Family Ties

Brian Brown is creating The Sprout Fund’s newest public-art mural: It's one that will depict the East Liberty community.



Artist Brian Brown stands in front of his latest work-in-progress: a portrait of the East Liberty community.

Photo by Cami Mesa

Sitting in East Liberty’s Quiet Storm cafe on an overcast, late-August afternoon, a 26-year-old artist looked perfectly content while sipping his coffee. In fact, it’s unlikely that anyone would guess that Brian Brown would start creating a family thereafter. Or that Brown’s “family” is two-dimensional and lives on a wall.

It’s one of the most recent public-art projects made possible by The Sprout Fund, a local nonprofit that funds and organizes the public art murals scattered throughout Pittsburgh. Originally a grant-making organization, Sprout Fund launched the public-art program in 2003 and has orchestrated 55 murals thus far, which are spread throughout the Pittsburgh region.

Forty to 60 artists and 15 to 20 community-organization groups apply for a mural each year. However, only six to nine mural projects are constructed annually, so The Sprout Fund selects the community, and the community then selects its artist from a narrow list provided by The Sprout Fund.

Although Curt Gettman, public-art program manager, says the mural itself is a wonderful outcome of the project, Sprout Fund hopes it’s more than just paint on the wall for community groups.

“We want the project to be about the community getting organized and bringing new members in the community group to work on a project,” Gettman says. “Our goal for the program is to make the Pittsburgh region one of the best, most livable places in the country.”

By funding the projects for the neighborhoods, The Sprout Fund hopes to empower communities to realize their goals.

A Blank Slate

Family Resources, a private nonprofit United Way partner agency, acquired the services and assets of the Parental Stress Center on March 1. With this acquisition, Family Resources, whose mission is to prevent and treat child abuse by strengthening families and neighborhoods, inherited a building with an enormous blank wall.

Andi Fischhoff, Family Resources’ development director, says the organization wanted to use the wall as a welcoming place for children and families in East Liberty.

“We wanted a wall that would resonate with who we are and say to everyone who comes into this neighborhood [that] East Liberty cares about kids and families,” says Fischhoff.

After seeking out The Sprout Fund, Family Resources sorted through a series of artists and designs after being approved for a mural. Family Resources and members of the community involved in the processwere captivated by Brown’s idea to feature community members in the mural, says Fischhoff.

In order to include East Liberty residents in his work, Brown held a photo shoot; there were about 70 participants representing various ethnicities and age groups.

“This [was] a way to energize the neighborhood and give people in the neighborhood a feeling that they are part of this history in this community and in the present and in the future,” says Fischhoff.

But not everyone you’ll see in the mural is someone currently living in East Liberty.

“One woman came over to Brian and me and said, ‘These are my grandsons, and their father is fighting in Iraq. Here is his picture. Can you put him in the mural, too, please?’ Of course, he is going to be in the mural,” says Fischoff.

The Wild Card

The mural takes some artistic license in other ways as well. For example, a streetcar turns the corner around a generic storefront. As Brown explains, this was a personal touch.

“The idea of painting a giant streetcar is the next best thing to building a streetcar,” he says.

Brown developed an If I can’t build one, I’ll paint one attitude while growing up on an airbase in Forth Worth, Texas. Instead of streetcars, however, Brown created large paintings of airplanes.

And while it was a family tradition to join the U.S Air Force, the only association Brown wanted with planes was to draw them.

Brown and his mother moved to Kalkaska, Mich., during his freshman year of high school. Although he wasn’t the type of kid who knew the difference between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and which one Monet fell under, Brown developed an interest in art.

After graduating from high school, a musician offered Brown money to create an album cover, which was when Brown realized he enjoyed the artist’s lifestyle. A few weeks later, Brown started his first semester at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Mich., later earning a distinguished award upon graduation.

From there, Brown enrolled in Carnegie Mellon University’s M.F.A. program and finished his studies in May. However, Brown says he was never viewed as an artist.

“Art is kind of a wild card for me. It wasn’t my plan to do this—it just kind of all worked out,” says Brown.

Now, others can see Brown’s wild card through the faces of the East Liberty community.

(The Sprout Fund: 5423 Penn Ave., East Liberty; 412/325-0646, publicart.sproutfund.org. Family Resources: 5877 Commerce St., East Liberty; 412/363-1702, familyresourcesofpa.org)

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