

"I don't want to say," its creator said. "You'll just have to come back and see."

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. First Published December 7, 2011 5:00 AM


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