Urban bytes: Interviews in Pittsburgh and Beyond.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Jeb Feldman, Urban Homesteader, Talks About the Arts Explosion in Braddock, PA

Note: I will repeat all the links that are inserted in the text at the end of the post.

This interview was done quite a while ago ...like.. a year.....which I am mortified about. But I did some editing to update it, and it should give the reader a good (if partial cause so MUCH is going on) idea of the exciting changes going on in Braddock.Braddock doesn't have a lot of urban homesteaders, but they are very busy ones: reclaimingproperties and working on a long list of projects, including UnSmoke Systems, Obscurae, Pointsof Interest, Transformazium, also the farming project...a print studio...............etc etc.and did I mention the business that turns vehicles into green vehicles (Fossil FreeFuels....http://www.fossilfreefuel.com/fossilfreefuel_flash.html).....You get the idea. Lots ofgreat energy in Braddock.

My introduction to the new Braddock came on April 27th 2007, when I attended the opening ofan exhibit of art work by Swoon (an internationally known street artist) and two other wellknown artists Chris Stain and Leslie Stem. Not only was the art, which was ensconced in a spacebelow the mayor's home, amazing, the scene was a revelation.

Clearly, a LOT of people would come to Braddock for an interesting event.There were hundreds of people there. OK, many were drawn by Swoons fame and her ties to alternative culture...but it was amazing. For informationon Swoon see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swoon_(artist)I met Swoon at a talk in Braddock early this fall. She told me she will be in Braddock morefrequently starting in 2010, as work on her project with Tranzformazium begins in earnest.Braddock has had loads of press in the past year. John Fetterman the mayor, has been interviewed and interviewed in the national press. Videoed left and right by news media. It is a fascinating story, and one good summary can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/us/01braddock.html (the accompanying New York Times video is particularly good).

The primary focus of the interview with Jeb Feldman is the vitality brought to Braddock by those in the visual arts. One could make a case that Braddock isn't being so much renovated, it is being repurposed as a fabulous art cooperative.

Jean: How many people would you say have kind of moved here to live here that are what youmight call urban homesteaders? I mean, is it less than 50, is it more than 50, is it . . .Where are they mostly from?

Jeb: There's been somewhere between 15 and 20 people who've moved into town. I mean in a town the size of Braddock with, you know 2500 or 2600 people with of not many people flowing in, it's certainly not enough to stem the sort of the continuing diminishment of the population here..........but I think that it's exciting to think about 20 new people who are here to revitalize and build and , save properties and establish energy in various pockets of town. When those 20 people are here for that sort of common purpose, it seems like a lot of people and it's an exciting number.

Jean: So one newer resident, Jodi ( one of the organizers of the Obscurae photo project) she's from Brooklyn?

Jeb: Yes, she moved here from Brooklyn . She's one of four or five Brooklyners who have moved here, so for whatever reason, we've been poaching Brooklyn. But people have moved from Chicago and Alaska and Portland. I guess with the exception of the Alaskan it's primarily people from urban centers who have moved here, and I think for obvious reasons, from expensive urban centers.

Jeb continues:It's been interesting to watch people move here from all over the place, and it hasn't just been one place, and it certainly hasn't been people {moving here} from Pittsburgh so much. I think three years ago when there were only a few of us involved in this, the conversation about how to develop some more energy and how to bring some people down here........ then I think it was assumed that we'd be targeting Pittsburghers. But with the exception of one artist, named Josh Tonies, who has been fantastic, and he made the move down here, we haven't actually seen other Pittsburghers move here.

Jean: Really.

Jeb: At some point we'd love to become a legitimate option for Pittsburghers when they survey the landscape and think about where they might want to move in town. That when people are looking and they say, well, typically you move to Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, these are all your sort of neighborhoods that people think about, it would be nice for some people to think "there's a lot going on in Braddock and that might be one place I'd consider". Actually it wasn't even in the conversation for a very long time, for anybody.

Jean: Oh, I wouldn't think, because it just wasn't.

Jeb: And that's exactly it. Like I said, it doesn't have to be in the conversation for every search, every type of person, I mean it's not, this is not a neighborhood for everybody.

Jean: OK. Well, while we're on the topic, if, I can guess, but, other than that people are coming from places that are ridiculously expensive where it's just very hard to live, as even Brooklyn has become, what would attract someone to come to Braddock? What sort of person would be interested?

Jeb:I think there's an opportunity here to sort of shape at a very ground and base level, that you know you don't have in other neighborhoods that have charted their trajectory already.

Jeb continues: And I think that that's really compelling for a lot of people.Then there's sort of the chance to kind of reshape it and actually develop sort of a new vision for this place. It is, I think, the main reason why people are finding themselves here. So the people who are coming are builders, people who want to introduce energy of one sort or another into a place.

And then I think there are other aspects of this, including the fact that Mayor John Fetterman has opened himself up, along with the people he collaborates with, including myself, to try to facilitate projects that revolve around community energy and revitalization. When you have a person at that level in a community like this helping push those kind of projects along, I think that that's another sort of carrot for people . . .

Jeb Continues: People get really excited about the notion that a local leader would be, willing to put himself out, try to help, and be so transparent and so accessible in helping make projects happen. I think that those are the main sort of things that are dangled out there in front of people, but a lot of it has to do with setting a niche for the projects that are here. So, we're trying to build around the energy generated by art and art-related events, green businesses, etc.

Jean: That's right, it's not only creative people who are coming here, arts-related people, it's also the green . . .

