This week, NPR’s All Things Considered takes a trip to the Mattress Factory museum on Pittsburgh’s historic Northside. After all of the recent national coverage of Pittsburgh’s food and sports scenes, we think it’s wonderful to see one of the city’s top cultural destinations receiving attention.

In his July 21st feature for NPR, Find Unforgettable Art In A Most Unlikely Place: A Pittsburgh Mattress Factory, journalist Bob Mondello explores the museum’s distinct focus on site-specific installation art, world-renowned residency program and beginnings in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood.

“The Mattress Factory hasn’t been an actual mattress factory for a while now. Built on a hillside in the Central Northside neighborhood of Pittsburgh, back at the turn of the last century, it was used as a warehouse and showroom for Stearns & Foster until the 1960s. Today, it’s one of the country’s more unusual art museums. Filled not with paintings or sculptures—and certainly not with mattresses—it is now, four stories of … well, of ‘stories’ in a way. Installations that take you places you don’t expect to go in an art museum.”

Greer Lankton. Tom Little/Courtesy of The Mattress Factory.
Greer Lankton. Tom Little/Courtesy of The Mattress Factory.

NPR steps into multi-sensory room-sized works, such as Damn everything but the circus—where artist and Zany Umbrella Circus founder Ben Sota has “arranged a canvas-draped, room-sized installation where visitors could walk a very low tightrope, drape themselves on a trapeze, even roll around in one of those giant metal acrobat wheels.”

The Mattress Factory is also home to permanent works by pioneering contemporary art figures, such as Yayoi Kusama, James Turrell and Greer Lankton.

Mondello goes on to talk with co-directors and artists, Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk, about the museum’s founding and evolution:

“We opened a food co-op on the first floor, with vegetarian cooking. People just came. Everybody says, ‘You had great vision’ and so on. The hell I did. It was an evolutionary process, built originally on desire for myself: a place to work, a place to live, and a community in which I could thrive as a person,” says Luderowski.

Ryder Henry. Courtesy of The Mattress Factory.
Ryder Henry. Courtesy of The Mattress Factory.

Today, the co-directors share a huge open living space on the top two floors of the museum, and preside jointly over an arts complex that now includes the main building plus artists’ residences and workshop areas in several other buildings.

Often, it is the creative process of making the work that helps to tell the compelling stories behind the art at the museum, such as with Chiharu Shiota’s Trace of Memory, an enormous spiderweb of sorts that engulfs a three-story Victorian townhouse, where visitors will encounter a bed, pile of suitcases and even a wedding dress that floats in mid-air—”all rendered fuzzy and indistinct by hundreds of angled, irregular strands of yarn stretched wall to wall.”

Olijnyk describes the ambitious process: “It took 13 people 10 days. And when they said 10 days we thought, ‘No way,’ because we saw them working on one room and it was very, very labor-intensive. But they would start early in the morning, and sometimes work until 2 in the morning, then get up the next day and do the same thing.”

Chiharu Shiota. Courtesy of The Mattress Factory.
Chiharu Shiota. Courtesy of The Mattress Factory.

Says Mondello: “Trace of Memory, like many of the Mattress Factory’s installations, is a complicated idea, rendered in spare, minimalist form. That contrasts with the directors’ private residence, up above the museum, which is wildly maximalist, crammed with thousands of objects the two have collected—Luderowski’s tchotchke-filled cabinets, Olijnyk’s midcentury modern furniture. Because co-directors Luderowski and Olijnyk are artists, not just arts administrators—devoted enough to site-specific creativity, that they live atop their own creation: this beehive of artistic activity.”

Luderowski connects the dots between life and art: “I love being even a peripheral part of the actual process. The thinking process, the flexibility, and the problem solving, and all those things which to me are so important in terms of what art does for you. One of the reasons we decided on doing installation art, both of us, was ‘pedestal art’ was a limiting thing to do, and installation really involves different mediums: some sound, building wombs out of wax, a variety of materials and challenges that … makes my life richer.”

Listen to NPR’s Find Unforgettable Art In A Most Unlikely Place: A Pittsburgh Mattress Factory radio feature now.

Jennifer has worked at the Mattress Factory, Brooklyn Museum of Art and Dahesh Museum of Art and is co-author of Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania. She also is co-coordinator of Handmade Arcade. Musically, she is in a band called The Garment District and is a founding member of Brooklyn's The Ladybug Transistor.