Tuesday, April 28, 2015

River of Words Oral History Project: Timothy Johnson, "Book" and Art as Mind Expanding

On February 22nd I interviewed Timothy Johnson, who has recently moved to the North Side, though he is a native Pittsburgher. His word is "Book," a term that speaks to his wife's book-writing project, and his own Christian faith. Having the word, he recounted, has given him a chance to talk to people about his spiritual identity, but also is a way of learning about neighbors. "Art," he argued, "is by definition mind expanding."

Thanks, Timothy!

Transcript follows:

CB: Alright, so the date is February 22nd and I am here with Timothy Johnson as part of the River of Words Oral History Project. Thanks, Timothy, for being here with me. I want to start with some demographic data. One of my questions is to think about the diversity of participants involved in the River of Words, so, to that end, if you could provide me with your full name, your address, your age, your marital status, and your race or ethnicity.

TJ: OK. I am Tim Johnson, and I live at 1241 Monterrey Street in the War Streets. I am 55 years old, and married. My wife and I are empty nesters. We just moved here about a year ago. We bought a home in the War Streets about ten months prior, and did a renovation, and the work was done in about February of last year. 

CB: Ok. And what ethnicity do you identify with?

TJ: African American.

CB: OK. And how long have you lived in Pittsburgh?

TJ: All my life, really. I've had some stints in other cities but the majority of my life has been in Pittsburgh. I was born in Pittsburgh.

CB: Does your house fall within the historic district, and if so, which historic district?

TJ: The primary district.

CB: The Mexican War Streets?

TJ: Yes.

CB: I am still learning about this sort of patchwork-quilt system of historic districts.

TJ: I know what you mean.

CB: So let's turn to the River of Words Project. Can you tell me about how you found out about the project, and what your involvement was like?

TJ: I was on my way home, I had taken the T over to the North Shore, and had walked through the Park and crossed North Avenue walking up Monterrey Street and I had passed a word on my street that was in green lettering and kind of wondered what it meant but didn't know a whole lot about it, and as I approached my home, my neighbor to my left had just completed having a word stenciled on their window, and so I inquired about it, and made a very quick decision, without consulting my wife, that this was a good idea, and so I selected a word and it was installed by the artists right there at my house.

CB: Awesome. What word is it?

TJ: The word is "book." 

CB: Mhmm. Why "book"?

TJ: I guess a couple of reasons. One, there were only about a half dozen words left at that point. I hadn't really heard of the project until that date. Two, the word struck me. My wife is working on a book right now. And she is spending a lot of time on it, and it reminded me of the work that she is doing, and secondly, I am a Christian, and the first Bible that I owned was called The Book, and obviously the word connected me, reminded me [of] that experience. So that's why I selected it.

CB: Since the past six months or so since you've installed the word, has the meaning changed for you at all?

TJ: No, the meaning hasn't changed. The experience has changed because people have inquired about it. So its been great to tell people about that experience and kind of re-live it. It was kind of social. I bet you there were a half-dozen people in front of my house when the word was stencilled on the window, and I've got photographs of it, and we even took a minute and had some water and iced tea, so it was kind of nice.

CB: Are there any instances that stick out in mind of interactions that you have had around the word?

TJ: You know, its funny, one is that there are several words on my street that I hadn't really recognized until I got a word. And then it made me see some of the words that were there. The word that I mentioned earlier, its just a green word and it kind of popped out at you and it made me wonder what it was about?

CB: What was the word?

TJ: I don't remember. 

CB: OK [Laughs]

TJ: But my block has several words on it. 

CB: What do you think the broader significance of this project is?

TJ: Well, personally, its got personal meaning to me. Its given me a chance to tell people my story, my Christian story, and, you know, motivated my wife to work a little harder on that book. Every day she walks in she's got to look at that word in the front window. And as I learned that this was bigger than just my word and my block, I attended the ceremony that was held when there was an unveiling of the poetry. There were a lot of people there that were sharing similar stories. If it weren't for that, I guess I would have remained curious and unaware of what all these words meant. 

CB: Great. Ok. So I'm going to turn now to the Historic Review Commission situation. Can you tell me what you know about it, and what your thoughts are on it?

TJ: I don't have any view about the historic review commission at all, quite frankly, I mean, my decision wasn't influenced by politics or bureaucracy. I know that as I've talked to my neighbors, I like this idea that there can be an artistic expression and there can be artistic -- I'm not an artist, I am a photographer, I guess you can call that art, but I'm not a professional-- but there are several very talented people in this neighborhood. So the idea that they can exhibit their work, and others of us can enjoy it, I think that's a great idea. 

CB: Do you think the words should stay up?

TJ: Absolutely. Absolutely. I am even a little perplexed as to how anybody could defend taking a word off of a house. I mean, its no different than putting a "For Sale" sign in a window, you know what I mean, or a "For Rent" sign, or a political sign.

CB: I guess one of the arguments or concerns that were raised were about precedent, and so, there if is a precedent of allowing this kind of art, then what comes next. Yeah.

TJ: Yeah, but what kind of argument is that?

CB: I don't know. It's interesting.

TJ: Art by definition is mind-expanding, so how can you set a precedent not to expand peoples' minds? That doesn't make a lot of sense.

CB: So that leads really nicely into my last, broader questions, which is what do you think the purpose of public art is in the North Side and in Pittsburgh, and who does it serve and what is its broader impact?

TJ: Yeah. I hadn't thought much about it until I moved here and I had a chance to experience it first-hand. I think its got a real potential of distinguishing the North Side, and bringing people to the North Side to enjoy and appreciate something, you know. The Tree that is a gift kind of, that has been shared, between the artist and the public. I know that as I've learned more, I've now been able to go around the neighborhood and see some things that I didn't even know existed, and I've got to tell you, I believe that if it weren't for the art and the publicity of the art, I'm not sure that I would have had a chance to enjoy it. So I think the two go hand-in-hand. I totally support the artists' expression, and the idea that the art should be public. I totally support that as well.

CB: OK. What is it that you do?

TJ: I run a pension fund. I manage money and get a chance to help people as they are transitioning from the end of their work life into their retirement life.

CB: Cool. Is there anything else that you would like to add that I haven't given you a chance to talk about?

TJ: No there really isn't.

CB: OK. Thank you.

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