Jeb: Right, and I think that they're far more tied together than a lot of people realize. You know, a lot of the people that I think can move here as artists, or that we consider to be moving here because of art things, have ended up being a lot more sort of agriculturally oriented and have been doing more farming and gardening than we had anticipated. So it is very cyclical where a lot of the art projects start to look like they're going to be leaning more towards global food growing, things like that.

Jean: Interesting.

Jeb: Because we're trying to tie this to the community that's here already.

Jean: Right. I wanted to ask you about the outdoor artwork that is all over Braddock.John Morris and I had taken that tour around, looked at all the "points of interest" (ie the art points of interest as designated on the Transformazium website).

Jeb: Great.

Really that's, you know, often times when we talk about the art and the artists here, I can't give enough credit to this group of women who, most of whom have relocated here from other places. They call themselves Transformazium and they're here for a large project.

Jeb continues- They have taken over (legally) an abandoned church that was terribly dilapidated and basically waiting to be razed. While they were waiting for the title to transfer to them, they worked on all sorts of community related projects and a lot of them have been tied into the local agriculture as well.

Jean: Oh, that's interesting, yeah.

Jeb: Working with the local youth on teaching them how to farm and learn outdoor practices.

Jean: And that's the project Swoon (given name Caledonia Curry) is involved in?

Jeb: Right. She put the group Transformazium togther.

Jean: OK, yeah, the rumor that I had heard is that she had bought a church, but that's not entirely accurate . . .

Jeb: The request was made to her as to whether she wanted to take on this troubled church building. But as she travels the world (i.e. creating and exhibiting her work) , there's a group of four people working down here on a daily basis . . .

Jean: Okay, yeah.

Jeb: Plus we're entirely involved.

And Transformazium, while they've got their hands full with the church they've also been doing any number of projects like points of interest which you referenced.

For information on the Transformazium group go here: http://www.transformazium.org/whatandwhy.html

Jean: Mm hmm.

Jeb: And a number of other things.

Jean: Being the small world that it is, uh, when I was in New York (September 2008) and I saw the Swoon exhibit, at Deitch Projects Gallery, and I know there was some guy I talked to and he said he was coming down to Pittsburgh to work on the church for a couple of weeks.

Jeb: They have a lot of people involved in their sort of community there and they have an amazing amount of people float through town that know to do this or that here, as well as for that project, especially recently. It was three, maybe four weekends ago that there was a fundraiser for their project in Brooklyn.

Jean: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that..........

Jeb: They obviously attracted more people out there than they ever would here, more arts buyers you know. They are just very well connected out there {i.e. in Brooklyn}.

Jean: Sure.

Jeb: So it made a lot of sense for them to do it out there. It was interesting to be out there and watch a fundraiser for Braddock happen in Brooklyn.A number of, most of us actually, traveled out for that.

Jean:Yeah, that's really great. So, the church then is going to be, I mean I know this is probably in process, but if, you know, it gets taken over, if it's fixed up, then it starts as an art project, then at some point it becomes something else, like some kind of community center?

Jeb: You know, you'd have to ask them exactly what their sort of a mission and the, you know, the vision for the whole project.

Jean: Where is the church?

Jeb: It's in North Braddock, actually. It's up on Jones Avenue.

Jeb continues: It is, you know, it's actually what I think a lot of people envision as really one of the focuses of energy that's going to happen in this area, because Library Street becomes Jones Street. Then you have a number of properties at the intersection of Library and Braddock Avenue that I think are really pivotal. Then you have John's church (Mayor John Fettermans ) that he's owned for a number of years now, and the nonprofit that we run is working to turn that into a community center.

Jeb continues: So, hopefully, in a few years down the road that'll be a place sort of teeming with activity. Across the street you got Braddock's, Carnegie Library, you know, which is a.......

Jean: A beautiful building.

Jeb: Very beautiful, you know, historic, Carnegie's first library in America.

Jean: Oh, I didn't even know that. Wow!

Jeb: Right, then you head up the tracks and you have, you know, you have a middle school, you have the Braddock Field historic site, then you have the Schwab mansion, which, is really sort of a real estate relic of the steel magnet era. Then you continue to head up the road and you hit Transformazium's properties.

Jean: Oh, OK, yeah, we passed the Schwab mansion the other day, I was wondering what the story was on it.

Jeb: It's really beautiful. I mean, in a lot of ways it's just sort of a, it's a less refined version of the Frick mansion in Point Breeze. And it's beautiful on the inside. In a lot of ways it could be everything the Frick mansion is, it's just going to take some time and energy. Actually, Dr. Bruce Dixon, who's the Director of Allegheny County Health Department, he's the owner. From what I understand, he is meticulously restoring the property.

(See a slideshow on the mansion here) http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07214/806408-30.stm

Jean: Oh, that's great. OK.

Jeb: I saw that he's been working on recreating the historic greenhouses on the back of the property. From what I hear he's restoring that equally meticulously, so it should be amazing. I mean, I don't know if it will ever be open to the public, but it's certainly going to be a beautiful property.

Jean: Now with the properties that are on Braddock Avenue...... are they, the storefronts and things, are they just in all various states of vacant, not vacant, liens on them, not liens on them?

Jeb: That's it, yes, yes.

Jean: That sums it up?

Jeb: Basically, yes. They are in all various states of sort of neglect, distress, some of them less distressed than others, but by and large,the community has become a bit tattered, especially Braddock Avenue, the corridor, and . . .

Jean: Yes.

Jeb: You can go in and out of a number of those properties. It's strange to just be able to walk through distressed properties that are falling apart, but people are beginning to take care of them. So, it really depends where on the avenue you are.

