Celebrated Pittsburgh artist and sculptor James Simon is known locally for his larger-than-life sculptures and installations around town, like the Liberty Avenue Musicians or his colossal, kaleidoscopic mosaics that welcome people to Braddock and Uptown.

This time around, he’s making penguins45 of them, in factto be installed throughout Allentown, Beltzhoover and Knoxville this summer.

The project is made possible through a grant from Neighborhood Allies and the Office of Public Art’s Temporary Public Art and Placemaking Pilot Program.

James was selected by Jmar Bey, president of the South Hilltop Men’s Group and community liaison for the project.

“I don’t even recall seeing his picture,” says Bey. “His work is what spoke to me, and I said that’s the guy we want for this.”

But why penguins?

For one, they’re just so darn cute. “Whenever you see a penguin, especially in the style of art that [James] does, it just makes you feel ticklish inside,” says Bey.

But there’s a deeper meaning, too, one that Simon pitched at a series of community meetings, says Bey:

“James talks about the communal survival of penguins. They live in the most inhospitable, harshest place on the planet Earth. And the reason that they’re able to do that and survive is because of each other. They cannot survive independent of themselvesthey must survive as a group. They’re just down for each other. That’s the ultimate symbol of community: the penguin.”

James Simon. Photo by Brian Conway.

Simon has a history of using public art to help transform neighborhoods. His Art On Gist Street Project has earned praise for enlivening the area around his Uptown studio. “I noticed when I put [my first sculpture, “Baby Kong”] out there, how much the neighborhood really liked it. Living in the neighborhood, I could see firsthand that it was something the community really appreciated.”

“We’re combating against hopelessness,” says Bey. “It’s not just physical blight but there’s also a blighted mentality because of the conditions that have persisted for so long. I think the art in tandem with the other beautification efforts that are happening around these neighborhoods: the investment, new storefronts, the programs for teenagers, the efforts of the police against drugs and violenceyou can see change, and this program reinforces the visual aspect of that change.”

The penguins stand about two feet tall and come in all shapes and sizes: there’s an artist penguin with a beret, a dapper bow tie wearing penguin, a penguin dancing the flamenco, and dozens more to come.

Penguin installation is scheduled to begin in June throughout the three participating neighborhoods, the most prominent of which will be in the heart of E. Warrington Ave. business district.

“In my opinion, the artistic part of helping a community is extremely helpful because the environment of your community affects how you are and how you think every day,” says Simon. “Good quality public art can really bring up the quality of living.”

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.