Monday, April 27, 2015

River of Words Oral History Project: Elaine Stone on "Ginger," "Zombies," and "Put Yourself in Others' Shoes"-- Public art as magnet and connector

On March 22nd I interviewed Elaine Stone who co-runs a family owned business, "Smart Solution Technologies" in the buildings of a former flashlight manufacturer. Her three words are "Ginger," "Zombies," and the phrase, "Put yourself in others' shoes."

The first word, for her, reflects a family joke. The second, her family's intense relationships to zombie narratives, and the third, a recognition of the fact that difficult circumstances (including questions of addiction) impact nearly every family in the U.S. The project as a whole, she explained, was a "non invasive" way of cultivating community connections. Public art as a genre also functions as a "draw" or a way to boost a neighborhood that may, for various reasons, be in decline. She reflected on some of the "fussiness" about "historical purity" in her own neighborhood of West-Allegheny, a concern that also might apply to the city historic district of the Mexican War Streets.

The transcript follows below. Thank you, Elaine.

CB: OK, I am here with Elaine Stone and the date is March 22, 2015 and we are participating in the River of Words Oral History Project. Thanks for coming in to talk with me today.

ES: You are welcome.

CB: I wanted to start with some demographic data, to get a sense of the diversity of the participants, so if you could give me your name, address, age, race or ethnicity you identify with, marital status.

ES: Name, Elaine Stone. Address is 831 West North Avenue. I am 57, I am married...what did I miss?

CB: Race you identify with?

ES: White.

CB: Great. Do you know if your house falls within the city historic district?

ES: It does not.

CB: How long have you lived in the North Side?

ES: Hm. I have only been on the North Side going on two years, but we have owned the building since 2010.

CB: Mhmm. How long have you lived in Pittsburgh?

ES: I've lived in Pittsburgh since 1981.

CB: So you have probably seen it changing a lot, since then, that's great.

ES: Yeah.

CB: Lets turn to the River of Words project. Can you tell me about how you got involved and what 
that experience was like?

ES: You know, to tell you the truth, I think I read about the project in the North Side newspaper, and when I read about the project and they were looking for volunteers for the words I called. You know, the arts, being involved in the arts, I was on the board of the Mattress Factory, my background is in the arts, I knew about the City of Asylum, I have been a fan of what they do and they have done a great job here, and so-- and the fact that it was kind of community-wide interested me, so.

CB: What word or words did you pick?

ES: We picked a couple of words. We have a very big building. We actually have five buildings that we have put together, they are warehouse buildings, I have pictures of them if you would like to see them, so we have 63,000 square feet and we are visible on three sides, so you can see us even from the park, so our building was kind of a nice building to pick words for. So, I picked a word, and then they had extra words, and then I got to pick some more words. So the first word I picked, and it really was an easy pick was "Ginger." And, this doesn't show the color very well, but the color had a bit more of an orangey tint to this one [she is showing me the photo on her phone], this looks really yellow. And its actually a joke, to tell you the truth. It was a word my family, my husband and I, and our kids are out to dinner many years ago, and we were in a sushi restaurant somewhere near the strip. And were eating dinner. And my husband ran out of ginger, so instead of saying to the waitress, "I need ginger," or "May I please have some ginger" he just looked at her and says "I have no ginger." And we all thought that was sort of a weird way to ask for something, and so it sort of became a family joke, where if you needed something you go: "I have no " and that's kind of how it started. Plus, then the color of it was this beautiful little bit of orangey tint to it and I guess at the time my hair was more that color. I was a fake red-head for a while. For a long while. So the whole thing sort of worked. That's how I chose that word.

CB: So what were the subsequent words?

ES: The subsequent words-- I have two, two more-- the first one was "zombies," that's in bright red, by the way, and the reason I chose zombies was because my daughter is dating a guy who is really all about the zombie apocalypse.

CB: Oh! Ok.

ES: No kidding. And my niece goes to school at the special effects school which [the name] is escaping me right now, and she does zombie makeup, and she's done a zombie film, so, there's like a lot of talk about zombies around me all the time, and so I thought, "OK, we will just pay a little homage to zombies," so that's how we got zombies. And then the final one was, and these are, "Put yourself in others' shoes." So, that one. It's just a bigger kind of thing, you know, really. Which is, you sort of don't always know what trials and tribulations people have. And once you do, you sort of may think about the world differently. We are really right down the street from the Light of Life, or, now what is it? It's called Harbor Light, and they are -- I don't want to say that they are a rehab center-- but I am not exactly sure what they do, they mostly alcohol, some drug, kind of people go there-- but they walk by all the time. And because they have to go to meetings. So I thought it was kind of a good thing, because I think there have been lots of issues in our family around addictions, and so, you know, we are not so different from people that walk past us.