Jean It seems like...there are definitely some things around that are buyable and reclaimable?

Jeb: I think there are amazing values in the properties here. But it's one of those things where you have to find the value in it for yourself. Because the odds of you actually making money on it are unrealistic.

Jean: Uh huh.

Jeb: It's not a speculative market. There's not a big profit to be had in a property anywhere in this community, as far as I can tell. We've been party to transactions for houses that are going for $5500, and, as cheap as that might sound, I'm not sure that the properties are ever going to go for much more money than that.

Jean: Mm, hmm.

Jeb: And, you know, you can take some of these big commercial properties and put a bunch of money in them, and they still might not be worth anymore than what you bought them for. So like I said, I think the value really has to be the reward of the space that you're happy in and that you can use to create energy.

Jean: Yeah, yeah.

Jeb: That might be a business, for example. Say you might be able to come in and find a property that you can run a business out of, and that business could be very profitable, but, the actual property itself isn't a speculative venture.

Jean: One thing I didn't know too much about till lately, and then I was reading that it might not come about, and I know it would be a problem for Braddock if it did ...... is the whole Mon Valley Expressway thing?

Jeb: Yes.

Jean: That would really pretty much mess up Braddock Avenue. Then I was just reading something online saying that it appears the Mon Valley Expressway (through Braddock) will not happen?

Jeb: Right. Well, I mean, I think, you know, given the state of the economy, and look around, and, you know, taxpayers just bailed out the banking industry to the tune of 700 billion dollars . . ...

Jean: Yeah, that's quite a chunk!

Jeb: It's hard to imagine where they're going to scrounge up the money for a road that they had no way of figuring out financing for for the last three (now four) years. I think we were really confident last year that this wasn't happening. And now I think there's even more confidence that it's going nowhere. I mean, from what I can tell, and I feel pretty educated about the project, the Mon-Valley Expressway or the Mon-Fayette Expressway has run out of financing options.
So they've stopped planning at least the Mon Valley Expressway portion of the project. They put a hard stop on that and they said they were going to look for money, and they've been looking for money for a number of years, but then every year they reassess the estimated cost of the project. And it seems like every year when they release the estimated cost, it jumps another billion dollars, so . . .See a Post Gazette article here: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08258/912103-147.stm

Jean: Oh my gosh.

Jeb: You know, as time passes you have to feel more and more confident that it's not going to happen and that at some point they're going to have to adjust their thinking away from the sort of road building, old school, Robert Moses mentality of urban planning. That something different is needed, and hopefully it will lead us to a more sustainable and more progressive solution. Perhaps a more elegant solution to the problem of moving people around the area may come out of an inability to do the thing they initially wanted to do.

Jean: Uh huh. Yup, right.

Jeb: Like a multi-modal sort of solution to local transportation has been proposed and is out there already.

Jean: And what would that mean?

Jeb: That would mean having, you know, having commuters and people move in a variety of ways and I think it would pivot around the notion of public transportation.

Jean: Oh, OK. Yeah.

Jeb: You know, trains and buses and . . .

Jean: Mm hmm.

Jeb: And perhaps even using the waterways, but, you know, multi-modal.

Jean: Uh huh. Well, it would be interesting to use the waterways, that's something that (laughter) . . . probably hasn't happened around here in a long, long time, right?

Jeb: A real long time, but, you know,there's really no reason why, Braddock being 8 miles from downtown Pittsburgh or whatever, that if you had a boat and didn't have a street light between here and downtown Pittsburgh, that instead of having to......

Jean: That's a pretty great idea.

Jeb: You know, I think we could get to downtown in 10 minutes.

Jean: Yeah, that's a pretty great idea. Well, it's and it's also, it's not like the rivers around here freeze up or anything, that I know of, do they? I mean, they're always passable, aren't they?

Jeb: I believe so.

Jean: So, how did you end up getting involved in Braddock?

Jeb: I was just in school here. I was going to Carnegie Mellon and I was becoming more and more certain that I was going to do some sort of community development. That was where my interests lay, and right then, probably at just the right time, I met John Fetterman, who was the mayor-elect of Braddock.I think that the connection happened because I'd been coming down to this neck of the woods for a long time.
I'd been really fascinated by Braddock. I think a fascination that a lot of people, I'm learning, have. I was awestruck by a place where the last mill in the area was still steaming and flaming. And by a town that had obviously lost so much, but had of the sort of architecture it has still left here, and it was very puzzling as to what had happened here.

Somebody, put one and one together and decided that John and I should sit down and have beers, cause they had met him somewhere. And so we sat and talked and I think our ideologies really aligned. He was working with disenfranchised young men, trying to get them jobs, so I started working with him.Nice piece on Mayor John Fetterman from POPCITY here http://www.popcitymedia.com/features/fetterman0425.aspx

Jean: When was that, roughly?

Jeb: That was, that was late 2005.

Jean: Uh huh.

Jeb: But 2006 is when I really started working a lot down here. But I was still in school, and so what I would do initially was a lot of research, which I think really served me very well, because now I know where I am and what's happened here. I started helping John facilitate and manage some of the projects he had going on. {For example} I was trying to recruit people for the start of a studio space we had going on, and trying to figure out if anybody was interested in this concept of this community center in this big old abandoned church, and in the meantime we were running events through this church without windows. So we were doing all these kinds of things, just trying to sort of figure out where we could establish some traction.

