Picture of a building in Wilkinsburg

Concrete Ideas and Paper Architecture: Artists Looking for Buildings in the Big City

This is a love story about two women looking for the right match. For months, Pittsburgh artists Joey Behrens and Haylee Ebersole have been on the hunt for a commercial building they could transform into an artist residency and home. It is an ambitious plan fraught with bureaucratic and financial hurdles. Considering the guts and gumption of these two protagonists, this story is worth hearing from the beginning.

Artistic dreams that trump the nightmare of bureaucratic and financial obstacles are infectious and inspiring. There are many interesting and quirky success stories in Pittsburgh to emulate, starting with Jennifer Beals’s industrial-sized single gal apartment and rehearsal space in Flashdance (1983). Haylee Ebersole’s former studio was located in The Mine Factory, an art collective and exhibition space housed in a 4,000 square foot former mine safety equipment factory in the Homewood/North Point Breeze area. The Mine Factory opened last year after a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, a cultural phenomenon that in the last half decade has offered ebullient hope for making pie-in-the-sky projects a reality. Brick and mortar banks now seem imposing, old fashioned, and sluggish by comparison.

UnSmoke Systems Artspace in Braddock, PA.
UnSmoke Systems Artspace in Braddock, Pennsylvania.

UnSmoke Systems Artspace, the site of Ebersole’s current studio, is another local Pittsburgh example. Housed in a former Catholic school situated across the street from the Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock (the gritty real-life setting of the 2013 film Out of the Furnace), its classrooms have become individual art studios and the building provides space for gallery exhibitions and events. The Mine Factory’s and UnSmoke Systems’ repurposed buildings are elegantly down-at-the-heels industrial hives of contemporary art practice. Behrens and Ebersole’s story is just beginning—the “before” to such successful accounts of artists living and working in reclaimed spaces, a narrative arc that Joey and Haylee now seek to emulate in their own way.

Joey Behrens and Haylee Ebersole.
Joey Behrens and Haylee Ebersole.

Joey Behrens received her BFA in painting and drawing from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City where she practiced as an artist for several years, discovering printmaking and working with the non-profit cooperative Saltgrass Printmakers before attending graduate school at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. After completing her MFA at OU this spring, she moved to Pittsburgh—or the ”Burgh,” as it is lovingly known. It is a colorful, creative city of steep hills and incomprehensible traffic laws that has escaped homogenization—an affordable, almost-East-Coast alternative to New York City. For all of its grit, Pittsburgh has a small town congeniality that makes the art scene less “dog eat dog” and more “let’s go out for hot dogs.”

There is a whole contingent of artists from OU migrating east to Pittsburgh like a wagon train of old friends, buying inexpensive houses that need a lot of work, and settling down in the spunky independent borough of Wilkinsburg. Constituting approximately 16,000 people and maintaining its own government, Wilkinsburg’s downtown is a ragged time capsule of Americana. The neighborhood has beautiful old mansions that are crumbling or boarded up, at least one church for sale, and a ban on bars since 1870; the whole thing is bisected by an elevated busway that looks like a massive castle wall.

South Avenue in Wilkinsburg, PA.
South Avenue in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania.

While the borough’s commercial area was once a destination location for elegant shopping, today it resembles other American downtowns that are making do in the face of adversity. Like Pittsburgh proper, Wilkinsburg’s population shrank by fifty percent in the last half of the twentieth century, largely the result of the steel industry’s collapse. Its tax base has suffered and led to blight. There is, however, a resurgence of initiative-fueled energy in the area, with young people finding affordable homes to buy, historic renovations continually underway, and community gardens thriving. The Landmarks Preservation Resource Center, a branch of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, resides there in the renovated Packard Building on Rebecca Avenue—a showroom for luxury Packard automobiles between 1945 and 1958—which now hosts programs on home ownership and do-it-yourself restoration. They offer step-by-step expertise from preliminary funding all the way through to post-architectural restoration for low- and moderate-income urban communities, making this an ideal artist resource.

