Photo by Donnie Mangino
By Donnie Mangino
A collection of painted mannequin heads, a row of brightly painted wooden doors, beds of thriving flowers and plants, swirls of color on every surface. From the outside it appears to be confused artistic chaos, but on the inside there is an unmistakable method behind the madness.
At the center of his artistic universe, donning paint spattered t-shirt and pair of jeans, is Randy Gilson, progenitor and mastermind behind the illustrious Randyland. Home to Gilson, Randyland is an outdoor public art display located in the Mexican War Streets, and according to the project’s website: “Pittsburgh’s most colorful landmark.”
Gilson’s artistic efforts for the community began in 1982 with the Old Allegheny Garden Society. Using the only unemployment funds he collected, Gilson invested in old whiskey barrels, which he filled with dirt and flowers, and then placed each whiskey barrel around the Mexican War Streets in an effort to beautify the place he calls home.
Gilson is a testament of self-reinvention through art. Originally from Homestead, Gilson comes from a “broken” family of six children. With flunking grades, and a perpetual feeling of worthlessness, Gilson was at an extremely low place as a young boy. However, at the age of nine Gilson said that he looked in the mirror and told himself: “I’m not alone. I’m okay. I’ve got myself. I’m going to pick myself up, mentor myself.”
His motto was to “do good,” one of the many lessons instilled in him by his mother who was a minister. Gilson used his creativity as a means to enrich his life by enriching the lives of others first. As a boy, Gilson would cut his neighbors’ lawns, crafting their hedges into snakes, castles, and other objects. He would also recycle toys thrown out by his neighbors and refurbish them for his siblings.
“I taught myself to re-purpose, reuse, recycle,” Gilson said.
Around the nation are projects similar to Randyland. Stretching half a block on Philadelphia’s famous South Street, Magic Gardens is an outdoor art installation crafted with nontraditional materials like found objects, glass bottles, and bicycle wheels. Magic Gardens originated from Isaiah Zagar in the 1960s as a means to beautify the South Street neighborhood. According to artist’s website, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens “values community, believes in inspiring others, and to maintain a safe space that embraces diversity of culture.”
Similarly, The Heidelberg Project in Detroit, Michigan, was created by artist Tyree Guyton and designed to enhance the ongoing decay in the neighborhood in which he grew up. Found on the project’s website, Heidelberg’s mission is to “inspire people to appreciate and use artistic expression to enrich their lives and to improve the social and economic health of their greater community.”
Gilson’s creation is similar to The Heidelberg Project in Detroit and Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens because the projects focus on reinvention through artistry. All three artists observed their internal and external situations and transformed them through an explosion of color and positivity.
Gilson didn’t succumb to defeat, but cultivated and transformed his reality into living artwork. Gilson translated his darkness into the bright colors and imagination of Randyland.
“I’m leaving a trophy for Pittsburgh,” Gilson said.
Randyland is more than outdoor art-installation, but a living statement that growth and life can be found within decay. According to Randy, “because somebody thinks of it one way, there still may be another and a third and fourth way of growing, achieving, zigging, and zagging.”