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The house that moxie built: Barbara Luderowski and her Mattress Factory

Barbara Luderowski still loves art that messes with people's minds -- and you still don't mess with Barbara Luderowski

Sunday, August 18, 2002

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

he artist was sheepish. After all, it was a lot to ask.

"Would you mind if I photographed your moles?" was Cathy Smith's request.

It's not the kind of thing you normally ask Barbara Luderowski, the formidable founder of the Mattress Factory installation museum.

But Luderowski didn't flinch. Sure. No problem.

Inside her condo above the North Side museum, Luderowski offered Smith, an artist from Michigan, one better.

Barbara Luderowski is the founder and driving force behind the enigmatic Mattress Factory on the North Side. And she's a bit of an enigma herself. Pointing to one of the watches she is wearing, Luderowski explains, "I got into the tub with this watch. It decided to leak, so I took it off. I forgot, and I put them both on. If that is losing my mind, so be it." (Annie O'Neill. Post-Gazette)

"I have a large birthmark on my left buttock," she said before dropping her drawers so Smith could snap away.

"Oh, and I have great varicose veins," Luderowski said before lifting her pant legs.

There is little Luderowski wouldn't do to nurture the avant-garde, out-there art that has made the Mattress Factory an international star.

That such a strange and wonderful museum is thriving in staid Pittsburgh speaks to one woman's iron will -- or "applied stubbornness," as Luderowski calls it. Thanks to her, it's cool to gape at hulking installations -- from flies buzzing on sugar-coated paintings to inflatable silicon Siamese twins to a frozen Victorian parlor -- and ponder the big questions of life.

Luderowski lets artists rip out walls, play with maggots and human hair and burrow into esoteric reaches for "site-specific" pieces -- made just for that space.

Luderowski, the executive/artistic director, and Michael Olijnyk, the curator, hate saying "no" to artists' ideas. Smith's mole plates? Why not? Especially since they will be sold at a museum auction benefit.

But the woman who bares her buns for the sake of art winces at baring her life for the sake of a story. "It's like getting naked in public," she says.

Luderowski would rather talk about her museum, which turned 25, than herself, who turned -- well, none of your business.

"What's age got to do with the price of beans?" she snaps. "What's it got to do with my position or my future, other than it might be a little shorter? I might live to be 93, and you might get hit by a bus and die next week."

The scowl dissolves into a hint of a wry smile. Behind wire rims, framed by an austerely cropped white hair, Luderowski's translucent blue eyes pierce right through you.

Silence hangs awkwardly in the air. She's as enigmatic as the art she nurtures.

The gentler side

It's a sweltering day, and Luderowski is seated on the patio outside the Mattress Factory, facing the garden with its layers of stone, concrete, water and shrubs but no flowers.

When artist Cathy Smith asks to photograph her moles, Mattress Factory director Barbara Luderowski gladly complies. She also bares her "great varicose veins" for the camera. The sculpture in the foreground is by Luderowski's aunt, Janet de Coux. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Her sculptor's hands rock an empty seat back and forth. Over a track that sounds like wind chimes and birds chirping, she says, "Art has been my life. You eat it. You sleep it. You get up in the middle of the night and sweat it. It sticks in your craw."

"Art deals with the spiritual side, the gentler side of life."

The woman who is totally devoted to the gentler side of life is a complicated mix of gruffness and compassion, anger and humor.

Her gruffness is so pronounced that she's been likened to a military commander.

"She's like Patton," says Thomas Sokolowski, outspoken director of The Andy Warhol Museum. "We wouldn't say that Patton was a sweet charming guy, 'Father Knows Best.' But he was a wonderful general, and he knew how to do it. Barbara's the same way.

"She's an obstreperous old bag. That has held her in very good stead."

On hearing that description, Luderowski lets out her laugh and says, "It's better than sweet old lady."

But people say there really is a softer side underneath. "She would resent me saying this, but she is extremely warm and passionate under that gruff exterior," says Charlie Humphrey, executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers.

The woman who is both adored and feared grew up in Connecticut, an only child who was not coddled. "I was raised as a responsible adult. I was not rebellious. They expected a lot. You felt guilty if you didn't meet their standards."

A report her parents saved from her preschool years says, "Not really great with numbers. She can match colors and works well with a hammer and nails, was beyond [her] age emotionally, stable, not dependent on people."

Her father was an architect; her mother was involved in the arts. Her aunt was a sculptor. Art was a dinnertime topic.

Before studying at the Art Students League in New York and Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, she attended then-Carnegie Tech, her parents' alma mater, but left after a year.

"I wasn't fit for college, and college wasn't fit for me."

