Photo by Neil Strebig
Randyland creator, Randy Gilson, takes time to paint a new road sign for his colorful map display along 1501 Arch St. in Central Northside. Gilson started the expansive art project over 30 years ago and continues to add to the collection with new projects like “Thinkerers.”
By Neil Strebig
That’s Randy Gilson in a nutshell. He’s a firecracker of optimism. He embodies positivity. He conquers the unknown. If creativity was a drug, he’d be a pusher.
“If things make you happy in a certain way don’t be afraid to absorb it. Absorb it and let it be your teacher. It teaches you something about yourself,” Gilson said.
Gilson, 59, is the creator of Randyland, a fabled Northside attraction located in the heart of Central Northside’s Mexican War Streets. His abstract, self-described “folk art” has become a staple in the community.
“It is an image now. Before it was just a journey,” he said.
The vibrant colors, the insanity of recycling garbage into art and the overwhelming presence of Gilson’s larger-than-life personality create a culmination of beauty. Randyland is world-renowned for its abstract art forms, but the true meaning of Randyland can be found in Gilson.
The concept of self-expression, self-confidence and giving back to your community are all virtues’ that today’s society may over look. Yet, to Gilson a self-described “crazy old fart,” all of this comes as second nature.
Take his newest creations, ‘Thinkerers,’ which are hand-painted slate roof shingles Gilson collected and turned into faces. Some look cosmic, some resemble tribal witch doctors, festive masks and others are just regular faces. Together all of these shingles can make a roof, completing the construction of a house. Gilson’s message; we’re all different, but we’re all connected.
“Open your heart. You need to love yourself,” Gilson said before adding one of his many ‘Randyisms.’ “If you want your battery to run, make yourself happy.”
Despite having a troubled childhood, an impoverished adolescence and young adulthood growing up in Homestead, Gilson still found time to be happy, thankful, and most importantly, himself.
He never questioned his direction. Instead he has continued to live through impulse, most of which has driven him to help restore his neighborhood and city. Moving to Northside in 1978, Gilson boldly confirms the birth of Randyland in 1982 at 410 N. Taylor Ave., which was also the day he says he became an “activist.”
Gilson began picking up local trash and turning it into art projects. He began to help create gardens in the neighborhood. Today the Old Allegheny Gardens Society boasts over 800 projects and Gilson’s home attracts 300-400 visitors a day.
How can an impoverished child turn into a hurricane of hope?
“If you wear the coats that people give you, you become the product of what they say. Don’t wear the coats those people give you, you shrink and you shrink. Never ever let anyone tell you about you.”
Gilson is the personification of paying it forward. He reminisces about a young, homeless man named, Josh Freyermoth, whom he met after seeing the man visit his art gallery for three straight days.
“I took Josh in. I put a paintbrush in his hand. He ended up being with me for eight hours that day. I taught him how to paint four, five different designs that day, which we conquered.”
Despite Freyermoth’s past heroin troubles, Gilson never doubted, never second-guessed himself when it came to helping him. Instead he gave him an “opportunity to express himself” a “chance to find himself.”
“The kid needed to feel loved. He needed to feel respected. He needed to feel something. We all need to feel something. That something is different for every person,” Gilson added.
The craziest part of this story is incidences like Freyermoth’s are a normal occurrence for Gilson. He isn’t your typical feel-good, 5 p.m. news story. He’s more like a Disney character, forever inspiring your imagination.
An old marble, wood and velvet bar sits in the middle of his work station. Elephants stare blankly at the end of the bar, Gilson leans in with excitement asking, “You know what that is?”
“It is the Elephant Bar from the Holiday House,” Gilson shouts.
He plans on taking a piece of Pittsburgh and local Italian folklore and turning it back into not just art but something alive again. He excitingly recalls the amount of history in the dusty old piece of furniture; comparing the old Monroeville Inn to the likes of Atlantic City or Disneyland. He’s like a child retelling family stories that sparked pride and imagination. Gilson’s possession of the Elephant Bar is just another example of who he is and what he stands for.
It isn’t a trash to treasure ideal, it is a memory. He doesn’t want the Elephant Bar because it is nostalgic, he saw it and knew he had to have it because he knew people needed to remember it.
“The Holiday House covered all that. It was a giant entertainment area.”
Yet even as he invents captivating time capsules, the reality is that even at his age he cannot work forever. The hyper-optimist admits he’s pondered the idea of selling Randyland to concentrate on smaller projects and promoting the art scene in his adopted Northside.
“The sad thing is this, the reality of non-profits is they are very competitive and they don’t always share their toys. If I give Randyland to a particular organization that means that maybe Randyland might not be what I want it to be. I want this to be an outreach center for just art and good things to happen.”
It is a surprising remark for a man who echoes joy with each syllable, but similar to his art there’s a deeper meaning. It isn’t that Gilson aims to discredit nonprofit organizations, it is that he loves his art and his community so much. He wants them to continuously share the joy they’ve helped him create.
“Every day is a blessing,” Gilson said as he adamantly proclaims the greatest people he has ever met are residents of the Northside.
“Northside is going to make Pittsburgh proud,” he added. “It is a bonfire right now, getting ready to explode. The thing about the Northside is we’re stuck between a river and a mountain. It is a small, cute village. It is a wonderful place of creative individuals that have kept her alive by being here and building hope. It is the diversity of the community that really made it beautiful for me.”
That’s what Randy Gilson stands for. He isn’t an artist. He isn’t doing any of this to get his name out there. He does all this because he wants to. He wants to share his passion for life, for the greater good, for love and prosperity.
“The testimony of an underdog is someone that was supposed to fail because the world doesn’t always give you a hug,” Gilson said.
Randyland is located on 1501 Arch Street and is free, but donations are welcome.For more information visit the official website.