Northside virtousi share their stories and inspirations
By: Neil Strebig
On most days fashion photographer Chancelor Humphrey admits he doesn’t have a plan. He’ll wake up, grab his T2i Cannon Rebel, leave the comfortable confines of his East Deutschtown apartment, plug his headphones in and hike across the David McCullough Bridge in search of inspiration. His motivation resides in the simplest of callings; he’s compelled to “be in the streets.”
On the corners of Forbes, Sixth, Liberty and Penn he’ll find his muses.
They vary from college students with frizzy hair and neon-colored crop tops to the forty-year-olds stoop sitting with torn jeans and tight-pressed button downs – each sporting a fresh brand of individualism.
“I just felt like there was a void here with street photography and I just kind of jumped into it,” said Humphrey.
Humphrey is the creator behind the “Keep Pittsburgh Dope” Instagram account. Humphrey’s “jump” was inspired by multiple trips to New York City where he witnessed a number of photographers create a brand for themselves capturing the streets fashions around the Big Apple and sharing it on social media.
Since the creation of “Keep Pittsburgh Dope” in 2014, his account has gained nearly 20,000 followers and he may very well be the city’s most well-known street photographer, but don’t tell him that. The self-taught Humphrey is modest, still believing “there are plenty of photographers that do it better than I do.” Yet, there’s a remote sense of angst in his words as he finishes with “there’s always something to chase, to get better.”
Humphrey’s passion is fashion. He’s fueled by a desire to capture Pittsburgh’s fashionistas and force the world to recognize the Steel City isn’t just a ragtag bunch of jersey-wearing Yinzers.
He is one of five Northside artists, whose creative pulses are spreading a newfangled epidemic through their Pittsburgh neighborhoods and beyond.
There’s Ramon Riley, a Braddock native and Allegheny Center transplant who works double duty as a Pine-Richland teacher and also as the studio director at Radiant Hall Nova Place. He’s using his studio space and his classroom as launch pads for social discourse.
There’s Damon Young, a Mexican War Streets transplant from East Liberty who left academia to invest in himself as a content producer. His driving force? A creative fight-or-flight scenario forced him to lean on his understanding of language and diction successfully establishing a culturally relevant website in the process.
Marshall-Shadeland’s Corey Carrington, a self-described “renaissance man” who’s dabbled in everything from journalism to poetry to visual arts; he’s motivated largely by new ways to express himself, push society forward and inspire younger generations with his work and collaborations.
And lastly Willy James, a chipper, upstart videographer from Historic Deutschtown, whose connection with his audience keeps the camera stapled to his hand.
Each of them has their own story, their own style, their own perception of what an artist is and each has left an impact outside of their respective Northside neighborhoods.
“I think how I would describe an artist is completely different than the standard I have for myself,” said Riley. “I would describe an artist as anyone who is paying attention.”
Riley often uses still photographs as the source of initial reference and inspiration, then adds a variety of watercolor, oil paints and laser-cut renderings to compile colorful compositions that reflect his culture and heritage. His tranquil personality resonates with his art; pulling the audience in and inviting them to have an open-minded conversation about life, love and the pursuit of passion.
Riley doesn’t want people to “just see my point-of-view.” He hopes they can relate to the images, the short stories he attaches to each of his pieces and can feel a “connection and shared experiences.”
His most recent exhibit LOVENEVERENDING, which ran from October 3 thru November 10 at BoxHeart Expressions in Bloomfield, featured a number of local businesses in the Northside and E. Liberty neighborhoods including Allegheny West’s Carmi. Riley shared a story of when Carleen King, co-owner of Carmi visited his exhibit and saw the Carmi-inspired piece, “Chicken and Waffles.” A majority of the audience that night had neither seen nor stepped foot in the soul food restaurant and they were aghast at her reaction and the positive sentiments she shared towards the piece. For Riley, it “validated” his work.
“I heard someone once say, in order to make a universal statement you need to think locally,” said Riley. “I tried to make a universal statement but use my local resources.”