Jean: Uh huh. I was at the Swoon opening, when she did the work which was exhibited below the mayor's residence, shall we say? (laughter). And ofcourse next to that, in the the church they had the bands. Yes, that was great, that was an amazing thing.

Jeb: Yeah everything that we've got going, in a lot of respects are still extensions of those kind of activities. But things have evolved a little bit, and instead of having a Swoon show in the basement of the mayor's residence, we actually have a gallery now. And instead of having studio spaces in a building that we had entree to because of a kind of a handshake agreement, we now own the building where the studios are, and . . .

Jean: Which is this building?

Jeb: Right.

Jean: Yeah. Now, I was looking online, and did you get an Arts Management degree?

Jeb: I did.

Jean: Degree from CMU? OK, OK, yeah. So that's what your background.

Jeb: Yeah, it's part of my background.

Jean: Where did you move from when you came to CMU?

Jeb: I guess I consider myself, uh, a transplant from California, although I had sort of a layover in Wisconsin.

Jean: OK (laughter).

Jeb: And I grew up in New Mexico, so I've been around, a little bit.

Jean: Uh huh. OK. Is Unsmoke Systems what you're primarily involved with now?

Jeb: I feel like I'm involved with everything, but I do have to do the day to day on Unsmoke Systems. I mean, there's the cooperative of people, the artists in here and a few other people who have been sort of working on this project, there are, other collaborators on it, and then I sort of have to sort of um, kind of agitate things occasionally and sort of keep it going, and so this is, I guess, yes, partly because I am sort of the, actually, I'm the proprietor of the building. It sort of falls on me to make sure that things stay on course here. I'm also involved in most of the projects that the mayor is involved in and the sort of partnerships that Braddock Redux, the nonprofit that we sort of run projects through are involved in. So it goes beyond the realm of Unsmoke Systems.

Jean: OK. Well, and, how would you describe Unsmoke Systems ?

Jeb: I think Unsmoke Systems is a cooperative of artists and a venue, slash arts and gallery space and that's to me really what Unsmoke Systems does. But it also serves, it serves the greater Braddock community as a place where anybody can use the venue itself as a place to sort of entertain or to undertake whatever they'd like to do. I think it's a very flexible space, the 2400 square foot gallery slash venue. Arectangular box for whatever kind of projects people want, so . . .
Jean: The gallery space opened, in spring (2008) ?

Jeb: We had the grand opening, I guess, technically in July (2008).

Jean: OK.

Jeb: In partnership with, I'd actually call it wildly successful grand opening, in partnership with the Carnegie Museum of Art and their Carnegie International.

Jean: Oh, right, yes, OK.

Jeb: Which was great, I mean, something like 16 artists installed all over the building and there were, you now, anywhere from 700 to 900 people out here, for a number of hours; it was fantastic and really well received, and it provided a lot of sort of momentum for this project as a whole.

Jean: Yeah, yeah. How many artists have studios here now?

Jeb: Mmm, there's 9 visual artists and a writer.

Jean: And they're basically renting studio space?

Jeb: No, they're basically, they're basically helping with utilities.

Jean: Oh, really. OK.

Jeb: The actual space itself is, I guess, technically free.

Jean: OK. All right, uh, I had met the people, I don't recall their names, who had moved here, and live next door. He is going to do furniture making and they're fixing up the car dealership?

Jeb: Right.

Jean: The abandoned car dealership, or maybe not abandoned, I don't know, closed?

Jeb: Yes. Joel and Kristin own the dealership across the way and they will be making furniture out of that property; there’s an old convent building behind us, sort of here at the back of the parking lot. We hope that that becomes the coffee shop . . .

Jeb: And then there’s this building which has been sort of the hub of sort of arts activities.

Jeb: Not to a lot of fanfare, we’re not sort of the fanfare type. I think we had a good turnout on Saturday and hopefully sover the course of the next month we’ll see a number of more people come down. We’re obviously not a foot traffic community, so you have events, and people come out. You know it’s been great.

Jean: I was wondering, is there kind of a mixture of all through Braddock of the newer residents plus the older residents? That is as far as residential location is concerned.?

Jeb: Well, I mean, you get, you know, there aren’t that many newer residents. I guess, for the most part, the new residents are is sort of centrally located on this side of town (near Unsmoke Sysytems). but, I mean, there aren’t enough of them to sort of say, well there’s a pocket of them sort of anywhere.

Jean: Yeah. Yeah.

Jeb: As far as the population of Braddock goes, I think in the eighties it was even as amny as 8,000 people and now we’re down around 2600 or so.

Jean: Yeah. Well, there’s some very nice buildings over in the other section as well, (between Braddock Ave. and the river). Some nice homes, and then there’s a couple of, nice large brick, I don’t know what they were, warehouses or something. And there’s a great Swoon piece that looks like it’s been there for awhile, it’s kind of aged, but uh . . .

Jeb: There’s a lot of them actually, sure we have uh, we have as many Swoon pieces per capita as any place in America perhaps.

Jean: Uh huh, yeah.

Jeb: It may be perhaps that we might even have as much public art as any place per capita in America, to tell the truth . . .

Jean: (laughter) That’s true.

Jeb: With 20 pieces or whatever there is here . . .

Jean: There is oh yeah, in terms of just all the public art, yeah, yeah. Yeah, which is very worthwhile for people to do the points of interest tour which is on the website.

Jeb: I mean you have points, in addition to points of interest as well. You know, James Simon has been working down here for awhile and he placed a beautiful mosaic sort of piece in a small kind of little pocket park . . .

Jean: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I saw that from afar and then we never quite got back to it.

