This story was originally published by PublicSource, a news partner of NEXTpittsburgh. PublicSource is a nonprofit media organization delivering local journalism at publicsource.org. You can sign up for their newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.

Artists often create work about nature as a way to draw attention to beauty in the natural world. But can their work also draw attention to pollution and the ways that Pittsburgh’s environment can be dangerous?

On Tuesday afternoon, Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Art is convening a panel of three artists who recently undertook projects in conjunction with local nonprofits to create art that drew on both their own creative skills and the nonprofits’ environmental expertise.

PublicSource spoke to the three artists about how they hope to transform the public’s relationship to the natural world.

“I think the advantage is just that we’re coming at these problems obliquely, at a slightly different angle, so our creative response to these things will necessarily be different than if this was simply some sort of didactic tool,” said Aaron Henderson, one of the artists.

Masks and manholes

In 2018, Ginger Brooks Takahashi posted a photo of herself wearing a mask on a farm she was working on in Braddock. In the photo, she is pointing to dark smoke coming from the Edgar Thomson Steel Works. It was a touchstone for local activists, who shared her photo widely, she said. But it also sparked backlash, including from employees at the plant.

Ginger Brooks Takahashi

A screenshot of Ginger Brooks Takahashi’s Instagram post, which led her to create a 10-minute art piece that was eventually acquired by Carnegie Museum of Art.

“Their union hall is right next to the farm, so it felt very scary to go to work because they are very threatening comments,” she said of the responses posted on social media.

Some commenters singled out her race: “I am assuming the dude with the mask on is from the country Japan whose nuclear power plant is still dumping toxic waste in the ocean” and “I lived in Braddock all my life. Go back to eating your dogs and cats.”

She turned her experience into an art piece about her decision to put on a mask to protect her lungs and the responses it provoked.

She’d never heard of “daylighting” a stream before. She had an “aha” moment when she realized that there were already access points to the stream below: manhole covers. And when she lifted one, she said, it was if she had entered a different world.

“This beautiful brick shaft leads down and there is this water flowing underground. It was a different temperature, a portal to this underground world. For me, I thought, ‘This is it, a ready made artwork, it’s already here.’”

Ginger Brooks Takahashi

Ginger Brooks Takahashi worked with the Pittsburgh designers, Clear Story, to come up with an ADA-accessible design for the manhole covers. Photo courtesy of PublicSource.

She found three manholes — at Hunter Park, Whitney Park and on West Street between Ross and Penn aAvenues — where the pipes just contained stormwater and wouldn’t be contaminated with sewage, as it is in certain places along the stream when it rains. At first, she thought a clear glass would let people see the stream below, but the temperature difference made the glass fog up. So she came up with a steel subway grating with a water design and the words: “How do you connect with the underground stream?”

Invisible air, bright lights

Aaron Henderson’s style of visual projection art is well-suited to the problem of air pollution in the Mon Valley, he said, where groups sometimes struggle to get the word out. “The things that I’m making are very graphic,” he said. “I wouldn’t describe them as subtle.”

Henderson, an associate professor of studio art at the University of Pittsburgh, won’t be going full renegade, like artists who have used projectors to stamp criticisms of Donald Trump on his buildings, for example. Henderson, who collaborated with North Braddock Residents for our Future and the Breathe Collaborative, will get permission from the property owners first.