City of Asylum: Meet the New Neighbors
Creative, quirky and caring, Pittsburgh’s Sampsonia Way is also the international Main Street for the City of Asylum program for writers, making sure the pen stays mightier than the sword.
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North Side residents Henry Gonzales (front), originally from Venezuela, and Daniel Finely, from the Czech Republic, gather at Buena Vista Coffee.
Photo by Martha Rial
A New Life
While each artist arrives with an assurance of two years’ welcome, many further extend their stays on Sampsonia Way as they make a new home there. That’s partly an acknowledgement of the difficulties of making a living in a new society.
“Our writers must gain financial independence without interfering with the ability to write, or we fail. Ours is not a visiting-artist program,” explains Reese. “It’s potentially a new life.”
Banks agrees. He says city asylum programs throughout the country, which now include L.A. and Miami, need flexibility for success, and he credits Reese and Samuels with the “dedication and stubbornness” that make COA/P a national model: “It absolutely wouldn’t have happened without them. I know the kind of energy it takes, having worked with other people and other countries. To my amazement, year in and year out, they keep expanding, making it more coherent. It has their personalities.”
Meanwhile, the Mattress Factory, long welcoming to international artists, has found ways to collaborate with the talent outside its door. The museum featured work by Than Htay Maung in a recent “Gestures” exhibit. And in May, the museum will open “Neighbo(u)rhood,” an exhibit inspired in part by its Irish curator’s visits to the North Side.
While living on nearby North Taylor Street during a Mattress Factory residency, Dubliner Georgina Jackson was struck by the contradictions of the museum’s surroundings. “A neighborhood is a way of considering how we relate to other people—the friend, the enemy,” says the young curator.
Samuels (along with Dawn Weleski) will represent Pittsburgh in the international show and has taken the street itself as a subject. In her ongoing exploration of the physical street surface, with its striations and cracks, she has created more than 5,800 digital images mounted in glass tiles to map the surface of the street and has created paper-pulp impressions of its texture.
“As an artist, I’m committed to this street. It’s a focus in my own practice,” she says of the latest extension of the six-year project.
Meanwhile, COA/P expects to welcome a Kenyan writer as a short-term visitor this spring and is currently seeking referrals for the next exiled writer.
And Reese envisions a new life for three abandoned properties around the corner on Monterey Street—a former bar, a vacant lot and an adjoining row house—for a public space for local artists. The proposed literary center would include a café, bookstore and spaces for readings.
For the glass-enclosed courtyard that would replace the vacant lot, artist Samuels has already designed a protective grillwork that entwines handwritten letters contributed by writers, visitors, volunteers and neighbors. That’s appropriate, she says, because “we write it together.”
Christine O’Toole is a feature and travel writer based in Pittsburgh. She wrote “Great Places to Work” for the October 2010 issue.