On February 23rd I had the chance to speak to Diana Jones, a writer who lives in the North Side. Her word is “mandalas,” a Sanskrit term that she suggested translates to something like “circle of life,” an insight she said she has felt more powerfully and palpably in recent years. For her, the project has taken on an unexpected level of emotional intensity, such that when she is walking her dog around the neighborhood she feels a certain kinship when she sees other houses with words. Diana eloquently elaborates the power and possibility that inheres in public art: a way to transcend, enlighten, and transform spaces, but also means by which communities can reflect their collective identities. Diana wrote an article on her experience with the project, available here. The transcript of our conversation is below. Thank you, Diana.
CB: So the date is Feb. 23 and I am here with Diana Jones as part of the River of Words Oral History Project. Thanks so much for being here with me. I am starting with some demographic data. One of my objectives is to get a sense of the diversity of participants, so if you could give me your name; address; age; marital status; race you identify with.
DJ: Sure. Diana Nelson Jones. My address is 1238 Resaca Place, and I am 57. And I am single.
CB: How long have you lived in the North Side?
DJ: Since 1990.
CB: And how long have you lived in Pittsburgh?
DJ: Since 1989.
CB: Were you born in Pittsburgh?
CB: Where are you from?
DJ: I am from West Virginia.
CB: Cool. So not too fair.
DJ: Yeah, two hours.
CB: That’s nice. Do you know if your house falls within the historic district?
CB: Which one is it in? I know there are multiple. Is it the Mexican War Streets?
CB: Great. Now I’d like to turn to the River of Words project. How did you find out about it, and what was your experience of being involved in it like?
DJ: Well, Heny and Diane, from City of Asylum put out the word that they were doing the word project, and explained what it was about, and I really wasn’t planning to take part but I heard the Venezuelan artists outside my house one day, they were attaching my neighbor’s word to their house, and I heard them speaking Spanish, and that’s my second language, and I popped out there to practice…and then I wanted a word [laughs] so they had a word for me, they put it up that same time.
CB: What is your word?
CB: What does “mandalas” mean?
DJ: The best I can understand is Sanskrit for the circle of life, the cycles of life.
CB: So what does that word mean to you?
DJ: I kind of was surprised that I picked that one, because I would normally have maybe have picked a Spanish word, for many reasons, I don’t know. It resonated for some reason. I think that ying/yang, the circle, and all the various sanskrit symbols that I at least infer are part of this definition just appeal to me. Its been a lot of my thinking in recent years that life is a circle and you just keep going around and round and round and round. In a good and a bad way.
CB: Interesting. Can you tell me about any stories that have happened because of your word. Any encounters that you have had.
DJ: I don’t know about stories or encounters, particularly, except when I am walking my dog in my neighborhood and I see other words on other houses. I just feel this strange sort of connection to everybody who has a word. I hadn’t expected how strongly that river would really, sort of, impact me metaphorically, figuratively, in every other way. It’s become such a strong feeling that I have that I hope that my word never comes off my window, and I hope that nobody takes this word down, in spite of the city’s potential for fining us.
CB: Well, that leads really nicely into my next question which is, can you tell me how much you know about the Historic Review Commission situation and your opinion on that?
DJ: Yeah. So they deal with all sorts of exterior alterations to buildings in historic districts, and when that day came up, that they were having the hearing on the word and what that might mean in the future, um, they admitted that they had never really come up upon this kind of situation before. And the argument that I think Glenn Olcerst made was significant, that these words aren’t permanent, in fact, this was not supposed to be a permanent exhibit at all. The irony is that people want it to be. Everybody who has a word up, I am pretty sure, wants to keep it, and so what they are going to do in the next month or so is hopefully figure out what a project like this could mean in historic review in general. I doubt that other people will come up with a project like this but there will be other projects that challenge what the ordinance says or doesn’t say, and so they will hopefully come up with some plan or standard.
CB: Do you have any thoughts about what that plan might or should include?
DJ: I think that it definitely should include art. Public art. Even if it is permanent. You should probably get permission first, which, apparently, we didn’t do. But the fact that any of these can be removed with no damage to any of the buildings, [indicates] to me that this should be a non-issue, and that that should be one of the standards: if it’s in the mortar and you can take it out, if you have to repair the mortar, big deal. Who wouldn’t do that?
CB: I want to close with your thoughts on public art in general. What do you think the importance of public is in the North Side, and maybe also in Pittsburgh more broadly.
DJ: Oh its inestimable. I think its one of those things that people don’t necessarily know how to describe, but they know how it feels to be around it. And I think it is hugely civilizing, and enlightening, and elevating, and I think it is important to a sense of place. It says an awful lot about the people who made those decisions at the time, it says a lot about the scope of artistic possibility in a city. And I think it gives people sort of a guide post for how to go forward with thinking outside the box, or just creating public entities. Entities that anybody, rich or poor, could enjoy. So, I think it is much more important than anybody has ever really made a case for in this city.
CB: Are you an artist?
CB: What is it that you do?
DJ: I am a writer.
CB: Do you write fiction, non fiction?
DJ: Non fiction.
CB: So also there is maybe a connection to textuality and public maybe…
DJ: With what?
CB: As a writer, do you feel a sense of kinship with the word, with the mere fact of having these public words?
DJ: Yeah, I mean, writers tie words together. You know those boxes of magnetic words that you can assemble any way you want? I mean, you can put “mandalas” besides “manadas” and you have the circle of life in a herd. My neighbor’s word is “manadas” which means “herd” in Spanish, and what’s interesting is that their word is green and my word is orange, and our house is painted kind of a sage green with a kind of deep orange trim, and neither one of us chose our word based on color, but suddenly its up there and you are thinking: “oh my gosh, its kind of like its fits!” But yeah, I think so. Putting words together is what writers do and its interesting to see all the words and how you might use them all together.
CB: OK. Is there anything else that you would like to say about the project that I haven’t given you a chance to talk about?
DJ: I just think that the artists from Venezuela, when they were here I did practice my Spanish with them and I even got to be friendly with them and I met them at the bar and we had drinks together and I spoke more Spanish and…they come from a country where you can’t just say or write or do anything you want without the government maybe having something to say about that and the fact they were in the United States doing this, and now this is being challenged [in Pittsburgh] is kind of interesting to me. But they came into our lives for a brief moment, it was nice.
CB: Great, thank you so much.
DJ: Sure, thank you. Good luck with your project.