Corner of Wood Street and Franklin Avenue in Wilkinsburg, PA. A mural by Kyle Holbrook adorns the side of a building.
Corner of Wood Street and Franklin Avenue in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. A mural by Kyle Holbrook adorns the side of a building.

After completing her MFA at OU in Athens, Behrens headed to Pittsburgh largely because so many of her colleagues made it sound like paradise. Haylee Ebersole had moved to Wilkinsburg in 2013 to live with friends from Ohio University—Marit Aagaard, Jeff Lovett, and Ebersole’s partner John Sanders—in a large, just-enough-rehabbed home filled with friends, animals, and communal artisanal dinners; the entire first floor is dedicated to their studio spaces. Behrens moved into the bustling Wilkinsburg home as a generous, yet temporary, way station, importing her idea that something big had to follow graduate school.

Ebersole had been Behrens’s roommate at Ohio University, where she, like Behrens, also earned her MFA. Ebersole is a cheerful twenty-something go-getter who has been making art while working various part-time jobs to survive in Pittsburgh since finishing graduate school. Jobs in the arts are almost never well paid, but these are the kind of positions that you get when starting out: working at an independent fashion boutique and a contemporary gallery space, or as an attendant at the Andy Warhol Museum. It is brutal trying to make ends meet by working multiple part-time jobs and still conserve enough time and energy to continue making art on a professional level. This year Ebersole had a highly-touted exhibition at 707 Gallery, one of the entities of Wood Street Galleries, and she will get to devote three solidly uninterrupted months next year to artmaking during two residencies—one this spring in Iceland followed by another at the Vermont Art Center. Recently, Ebersole was able to quit her multiple part-time jobs to work full-time at Sapling Press, a letterpress studio in Lawrenceville. Admittedly, it is assembly line work but she gets to spend her days among printmakers and designers whom she admires, and go home to a house full of artists and urban pioneers.

Porous Sediments. Haylee Ebersole. 2014. Installation view. Dehydrated gelatin, various forms cast from an array of plastic storage containers and bins.
Haylee Ebersole, Porous Sediments, 2014. Dehydrated gelatin, various forms cast from an array of plastic storage containers and bins.

One banner day, someone tied a handsome puppy, whose paws announced he was destined to be a giant, to the front porch of their Wilkinsburg house and left a bag of inexpensive “Bistro” brand dog food. It was the modern equivalent of leaving a baby in a basket and evidence that this household is known for opening its doors. Lovett and Aargaard already own two good-sized dogs and Ebersole has two cats, so Behrens was the ideal candidate to adopt “Bistro,” as they named him. Having lost a much-loved dog to cancer before starting graduate school, it was a positive nudge for Behrens. Bistro was an enthusiastic “yes” to her future in Pittsburgh. Thanks to the help of her friends, she could adopt Bistro and still go on her own artist residency in India this fall.

Bistro the dog.
Bistro the dog.

Behrens walks Bistro everyday around Wilkinsburg and surveys the buildings. For the last decade, in fact, she has been looking at buildings attentively. Her artist website is like a valentine to every building she has encountered, captured in numerous ways and multiple media: prints, drawing, paintings, and in sculptural encasements worn and carried over distances by foot as performance art, not unlike a snail carrying its shell. This summer she thought about these spaces as becoming her own full-scale, multivalent endeavor—a home and an artist residency that would give her a more active role in the art community—despite the obvious start-up challenges.

Behrens still has a home in Salt Lake City that she rents and the sale of this house would help fund her new project. She began talking to Ebersole about her idea to buy a commercial building and, as in former graduate school days, sharing ideas with her artist friend helped solidify her vision. By the end of the summer, the two women had decided to collaborate as partners and share the costs and benefits.

Wilkinsburg, PA. Photograph by Joey Behrens.
Abandoned house in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Joey Behrens.

Ebersole already had been looking to buy an inexpensive home in Wilkinsburg but felt unsure about it, in part because the wildly affordable Vacant Property Recovery Program can be a red herring; it keeps the condition of these properties a mystery to the prospective buyer. Nor can one legally access the interiors to see how much damage has occurred while sitting vacant, so there is no possibility of getting a contractor’s repair estimate. The program requires that you prove you have the funds necessary to rehab the property, but most of the houses in the program have been left moldering, sometimes taking on rain or being looted. The financial risk of buying a property that needs complete roof-to-basement construction is terrifying for just one person.

