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North Side artist follows pathway to his dream

| Saturday, Aug. 18, 2007

Randy Gilson is a one-man public relations firm for the Mexican War Streets neighborhood on the North Side.

The self-described street artist and community gardener has made it his mission in life to showcase the location in a positive light. For the past 10 years, the Westin Hotel waiter has been painting murals on the walls of the three-story brick house he calls "Randyland." And since 1982, Gilson has planted more than 800 street gardens and 50 vegetable gardens in a 30-block area.

"I've been given so much love in my life — I absorbed it like a sponge — that this is my way of giving back what I've been given," says the gregarious Gilson, 50, who looks like a cross between Drew Carey and Sean Penn. "I'm just a starving street artist. I don't know how to paint, and I painted all this. You just keep trying."

Gilson's 100-year-old house is painted in a bright, exuberant yellow, the color of a summer sun on a hot day. Gilson says that he only buys "oops" paints, or mistakes, to save money. He found a five-gallon bucket of yellow latex paint for $10 and decided to paint a starburst on the outside wall. But when he put the paint on the roller, he says, it wouldn't stop painting.

"It only took three gallons of paint to paint the entire building," Gilson marvels at the memory. "It wouldn't stop. It was like magic paint. I took it as a message from God. It was the easiest project I ever had in my life."

The outside walls of Gilson's 2,700-square-foot home are covered in colorful murals, old Mexican War Streets signs and antique ice-cream signs. Thirty banana trees that come back every year, along with sweet-potato vines, sway in the midmorning breeze along the fence to his backyard. Gilson opens the fence door and shows visitors his vision for the future.

"I'm going to build a stage here," he gestures to a deck that is in the building process, "and it's going to be done next summer. I hope to have bands play here."

Gilson's house, over the past 100 years, has been a grocery store, a bar, a private club and a Baptist church. He bought it as an abandoned church from the city before it was torn down. Gilson maxed out his credit card and bought it for $11,300. He paid $10,000 for the house next door.

He painted a three-story-high mural on the second house to signify his journey. A path curves upward to a yellow castle in the sky.

"I never strayed from my pathway," he explains. "I decided to build a pathway to my yellow castle. The journey is so beautiful. I build dreams. Visualizing is half of actualizing. You have to have a dream first."

Old lawn chairs are hung strategically on the house's fire escape. Gilson placed them there to make people smile. The house is currently empty.

The inside of the house Gilson lives in is as eclectic as the outside. Lifesize cutouts of dancing girls, cello players and trumpeters sit against the back wall on the first floor, which Gilson plans on using as a musical backdrop for his outside stage. He proudly shows off the bar from the old comedy club in the Holiday House.

"This is a very famous bar," Gilson says. "This was the number one place in the city to go to. Everything here is recycled. One man's junk is another man's treasure, as they say."

Gilson leads visitors up two narrow staircases to the third floor. A slanted, purple-hued ceiling painted with swirly designs is the first thing people notice when they arrive. Several ornate chandeliers hang from the unusual ceiling.

"The ceiling is very special," he says. "I'm always flowing, so I needed water. I wanted air, so ribbons flow around the room. The atoms are little dreams floating around. I'm always pulling new opportunities in."

The walls are painted in shades of magenta and wheat; raspberry and olive. Several weight machines take up space, as does a full-sized pool table. A small, well-equipped kitchen with a speckled-black laminated bar and a double sink is located to the right of the stairs. A male and female friendly bathroom sits behind the kitchen. Gilson's bedroom is on the second floor.

Gilson walks down the stairs and outside, to where he's most comfortable -- painting his building. Most of the people who drive by get a greeting from Gilson, whether or not he knows them. And more often then not, he knows them. Gilson says thousands of visitors come by his house every year; and one year the Dave Matthews Band took pictures.

Just last week, The Clarks, a Pittsburgh rock band, shot a music video at his house.

Sanyo shot the video at Randyland and other locations throughout Pittsburgh to show the capabilities of their new, compact digital video camera, which is coming out later this year, according to band manager John Williams.

"Randyland made a strong impression on (the band)," Williams says. "I did stop by Randyland out of curiosity and I thought it was great. I'm planning a return trip with my camera soon to take some still shots."

That happens a lot to Gilson, and he doesn't mind the attention at all. Gilson says "hi" to Squirrel Hill resident John Seibel, who's taking pictures of his house.

"I heard about this, and decided to come out and see it," Seibel says. "I take pictures of murals around the city. This is wonderful! It really beautifies the city. I can't find words to describe it."

Chris Whispell runs the moxie DaDA art gallery right down the street from Gilson and frequently spends her free time helping Gilson add a little more color here and there.

"We moved in next door to Randy," she says. "He's inspiring — he's a lifelong artist."

David McMunn, president of the Mexican War Streets Society, says Gilson has been very instrumental in developing the community gardens.

"He's like an ambassador for the neighborhood," McMunn says.

Gilson's ultimate goal one day is to open a coffeehouse that will "knock the socks off Pittsburgh." He owns 2,000 pieces of ice-cream memorabilia, along with a 1950s Rex-All soda fountain.

"When I open the coffeeshop, I want it to look like a giant antique toy shop," he says. "This will be the heart of the neighborhood. That's what people call it."

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