The ceramic pigeons made by Northside artists Linda Wallen and Ingrid Nagin have become an icon of Spring Hill and its immigrant history.
Photo: Artists Linda Wallen and Ingrid Nagin are teaming up with Elizabeth Bashur, owner of Spring Hill’s Little House Big Art, to create and sell clay pigeons as a fundraiser for the Spring Hill Civic League. Courtesy of the artists
By Ashlee Green
Northside artist Linda Wallen has had pigeons on the brain for close to a decade.
Back in 2013, funded by a grant from The Charm Bracelet Project—a program sponsored by the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh—she created a mural made of mosaic tiles at the corner of Homer and Damas Streets in Spring Hill that featured the birds, a nod to the neighborhood’s German settlers and the racing pigeons many of them brought with them from Europe.
About three years later, the Community Alliance of Spring Garden East Deutschtown (CASGED) did a mural on the City steps near the Deutschtown Fire Station, and Wallen added some pigeons into it too.
Wallen then recruited Ingrid Nagin for what she calls their “attempt at graffiti,” where they were “gluing up pigeons in the stealth of night,” she says with a laugh. You can find a few of Wallen and Nagin’s rogue birds cemented onto the curb by the bus stop beside St. Ambrose Manor, at the corner of Rhine Street and Yetta Avenue.
“It was an effort to bring attention to the blight on three streets,” Wallen said, referring to Itin, Rhine, and Walz Streets. “It brings people’s attention to the state of things.”
So far, she calls it a partial success, and recalls how one time, on Itin Street, a neighbor saw her in the act and asked her what she was doing. When she told him that it was her attempt to brighten up the neighborhood, he said he was going to go pull some weeds to help out the mission.
Wallen and Nagin’s pigeon passion has only prevailed. The project’s latest iteration is too large for Wallen’s personal studio, so the artists are teaming up with Elizabeth Bashur, owner of Little House Big Art (LHBA), to create and sell the birds as a fundraiser for the Spring Hill Civic League (SHCL). Bashur has been hosting the artists along with a few community helping hands every Wednesday evening to paint new clay pigeons and give them a first firing in LHBA’s kiln. Their first batch of pigeons, the artists say, sold out in 24 hours.
“When we needed a place to work—since it wasn’t a project with funding that could merit using the [Manchester Craftsmen’s] Guild (MCG), or a church basement, or some place we’ve worked in the past—Elizabeth graciously offered her space,” Wallen says.
Bashur calls the pigeons “charming,” “colorful,” “exotic,” and “whimsical” in style. “Even in the dregs of winter, when everything is dead and gray, here are these vibrant pigeons that are part of the neighborhood,” she says.
All pigeons start out as an eight-by-eight-inch ceramic tile. Once the bird shapes are cut out and bisque fired for the first time at LHBA, they’re ready to be painted with a glaze. After the paint job, they’re transported to MCG to be vitrified, which means they’re fired again, only with a higher-temperature gas kiln, to make them like glass. This means they’re able to handle the outdoor elements of a tough Pittsburgh winter.
“Everybody’s noticing the pigeons,” Wallen says. At first, she and Nagin wanted to keep them in the neighborhood, but more recently, they’ve decided to, as Nagin says, “let them fly.” Now, the birds can be found in “England and Erie and Ohio,” Nagin says. Vermont, too.
“People—not just in the community, but in a larger sense, everybody—they respond to these pigeons in such—it’s amazing how much people love the pigeons,” Nagin says. “And each one is different.
“Anybody can paint a pigeon,” Nagin continues. “They’re somehow so democratic and forgiving.”
Wallen and Nagin give a big thanks to both LHBA and MCG: Without them, they say, the Pigeon Project wouldn’t be possible.
Ultimately, the artists want to fund a large-scale, TBD artwork for the neighborhood. Right now, though, Wallen says, they’re just “looking for walls.”
To order your own pigeons, visit the SHCL website at http://shcl.org/. They’re $25 each and available for pick up at Spring Hill Brewery. If you’d like to become a volunteer “Professional Pigeon Painter,” contact Wallen at [email protected]. You can follow the project on Instagram here.