Lawrenceville's Radiant Hall provides inexpensive studio space to artists
For a large percentage of working artists, there's a constant search for affordable living and working spaces, which isn't always optimum for making and selling art.
Radiant Hall hopes to change that, in Pittsburgh at least. While still an affordable city by most standards, our city has seen its share of rising rents and gentrifying neighborhoods.
Ryan Lammie, 27, of Lawrence-ville moved to Brooklyn to study painting. But after five years, New York City's appeal had worn off.
“It's more about being driven out by rising rents,” Lammie says. “The whole place was dead for finding studio space. Too many people fighting for the same opportunity.”
Lammie found the solid red-brick building called Radiant Hall in Lawrenceville while looking for studio space for himself. Its size, however, seemed to call for something bigger.
Taking the name of the building, Lammie organized a nonprofit artists collective that will soon encompass the building and three locations in other parts of the city, offering a range of affordable studio space to artists of every discipline. Lammie serves as executive director of the nonprofit.
Radiant Hall was first built in the 1930s as a Polish social hall, Lammie says.
“It also had a speakeasy in the basement called The Blood Bucket,” Lammie says. “At the end of the night, you'd see blood in the mop-water, from all the fights.”
Radiant Hall also has been a Hare Krishna Center and home to Merlot Vango Tarping Solutions. For several years, it housed Pittsburgh Gateways Corp., which would later transform the old Connelly trade school in the Hill District into the $37 million Environmental Innovation Center — soon to be home to another of Radiant Hall's four locations.
These days, the Radiant Hall building houses studio space for 24 artists, divided by makeshift partitions. It's open to them 24 hours a day.
The arts have played a crucial role in Lawrenceville's undeniable turnaround, as is often the case with revitalized areas. Starting about 15 years ago, artists attracted to cheap rents and sturdy red-brick rowhouses helped bring new blood and energy to the long-declining neighborhood. Now, of course, it's an area that's getting harder and harder for artists to afford.
Still, just about everyone working at Radiant Hall on a recent Tuesday morning lives in the neighborhood, including Lammie, who has a studio in the former speakeasy.
“I do sculptural painting, a lot of work around found objects,” he says. “Right now, I'm working on a project with old radios. They used to be the center of so many families — they would crowd around and find out about the world. I try to give the objects new life.”
Lammie has two assistants helping him cover dozens of antique radios with tiny shards of glass mirrors.
Radiant Hall's artists range from sculptors to oil painters, mixed-media artists to writers.
“I do primarily collage-based sculpture ... about deteriorating and collapsing architecture,” says artist Seth Clark, 29, of Lawrence-ville, pointing to a large sphere constructed from tiny slats of wood and covered in tiny windows. “I was working out of basements and attics. I was hoping to get out of my house and have a professional space to go to every day. It's a lot more productive.
“You can play off each other — this building has writers, an architect, a poet, two novelists, photographers. It's pretty casual. If you're struggling with a piece, you can simply call someone over and explain what you're trying to say, and get an instant, informed critique.”
Radiant Hall membership comes with a number of benefits, like private tours for patron groups and open-studio events for the public.
Alan Gavin, who owns the original building, returned from a long career with Heinz in Britain. He likes having Radiant Hall use the building, says Lammie, which is essential, given Lawrenceville's red-hot real estate market.
For Terry Boyd, 29, of Lawrenceville it wasn't a straight shot from line-drawing to shooting arrows through gallery walls with a large hunting bow. But that's where he ended up.
It took him a while to realize that the skills he had acquired designing costumes in college were, in fact, perfect for his art. Gender wasn't a major theme of his art, but people kept bringing it up. He was a man working in a predominantly female discipline — abstract, minimalist fiber and textile art, created through sewing and embroidery.
“I thought, ‘Well, if you're going to talk about gender, I'm going to give you the most masculine thing possible,' ” Boyd says.
That's how he began shooting yarn-laden arrows from a compound hunting bow, through a giant embroidery hoop, set up in galleries and museums like a target.
“It creates thunderous sounds as the arrows destroy the fabric, and walls behind them,” Boyd says. “It's a performance piece, usually surrounded by more gentle and subtle embroidery pieces.”
The piece hangs on the wall atop his studio space in Radiant Hall, which is otherwise cluttered with sewing machines, scraps of fabric, thread and computers.
“Like every artist at some point, I worked out of my home,” he says. “It was really confining and too easy to get distracted or to just go back to bed.”
He looked at a bunch of studios, with the usual tall ceilings, but no heating or air-conditioning. Radiant Hall (which has climate-control) was “love at first sight.”
“It's important that I can roll out of bed and be able to put in 10- to 14-hour days,” Boyd says. “It's hard to force creativity. Whenever you feel that creative momentum, you have to have access to your tools.”
Radiant Hall's studios are usually $250 a month for a full studio, which is 175 to 200 square feet.
“It's rare to find studio space for less than $300,” Lammie says. “In New York City, studio space can go from $800 to $1,600.”
“Ever since moving in, I'm able to be a full-time visual artist,” Boyd says. “I attribute a lot of that to being a Radiant Hall artist. ... I feel like this is one of the only cities where you can afford to be a full-time visual artist.”
Liz Rudnick, a figurative painter from Highland Park, tried working out of her house for two years, but missed the company of other artists. “Working in your house, you only have yourself. Here, you can walk upstairs and ask someone whose opinion you respect (for input).”
There are more Radiant Hall locations planned.
There's a soon-to-open spot on Susquehanna Street in Homewood, a much larger building than the Lawrenceville space, which will have 17 studios. Another, within the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District, will have seven studios and six co-working spaces for small arts organizations, which often face similar issues finding affordable, reliable office space.
Another Radiant Hall location is slowly rolling out on the North Side. Instead of an old industrial building, it's right in the middle of an ambitious $100 million redevelopment of the failed mid-century Allegheny Center Mall into Nova Place, a 1.4-million-square-foot campus of office space.
“A fundamental part of our efforts are focused on community building,” says Jeremy Leventhal, managing partner of Faros Properties, the New York City firm that purchased Allegheny Center. “We feel strongly that artists are an important part of the culture we are trying to build at Nova Place.”
Put simply, art is tough business. It makes sense to band together whenever possible.
“Our strengths really come from our collective bargaining power,” Lammie says, “which we can leverage into a sustainable future for our community.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.