What she was fit for was running her own museum -- something she wouldn't discover until after she got married, worked as a designer at General Motors and an architectural firm, had a daughter, and painted and sculpted in their house in rural Michigan.

In 1972, five years after her husband died, she stopped in Pittsburgh en route to New York. It was supposed to be a short visit. She was trying to sell the Pittsburgh History and Landmark Foundation a garden design. They didn't buy it, but someone took her on a tour of the Mexican War Streets on the North Side. She was smitten. She up and moved herself and her 10-year-old daughter, Taya, and bought a condemned house on Monterey Street and rehabbed it.

The next year, she bought the old Stearns and Foster warehouse, a former mattress factory, and invited other artists in to work and live and eat vegetarian food together. Two years later, the Mattress Factory was incorporated as a nonprofit museum, and later specialized in installation art. It quickly earned a reputation as a place that supported artists, put them up in housing and gave them freedom to create original works.

Kathy Montgomery began renting space there as an artist 22 years ago. She says Luderowski has always infused the building with the feeling that "anything goes. There is a generosity toward the process of making art. It's a wild ride of experiences and ideas, even the craziest things. I ambled into that building, and it changed my life."

Barbara's move to Pittsburgh changed her daughter's life, too. But not for the better initially.

Taya -- Barbara concocted the name by moving paper letters around -- was startled when her mother gave her the tour of the dilapidated house on Monterey. Pointing to deteriorating planks, her mother told her, "This is going to be your bedroom. This is going to be the kitchen. Watch your step or you will fall through the floor."

Taya burst into tears.

She and their dog used to wait by the front door of the fixer-upper, wishing they were somewhere else.

But looking back, Taya, an interior designer who lives in Illinois, admires her mother's moxie. "To go from rural Michigan to the inner city of Pittsburgh and reinvent herself took balls. ... I don't think she arrived here with a vision of a place for artists to do installation. I see it more trying to place herself in a world she found fruitful and energizing. She had to re-create herself."

Taya went away to boarding school and was kicked out, she said, when she was falsely accused of using drugs. Taya expected her mother to disown her. Instead, she got out of the car and hugged her teen-age daughter. It was the kind of generosity Taya would see often in her crusty mother. Her mother offered to take in a friend of Taya's whose mother was a prostitute and raise her as a second daughter, even though it didn't pan out.

"My mother is hard to stomach sometimes, but she is really a great person."

Build now, party later

Luderowski has just gotten a haircut. It's short. Really short.

"Every now and then I think I want something more feminine, more hair, a tousle, but I hate it, so I go back to shaving my head."

Her hair is the least of her worries. It's mid-May, and she is worrying about hundreds of other details that go into pulling off the James Turrell "Into the Light" show, the biggest and most significant show the museum has ever done, timed to a blowout 25-hour party for the 25th anniversary on June 1.

Michael Olijnyk, Mattress Factory curator, and Luderowski celebrate the 25th anniversary of Pittsburgh's site for site-specific art at a blowout 25-hour party on June 1. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Wearing a loose-fitting gray top over black pants and white athletic shoes, she confers with hard-hatted men crawling all over the museum. She loves construction dust. This is how she started. Getting dirty. Crawling up the freight elevator. Only recently, as her baby grew up into an institution with a $1.2 million operating budget and a $1.6 million endowment, has she been reluctantly pushing more paper on her desk..

In other shows, she and Olijnyk have helped the artists track down the materials and do construction. They found American Roller pigeons for Dove Bradshaw's exhibition that featured targets holding the droppings. She lent Buzz Spector her wing-backed chair for his frozen Victorian parlor, and she and Olijnyk helped Spector put wallpaper strips on Styrofoam to insulate the frozen room.

But the specifications for the Turrell light show are so detailed, she hires a contractor for the first time.

Luderowski walks through the museum in her lumbering, slightly pigeon-toed gait. She points to a Turrell that looks like a blue painting on the wall. But when you go close and touch it, it's a cavity with a light coming through. "It's a balance of ultraviolet light and yellow light," she says. "Turrell's a perceptual psychologist. Basically, he messes with people's minds, which I love."

As the show gets closer, she gets up at 5 a.m. and works late into the evenings.

"She does not tire," says Sara Radelet, 32, her protege and assistant director. "She has this huge accomplishment, and she doesn't let herself rest.""

There have been sacrifices. She missed her grandson's birth because he was early and the art show was late.

She loves to work, but she jokes that she is losing her mind over this show. Especially two days before the opening. Her face looks strained as she discusses last-minute adjustments to the Skyspace, a room with an aperture for viewing the sky.

But all the worries melt away the night of the party.

In a flowing black skirt and black blouse accented with a chunky silver necklace, she looks like a bride in black as she goes from table to table, each decorated with stones from Roden Crater, the volcano in Arizona that Turrell is transforming into a gigantic artwork.

