I grew up in a city that built the world.
Pittsburgh. Home of the steel industry, and a place that is currently thriving in fresh and modern ways, yet sticking to its humble roots. A couple weeks ago I caught wind of a truly inspiring project. One that makes you step back and think about how beautiful life can be with a little dreaming.
The project all began in North Braddock, PA. A true-grit, manufacturing town that suffered from the collapse of the US steel industry. Sitting perfectly on a sweet corner along Jones Street is a once-abandoned church that was given a second chance and turned into the home of Braddock Tiles. By whom, you may ask? Well, thanks to the ever-so-inspiring, Brooklyn-based, Caledonia Curry, also known as Callie, and her artist name, Swoon. She is the founder of The Heliotrope Foundation, a non-profit organization that is currently doing amazing work in Haiti and New Orleans, and now manager and lead artist of Braddock Tiles.
Since 2007, Callie has worked to save the church from demolition, turning it into the home base of Braddock Tiles and in the process bringing the community together by building up a space that creates joy. To do this, the church was in need of a little love; first off, it needed a new roof. So, Braddock Tiles will be creating 20,000 pop-colored, ceramic roof tiles by hand, giving a place of pride and a new community arts center to the people of Braddock.
I met Callie at a Braddock Tiles Benefit Show last weekend, which featured the work of over 70 artists who formed inkjet prints on cotton rag paper and donated them to help raise money for the construction and materials needed to build the roof. I got the chance to pick Callie’s brain a bit, visit the church, admire the art she painted along the walls to brighten it up, and fall in love with my city’s community a little bit more.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Wake up, meditate, eat breakfast, and then, if I’m lucky, draw and make stuff all day, or, if I’m doing the hard part of my job, then I have a million meetings and deal with all the nuts and bolts of being a working artist who is also juggling a number of very in-depth long-term community based art and rebuilding projects.
We are so lucky to have someone like you help build our community and help our city be a better place. So tell me, why Pittsburgh?
Pittsburgh is just a really remarkable town. Its combination of geography (being situated at the confluence of three rivers), and its history as a steel town, and before that a glass and ceramics manufacturer, makes it a city with it’s own very specific character. I was drawn to it out of curiosity about the people and all of the D.I.Y. solutions that were springing up in response to the aftermath of the collapse of the steel industry.
What are some goals with the church and Braddock Tiles?
The church in North Braddock had been abandoned for about 15 years when I first saw it, and was one of the many structures that were being threatened by the bulldozer, as there was no one around who had the means to protect and restore them. Me and a group of friends decided that we wanted to become part of the community of Braddock, and work on everything from farming, to arts programming, to rehabbing the building. My piece of the puzzle was the church building. I wanted to make it into a living work of art. Like an art installation, but something functional, that could be used by the community, and that the community could have a hand in making — and — that would benefit local people economically while it was being restored.
Since we needed a new roof, I had the wild idea to make it a beautiful colorful ceramic tiled roof like I’d seen on St. Stephens Cathedral in Vienna when I was an exchange student in Eastern Europe as a teenager. Then, to make the idea crazier, I wanted to hand-make all of the tiles ourselves, in Braddock, and to hire and train people in the neighborhood to create them.
So this is where the Braddock Tiles idea began. All of the fundraising we’ve done so far has been to get the building up to speed so that we can create a functioning ceramics factory in the basement. My hope is that the factory will, after repairing the roof, go on to be a sustainable business, creating artists tiles, as well as beautiful handmade tiles for people’s homes, and that it will be the engine which funds the rest of the building, as well as creating hands-on programming for kids and local residents.
I LOVED your fanny pack the other day. It made me instantly want to say hello and be your friend. What do you carry in that bad boy?
It’s my brain. I’ve worn it 365 days a year for about 8 years, so it’s also pretty sturdy. I have my keys, wallet, phone, camera, and then my mini-tool kit, safety pin, tiny nails, bobby pin, thumb drive, plus a tiny valentine, Haitian magic seeds, and a couple stray coins from my travels, all things that I popped in there for safe keeping and forgot to take out. My friend Carrie, who started a company called Fabric-Horse, made it.
It’s so important to help out in our local communities. What do you find rewarding about it?
You feel connected to people and a part of something larger than yourself. Community is something I’m still learning about, but one thing that I have understood is that it takes bringing people together around moments and ideas, and finding ways to meet people’s daily needs which are also fun and creative. Doing this work teaches me how to be a good neighbor and a good citizen.
How do you stay inspired?
I’m constantly looking, traveling, exploring, reading, meeting people, and just keeping my brain totally full of new things to chew on. And it’s a pretty hungry brain, so it keeps me on the move, always finding new avenues of exploration.
A HUGE thanks to Callie, for letting me in on her life and for helping the world being a more beautiful place. The artwork in all of the images above are original, painted and belong to Swoon. Make sure to check out her Instagram here!
* Photo of Callie by January Fredericks, follow her Instagram for more imagery of the church!