Jeb: Yeah, that’s great and that, that was just installed um, over this last summer (08) and he put two mosaic totems up within the last few weeks. The County participated in that and landscaped the space for him, and donated the land, because they just built the new bus stop right on the avenue. So there are a lot of sort of colorful things happening around town and hopefully projects and work that, you know make people here proud of their community.

Jean: Yeah.

Jeb: You know, I certainly am proud of being here.

Unsmoke Systems Artspacehttp://unsmokeartspace.com/home.html

Tranzformazium (includes information on "Points of Interest")http://www.transformazium.org/whatandwhy.html

Braddock shop helps clean Third World countries' waterhttp://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09039/947753-82.stm

Obscurae Photo Galleryhttp://obscuraegallery.org/

Move to Braddock PA and Afford the Life You Always Wanted, or Why Small Towns Are the Besthttp://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/10/move-to-braddock-pa-and-afford-the-life-you-always-wanted-or-why-small-towns-are-best.php#ch01

Mayor John Fetterman (from POPCITY)http://www.popcitymedia.com/features/fetterman0425.aspx

Braddock Reduxhttp://www.braddockredux.org/node/27

Braddock in the NY Times (the video is great)http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/us/01braddock.html

The Post Gazette Slide Show on Scwab Mansionhttp://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07214/806408-30.stm

Swoonhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swoon_(artist)Monvalley Expresswayhttp://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08258/912103-147.stm

Fossil Free Fuels
Posted by Jean McClung at 10:12 PM
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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ruth Levine: Artist, Wit and Urban Dweller

Photo by: unknown

Ruth Levine is an artist who has lived in Pittsburgh since 1998. Her work can be seen here.
She is a natural for this interview blog, being both an urbanite and an artist. Also, she tells a great story.
This interview was originally recorded in the summer of 2008, and with some updates, is finally being "blogged" now.

Jean: You had told me a story about Andy Warhol. And I think you said you got a call....that's how it started?

Ruth: Yes. In the early nineteen eighties, I was working at a very large Jewish community center in Rockville, Maryland. And although we had some National Endowment for the Humanities grants and we were starting to make a name elsewhere, it was with some slight sense of shock that I got the following phone call: Somebody got on the phone and said, "Hi my name is Ron Feldman. Do you know me?"And I said, "If you’re the Ron Feldman I’m thinking of, no I don’t know you. But I know that there’s a gallery with your name on it in SOHO, in New York."

He said, "Well I’m here with Andy Warhol who wants to talk with you". And that started the first of my series of saying "right" [ as in" yeah, right"] Because I was very dubious that indeed Andy Warhol wanted to talk to me. And Feldman goes on to explain that Warhol had only done images of live people and that his mother had died. Julia had died. And he discovered that people could have influence long after they died. And he decided to make a list for images of the ten great people of the twentieth century. I continuing in the role of wise ass said, "Why not twenty great people of the tenth century or fifteen great people of the fifteenth century?"

And Feldman who wasn’t about to laugh at anything I said, said, "Oh no, he only does tens." He continues with his story that in the course of drafting a list, that he [Andy}discovered that many of the names were Jewish. And that he decided to call somebody that worked for Jewish agency and get the names of ten great Jews of the twentieth century.

I called in my partner who ran the gallery. I tended to run the grants and the arts school there. And I said "Ron Feldman’s on the phone and he’s about to put Andy Warhol on the phone and get a list from us of the ten great Jews of the twentieth century."And my friend, Susan, as expected burst out laughing and went, "Right."

So now we have two people saying "Right". Warhol gets on the phone and he said would you give me your list? So I started with the Marx Brothers because I didn’t really believe any of this was happening. And I had an uncle who knew two of the Marx brothers. We went on from there and tried to get a little serious with Kafka and Judge Louis Brandeis, and then we went a little berserk, adding Gertrude Stein and Sarah Bernhardt. And we went through a list of ten entries.

And then we asked if that was what he was looking for. Andy, who said very little, said it sounded fine to him. I assured him that if he didn’t like some of the images that attached to these names, he could very wisely use the four Marx brothers in four different images as opposed to just using the one image. And he said, "I’ll get back to you in six months with the images." And we burst out laughing and in chorus said, "Right." Much to our surprise six months later a package was delivered and there were ten images (ie screeprints by Warhol) And the first one was of the Marx brothers.

Jean: All four of them?

Ruth: All four of them on one image. And they were very nice. Very interesting, and he asked if we could have a party. And we invited a lot of well-to-do and culturally in the know Jews from the Washington and Rockville area. And all of these people in a moment of group think, not only came, but came armed with Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup cans. I gathered Campbells for Andy to sign.

Jean: Tomato or one of the others?

Ruth: No just Chicken Noodle, and Chicken Noodle because I guess Chicken Noodle seemed Jewish to them. And they of course wanted him to sign them. I don’t know how that ended. I think he signed a couple and then backed off. We had a great opening. The show went on to the Jewish Museum in New York, and we had our first five minutes or fifteen minutes of fame a la Warhol. When Hilton Kramer wrote in the New York Times, "Ten great Jews of the twentieth century has opened in the Jewish Museum in New York. This is very possibly the worst thing to happen to Jews since the Holocaust. And who in god’s name are Susan Morganstein and Ruth Levine of Rockfish, Maryland" {Note to reader, this is not a typo}.He didn’t even get Rockville...

Jean: He put that in the New York Times? Oh that’s a riot.

