Over the summer, he plans to project giant words onto several buildings or structures to draw people closer to the images. And as people get drawn closer to the words, he hopes they’ll listen to the sounds of community members whose voices will be saying those words.

“The idea is to take these individual stories and make them bigger,” he said.

Aaron Henderson

Artist Aaron Henderson showed a prototype of his art projections at the Carrie Furnaces in 2020. Photo courtesy of PublicSource.

For example, he said, one woman told him she regretted buying a white car when she moved to Braddock because it became so dirty every day from the air pollution. Another woman had a slightly different view: She acknowledged that the Edgar Thomson plant laid the foundation for prosperity in the town decades ago but still thinks the plant has a responsibility to address its effect on air quality. He hopes these stories will bring in a wider audience than activists or workers who might reflexively either dislike U.S. Steel or protesters.

Henderson did a test run of the concept at the Carrie Furnaces last year and got some feedback: People wanted to know what they could do. So, this time, there will be groups that work on air quality issues tabling and giving people a chance to get involved.

He’s still finalizing the projection sites, including one in downtown Pittsburgh, and hopes that the projections will draw a large crowd over the summer. “I really hope we’re in a position where people are out and the city is beginning to wake up a little bit and shake off the hunkered-down mentality we’ve been in so long,” he said.

Dirty soil

The pandemic made Mary Tremonte’s art project more relevant than ever: Everyone, it seemed, was beginning to garden.

Tremonte worked with Grow Pittsburgh to create a zine (a self-made magazine) about soil health and the toxins, such as the lead that is often found in Pittsburgh’s soil. “Community gardens are often on empty lots, so there is a high chance there is heavy metal contamination on the site,” she said.

Mary Tremonte

Mary Tremonte used a risograph to individually print 1,500 copies of her zine in two colors, hunter green and fluorescent pink. Photo courtesy of PublicSource.

Tremonte and Grow Pittsburgh also wanted to connect isolated community gardens together. But the pandemic made the process of gathering these stories trickier. She had planned to put on storytelling events to bring community gardeners together across neighborhoods. The hope was to build community across a network of community gardens, which create green space in impoverished areas.

Instead she ended up acting more like a journalist, interviewing local experts separately for their stories. She learned that the serious gardeners said “soil” and hated the term “dirt.” And that the worms she was so proud of in her own backyard garden were actually invasive worms that made plants harder to grow.

She’s printing two issues, one about soil health and one about contamination, which will be available for free at community gardens, free libraries and events like the city’s virtual seed swap.

The zines will also be available in the educational dirt — ahem — soil cart she made with instructions to screenprint with dirt and make mud stencils. Through experimentation, she learned that she had to grind up her soil in a coffee grinder to get the right mud consistency for screen printing.

Mary Tremonte

Violet Gabriel does screen printing with mud at the Etna community garden. Etna was the first community garden to check out Mary Tremonte’s educational cart. Photo courtesy of PublicSource.

There is a tension, she said, between teaching people to be wary of the toxins in untested dirt and encouraging kids to get their hands dirty with safe and healthy soils.

“The toxins are there, and people aren’t aware of how they can come into contact with them,” she said. “It’s a public education project to protect people from being poisoned. Kids have an extra risk of exposure.”

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.