I met with Jennifer on February 22, 2015. She is a visual artist who lives in the Mexican War Streets and her word is “Zombies.” In addition to the interactive element of the installation (she and her husband will playfully scare passersby who are checking out the word, growling and snarling like zombies) it also exemplifies the educational possibility of public art. She notes: “It helps people grow. And I think there are kids around here who might never get a chance to go to the museums, or they only know art through popular culture or music and when they see pieces like this on somebody’s home I think they take ownership of it in a really great way. It becomes a part of their identity in a way that maybe afterschool arts programs or parental efforts might not be able to reach fully. …Kids, kids in the summer. When they are just knocking around the neighborhood I’ll notice that kids who might be kind of bored and who might be normally causing trouble haven’t thrown rocks or tried to take down any of the signs. They start asking neighbors questions. They start getting really excited about it and say, “Maybe I can put one on my house!” They come up with ideas and it brings out the best in kids, and then they get to talk to their family and friends about it. And I love seeing that light burn in kids I don’t even know. Don’t cry, don’t cry. It makes me feel really excited because it seems like a little thing, it’s a word on a wall, but its magical. Its really fun.”
Thanks, Jennifer! Transcript follows.
CB: SO the date is February 22, 2015 and I am here with Jennifer Tharp as part of the River of Words Oral History Project. Thanks so much for being here with me.
JT: Thank you for having me.
CB: I’d like to start with demographic stuff, I am trying to get a sense of the diversity of participants, so, what is your address, full name, age, marital status, race. I can prompt you if necessary.
JT: What do you want to know first?
CB: How about your full name.
JT: My name is Jennifer Tharp, and I live at 420 North Taylor Avenue here in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
JT: I have been with my beloved for almost fourteen years now.
CB: Congratulations. What ethnicity do you identify with?
JT: I’d say Irish-German.
CB: Irish-German-America. You are close to Deutscheland[town], perfect.
CB: How long have you lived in the North Side?
JT: We have lived here, lets see, we moved here in October of 2007.
CB: And how long have you lived in Pittsburgh?
JT: Since then. We moved from Seattle, where we met.
CB: Ok, so cloudy to another cloudy place.
JT: Yes, it was a nice transition, but I’m originally from Honolulu so this is very exotic for me, and people might think it is funny that I say it is exotic, but it surely is.
CB: That’s gotta be way different. How often do you get back there?
JT: I haven’t been back for 10 years.
CB: Its probably really expensive [to travel there].
JT: My whole family still lives there, I am overdue for another visit.
CB: Interesting. An artist friend in Chicago just went back to Hawai’i so he posted all these gorgeous pictures, you know, hanging out there.
JT: My brother does that regularly, he is a photographer, so I just think “Damn you!” But also “Post more, I’d love to see more.”
CB: Absolutely. Do you know within your house falls within the historic district?
CB: And which historic district? I guess I have to specify that.
JT; The Mexican War Streets Historical District. And I believe its the original historical district, because our street, Taylor, was named after General Taylor from the Mexican War.
CB: Excellent. So I’m going to turn now to the River of Words project. Can you tell me how you became involved; what that experience was like; etc.
JT: Well, David and I have been coming to City of Asylum events since we moved here and whenever we hear they are doing something we check it out. This was another series of events that was happening I think I believe during the summer. since we are both artists we love to help participate in other artists’ projects if we can so we’ve been involved in several since we’ve been here, and we just thought this was fun so we walked down to the tent and saw what was happening.
CB: What word did you pick?
JT: We were kind of one of the first people there so we got a great look at what was available and a lot of lovely words, it was kind of hard to choose, but when we saw “Zombies,” we knew, we laughed and we thought “Yes, that is our word.” [Laughs] “Library” and “Love” were very high on the list but zombies won out.
JT: Well, we’ve been really big fans of the walking dead recently and the fact that our city is often connected with zombie movies, we just thought, Night of the Living Dead and things like that and we just though “How perfect is this?” And its a little cheeky, and its a touch of halloween which we love, and so we though “All the things. This is perfect.”
CB: And, can you tell me now, six months later, what has the impact of displaying this word had on your life? And what kind of interactions, perhaps, has it inspired?