Suddenly, it seemed more sensible for Ebersole to pool resources with Behrens and search for a commercial building that could accommodate an affordable living situation, as well as an exciting artistic vision. The two immersed themselves, not just in “blue sky” dreaming of the ideal residency space, but also in tailoring their vision to practical legalities. While Ebersole had to work, Behrens attended “how-to” classes at the University of Pittsburgh’s Small Business Development Center in September. Behrens will soon attend a workshop on how to write a business plan and hopefully work with an adviser to draft a successful proposal.

One day while walking Bistro, Behrens found a great downtown location just a block or so from home. Both she and Ebersole thought it was perfect: storefronts that would work well as studio and exhibition spaces, plus two upper floors to use as apartments for themselves and their visiting artists. Its ground floor interior was clearly visible and, since the upstairs was currently inhabited, it was obvious this building would only require a limited investment in construction to get it up and running. The problem with the building, however, is that someone owns it. As Behrens wrote in a recent project proposal, “for one to claim space, another must concede it.” The artists remained hopeful, though, since the bottom level was unused space. How much money would be required to coax the owner to sell while there are still renters upstairs?

Just before Behrens left in late September for her residency in India, she spotted painters transforming the building’s facade and has to assume a business is moving in downstairs. She may have to find another dream location. Recently Ebersole shifted gears, too. She found a vacant house that works for her individual budget and has had to pull out from the collaborative idea while she works with WesBanco and the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation to try to finance her own home. She still wants to be involved with networking, marketing, and writing grant proposals for the art space, but the weight now lies on Behrens entirely to finance the project.

Meanwhile, Behrens is in Mumbai, India on a two-month artist residency through the Cona Foundation, followed by one month of independent travel to areas outside the urban capital. Initially crafted as a Fulbright Grant proposal, the project extends Behrens’s ongoing obsession with architecture to yet another level. You see, Behrens is interested in the idea of “inclusive urbanism,” where all strata of society have a welcome place in a city. Exploring the tension of that idealistic concept overseas, she is investigating the extreme competition for space in India’s overpopulated and congested cities and, in particular, the street hawker as public figure. The methods these business people use to claim space, and the conflicts that often ensue, illustrate larger issues that she plans to convey through her artwork. Indeed, the idea of a seller with a mobile cart dovetails neatly with her 2013 performance Architecture Embodied in which people wore three-dimensional prints in the shape of houses, architectural shells they carried over a mile’s distance. Cona Foundation will provide Behrens with a space to reside temporarily, make art, and embed herself and her work in the local culture.

These are Things. Joey Behrens. 2014.
Joey Behrens, These are Things, 2014.

Behrens is in a land known for its Buddhist philosophy and she seems to be taking a philosophical tack. She recently wrote to me saying that a certain constellation of stars would need to align for this specific vision to succeed, and she knows she will have to adapt her vision to whatever opportunities may arise. I, for one, look forward to finding out what exactly those circumstances will be. Behrens seems to have the right mix of ambition, stick-to-it-iveness, and the ability to let things unfold in their own way. Certainly her vision will be on a different scale as other local examples—a storefront rather than a warehouse—but it will also fill a distinct role in the community and draw a continual influx of visiting artists.

Stay tuned. Let’s let Behrens come back from India and see what happens. I promise to check back in with Ebersole, too, as she buys a house and relocates her studio, travels to Iceland, and continues to support her friend’s art space. These two artists may have decided to buy separate buildings but, as contributors to Wilkinsburg’s cultural currency, they are completely intertwined.

This article originally appeared on Arthopper, a project of the Foundation for New Creative Projects, which seeks to provide high quality arts journalism in the Greater Lake Erie region in specific cities including Cleveland, Columbus, Akron, Cincinnati, Dayton, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Toledo, and Youngstown.