It seems absurd to find a lighthouse inside a row house in Troy Hill, more than 350 miles from the closest ocean.

But when you consider the fluidity of time, backward and forward, it makes perfect sense, say artists Lenka Clayton and Phillip Andrew Lewis, whose vision and conversations with collector Evan Mirapaul led to the “Darkhouse Lighthouse” permanent art installation and garden commissioned by Mirapaul’s Troy Hill Art Houses.

The artists say their neighborhood once may have been covered by the ancient Iapetus Ocean, a precursor of the Atlantic that existed in the late Neoproterozoic and early Paleozoic eras (about 600 million years ago). And who knows, one day it could be covered by water again.

“The lighthouse is usually next to the ocean, built to be a beacon, to be highly visible. We were interested in what would happen if we took that structure that was to behave one way and completely shifted its context,” says Clayton, an interdisciplinary artist whose work pushes the boundaries of the accepted rules of everyday life. “In one way it’s absurd — the idea of having a lighthouse so far from the sea — but when you look back in time, or forward in time, it’s logical, it makes sense.”

The stairs inside Darkhouse Lighthouse
Photo by Clayton & Lewis Studio.

“We were thinking about how any time that we as humans occupy on this earth is a small speck, and we can think backwards and see backwards in a certain way, based on archives and records, and somewhat measure the present,” says Lewis, an artist working in a variety of media including photography, video, objects and sound.

“We started thinking about the future and how that’s slippery and speculative,” he says. “In one way, it functions almost like a time capsule. At some point, the ocean will likely return to this location. We like the idea that the lighthouse will be ready and waiting.”

This is the third house in Troy Hill to be transformed into a permanent artwork. Constructing a full-scale, four-story, working lighthouse within the confines of a burned and vacant row house was an ambitious project that took several years of collaboration with architects, engineers and builders. The process also required securing permits from the City of Pittsburgh.

“We spent probably a year in conceptual, mental space, thinking about possibilities and concepts and ideas,” says Lewis. “Then the actual work of building and making things came later.”

The installation opened in late September and will be open to the public indefinitely. Visitors can book free, guided tours online. Once inside, they can climb the spiraling concrete stairs and look out through tiny arched windows — and admire the objects in the keeper’s quarters. There’s an attic widow’s walk and an authentic rotating Fourth Order Fresnel lens. Outside, the blue grass garden has a 16-foot concrete day marker sculpture.

Clayton, who attended Central Saint Martins in London and came to America about 13 years ago, says she has been an artist “forever, since I was a young teenager.” She met Lewis, who studied psychology at the University of Memphis, where he grew up, when both were artists-in-residence at Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California, five years ago.

The parents of three children — ages 9, 11 and 16, between them — got married in 2019 on the 31st Street Bridge, a venue they chose because “we could see it from our studio [window],” says Clayton. “We wanted to get married somewhere we could look at every day.”

Clayton’s recent exhibitions include “How We Thought It Would Be and How It Was” (2020) at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco; “Fruit and Other Things” (2019) during the 57th Carnegie International at Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland; and “Object Temporarily Removed” (2017) at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. An award-winning artist, she’s the founder of An Artist Residency in Motherhood, a self-directed, open-source artist residency program for artists who are parents.

Photo by Clayton & Lewis Studio.

Lewis has exhibited his work nationally and internationally. He received a 2012 Creative Capital Grant in Visual Art for an ongoing project, “SYNONYM,” and has received support for his research from Headlands Center for the Arts, the Culture & Animals Foundation, the Center for Creative Photography, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in New York and others, including The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation.

“We’re very project-based, so although we’d like to make work and then just go show that, we often find ourselves gravitating toward making work specifically for a site and context,” says Lewis. “We do make art that can move around freely, but we’re drawn to opportunities that will allow us to think about a site.”

Among their collaborative projects on view in Pittsburgh is an 8-foot bronze plaque in Troy Hill supported by Black Cube Nomadic Art Museum and the street-facing experimental gallery, Gallery Closed.

They have an upcoming installation that will premiere at the Mattress Factory in spring 2023, though they’re not disclosing anything about it until it opens.

With “Darkhouse Lighthouse,” Clayton says, “we wanted to make space for people to have an experience, not one that we specifically devised.” On the day it opened, “we noticed a lot of people came out of the house and stared at the house,” she says. “It looks so different on the outside from what you experience inside. It was gratifying to see people grappling with that. We hope that people are being transported through time, whether back or forward or at the present time of contemplating the work.”

Their work is generally some form of communication, Lewis says.

“We’re hopeful it’s activating people’s imagination and producing thoughts and questions,” he says. “We’re interested in people coming away with questions, rather than answers. It’s a lot more engaging and useful exercise for the mind to be asking questions.”

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.