Diana Nelson Jones’ Walkabout: Words, art and homes merge in appealing display on North Side

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One day last week, I heard peo­ple speak­ing Spa­nish out­side my screen door and bounded to the side­walk for a rare, un­planned op­por­tu­nity to prac­tice. I was sud­denly part of a river of words.

“River of Words” is a proj­ect of word in­stal­la­tion in­tended to make con­nec­tions through­out the North Side. It’s the brain­child of two art­ists and a writer from Ven­e­zu­ela. The writer, Is­rael Cen­teno, is a friend and neigh­bor of mine who lives as part of the City of Asy­lum Pitts­burgh com­mu­nity on Samp­so­nia Way.

City of Asy­lum res­cued him from some heavy-duty thug­gery set off by his novel, “The Con­spir­acy,” in Ca­ra­cas.

Since Henry Reese and Diane Samuels founded City of Asy­lum Pitts­burgh 10 years ago and bought prop­er­ties on Samp­so­nia Way to house writ­ers at risk, they have sup­ported vis­i­tors from China, Myan­mar, El Sal­va­dor, Ven­e­zu­ela and now Iran.

Gisela Romero and Car­o­lina Ar­nal have worked with Mr. Cen­teno since 2000 on art-and-word ex­hi­bi­tions on the peo­ple’‍s loss of power in Ven­e­zu­ela. Asked if they have got­ten into trou­ble, Ms. Ar­nal said, “Not yet.”

The three teamed up again on “River of Words” when City of Asy­lum put out a call for pub­lic art in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Of­fice of Pub­lic Art at the Greater Pitts­burgh Arts Coun­cil. They are com­mis­sion­ing four more proj­ects to be in­stalled within the next year, said Re­nee Pie­chocki, di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Pub­lic Art.

Each pub­lic art proj­ect bud­get is $6,000, with grants from ArtPlace Amer­ica and the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts.

They will have in com­mon the theme of con­nec­tions, in­clud­ing the one be­tween Samp­so­nia Way and the for­mer Ma­sonic Hall on North Avenue. City of Asy­lum has been wait­ing to close on the hall’s pur­chase to make it into Al­pha­bet City, its head­quar­ters, event cen­ter and book­store.

“River of Words” is be­hav­ing ex­actly as planned, and then some. “It was to make con­nec­tions all over the North Side,” Mr. Cen­teno said, “but three days af­ter we started, some­one from the South Side wanted a word.”

That’s the thing about con­nec­tions. Once they get started, you can’‍t keep them from cross­ing bridges — or coun­tries.

Be­sides put­ting words on houses, the art­ists are draw­ing lines and words on the pave­ment of Samp­so­nia Way, us­ing the im­ag­ery of syn­apses con­nect­ing neu­rons as met­a­phors for con­nec­tions be­tween peo­ple.

Mr. Reese said “River of Words” ex­pands on the idea of con­nect­ing Samp­so­nia Way to Al­pha­bet City “by cre­at­ing an on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tion. As you pass a neigh­bor’s house, you com­pare their choice to yours. Or you won­der what word you might have picked. You will hope­fully start to won­der if the words tell a se­cret story about our neigh­bor­hood.”

Ms. Romero’s hus­band, Hec­tor Perez-Seg­nini, has been pho­to­graph­ing the team’‍s two weeks of ac­tiv­i­ties, and Ms. Ar­nal’‍s hus­band, Ra­fael San­tana, has in­stalled many words. They are made from metal, acrylic and vi­nyl and are meant to stay up for at least three months.

As words have been in­stalled, neigh­bors have come out to re­quest one, too. When I bounded out­side to prac­tice speak­ing Spa­nish, I seized the chance to get a word my­self.

From the list I chose “man­da­las,” a San­skrit word for the cir­cle of life. Then I no­ticed Ms. San­tana put­ting up my neigh­bors’‍ word, ee­rily sim­i­lar —“man­adas,” or “herds” in Spa­nish. Not only that, but our du­plex is painted ol­ive green and dark or­ange and the words are green and or­ange.

“It has been won­der­ful to see how these words match the houses,” Ms. Romero said. “No one knew what color they would be when they chose them. It’s al­most like the word chose the per­son.”

When I first learned about this proj­ect, the con­cept struck me as merely whim­si­cal, but the Ven­e­zu­e­lan friends brought a deeper sen­si­bil­ity to it.

I thought about that in light of what Ms. Romero had said about the fu­ture of Ven­e­zu­ela, that the pass­ing of dic­ta­tor­ship from the late Hugo Chavez to Nico­las Ma­duro is “aw­ful, even worse, like a tun­nel whose other end is dark.”

As I looked at their map with stars show­ing all the houses that have words on them, I en­vi­sioned a line of de­fense drawn from one star to the other.

Di­ana Nel­son Jones: djones@post-ga­zette.com or 412-263-1626.

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