CB: And so, after these words were installed on your house, were there any interactions or conversations that happened around them?

ES: Yeah, there really ways. There was one in particular, which was ginger, which was really funny 
because I think I even sent a note down here [to City of Asylum] saying that our employees think that we did it on purpose so that they would talk to each other about the word. And sort of, like I was doing some sort of creative exercise with them, they didn't know what I was doing, but they thought that they were supposed to talk about it, and come up with something, so I thought it was really funny. I don't think I ever really announced to anybody that the words were out there or what they were for. I didn't really think about it. I just really thought-- because I know, walking around the neighborhood, I've seen words, and it just catches my interest and attention.

CB: Did you meet any new folks because of your words?

ES: Did I meet any new folks because of the words...yeah, possibly. I'm trying to think about that. Now, I know if I've been outside people have talked to me about it, yeah. I would say yeah, that's a possible.

CB: So now it's been a little over six months. Has the meanings of these words changed for you at all?

ES: No, no.

CB: So what do you think the significance of this project is, River of Words?

ES: Well, I think what I said earlier is just the idea that is community we are participating in a larger art project, in kind of a simple way. I don't know the meaning of the words for the artists, thats kind of the other part of this, why would they choose "ginger"? It was kind of a funny word. So, I just sort of liked the idea that its a synergetic neighborhood experience.

CB: So now I wanted to return to the Historic Review Commission discussions that are happening. How much of that do you know about, and do you have any opinions or thoughts on it?

ES: I don't know much about it...I'm in Allegheny West which is different than this neighborhood, so I don't really know what you are talking about specifically.

CB: So my understanding is that the HRC had a hearing in February about the people who fall within the city historic district, whether or not they are allowed to keep their words up, because of questions of fit with the historic style of the houses. So we are in a moratorium where they are discussing and thinking and planning, and there is going to be another hearing in May.

ES: Yeah, I don't fall in that district so for me it's not really an issue.

CB: I wanted to close with your thoughts on public art in the North Side and in Pittsburgh more broadly. So, what do you think the purpose of public art is for the North Side and also for Pittsburgh?

ES: Well, you know, my background is the arts. I think the arts are really, really important. There are lots of neighborhoods in Pittsburgh you could point out were falling apart until the arts came in and revitalized them. So I think we could use a lot more art in ...I think art draws people. It just draws people to a neighborhood for reasons that...just interest. Someone's coming to Pittsburgh, they see all of these houses on Sampsonia Way and are like "I just want to go check that out," and they bring people to the neighborhood and these people eat something, they drink something, they take a walk, they buy a house, you know all those things happen. So I think public art is really important, and in fact we are really talking about thinking seriously about a piece of artwork on the outside of one of our buildings, and its something I've been thinking about for quite some time. So for me its a very personal discussion because I really would like to have something happen. But I know it won't be an easy thing to do. And I also know that it might not be allowed to be permanent. So, we'll see. So yes, I think art is exceedingly important. I think when you are dealing, particularly with historic neighborhoods, the challenge is that people get very fussy about keeping it pure and historic and, I mean, there is room for that, but I think in a neighborhood when its appropriate art, color, diversity, something interesting in the middle of, for instance, even what they did at the Children's Museum, that's a very odd piece that they got put in the middle of it--

CB: What piece are you thinking about, is it the car?

ES: Yeah, the one almost directly across, right beside the Children's Museum and it looks like a cube and its lit up at night...and its a very different architecture from anything around it and I don't know how she got that done, but she did, and its just so important. It really is. I'd love to see sculptures in the park, you know, we don't really have a lot of public art here, now that I really think about it. This particular street is interesting. But when I think about walking around the neighborhood, can I tell you where there is a piece of art work? Not too much.

CB: Do you have specific plans for the art that you are thinking about for outside your building?

ES: I have some, yes.

CB: Do you mind talking about what that might look like?

ES: Mm. Not for public yet! It's a little bit of recycle and reuse. Our building was a flashlight factory for 80 years. So we actually have tens of thousands of pieces of flashlight parts left, so its kind of like, well, what do we do with that? And I am working with somebody right now who has done a lot of the big murals around town, so she has done a lot of kind of billboards type of things. And we have five buildings, so we are thinking of designating one of them as the public art piece, and the other is more traditional and the kind of make-the-neighbors-happy kind of piece. [Laughs] Like this neighborhood, I live in a very fussy neighborhood about historic significance, and they are little crazy about being pure and all that jazz. But I am technically not in a historic neighborhood, while across the street it is designated historic. So it is a very strange little circle that came around us.