Ruth: At that point I only wanted to bury my head in the sand; ignored the rest of the tour and hoped that the whole thing would go to bed. But it showed up a couple of more times in my lifetime. The next to the last time it showed up was just before I was moving to Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol’s home town.

The University of Maryland art gallery decided to do their holdings of the Ten Series. And included Ten Great Jews of the twentieth century. And in this case the reviewer felt compelled to say that, "The ten great Jews were very interesting, but he hadn’t realized that Andy Warhol was so anti-Semitic as to have started out with the Marx Brothers, given all the famous and intellectual Jews around." I in turn felt compelled to call the reviewer and emphasize that my name was Ruth Levine, and that I had given this list to Andy Warhol. And mostly I had done it because I hadn’t expected it to come to pass. I came to Pittsburgh, and dined out on the story. Until one night I was seated next to Tom Sokolowski, someone made the usual disparaging remarks about the Marx brothers. And Tom, who runs the Warhol Museum, said actually that’s my favorite [piece in the series]. And so that was the end of my Warhol encounter.

Ruth Continues And the only PS to the story is about three weeks after the tour had finished I got a call from someone whose name I no longer remember, who said he represented Salvador Dali. And I hung up on him. He called back to say that we had become disconnected. And I decided to listen to him this time before I hung up on him and he said that Mr. Dali would like to make giant bronze menorah to sell at the Jewish Community Center for seven thousand dollars a piece. And I pointed out that I no longer wished to do Jewish objects by non Jewish artists. And I didn’t frankly think that a menorah by the man who had done the Last Supper was going to sell very well in the Jewish Community. And then I hung up on him.It turned out nobody bought this menorah, except one person who gave it to the Israel Museum in Israel. And the Museum hated it so much they gave it to Lod Airport, and put it in front. And everybody there hated it so much that they tried to blow it up. So I was right.

Jean: You were right. So knowing the situation with Dali then, he probably never even touched it or knew nothing about this phone call. Because he was on the decline.

Ruth: He was on the decline,but I think was an original Dali. It wasn’t like the prints where somebody was signing off on them. But it was truly a very ugly menorah. It looked like a weapon of war by some underwater god. And so I was glad that I couldn’t be blamed for that one too.

Jean: Well there are scurrilous stories circulating (about the Ten Greatest Jews series) because I read something in the New York Times...... where they were talking about the series and then they were crediting someone else for the list of names...I can't recall who.

Ruth: Ron Feldman claims that he had put the names together. And then he, I had Susan call him, so he put her name in. I was just as happy not to have my name in. And the series went back to either the Jewish Museum in New York or one other just recently. And in the catalog because the person who wrote the article wanted to track it down, he called me. He put both of our names in. So I don’t know that I want the fame, need the fame. I’m very happy in Warhol’s home town.

Jean: So was that your first connection with Pittsburgh? The Andy Warhol thing, or even though he of course didn’t live in Pittsburgh at that time. But that was the first................

Ruth: Absolutely. And now life has been very good because I’m no longer connected with that.(ie just with that story). But I’m on the board of the Warhol Museum. And enjoy the shows. And have come to appreciate Warhol.

Jean: Well I’ve heard many people say that from seeing that. Because once you really see the prints, and see the lithographs it really makes an impression.

Ruth: It’s astonishing. It’s really impressive. So I was sorry I was so snobby with him then, and I’m paying my dues now.

Jean: So your uncle knew the Marx Brothers where? In New York?

Ruth: One of my uncles was a lawyer for a lot of theater people. And he belonged to and was on the board of governors for an organization called the Friars Club. And like the Lamb’s Club which was purely theater, the Friars Club was theater , and Hollywood and stand up comedians etc. And my uncle who truly enjoyed a leisurely life as a lawyer, only saw clients briefly. And then went to the Friars club, would play bridge and would go out with, I think it was Harpo and Chico.

Jean: Was this in California?

Ruth: No this was in New York City. And I would get to meet them and Milton Berle and Danny Kaye, and Eddy Cantor. It was terrific. It was really nice. So yes I had an aspect of my childhood that was very interesting with my New York uncles. And their trips between the track, and the night clubs and the Friars Club roasts.

Jean: That’s pretty wonderful.

Ruth:It was terrific.

Jean: Yeah I think I had said to you that I was very disappointed to read that Danny Kaye was kind of a jerk.

Ruth: Yes.
Jean: Because, although his comedy can be kind of over, no, a lot over the top. I always thought he was so charming and so attractive (from his appearances on the old tonight show with Johnny Carson) and he just seemed so great. And I was just like what? , no!

Ruth: He apparently and unfortunately was a jerk. And his wife was a brilliant song writer. She wrote, Sylvia Kaye wrote most of his Patter songs. And he was a brilliant cook. And apparently had a long affair with Olivier. Laurence Olivier.

Jean: Oh he did? I missed that.

Ruth: Oh Yeah. All the bits and pieces that come floating back when you’re seventy two. You suddenly, you suddenly remember all of this.

Jean: Well if he was gay in that time period maybe he had a right to be a jerk.

Ruth: No, I don’t think he had a right to be a jerk. Life was pretty good to him. There was a wonderful kind of section of New York that my uncles inhabited. And when they would come to visit me in Connecticut, you always had the distinct feeling that that they would have felt better if somebody had issued a visa so that they would be sure that they could not only come into Connecticut but get out again and get back to New York.

Ruth: New York was astonishing. There were all these places that people went. I learned to drink when I was still underage in the back room at Lindy’s. Because my uncle knew him also. So my two uncles, the bachelor uncles sat me down and it was a bottle of Scotch. And they gave me my first drink, and my second drink, and my third drink and I threw up.