It’s with those local resources that Riley has found his home not just in his personal art, but also with his students at Pine-Richland, where he admits “I see their struggle and I see myself in them.” He’s made an investment as an artist, helping his audience and his students value empathy.
“I wish other people saw that value and that we should stop putting so much emphasis on the bank account as wealth because that is probably the basis of many of our struggles, problems and lack of confidence as minorities,” said Riley. “That feeling of how to obtain wealth, and I think I’ve found the formula and that is in service.”
The formula varies from artist to artist, but the schmaltz to cause an impact on an audience remains. For Damon Young, he found a national voice before he became a household name in his hometown.
“We were known nationally before we were known in Pittsburgh,” said Young who is a founding member of the website, Very Smart Brothas (VSB).
According to Young, VSB started off as a blog focused primarily on relationships, dating and sex. Young and Panama Jackson, his friend and fellow writer, launched the site in 2008. As the site grew so did the pair’s approach to content. Soon the site evolved into a cultural blog.
The transformation was both “organic” and at times “intentional” but Young is still very humble about the gradual transformation of something that started off as a chance. Something Young originally started as a “resume builder” has evolved into a fixture for African-American culture. Young recognized that the site has the potential for readers to “recognize there’s a space for blackness, honesty and self-awareness.”
“I think it is a space for free black thought,” said Young on the current state of VSB.
Before VSB, Young was working at Duquesne University and he found himself at a professional crossroads. He faced a choice between a financially stable life in academia or a riskier position as a blogger and writer, that offered a single perk – creative freedom.
“One of the reasons why I chose to do the writing thing full-time was because I knew that if I was able to be successful with this then there wouldn’t be a ceiling. Whereas with teaching, with working in a college office there would be a ceiling on what I would be able to do,” said Young.
When Young was relieved of his position at Duquesne the opportunity to dive into writing full-time came calling, albeit he admits “sometimes you need to be pushed into the water. I probably wouldn’t have jumped in.”
Since his departure from academia, VSB has become a fixture for black culture and was purchased by the Gizmodo Media Group in June. But the success is no fluke. He speaks with a quiet arrogance. He’s aware of his intellect and he’s confident in his abilities as a writer and as a content producer. That self-assurance is the byproduct of years spent working in a feast or famine scenario. He was forced to be creative and bluntly admits a portion of this prosperity was “because my livelihood is dependent on it.”
“For a long period of time my income was directly correlated at my output so when you recognize writing this piece for GQ, The Root or whoever is the difference between a late cell phone payment, a late car insurance payment or not, then that has a way of motivating you,” said Young.
The need to hustle is a necessary evil for any aspiring artist. And like Young, Carrington also understands that feast or famine approach, admitting it has taken him time to find a comfortable zone between creativeness and financial security.
Carrington has spent a large amount of his 15-year career exploring various avenues of the creative world. Initially a journalism student at Slippery Rock University, he began to develop a greater interest in creative language, diving into poetry and even took up the moniker, “Grits Capone” and began performing as a spoken-word artist at the now closed Shadow Lounge in E. Liberty.
His nontraditional trajectory has given him the “opportunity to be vulnerable.” Something he believes his supporters appreciates and understand.“They’ve seen my rise. They’ve seen it as a gradual and they’ve seen that I haven’t given up.”
Most recently, Carrington curated the “Electric Kool-Aid” exhibit at Brew House Association in South Side. It was a collection of Afro-futurism and Afro-surrealism pieces from various artists that Carrington, personally selected for the show. According to Carrington arts administration positions like this have offered him stability and the “perfect opportunity” to merge all of his experiences and passions into one.
With his extensive list of titles, Carrington has seen first-hand how difficult it can be to maintain financial security as an artist. He understands it is “hard to make money as an artist.” This was his rationale to first start painting; it originally was a way to monetize his performances as Grits Capone.