JT: Its been wonderful. It makes us laugh everytime we see it. Its prominently displayed on our blue fence on Sampsonia, because the front of our house is on Taylor and the back of our house is on Sampsonia which connects, just down from City of Asylum, so its been really fun to see people walk by and they are coming here or going anywhere, and oh, when it first came up they were saying “Oh, look at that one! There’s another one” and we would hear them when we were in the Garden, and people thought it was funny, and we would often scare people when they came by to look at the word, and they love it. We would crouch down behind our fence, and when we knew people were gathering around to look at the word or take photos, which they often do, people love to take photos of that one, we would reach over the fence with curled, gnarled hands and growl or snarl at them, and they scream, and they laugh, and it just never gets old. Its really fun. People come back for more, and they want us to take photos of them pretending to be scared with David having his hands over the fence, so its not just a lovely installation, its become a really interactive piece.
CB: Have you met any new neighbors because of it, or had conversations that maybe you wouldn’t have had otherwise?
JT: Yeah, I think everybody who has a word on their home or next door to somebody who has one, its a source of pride now. People are very excited about it. We love to say “What’s this word?” or “I met ” instead people used to say “Oh, I met 420 Taylor,” or “I’m here on Resaca” or what not. People now identify their homes with the word they have, so, I enjoy that.
CB: Thats really interesting. So I”m going to shift a little bit now to the Historic Review Commission controversy, so, are you aware of that, and if so, do you have thoughts on what should be done and kind of whats happening?
JT: I am aware of it. David and I are very sensitive to the preservation or at least the upkeep of our historic homes, at least the facade because it gives our neighborhood a continuity. And it was important that these were not destroyed in the 70s — when the whole horrible sweep of the 60s and 70s was going on through the city. So we really want to keep our home the way it is. But we think that this sort of art installation only enhances what we have here in our neighborhood. I think the justapositon between a new, basically no impact art installation on these beautiful historic homes is just fantastic, its the best of both worlds, I think.
CB: So, what do you think should be done about it?
JT: Well I understand that some of the neighbors have gone to the city, and asked as a group if we can be permitted to keep the pieces on our homes and I think it’s a good sign that everybody is so unanimous on it, especially when you get a bunch of people with a lot of opinions, but I think we are really galvanized around this, and the fact that the City of Asylum has been so wonderful, to neighbors but also to the art world in what they produce, we really want to make sure that those things are protected and supported.
CB: Yeah. More generally, what do you think the purpose of public art is, in the North Side but maybe in Pittsburgh more broadly?
JT: I think its for beauty. Its for dialogue between people. It starts conversations. I think especially maybe not in our neighborhood immediately but in the North Side in general it is really important that those of us who are artists and/or support the arts, I think it’s a responsibility of ours to share outside ideas with the rest of the neighborhood and the rest of the city and the world. It helps people grow. And I think there are kids around here who might never get a chance to go to the museums, or they only know art through popular culture or music and when they see pieces like this on somebody’s home I think they take ownership of it in a really great way. It becomes a part of their identity in a way that maybe afterschool arts programs or parental efforts might not be able to reach fully.
CB: Can you give a couple of examples that you’ve noticed of that?
JT: Kids, kids in the summer. When they are just knocking around the neighborhood I’ll notice that kids who might be kind of bored and who might be normally causing trouble haven’t thrown rocks or tried to take down any of the signs. They start asking neighbors questions. They start getting really excited about it and say, “Maybe I can put one on my house!” They come up with ideas and it brings out the best in kids, and then they get to talk to their family and friends about it. And I love seeing that light burn in kids I don’t even know. Don’t cry, don’t cry. It makes me feel really excited because it seems like a little thing, it’s a word on a wall, but its magical. Its really fun.
CB: Can you tell me about the kind of art you do?
JT: I am learning to be a web developer now. I’m a visual artist, photography, illustrator, and I’m transitioning, well, not really transitioning, just broadening my skill set, and David [Jenn’s husband] is a visual designer, working on a t-shirt line right now, its very exciting.
CB: Awesome. Have you displayed public photos in the neighborhood?
JT: Only in my home. But I’ve been nudged quite enthusiastically to put my work out there, its just I get a little nervous about it, but we have such a great creative environment here, a lot of professional artists here, a lot of patrons of the arts, a lot of just curious people. So if anybody finds you are creative and you are not showing it they feel a little gipped, like “Scuse me! Where’s your stuff? You should do something!” So, I really enjoy that.
CB: Are there any other comments or anecdotes that you’d like to share that I haven’t given you a chance to speak to?
JT: No, other than, just, this is a wonderful project [River of Words] and the artists were truly just lovely. They were really accommodating, very curious about why we chose our word, what we liked about the River of Words project, they were just very open to suggestions and they were very respectful of our property not that we were—they just made it an effortless installation. And it was nice to see them around, putting their work up everywhere. So we really enjoyed that.