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River of Words connects communities and brains

| Friday, July 18, 2014, 8:57 p.m.
River of Words artists Israel Centeno and Gisela Romero have fun with the word, 'Zombies' as Romero's husband Hector Perez-Segnini takes a photo in a City of Asylum tent in the Mexican War Streets Sunday, July 13, 2014.  Participating Mexican War Streets neighbors were able to come view and choose a word for the project to be installed later by the artists. River of Words is the first of five temporary public art commissions being installed along City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Garden-to-Garden Artway.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
River of Words artists Israel Centeno and Gisela Romero have fun with the word, 'Zombies' as Romero's husband Hector Perez-Segnini takes a photo in a City of Asylum tent in the Mexican War Streets Sunday, July 13, 2014. Participating Mexican War Streets neighbors were able to come view and choose a word for the project to be installed later by the artists. River of Words is the first of five temporary public art commissions being installed along City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Garden-to-Garden Artway.
Catherine Ryan of the Mexican War Streets chats with Kate Hansen, project manager for the office of public art and River of Words artists Israel Centeno and Gisela Romero in a City of Asylum tent in the Mexican War Streets Sunday, July 13, 2014.  Participating Mexican War Streets neighbors were able to come view and choose a word for the project to be installed later by the artists. River of Words is the first of five temporary public art commissions being installed along City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Garden-to-Garden Artway.  Ryan chose the word 'Amicus.'
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Catherine Ryan of the Mexican War Streets chats with Kate Hansen, project manager for the office of public art and River of Words artists Israel Centeno and Gisela Romero in a City of Asylum tent in the Mexican War Streets Sunday, July 13, 2014. Participating Mexican War Streets neighbors were able to come view and choose a word for the project to be installed later by the artists. River of Words is the first of five temporary public art commissions being installed along City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Garden-to-Garden Artway. Ryan chose the word 'Amicus.'

A group of visiting artists is using words to connect North Side neighbors and draw people to the community.

City of Asylum Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization providing sanctuary to exiled or politically oppressed writers, is running a River of Words through the Mexican War Streets and beyond as part of a series of temporary public-art installations. A community open house for the project will be held July 25.

“We're developing a literary trail,” says Diane Samuels, City of Asylum co-founder. “People can walk through and find small surprises.”

River of Words is a project by writer Israel Centeno, graphic designer Carolina Arnal and visual artist Gisela Romero — all Venezuelan natives. Centeno has lived in Pittsburgh for three years as a writer in exile. Arnal and Romero are in residence in Pittsburgh for two weeks in July to produce River of Words.

To illustrate the use of words as a metaphor for neural synapsis and the connection between human beings and places, Centeno selected words from several prominent Venezuelan poems. City of Asylum reached out to people who live near their North Side location and allowed those interested to select which word they'd like represented on their home.

“We've interacted a lot with the community,” says Centeno. “They've been willing to participate with the work, which is the meaning of the project — connecting with the people of the neighborhood.”

The artists then created the words from vinyl, metal or acrylic and situated them on the home wherever the owner suggested. Once the project is complete, a map will be available for those seeking to take self-guided tours.

As the artists worked, more people expressed interest in hosting a word.

“People chose each word for a reason,” says Romero. “It's been very interesting to know why.”

The word “vortex” written in vinyl runs across one window. A regal cursive “hamlet” adorns a nearby home, while a gold metal “God” conveys its message from another. One home has two words: a vertical version of “shipwreck” cascading down above the word “liberated.”

“They made a poem with two words,” says Centeno.

While choosing words, Centeno says, he tried to keep Pittsburgh's unique character in mind. Some that made the cut include “pirate” and “zombie.”

The latter is displayed on a fence outside the home of Jennifer Tharp and David Scalzo.

“There were a lot of beautiful words to chose from, but we saw ‘zombie' and just laughed,” says Tharp. “We're big fans of ‘The Walking Dead,' so it's just perfect.”

Tharp is excited for the completion of the project, which will include chalk artwork on the road behind her home on Sampsonia Way.

“We're so perfectly positioned between two amazing arts venues — the Mattress Factory and City of Asylum,” Tharp says. “Anything they do is going to be great. We're so tickled to be a part of it.”

The installation is part of being City of Asylum's newest project, the Garden-to-Garden Artway. The homes bearing words are primarily situated between a community garden currently under construction on Monterey Street, and Alphabet City, a performance space, cafe and bookstore set to be developed in the Garden Theater block.

The installation is intended to be temporary, though Samuels says it's up to the homeowners how long they want the words displayed.

“If they want to keep the words, they are most welcome,” Samuels says. “It will be interesting to see the life of the words if people decide to keep them.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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