The works of three documentary photographers in the exhibit “Being Good,” on display at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, showcase three talented individuals who are using their art — and committing their resources — to improving distressed neighborhoods in the city: poet, performance artist and sculptor Vanessa German; ceramicist, educator and entrepreneur Bill Strickland; and visual artist and gardener Randy Gilson.
Brian Cohen, the organizer of the exhibit and one of the three participating photographers, says the genesis of the display was an article he read about the Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates that describes Gates’ role in energizing the city’s South Side.
“I thought it would be interesting to highlight the contributions that our three featured individuals have made to their neighborhoods in Pittsburgh,” Cohen says. “The impetus for the project is the continuing desire to shine a light on the fact that we have, in Pittsburgh, some of the finest photographers working in this country today, and that we have stories worth telling through their eyes.”
Cohen chose two colleagues to help with the exhibit — Scott Goldsmith, who has photographed feature stories for National Geographic, Life, Time, Fortune, Business Week, Sports Illustrated and People magazines, and Lynn Johnson, who was a staff photographer at the Pittsburgh Press for seven years before beginning her freelance career as a contract photographer for Black Star, then Aurora Photos.
Goldsmith chose to photograph Bill Strickland, the founding president of Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, who he says is “one of the most wonderful humans I have ever met.”
Strickland, who grew up close to poverty in the Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh and made it his life mission to help inner-city youth, is a classic example of “paying it forward,” Goldsmith says.
“A wonderful high-school teacher of his named Frank Ross nurtured and mentored him through some difficult high-school years,” Goldsmith says. “Now, Bill is helping youth across America and the world by spreading the mission and concept of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and Bidwell Training Center.”
Strickland’s spirit and vibe at the Guild and Bidwell is prevalent and contagious among nearly two dozen large-scale photographs of Strickland by Goldsmith, many of which hang from the ceiling, back to back throughout the gallery. Some offer pensive moments, with Strickland deep in thought, but most feature this magnanimous man among the many teachers and students he has influenced — and continues to influence.
“It is Bill’s spirit that permeates the place,” Goldsmith says, in regard to the Guild and Bidwell and, also, this exhibit.
Before meeting Strickland, Goldsmith did some research to learn about his background and accomplishments.
“A story in a national magazine made me a little nervous as I read about his interaction with a photographer,” he says. “In short, Bill was portrayed as being anxious, apprehensive and restless with the photographer. He asked the photographer several times if he was finished. He was not comfortable with a camera pointing his direction.”
Goldsmith later learned that Strickland does not want the worldwide attention focused on him.
“He wants the attention focused on his centers and the wonderful things these places do to help underprivileged youth,” Goldsmith says. “This was the nucleus of his initial reluctance to be photographed. I slowly gained his trust and acceptance.”
Johnson chose to photograph Vanessa German, a multidisciplinary artist based in Homewood who explores the power of transformation and healing through sculpture, poetry, photography and performance. Like Strickland, German created an opportunity for community outreach through her Art House and Love Front Porch (lovefrontporch.com) projects, which are based in her house on Hamilton Avenue in Homewood. A creative resource for neighborhood kids, it is there that German teaches art and creates her own.
Her mixed-media sculptures incorporate many objects found in her neighborhood, including doll parts, antique tins, household objects and African beads. In the exhibit, nearly 30 photographs by Johnson feature German with her surreal, three-dimensional artwork as well as working with children from her community.
“Personally, I feel there is great depth and complexity in both Vanessa and her role in her community, and these images only hint at that,” Johnson says.
As for Cohen, he says spending time with Randy Gilson, who has a colorfully painted house, Randyland (randy.land), in the Mexican War Streets of the North Side, gave him a “glimpse of the man behind the public persona.”
“Randy is certainly larger than life, but he is a serious artist with serious intent,” Cohen says. “His is a message of peace and love, delivered through an art that is accessible but not trite.”
The nearly 30 black-and-white photographs give a glimpse of this colorful character as he interacts with the many visitors from near and far who flock to the place on a continual basis.
It’s ironic to see them all in black-and-white, given the explosion of color that is Randyland, but Cohen’s choice is an effective one, allowing the visitor to delve deeper into the personality of his subject.
“It was wonderful to witness the sense of joy and wonder that he, and his work, elicited from visitors to Randyland,” Cohen says.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.