Ceramic Monthly - Studio Visit: James Simon, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
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My studio on Gist Street was love at first site. My friend Rick and I were driving around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, neighborhoods, checking out interesting buildings and there it was. Formerly a junkyard, the building is 4500 square feet, three stories, and made from red brick. It has wooden floors, large wood beams and rafters, high ceilings, and lots of windows.
In the beginning, it was a rough raw space, jam-packed with junk from the previous owner. I cleaned it out, changed the windows, insulated the ceilings, ran water and gas lines, and put in a gas furnace—pretty much on a do-it-yourself, shoe-string budget. It has a big backyard (2500 square feet) surrounded by 15-foot tall fences. I planted bamboo, fruit trees, and added water features, which provide an oasis of privacy in the middle of a gritty urban environment.
I purchased the building in 2000 in the city’s Uptown neighborhood to use as my sculpture and mosaic studios; however, it has served as much more than that. The studio on Gist Street, and Gist Street itself, has become a cultural hub for grass-roots revitalization and change in a blighted neighborhood.
I envisioned creating a stimulating and intellectual community in the space. Something similar to the warm and sharing collaborative work space lifestyle I had experienced while living in Brazil and Mexico. Through small public art projects on the street and events in my space, like the popular Gist Street Reading Series, music, dance, and film events, and most recently a show with the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference, I have brought, and am continuing to introduce, a diverse range of folks to the neighborhood.
The main front area of the ground floor is where I do most of my dirty and dusty work, including building large ceramic sculptures and sometimes mold making and casting. There is a narrow garage-type space, which once served as the scale area for the junkyard, where my kilns live. In the back, I have built on an addition that has large windows and high ceilings overlooking my bamboo jungle. A glass garage door is open to the yard for most of the summer months. I do most of my mosaics here, as well as sculpture. There is also a small in-ground swimming pool, which I made out of a large baptismal pool that a church had put on the street for garbage day.
The 2nd floor is a live-in artists’ space that I rent to fellow artist friends, and the 3rd floor is a 1400-square-foot open loft space with a (functioning) bathtub right smack in the middle of the floor. The third floor has a wonderful view of downtown Pittsburgh and the surrounding hills. It serves as my living space, office, and design space. I also host a variety of events here such as literary readings, movie screenings, and live music performances.
What I love about my studio is the friendly, industrial openness that is created by the combination of wood and brick. I have been influenced by Spanish architecture and tropical Latin American living spaces, often lush, open, and colorful. The large outside area gives me the sense that I am in a tropical land far away from the hustle and bustle, yet the location is central to all the commercial and entertainment districts of Pittsburgh.
Originally published in November 2018 issue of Ceramics Monthly http://www.ceramicsmonthly.org . Copyright, The American Ceramic Society. Reprinted with permission.