Ramon Riley works on his upcoming exhibition “LOVENEVERENDING” inside his Nova Place studio. Photo credit: Neil Strebig
Amidst the evolution of Nova Place a group of Northside artists find a sanctuary for their creative processes.
By: Neil Strebig
Outside of the former One Allegheny Center, a gaggle of businessmen strolls past the revolving doors. Each of them donning a blue button down, their respective shades of blue differ ever so slightly. Just meters away from the businessman neon green hard hats play peek-a-boo behind a chain link fence that is hiding the future home of Federal Galley.
Inside the building past those revolving doors is a vacant hallway home only to a staring contest between a security guard and their smart phone. The guard sits in front of a set of metal doors one might not notice at first glance. Behind the heavy metal doors on the first – floor hidden from plain view – is an octuplet of artists.
It is somewhat paradoxical that a communal artistic space such as Radiant Hall is concealed in the middle of Northside; cloaked in the shadow of Nova Place and the changing industrial colors of the former Allegheny Center Mall.
“It pays to have a space that is not your house to create,” Nova Place studio director and Allegheny Center resident, Ramon Riley said. “It is a communal space where you walk in and on any given day you may walk in and see something that is inspiring to you.”
Riley who has also been teaching art at Pine-Richland High School for over a decade became involved in Radiant Hall Nova Place after a former student of his Ryan Lammie offered him the position.
The irony is, Lammie the founder of Radiant Hall was that former student.
“I knew Ryan coming out of eighth grade when he was finding himself,” Riley said. “I know I definitely contributed to helping his development as an artist and as a person.”
Radiant Hall originally started in Lawrenceville after Lammie moved back to his native Pittsburgh. While living in Brooklyn Lammie discovered that finding vacant studio spaces were a rare and expensive commodity for artists.
“The ability to find your space in the art scene is very difficult,” Lammie said.
Lammie wanted to offer himself and other Pittsburgh artists an alternative. He purchased the 4514 Plummer Street building in 2013, invited a few friends to join him and within six months the space was completely filled.
Since that original inception, Radiant Hall has expanded to two more locations: Nova Place and Homewood. At all three of their locations they offer artists 24/7 access to studio space and the ability to rent month-to-month or a 6-month rental option.
According to Lammie the, “only criteria [to join] is that you’re an artist. And we don’t try to define that.”
For Fineview resident and current occupant, Brianna Martray Radiant Hall proved to be a perfect match.
“Generally a place [where I can say] I am a hundred percent making art is a gift, and definitely worth paying for,” said Martray.
The purple-haired Martary describes her art style as “Dr. Suessical” and speaks with buoyancy in her words. She explains her travels and maturity as an artist and as an individual floating from story to story expanding on the pivotal details as she feels necessary. She is a story-teller. It isn’t surprising considering Martary began her collegiate career originally with the desire to become a novelist.
“I thought somewhere in my young brain the only way to make money as an artist was as a novelist,” she said.
Martray was living in Denver at the time, working as a restaurant manager and painting on the side for fun as a creative release. As she began to learn the hardships of the publishing world she began to realize that maybe developing literature wasn’t the answer, instead a new creative path revealed itself to her.
“There was a moment of clarity where I realized I needed to pay attention that people were buying [my] paintings.”
Her path towards full-time artist wouldn’t completely take off until she apprenticed under a bronze sculptor during her time in the Sante Fe Art District in Denver.
“With painting I always felt I was taking a snapshot of my vision – of my world building – or whatever I was trying to create,” Martray said. “With sculpting I felt like I was taking that world and actually bringing it into this one. It was tangible, it could cast a shadow it was a real object you could walk around. It just felt like I was fulfilling my vision more fully [with sculpting].”
The idea of fulfilling visions and pushing a higher creative standard is shared among the resident artists. Finding the right way to showcase your art, your style – yourself – is a common trait for the group. That spirit can become an epidemic in a communal space like Radiant Hall.
“Everyone here has gotten dramatically better in the past six months to a year,” said Riley. “Just seeing their work grow is inspiring and I think that is why so many of us stay for as long as we have. I think if we didn’t find it inspiring we wouldn’t still be here. They’re committed, they see it helping.”
Mexican War Streets resident, Zach Szabo admits that seeing other artists prompt him to be there more often. For him, the struggle for inspiration is also what keeps him motivated.
“To have your own art and vision is so unique. And for me, the motivation is to not let that go. Being able to work and turn your own vision into something and once you get to put it out there, that is when it is the most rewarding. The final product is the motivation.”
Szabo has a slender build, a confident stature but a slight cynicism in the tone of his voice, one that carries over into his work. His art is inspired by childhood memories that according to him “reignite a memory.” He uses a variety of mixed mediums from photography and video to textures, fabrics and sculptures for his installations; the combinations often have a homely look with a brooding feel behind them. His current work “Rare as a Winter Rainbow” was inspired by his current fascination with anomalies.