And all they did was say "Now you know two is your limit. And never drink anything sweet". This was the education of bachelor uncles. Yeah, it was a different time.

Jean: How old were you?

Ruth: I was fifteen.
Jean: Fifteen.

Ruth: I was fifteen.

Jean: They didn’t want to start you on anything easy. They just went right to the Scotch.

Ruth: No, they went directly to the Scotch. This was also (ie one of the two) the uncle who played cards so marvelously, he would play with people like the owner of Ceil Chapman( a ballgown designer). I would get ballgowns. I also got a fur coat. And you have to understand, we had no money. And I had this wonderful fur coat that he had won in a card game. And this same uncle was playing with Mike Todd one day. And he raised Mike Todd and he [the uncle] died and the payoff from that game was enough to take care of my uncle’s funeral. So they were very colorful men. Very colorful men.

Jean: And well of course, I know you were in DC for many years.

Ruth: Thirty-one. My husband and I got married in New York, and moved to Chicago for medical school. And then moved to Minnesota for internship and residency. I all the while pining for New York. And then because my husband got drafted, he was able to get into the National Institute of Health, this was during the Vietnam War. And it was supposed to be a two year stint. There was a doctor’s draft. And we stayed for thirty-one because he got appointed to various jobs. And although it wasn’t New York, it was close enough so that I could take the train in. And I rather loved that. And I thought we were going to stay in Washington forever. Made a crowd of friends, raised my kids there. Went back to school, got a masters in painting, had all of my jobs there. And in ninety three decided I would just paint. And he came home one day and said, there’s this very interesting job in Pittsburgh. And I said "Pittsburgh?" And I came and I liked it. And we bought a wonderful house.

And although I missed my friends in Washington, I met a crew of people living in Shadyside, or near Shadyside in Squirrel Hill, artists from CMU and from Pitt. And artists from other venues who were part of a group, called Group A. And we would have coffee and we would talk about art supplies and shows in New York. And what we were working on. And it filled a wonderful space in my life. So I’ve been here since ninety-eight.

Jean: So had you ever set foot in Pittsburgh before?

Ruth: We had come once for a cousin’s wedding. And had gotten very lost. Because I think it was before Sophie Masloff{Mayor of Pittsburgh } put up all the street signs.

Jean: Right, which are still only so improved but they are a lot better than they were.

Ruth: And the highway that we came in on, apparently the numbers increased and then decreased. And we didn’t know that about the exits. And so we couldn’t figure out if whether we were supposed to get off at the first number or the second time the number appeared. And of course we weren’t supposed to get off the second time. So I learned a little bit about how distracting it was to drive in Pittsburgh. But it was a lovely wedding, we had a very good time. And never thought we would ever come back because these cousins then moved to Philadelphia and there didn’t seem to be any reason to come here. But we came and we’re staying.

JeanNow this may require a little bit of thought or maybe not. But how did DC change in the thirty-one years you were there?

Ruth: Oh it changed profoundly. We went there in sixty-seven and which was the kind of Post Kennedy era. There was one French restaurant, one fried fish restaurant and it was a very sleepy southern town. Slowly but surely it became a very sophisticated town and on top of that got a subway. Which meant that you didn’t have to drive through hectic Washington traffic. And as I held a number of jobs there. And had a really good time there. And the restaurants, the movie houses, the theater all of this increased and it became very sophisticated.

Jean: Became very sophisticated, yes. It seems so different to me than it used to be, even 15 years ago.

Ruth: It really became very sophisticated. And a lot of fun. And I complained bitterly, because as I said to somebody I’m leaving Washington, they finally got bread into Washington. And now he’s going to move me to a town where there’s no bread. Well now I found bread in Pittsburgh so I’m staying.

Jean: Why do you think it changed so much?

Ruth: I think that, one of the things that’s happened with Washington is that every four years, every two years actually, definitely every four years, there’s a new influx of people. And the weird thing is, that the people who were of the previous administration never leave. So the population just piled high. And then with all the different government bureaus and the NIH etc. There was a lot to attract people. And once you get a quantum mass of people, and you get a lot of foreigners. One of the best things about Washington in those years was that, there were great restuaurants Indians, so Ethiopians, there were Vietnamese. There were sixteen different kinds of Chinese Restaurants. There was Sichuan, and Cantonese and it really reflected populations.

And Virginia moved out of it’s sleepy mode with a huge Asian population. And really good school systems. And essentially people did very well who lived in Washington. Of course they still didn’t know what was happening in the rest of the country. We were like that too, now suddenly we see the world from a Pittsburgh point of view. It’s a little more realistic and a little healthier.

Jean: Really, you mean because it’s more.......................

Ruth: It’s tuned in to what people think outside, what they call outside the beltway. In DC the people who live in Washington in DC and parts of the burbs are living inside the beltway and have no idea what’s happening in the country. They assume everybody’s doing well because house prices went up in Washington. They really have no idea what unemployment or job situations or changing economy where we don’t produce as much, what kind of impact that has on people. Because there’s always a job in Washington.

Jean: Okay I see what you’re saying. So it’s much less of a cross section.

Ruth: Absolutely, it wasn’t until I came to Pittsburgh that I knew about neighborhoods. There are no neighborhoods in DC. Everybody is from somewhere else. Even if they spend their entire life there, and they’ll say I’m from Ohio or North Dakota. I would say the thirty-years I lived in Washington we’d go to New York, and somebody would say where are you from. And I’d say well I’m from New York, but I live in Washington. After thirty-one years I was from Washington, but I just wasn’t prepared to admit it. Now I say I’m from Pittsburgh.

