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: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.