His natural skepticism is rooted in a good place. The kind that is often associated with self-described realists, who have come to terms with the way their worlds work. He is honest towards his belief that artists have to pay their dues a bit and that “capital is a speed bump” for all artists. Yet having a space that allows him the ability to create as well as offering opportunities for him are vital to his survival as an artist.
“I really need to have space to continue making work. [I think] for any artist that can’t afford to have a space or doesn’t want to have a working space in their home it is really important to have these kinds of resources in Pittsburgh.”
In June, he was featured in SIX x ATE a monthly exhibition by Casey Droege Cultural Production.
“Opportunities like that are great. And my chances would’ve been less had I not gone through Radiant Hall to do that kind of thing,” said Szabo on the event.
“You are part of a network where different events that people are involved in might lead to the next event you’re involved in,” said Riley. “It is two-fold; to have a space that’s separate, that you know you come here to create [in] and a space you know is also a network of potential opportunities it helps.”
That two-fold scenario may be most present in Riley’s experience in the studio thus far. Networking found him at Lawrenceville’s location in 2013 and the current location has allowed him to utilized two spaces, an asset he requires to continue his routine.
Riley has a “messy studio” where he can just “let things happen” and adjacent to that is his main studio, where he’s applying the finishing touches to his upcoming exhibition, “LOVENEVERENDING.” The show is supported by Advancing Black Arts Pittsburgh, a partnership with The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments, and will debut October 7 at BoxHeart Expressions in Bloomfield.
He uses both studio spaces to constantly reignite his passion for painting, but admits he finds inspiration from a multitude of avenues and persons from jazz to funk to classical artists like Botticelli to his first love “the pencil on paper.”
“I’m always going to have an element of drawing in my work,” said Riley. “I think there’s something very romantic, very sexy about drawing.”
Riley is direct in the explanations of his multilayered creative process and discusses himself with a zen-like poise. Going as far as to tell a humble and charming story about a former student whose report on Jacob Lawrence turned out to be the catalyst for his upcoming show.
“When this particular student did this report, it was like a lightbulb went off and I started seeing [Jacob] Lawrence in a different light,” he said.
He admits that his time teaching has helped him avoid the pitfalls that plague an artist’s motivation. He cites the value in being authentic and understanding who you are, even going as far as admitting he doesn’t offer his students any straight forward advice instead he tells them to “be authentic.”
“You’re allowed to evolve but you have to keep asking yourself who you are and what do you want to say. And hopefully, you’ll be blessed to have an audience that wants to walk with you.”
It is a question that current Perry Hilltop resident, Rebecca Girman is trying to answer herself.
Her project “Autopiano” aims to take an early 20th century player piano and turn it into a self-playing digital art composition. So far the undertaking has been burdensome.
“[The] hope is that being a functional [piano] we can retrofit it in some capacity. The idea of operating it via a digital interface or some interface between physical and digital,” said Girman. “It has some of the elements of computing but does not have the capability to write or rewrite programming. It can execute code essentially with how the piano rolls work.”
Despite the intricate troubleshooting of her project Girman still has a youthful giddiness about her. She enthusiastically shares short tangents about her past careers as a costume designer, her current job at the Children’s Museum’s MAKESHOP, her upbringing in Alaska and how she had to clean “peanut shells and mouse poop” out of the piano when she first purchased it. Her quirky and curious nature bubbles over as she explains her fascination with taking things apart and seeing how they work.
“Understanding component systems as a part of a design have always been something that has really drawn me – the human influence of creating the things around us,” she said. “I think it is fun to know how these things work. I think it is fun to understand how those things are put together and it is fun to know how to be able to do that.”
Yet, as intelligent as Girman is when it comes to designing interfaces (she built her first website in fifth grade) she’s the first to admit she’s not quite sure where the project is going.
The idea began a year ago after a conversation with academic colleague Joe Holt brought about the piano’s purchase. She knows the general concept she’d like to explore with the project but she’s unsure of the process admitting life has gotten in the way a bit.
However, the flexibility and understanding that Radiant Hall offers her is something that encourages her to push forward on the project.
“Having a space to kind of dedicate to a specific project is something I haven’t really had since I was an undergrad. Just having a space to know that is where I can do this work – not just have my tools but be in the mindset and be surrounded by other art and artists – it makes a big difference,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to work on this without having a space like this.”
Szaboc acknowledges the value of resources like Radiant Hall especially in a location like Nova Place, “It is kind of unique to have artists in a space like this, in a building that is mostly offices and businesses with people who wouldn’t normally look at the arts. It is important to have this type of presence.”
It is a satiric scene on the first floor of Tower 1 at Nova Place – surrounded by businessmen, construction and commerce – a group of artists are going to work.
For more information on Radiant Hall and their Nova Place location visit their website.