Jean: If we could let’s talk about your work and your exhibit in DC, the one that you had at Gallery 10.{ i.e. "Patterns:Echo,Shift and Rescript"}

Ruth: Ok about nineteen ninety-six, nineteen ninety-three I decided to paint full time. Nineteen ninety-six I joined a gallery, which was an artist run gallery at DuPont Circle in DC called Gallery 10 because originally there ten people in the Gallery.

Now there are a greater number to support the rising rental costs and other costs.Every other year I would have a solo show there and the last show I had there was this year ’08. And it was called "Patterns"I became very much interested in patterns because I saw and owned patterns from Africa, where the patterns change. And I thought it’s only in the West where we make things line up left and right. And top and bottom. African patterns, like life, change and segue into different shapes. So I went at it from a very abstract and geometric point of view.

And then I started thinking about the other meanings of patterns. And found some wonderful paper in a New York art supply store that was simply labeled, " Pre World War II Japanese paper" It was a dollar a sheet. And I bought two hundred sheets. And my husband said, "What are you going to do with two hundred sheets?" Eventually,I decided to turn them into books. The papers were then layered with photo-transfers of Japanese newspapers from Tokyo from the years 1931 to ’34.

I didn’t know very much history, but I did know about the invasion of Nanking by the Japanese was their designated start of the World War II. And what I didn’t know, which I subsequently found out, and what went into these newspapers, was that it really had started much before then. Because the Japanese army had had its appropriations cut by the Emperor, who was afraid of the army's influence. And the emperor made a big mistake when he cut their appropriations because they staged an incident in Manchuria. Claimed the Chinese had done it, and got their appropriations and more back. And went on to invade a number of places. And that was a change in the pattern of a nation. So I had these wonderful papers. And they were up on old newspaper poles, stuck in tables on a ledge. And I had a video of all of these news paper pages running continuously. And felt very good about it.

Jean: And then also, with the photo transfers on the paper there’s also painting as well.

Ruth: Yes, there’s painting and with different kinds of metallic and non-metallic water colors. And there are stamped images, Benday dots( which are like the dots that newspapers traditionally used). And so some them have a lot of verbage and some of them have a lot of abstraction. One is prettier but not as clear, the other is clearer and not as prettier.
{For installation images, click here} http://relevine.com/pattern_shifts_rescripts.php

Jean: And there’s a video of the work.

Ruth: And there’s a video, and the title of then show changed to "Patterns: Echo, Shift and Rescript". The rescript was because the emperor, when he realized that the people of Japan really loved what the army was doing, issued what was called an Imperial Rescript. And he said, everything I’ve said so far was wrong. What I really meant to say was that the army has saved our country. That it has saved our honor. It has honored the emperor and we salute the army. So that was the pattern shift and rescript.

{For the video of these works,click here} http://relevine.com/pattern_shifts_rescripts_video.php

Jean: Okay I had forgotten that it was that blatant when you had explained it me before.

Ruth: Yes, Imperial Rescript.

Jean: Which of course we have all the time.

Ruth: We have all the time, yes Imperial Rescripts are the order of the day.

Jean: They’re referred to know as what ......, misspoke I think is one,

Ruth: Yes. I like Imperial Rescript. I think this is ..........

Jean: It’s more honest.

Ruth: Yeah, you decide to issue a statement and all the previous statements should be erased because I say so. That’s good, that’s good. So my art starts out abstract, turns political, starts political, turns abstract. I play with shapes, I play with words. I mostly draw, I mostly draw or make small marks.

Jean: And there are also paintings,

Ruth I have a number of paintings on canvas, there were some between sheets of plexi. They were abstract, actually made by rubber bands soaked in Sumi ink on one side. And on the other side a block that I had found in San Francisco that was called "hundred happiness". And so one side was fairly rigid, grid like pattern. And the other side was a pretty loose abstract pattern. It was my show, I decided to call it Patterns. And I decide therefore everything that was in it was a pattern. I ended up with three pieces that were twenty inches across and sixty-two inches long, each of which was called Three Flags. One was called Three Flags Black, one was called Three Flags White, and one was called Three Flags Grey. And it was a little joke.

Jean: And in Pittsburgh, what you’ve shown with Group A, you’ve shown with Gallery Chiz right?

Ruth: Yes, and Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, and Gallery Chiz.
Jean: Right of course.

Ruth: And so I've really had a chance to work here in Pittsburgh.
Jean: { Note to the reader, the tense is changed in this section due to the lag between the time of the interviw and the time of the posting} You are in the catalog, and were in the exhibit, for Two Hundred FiftyYears of Art in the Making exhibit at Fe Gallery in Pittsburgh.
Ruth: Which is just great. So I’m going to be one or two hundred and fifty artists from this area whose work got selected. And a piece from each of us was hanging up on the wall. And I gather it was in celebration of the two hundred and fiftieth birthday of Pittsburgh. So now I am a Pittburghian.
Ruth: ...............and I’ve been reviewed. Not as often as I would like. But I’ve been reviewed here in Pittsburgh, and also in Washington. I think in Europe but it’s always in somebody else’s language. And I just have to be happy that my name is there and hope that there is saying something that isn’t too disapproving.
So again we’re back to Andy and his fifteen minutes of fame.
Jean: Thanks, Ruth.
NOTE: You can see two works by Ruth Levine at Carnegie Museum through Nov 8th, 2009 as part of the 99th Annual Exhibition of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh