By Matthew Monroy
Kyle Holbrook has painted murals in Pittsburgh for more than 15 years–on busways, bridges and street corners. Now he’s raising the bar for himself.
For his latest project, PGH Art Park, Holbrook wants to create what he hopes will be the largest mural in Pittsburgh history depicting African-American and Hill District history on the façade of the soon-to-be Salem’s Market and Grill at Centre Heldman Plaza in the Hill District.
“People are looking for something to bring them together,” Holbrook says. “We’re going to use public art as a vehicle to unite all over the city.”
The painting will take place July 17, Aug. 21 and Sept. 17 during three community events facilitated by Holbrook’s arts organization, Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project (MLK Mural Project).
To reach his goal of creating the largest mural in Pittsburgh, Holbrook will need a lot of hands. The MLK Mural Project is seeking 1,000 kids to contribute to the painting. The group also invites any musicians, arts organizations or dance groups that wish to attend the events. The July 17 event will run from 1 to 6 p.m. and will feature food from Salem’s Market and Grill, bouncy houses, food trucks, face painting and music.
The MLK Mural Project’s advisory board is also looking for 15 local, national or international professional artists to help with PGH Art Park. Find more information on how to apply under Call for Artists on the MLK Mural Project website.
The mural marks another milestone for the Hill District–a new grocery store. After the Shop n’ Save at Centre Heldman Plaza closed in March 2019, many Hill District residents were left without easy access to fresh groceries. Salem’s Market and Grill, which is set to open in 2023, hopes to fulfill that need.
“We’re mediating a food desert,” says Alex Moser, Salem’s Market and Grill’s marketing director. “We want the mural to be a celebration of the Hill District and our first step in giving back to the community.”
Holbrook also plans to ask police officers to help paint the mural. He’s aware of the tension that can exist between residents and law enforcement but says that bringing those groups together is a step toward unity.
“We’re not going to stop gun violence. We’re not going to change police-community relations with this mural,” Holbrook says. “But it’s one step.”
The mural’s location is personally important to Holbrook, who honed his painting skills with famed Pittsburgh muralist George Gist in the Hill District while studying art in college. Gist’s mentorship taught Holbrook how to construct large-scale murals, which Holbrook said he didn’t see much of growing up in Wilkinsburg.
“I had my technical training as an artist, but it wasn’t until I mentored with Gist in my senior year at the Art Institute that it changed my life,” Holbrook says.
For the artist, the power of murals lies as much in the process as in the finished product. There are always difficulties—the size, unpredictable weather, outdoor distractions—but they’re all a part of the process, he says.
“I don’t like painting art just to make pretty pictures,” Holbrook says. “I want to use the art to speak to the community, to do something positive for the community through the process of creating together.”