Artist’s Eclectic Space on the North Side Combines Found Art, Plants and Her Vision
Never overlook the potential of a small lot.
Pittsburgh artist Rose Clancy’s 22-by 90-foot space in the North Side’s Mexican War Streets neighborhood is much more than a garden. It’s also an art installation, autobiography, environmental statement, archaeological dig and strategy for building community.
GardenLab@516 began humbly but, as gardens do, it grew. Ms. Clancy had purchased a dozen past-their-prime white baking potatoes that were beginning to sprout in a supermarket to conduct growth experiments on. When they outlasted the original project, she decided they deserved to continue.
“I admired the potatoes’ will to survive and go to the smallest bit of light and to grow,” Ms. Clancy said.
She asked Mattress Factory museum co-directors Michael Olijnyk and Barbara Luderowski whether there was a spot among the Sampsonia Way properties adjacent to the North Side museum for the plants, and she was offered a vacant lot next to an empty home fronted by a long-term Mattress Factory-sponsored installation by artist Ruth Stanford, “In the Dwelling-House.”
The property at 516 Sampsonia was filled with debris tossed over the fence through the years, but that didn’t deter Ms. Clancy. In April, she began cleaning it up and carried several bags of garbage out. The rest she turned into planters and sculpture.
The site is quirky and personal, with its own brand of surface beauty underlain with metaphor. It has also become an active part of the neighborhood.
Ms. Clancy’s late father, Thomas, was a true blue Irishman from County Galway, who “grew potatoes as a crop for his family. [As a child] I ate a ton of potatoes,” Ms. Clancy said. So the garden is in part a tribute to him.
Her late mother, Ruth, who Ms. Clancy said was an excellent gardener, is also present in the form of a plaster bust she sculpted in high school but never finished.
“She never said what she had to do to finish it,” so Ms. Clancy is doing so by “aging it.” With fall rains, dark liquid leached from black walnuts found in the lot began to transform the white face, staining it.
A project comprising a line of small tangerine trees growing through a barn-wood plank will conclude with the roots forever separated, referencing the artist and her seven siblings who “grew as siblings together but our roots were not allowed to mingle.”
Adjacent neighbors and passers-by stop to talk, and some shared in an unexpectedly large bean harvest that matured on the vines she’d planted, along with morning glories.
“I didn’t grow with the intention of raising a crop, but I got a crop,” she said.
From discarded tires, she created raised-bed planters. Occasionally something is brought to the site. On one drive to the garden, Ms. Clancy picked up two large discarded clay pots containing ginger mint and ornamental peppers and placed them on the street side of the fence that fronts the garden. She said they are markers that “something’s happening here; treat it with respect.”
Yeaka Williams, a neighbor whose property backs onto Sampsonia, volunteered to care for the pots and watered them twice a day during the hot, dry summer. Another neighbor introduced CAPA student Kimi Hanauer to Ms. Clancy, who gave her space to create an artwork:
“The same way that Mattress Factory has given me, I’ve given her,” Ms. Clancy said.
Elsewhere, rows of pottery shards, bottle glass, dishes, a cream separator from an old glass milk jug and other objects reflect the lot’s history. Some of the found artifacts — Christmas tree ornaments, a radiator key, Minnie Mouse head — are mounted in “The Collection Box,” which visitors crank to view.
“There’s no trash coming in anymore,” Ms. Clancy said.
She’s preparing the garden for winter, dismantling the potato planters and moving some of the sculpture indoors.
She plans next to string “Connectivity Wires” high across the lot in the direction of neighborhood people the garden has connected with. These will be embellished with beveled glass and mirrors intended to create “a light show in here throughout the winter” as they move in the wind and in and out of sunlight.
Ms. Williams will be connected by lines painted across Sampsonia.
“She’s so important,” Ms. Clancy said.
Ms. Clancy continues to work in the garden, although less frequently as the seasons change. She welcomes visitors when she’s there. And when she isn’t, you can always see it through various openings she’s provided in the now “Swiss cheese fence.”