Pittsburgh’s parks have been places of calm and refuge, beauty and escape — especially when we were expected to spend so much time indoors isolated from each other.

Now, the city’s five major parks are being rewarded with new attractions — eight pieces of public art spread across Emerald View, Highland, Schenley, Frick and Riverview parks.

“Public art is a vehicle to instill meaning among people, among communities,” explains Sarah Minnaert, public art & civic design manager for the City of Pittsburgh. “It has the potential to reflect identity and understanding of where we live, work and play. It enhances meaning and sense of place in our public realm.”

A $500,000 RADical Impact Grant, part of RAD’s (Regional Asset District) 25th anniversary, is funding the effort. Individual artists will receive up to $100,000. The eight artists were chosen from a field of 74 applicants from all over the world; five have Pittsburgh connections. Some of the art will be collaborations between local and national artists (a complete list of the participating artists is below).

“We have artists who have been working at a pretty large scale in public art for a good part of their careers,” says Minnaert. “We also have artists that are really poised to take their practice to the next level. We have artists that are working across a variety of media. So we really have an interesting balance; it’s not all sculptors, it’s not all Pittsburgh-based artists.”

The artists were asked to submit letters, a resume and examples of their work — but not ideas of what they’d do for each park. The individual pieces will be a collaboration between the artists and neighboring communities to arrive at an installation that everybody wants.

“Through the selection process, we identified the strongest artists, and then also went through a phase of matchmaking of artists and parks,” says Minnaert.

That involved looking at themes in the artists’ previous work — if they’re interested in, say, watershed issues, or play, or park access.

For North Point Breeze-based artist Ginger Brooks Takahashi, it’s an opportunity to make art that will make a permanent impact on the landscape of Pittsburgh. She’ll be working in Schenley Park.

Ginger Brooks Takahashi.

Schenley Park, is, of course, huge. It encompasses everything from secluded sun-dappled trails to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens to other works of public art, like the Christopher Columbus statue that has recently been the site of controversy.

Takahashi is interested in the Neill Log House, built in 1765, which could be Pittsburgh’s oldest dwelling.

“It was all boarded up, and it seems like not a lot of attention was paid to it,” says Takahashi. “I’m drawn to thinking about the history of that house, and that leads me to investigate more of the history of Schenley Park and what it was before it was a park — and thinking about how people use the space.”

Neill Log House in Schenley Park.

Otherwise, she’s not going into this project with any preconceived notions about what her final work will be.

“There’s only one year, really, to make this piece, and so I’m letting my intuitive side let myself discover whatever I’m drawn to, and then let myself research those things,” says Takahashi.

Takahashi is currently working on a public art project called the Nine Mile Run Viewfinder, which involves custom manhole covers and hydropower lighting that lets viewers observe the underground stream that goes below Wilkinsburg and other East End neighborhoods.

For some artists, it’s a chance to work in a place they know well. Marlana Adele Vassar, who is from Highland Park, will be creating artwork for her neighborhood park. She normally works in two-dimensional art.

“I’m interested to see how someone in the community will be thinking about that public art in their neighborhood,” says Minnaert.

Artwork courtesy of Marlana Adele Vassar’s Facebook page.
Artwork courtesy of Marlana Adele Vassar’s Facebook page.

Another winning artist, the  The Urban Conga out of Brooklyn, is a design studio made up of artists from a variety of disciplines, from architects to engineers to fabricators. They specialize in creating works that spark open-ended play.

“They have a lot of lightness, brightness and playfulness in their artwork and focus on the ability of art to bring people together,” explains Minnaert.

Art/play space by The Urban Conga. Photo via Instagram.

The artists have one year to complete their projects, which should be done by next summer.

“We anticipate that each artist is going to have slightly different timelines,” says Minnaert. “Some artists will get deeper into community engagement, some artists will need more time in fabrication, so each installation will have its own schedule and they will be a bit staggered.”

Artists will begin work immediately. Community feedback about what residents want to see (or not see) is being collected via the EngagePGH website. There will also be public meetings seeking community input.

“I think one of the exciting next steps with artists will be doing some walks around each of the parks,” says Minnaert. “And having some conversations with the artists about what aspects of the park and the community are making them curious, and how that might drive the type of work that they do.”

The artists selected include:

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.