“If people like the poetry, they can buy the artwork and they can support me in another way,” Carrington said in regards to his development as a painter.
For Carrington, art isn’t about the money, but it is attached to one’s image. As a mentor, Carrington has found it difficult to influence young, impoverished students because the art world has a reputation for being a notoriously disenfranchised profession. To him, the perception of wealth can be distorted in the eyes of many students and steers them away from participating in the arts.
“Everyone thinks exposure is the most important currency,” said Carrington. “If I can’t feed myself, no one is going to respect that.”
Carrington admits that “one of the most important reasons” of why he performs and invests in the arts is to give back to the arts community, especially for children regardless of their socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds.
“They need to see people like me, doing things that are cool and I look like someone that they can look up too.”
Yet, for Humphrey’s and James a large part of their successes have hinged on exposure – both their audiences and their incomes rest largely on social media. Humphrey’s Instagram “Keep Pittsburgh Dope” is both his passion and in many ways, it is his working portfolio.
“The Instagram [account] has opened a lot of doors to make a living,” said Humphrey.
Humphrey’s usage of social media led to a collaboration with Huffington Post, a moment Humphrey referred to as a “gamechanger.” The online publication became aware of his skill set and reached out to him via Twitter, about an opportunity to write a guest column discussing his photography and the fashion scene in Pittsburgh. He jests how he originally wasn’t going to share the article on social media, but his girlfriend talked him into it.
Humphrey acknowledged he’s always “felt a responsibility” to represent Pittsburgh’s fashion scene and remarked that the Huffington Post was a slice of affirmation he’s on the right track.
“It was really inspiring to see that many people care about our city,” said Humphrey in regards to the article’s response. However, despite the success he’s accumulated thus far in his career he admits a seed of doubt creeps into his mind from time to time due to the fragile shelf-life of previous social media platforms like MySpace.
“I’m waiting for that day,” said Humphrey. “That’s my fear, that Instagram will be whack one day.”
As a result, Humphrey is always striving for something “tangible.” Something he can lean on in case that fear becomes a reality. Currently, he offers a special one-on-one session for interested parties he calls “30 for 30.” That quest has also led to the creation of “Creatives Drink.” A free pop-up networking event he co-created with local artist Cody Baker.
Like Humphrey, filmmaker Willie James also needs to rely on social media to maximize his audience. Yet the surplus of streaming apps and fickle nature of today’s content consumer doesn’t frighten the self-taught videographer. He views the buffet of social media apps at his disposal in this day and age as a Godsend.
“This is the time to be in,” said James. “Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat, all those things are blowing up now and those are ideal places for filmmakers to put out their work. You put your work where the attention is and now there are more avenues than ever for filmmakers to showcase their stuff.”
James has made a career thus far of ‘putting himself in that spot.’ His videos are built around a next-door ideology. He films from a first-person point of view, speaking directly at the camera, yanking the audience into the action with him, whether it is the Anthrocon or a trip to local Northside favorite, Gus & Yaya’s.
“I’m only doing it for the small group of people who are watching my work,” said James. “It also shows what’s going on in the city and it puts me out there. I just love living that lifestyle.”
For James, he honors his neighborhood, his community and his neighbors. He wants to showcase that personal value first and foremost in the hopes that more and more eyes are drawn towards what he loves and perceives as fun. It’s something he refers to as the “sandbox effect.”
“Everyone has their own sandbox and if you make it look fun in your sandbox people will come over to your sandbox and want to have fun with you,” said James.
That communal intimacy is fluid throughout his videos. It’s as apparent as the conviction behind Young’s voice. It rivals Humphrey and Riley’s lucid abilities to capture and captivate. Yet, perhaps Carrington’s own description of an artist characterizes the talents of these five Northsiders best.
“I think an artist is someone who is able to accurately express themselves and people either listen, consume it or want to be a part of it,” said Carrington. “It is understanding you have a talent that’s innately in you and knowing that you have to do it. But you’re also doing it because you understand this is bigger than you.”