Luderowski greets her guests -- artists, society donors, politicians, tattooed art students, families. She will stay up until 3 a.m., but after midnight, she goes with a small group of friends to her small house next door -- her second residence, which she calls her "get-the-hell-out-of-Dodge house" -- and listens to the murmur of the party.

Installed as Partners

"You will completely understand us when you come upstairs," Olijnyk says.

Here on the sixth floor above the museum is where Olijnyk, a 46-year-old with a bemused smile, and Luderowski live together. Here is where they eat breakfast together over The New York Times, taking in the 360-degree view of Mount Washington on one side and Perry Hilltop on the other.

You begin to understand them, but there is still a lot that stays a mystery.

The 3,200-square-foot condo is like a museum within a museum, with its display cases of their two collections. He collects chairs, clocks, dinnerware and other objects from the 1930s to 1960s. She has mostly dolls, toys, pottery, books, much of it lovingly and painstakingly restored.

Luderowski's collection of treasured dolls and toys is displayed throughout her condominium above the Mattress Factory. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

On weekends, they scout out their treasures at flea markets and auctions. They are inseparable. You don't get one without the other. The joke is that Olijnyk, then a Carnegie Mellon University student, came for dinner one night in 1978 and never left.

"We are always arguing, but we agree on the big things," Olijnyk says. "When you live with someone 24 hours a day, you argue over 'Where we are going for lunch? What time? Why didn't you turn off the light?' We know how to push each other's buttons. None of those things matter. On important stuff, we always agree."

Olijnyk is the more laid-back and approachable one, sometimes the good cop to her bad cop.

They are soul mates.

"I trust him completely," Luderowski says. "He trusts me." When asked if they are a romantic item, Luderowski says, "We have lived together 20 years. They can read into it whatever the hell they want. It's a very strong personal bond."

Their closeness is apparent. Olijnyk can give a detailed tour of her dolls. He points to one of her early Mickey Mouse dolls and says, "She never collected teacups and dolls as a girl."

Luderowski collects dolls because she likes their facial expressions and their mechanical properties. She points to an English puppet in a black outfit whose eyes go back and forth and whose mouth opens and bares sharp teeth. "It's a scary thing."

In her youth, she was too busy building intricate tree houses and playing softball to bother with dolls. She recalls how a boy once hit her with a snowball and she rubbed his face in the ground.

"Don't mess with me," she says. It's still true.

She has had run-ins with neighbors, who have fought her unsuccessfully in court over her expansion of the museum, including the building of the stairwell tower and a more recent office expansion. Other critics who have not taken her to court say she is prickly and oblivious to neighborhood concerns.

"She has created a very successful, very well-regarded institution. She sure can shake the money tree. But she is a very difficult person," says Susan Larkin, a neighbor, former president of the Mexican War Streets Society and former member of the Federal-North Task Force.

"You can't question the Mattress Factory on anything. It doesn't go down well. It is like a crime against God and nature."

There is also some neighborhood resentment over the fact that the mayor's office chose the Mattress Factory to be a development partner in transforming the blighted Federal-North project. The museum has come up with a plan for a performing arts theater, stores, residences and art classes, a plan that has been delayed by the lawsuit with the Garden Theater, the X-rated theater the city is trying to shut down.

Michael Ross, Luderowski's son-in-law, her grandson Miles and her daughter Taya, far right, hang out while visiting from Illinois. They relax at the small house -- Luderow-ski's "get-the-hell-out-of-Dodge house" -- next to the museum. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Some North Siders say Luderowski is not a developer. Why did she get the plum job?

"She may not be developer," says Tom Cox, the mayor's executive secretary, "but if you are looking for someone to redefine a place, I can't imagine someone who has a better track record."

The last word

Her track record gives her clout and fame within the contemporary art world. But not riches. In an age of overpaid CEOs, Luderowski gets paid $56,000 a year, and she didn't get a salary until 1989. She used most of her inheritance to build a museum.

"I sold my daughter's inheritance down the river."

There is a retirement proposal in the long-range plan, but she says, "I might die before the damn thing comes to pass."

The board also plans to develop a succession plan for Luderowski, even though she has no plans of retiring anytime soon.

She just made out her will, and doesn't flinch as she talks about her plans for her death.

"I want to be cremated. I want my ashes dispersed on Roden Crater, which is as good of a place as any. Or over the ocean, which is as good a place as any. I don't want any gooey, sentimental memorial service.

"Then I want some huge celebration as a fund-raiser for the Mattress Factory with a big ticket. It will be for my friends and my enemies, who will like to celebrate my termination. No way will I let some funeral director touch me."

Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572.

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