Once, it was home to a Nabisco factory that filled the air with the sweet scent of Nilla Wafers. Now, Bakery Square has become a symbol of Pittsburgh’s transformation, the site of one of Google’s major engineering offices and numerous other businesses.
Continuing the site’s evolution, this spring Walnut Capital is finishing up a 12,400-square-foot building on Penn Avenue, with a soaring three-story conservatory, outdoor courtyard and four restaurants from Galley Group (who created Smallman Galley). The plan is to make the new building a canvas for public art, on a pair of large, 720-square-foot facades.
Eighty-five artists responded to the RFQ, and the selection committee and Walnut Capital were so impressed with the applicants that they decided to double the size of the program to offer the job to two artists. Janel Young and Lori Hepner, both of Pittsburgh, will each have their artwork on display for six months.
They’ll also participate in a residency collaboration with local schools, including Lincoln PreK-5 and the Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh. In fact, the whole project is envisioned as an ongoing collaboration with the students, with their input helping to guide the progression of the artworks throughout the entire process.
“I am blown away,” says Morton Brown, a public art consultant who worked on the project. “Never did I dream that we would be funding two projects out of this first run of the program. This is the kind of thing that most commissioning agencies are not capable of … let alone funding.”
Each artist will receive $20,000-$30,000 from Walnut Capital, which includes a residency program, the design phase and the installation of the artwork.
“These are two artists who are very different in style and pursuit but the same in professionalism and love of community,” says Brown. “I believe we will see something new and inspiring coming out of this, from both of them.”
Janel Young describes her work as both diving deep into complex, emotional societal issues, and escaping from those realities.
Young says she’s “creating from a place of joy,” which she considers a rebellious act.
“My best work takes a critical look at how Black and Brown people are mistreated in America and the daily challenges (that are) faced,” she says. “It also confronts society’s views on what is ‘acceptable’ … in the sense of conventional beauty and love. I think of my landscape pieces as fantasy worlds that have the power to simplify life, if even for a moment, to give the necessary space and peace to decompress, unravel and heal.”
Her “Black Girl Magic” series of 25 portraits was created to inspire Black women to embrace their natural hair.
The North Side-based artist was the first artist to redesign Yahoo’s logo for Black History Month. She has also had her art appear behind Venus and Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka during the U.S. Open, where her acrylic painting titled “Be Open To …” — depicting a jar bursting with words such as truth, love and justice — covered the front-row seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Originally from the South Side, Young was drawn back to Pittsburgh from New York City to paint a basketball court. She was offered a residency from the UrbanKind Institute and decided to make Pittsburgh home again.
Since then, she has designed the Carnegie Library’s 125th-anniversary commemorative library cards and has created several Downtown murals. She is also installing seven murals in New York City.
She’s not committed to a specific plan for the Bakery Square project, preferring to be guided by ideas from students and the Larimer Consensus Group, a community group that works in the neighborhood.
“My time with the community will inform and inspire my plan for the space,” says Young. “What I do know is it will be bold, bright and uplifting.”
Lori Hepner works with LED and “light painting,” informed by her extensive background in photography and digital media. She has shifted her practice away from solitary studio work into a community-centered collaborative practice, which is what attracted her to Bakery Square.
“This started as long exposure photographs on film that traced the paths of moving lights and has progressed to real-time projections,” says Hepner.
A native Pittsburgher who grew up in Carrick, Hepner has a studio in Lawrenceville and is a professor of integrative arts at Penn State Greater Allegheny in McKeesport. Her artwork has appeared on building facades in Beechview and on the side of a T light rail car.
Artist residencies have taken her on a canoe trip down the Yukon River deep into northern Canada and to an island in Norway. But it was at the Carnegie Museum of Art where her life and art came full circle.
“I took the Saturday Art Connection classes as a kid, where we were able to learn to make art using the work on display … an hour to do so before the public was let into the museum. Being able to go through those same galleries with my own art on a carpeted dolly being wheeled to the exhibition space was something that I had always dreamed about. I had a similar feeling when I got an email in December telling me that my work was now on view in a new exhibition that is up through June, Controlling the Chaos, in the Scaife Galleries.”
At Bakery Square, Hepner plans to start her project with input from the kids at the Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh and Lincoln PreK-5.
“I will be doing some engagement with the students in the fall when hopefully we can be in person, and that will allow them to do some hands-on light painting using a 6-foot-tall light stick, which kids and even adults can get very excited about,” says Hepner. “It makes them feel like they’re in ‘Star Wars.’”
She’s hoping to combine digital prints on metal with vinyl overlays to create works that will be featured on two 10-foot-by-18-foot façade panels on the new building, as well as on the glass windows between them.
“I plan on working with light in some way so that the work will change from daylight to evening viewing,” she says. “It will be exhibited through the fall and winter months, so illuminating the dark season will allow light to be featured in the project.”