Most Wanted owner brings his love of art cars to the Burgh
On Sept. 27, Garfield will be overrun with art cars, as the Pittsburgh Art Car Festival returns to exhibit a vast array of creative modes of transportation.
Now in its third year, it has become the largest gathering of street-legal art cars in Pittsburgh.
What is an art car, you may ask?
They are decorated, road-ready vehicles, which are popular in Southern states, especially Texas, where loose inspection laws allow for all kinds of things to be glued to the surface of automobiles.
Pittsburgh Art Car Festival is the brainchild of Jason Sauer. He and his wife, Nina, own Most Wanted Fine Art, an art gallery and performance space on Penn Avenue since 2007.
The event bloomed out of Sauer's love of the Southern tradition of art cars, and has grown to include music and dance performances, live “Art Battles,” art and craft vendors and kids activities. The event attracts nationally known art cars from Ohio and Washington, D.C.
“This year we hope to expand and have more altered bicycles and more community groups participating,” Sauer says.
Sauer has become a fixture on the Penn Avenue Arts District. During the neighborhood's monthly art-related event, Unblurred, Sauer can usually be seen, along with Nina and their toddler son, Rowdy Floyd, leaning against their art car in front of Most Wanted Fine Art, while a rock band wails on.
Sauer came in on the second wave of artists to inhabit Penn Avenue, says Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation.
“By the time he popped up, we already had folks like Modern Formations (Jen Quinio), Laura Shaffalo, the Pittsburgh Glass Center and Garfield Artworks on the street,” Swartz says.
After cashing in a 401k from his career as an art teacher, Sauer purchased his building in 2006 for $30,000 from the Friendship Development Associates, a community development group that targeted 12 vacant buildings in 2001 for purchase, renovation and re-sale to artists.
By 2006, all 12 had been sold or leased. Those brought in that second wave, including the Quiet Storm Coffeehouse, John Mahood at ImageBox, Stephen Streibig at Ion Tank, Freddie Croce at Interarchitecture and Karen Loysen of Loysen-Kreuthmeier Architects. The R. K. Mellon Foundation, McCune Foundation and the Urban Redevelopment Authority all played significant roles in that effort.
Swartz says Sauer and his wife have committed themselves to bringing “diverse people and voices” to the arts district.
“Jason himself is a one-man ambassador for the street, going to other cities, often on his own dime, to gain ideas about how we can make Penn Avenue a more interesting and provocative place,” Swartz says. “We have a number of similarly committed people now” — Sheila Ali at Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination, Nina Barbuto at Assemble, Heather McElwee at the Glass Center — “who probably have taken some inspiration from what Jason and Nina have done at Most Wanted.”
A native of Stoneboro, Mercer County, Sauer has painted a car and wrecked it in the demolition derby at the Great Stoneboro Fair every year since 1995.
Around 2000, he decided to trailer the wreck and take it on tour to cities throughout the region as an art project. Along the way, he started taking pictures with a mugshot theme of the people he'd meet, and add them to the display.
That “most wanted” theme became the basis for his art gallery, which he opened in 2007, after 13 months of renovation.
“It was complete and total junk,” Sauer says of the building, which now houses his home, art gallery, performance space and curiosity shop. “Basically, I bought a roof with everything else falling inside. It had been raining in the building for years. So, I had to a do a full and complete gut-job and renovation.”
Though the details are sketchy, Sauer has learned that the building once housed a speakeasy, a plumbing-supply store, and possibly a Vietnamese restaurant or grocery store.
“It took me eight months, basically, to build a first floor and a bathroom in the basement,” he says. “I kind of lived on a piece of carpet on a rug pile, had some coolers and some propane tanks, and my electricity was run by a generator. It wasn't until I built a bathroom on the first floor and a kitchen on the second floor that I could move upstairs. And it wasn't 'til about three or four years ago that I got paint on every wall.”
All of this was done while working a full-time job as an art teacher for Summit Academy in Butler, a private, residential school for delinquent young men ages 14 to 18.
While at Summit, Sauer started a screen-print shop and ran it from 2008 to '11, teaching the students how to make screen-printed T-shirts and other apparel.
Because each student was required to fulfill a certain number of community-service hours, Sauer began several outreach programs at Summit, including mowing lots in Homewood, as well as the Green and Screen program in Garfield, in which Sauer and students created sculptural fences in front of blighted buildings and empty lots along Penn Avenue.
“This is where I felt my life's work got solidified,” Sauer says. “These kids were required to do community service, and I would find places for them to do that.”
From there, Sauer says, “instead of just mowing lawns, we became more construction oriented.”
The skills he acquired along the way led to another business, Most Wanted Fine Art Contracting, which today he runs along with business partner Jeff Ault, who like Sauer, taught carpentry skills to delinquent youth at Summit.
General contractors, they continually work on home renovation projects throughout the East End, and always with at least one youth assigned to Learn to Earn, a state program that Goodwill facilitates, that guides ex-residents from detention centers to employment centers.
“A lot of people are involved in this, to bring these young men back into the community,” Sauer says.
“The catalyst for me was that after we trained these young men in construction skills, there was no place for them to go post-program,” Sauer says. “So, at nighttime, I became one of the programs, having a kid helping me on a project or my house.
“That's one of my proudest achievements as a gallery owner, being able to do this program,” which he describes as a “perfect fit” to the image of his art gallery he wants to project.
“Because of the community service I do, and the high-risk personalities I take in, that Most Wanted name works well,” Sauer says.
Sauer says they graduate about 12 to 15 young men a year out of the program. “Some of them go back to their original life. Some get good jobs and move on. But one, Darnell, has stayed with us the whole time,” he says.
Sauer believes strongly in the power of community service. “It's something that many people, when they learn about what we are doing in Garfield, have the ability help us, and have helped us.”
Perhaps the biggest of which is M&J Wilkow Ltd., which manages the Waterfront shopping complex in Homestead. Since 2013, they have hosted space for a second Most Wanted Fine Art location, which is currently in the former location of Katie's Kandy.
“Now, we are bringing our neighborhood programming to Homestead,” Sauer says. “We are showing the work of Homestead artists, bringing in local poets to do readings, even a band has shot a music video there.
“We are doing exactly what we're doing in Garfield, but doing it there, as well.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.