CB: That's what I learned from the hearing in February, it just could be across the street that the rules are completely different.

ES: Yeah.

CB: Alright, any other comments or anecdotes that you would like to share. 

ES: No, I mean, I enjoyed this, it was kind of non-invasive, if you will, to create interest and fun and they all had some colors on them. Like I said, the only other thing is that I would be interested to know why the artists chose the words that they did. Were they kind of random, or was there something about their choices. And I'm really glad you are doing this, because after we did this Henry sent out a survey and one of the things I said is, "To know why the people chose the word," there is clearly some other meaning. "Ginger," sort of jumped, you know what I mean? It wasn't like "Oh, I don't know what to pick" it just sort of like "Yeah, that's it."

CB: Yeah, I talked to Israel this morning because he was nice enough to give me a ride, and so he was telling me that they were thinking of it kind of on three levels: thinking about it in terms of universal archetypes, things that are kind of shared across humanity; thinking about Pittsburgh as a local space, he had noticed that in Pittsburgh there is kind of a focus on difference and on being different, Zombies is an example of that--

ES: Well, the movie was made here too, so there is a great deal of zombie history here in Pittsburgh which is kind of funny.

CB: Right, which I only learned from doing research on this project, and also emphasis on its blue collar past; and also thinking about environment and space. So those were some of their motivations. 
But also, I guess, in Venezuela, most of the houses have names.

ES: Oh really?

CB: Yes, so this is, on one level, it seems to me, a kind of transnational exchange project where a little bit of that culture is being brought over here.

ES: That's interesting, I'd never really thought about that, but there are buildings around Pittsburgh that have a name on them, not that often--

CB: Well, a lot in Shadyside, and also in Highland Park, when I take the bus to go to the University I see a lot of old hotels but also, "THe Webster" or something

ES: Part of that might be masons or whatever, there was another kind of ethnic group that was working on their buildings. Yeah, our building is usually referred to as the "Hipwell" buildings because the flashlight was the "Hipwell" and Hipwell was family, so we have a very interesting circle with technology in this building, because when they were making flashlights that was kind of the technology of the day, and it was a family business, and now here we are a hundred some years later and we are sort of using the technology of the day, and we are a family business. So its a very kind of, a circle that we have been thinking about and appreciating more and more, and it feels like its a very good fit all the way around. What also is interesting about the building is that it has been drawing creative things to it. We've had TV shows shot there, we had a movie shot there, I have another location scout coming next week, so there has been a pull of creativity and artistic things being drawn to the building which I think is kind of very interesting for us, and I hope for our neighborhood. But out neighborhood doesn't really like it if there is any, shall we say, conflict in scheduling, any problems in driving around.

CB: That's also that Pittsburgh is a much more car based city than I thought it would be, so as a result I am getting my learners permit tomorrow [laughs].

ES: Good for you. Where are you from?

CB: I'm from New York, so I've gotten away with not driving for a while but here it seems pretty necessary because there are buses but they are not always that reliable.

ES: and God forbid you want to go way far outside the city.

CB: Yeah, so that's interesting too. Do you mind saying a little bit about what your company does for a non expert? So that I have some context about the art you are involved in?

ES: Yeah, again the name of our company is Smart Solution Technologies. We've been in business for 19 years. So if you have ever seen or worked with a Smart Board, an interactive white board, that was really what our company got based on. My husband sold technology some twenty odd years ago and fell in love with it, and its a very long story but somehow he said "I want to sell this product," and talked the main manufacturer into letting him be a dealer and extend him credit, so on, so anyway, moving forward his background has always been in audiovisuals and worked for a number of companies, and the company grew and changed and was able to do things. So now what we really do is we do technologies, collaborative technologies to help you as a teacher, our market has mostly been in education in the past, but is changing more and more now into business, where we are doing meeting rooms, training rooms, board rooms, taking old board rooms and updating them, evaluating what you need to make your room function. So its sort of like, technology moves so fast, its more than just collaboration, its about collaborating with the world. And its about collaborating on any device. So its a little bit, people want to come in, sit down, bring in all of their devices, and then make all of their devices go up on an interactive whiteboard, they want to share that information, and then they want to send that information. That's what we do.

CB: Interesting. Well thanks so much for your time. It was good to meet you.

ES: You are welcome.

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