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Portrait of an artist as an activist in the Hill District

Sunday, June 22, 2003

By Tony Norman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Jorge Myers is in his element every time he walks the streets of the Hill District. Like many other artists who have been born and raised on the Hill, he's also taken on the roles of community activist, cheerleader and neighborhood shrink.

Jorge Myers, a Hill District artist and advocate, poses for a portrait in his studio next to the Crawford Grill. "The purpose of an artist is to inspire," Myers says, and since 1999 he has created hundreds of paintings, sculptures, collages and environment-specific artworks. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Because of his easygoing nature, Myers took on the extra burden of ATM of last resort when an old friend approached him during an interview on Centre Avenue one night.

After pointing across the street to The Black Beauty's Lounge, Myers' friend asked when he was finally going to get around to buying him the drink he'd promised earlier.

Without breaking his train of thought, Myers pulled out his wallet and searched for a bill sandwiched between folded receipts, lint and business cards. He handed $5 to his friend, who embraced him warmly and promised to return with change.

One learns from walking through the Hill with Jorge Myers that gratuitous expressions of love that come his way aren't unusual. They are as plentiful as the various pronunciations of his name.

Older people standing in front of the bar call him George, especially if they had known the 45-year-old when he was growing up. Young people vacillate between Jor-jay and the more traditional sounding Georgie.

Children stick to Uncle George. "You got to let go of those Jehri curls, Uncle George," Myers said, mimicking their taunts from just a few years ago, when he favored processed hair over the elaborate dreads and twists he wears now. He credits their teasing with prompting his hair's evolution from slick to something closer to that of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the late neo-expressionist painter who took New York's art world by storm in the 1980s.

"I obviously wasn't born with hair like this," Myers said. "My look, just like my art, is the result of talking to people."

Only a very few friends and acquaintances, usually students from Carnegie Mellon University, neighborhood professionals or other artists, pronounce his first name the way it is pronounced in Spanish.

Myers answers to whatever he's called and doesn't appear to have a preference. He never gives a straight answer about how to pronounce Jorge because it would make some people right and others wrong about something that doesn't matter to him. As with every other tradition on the Hill, Myers gets a kick out of it.

It wasn't long before the interview was interrupted again, this time by Tyrone Shields, a 13-year-old potential disciple. Shields wears a few long braids, but not in the quantity of his would-be mentor.

Though shy, Shields introduced himself and shook Myers' hand. His uncle, an old friend of the artist, kept prompting the teenager to speak up. "What can I do for you?" Myers asked after making eye contact with the young man.

"You're a good artist," Shields said. "I just want to see what you're about." With that, Myers agreed to show him what he "was about" as soon as he was ready to learn it. When the boy and his uncle left, Myers' mood shifted from pensive because of that day's problems to satisfied that a young person in the neighborhood might decide to be an artist instead of a wannabe rapper or basketball player.

"His mama and I grew up together. Tyrone was a little baby, probably still in his mama's stomach, when I saw him last," he said, flattered by the boy's interest in studying under his tutelage.

"The main thing I will teach him is this: Don't set limits on creativity. In school, they will tell [him] that oil and water don't mix, but I'm going to assure him that oil and water dance well together."

Myers believes that every element and every medium can mix and harmonize if the vision to make it happen is strong enough. In the few years he's been painting, he's done it countless times. He's created hundreds of paintings, sculptures, synthetic collages, fabric paintings on shirts and environment-specific artwork since 1999, the year he dedicated his life to becoming an artist and advocate of the Hill.

"If I pull a bottle of milk out of the refrigerator and drop it, I can't use the milk anymore," he said, "but I can use the glass for texture in a painting. I learned that the more I created art, the more the art created me."

Myers believes he's prolific because of the subliminal influence of where he lives and not because of any genius or insight on his part. Things he observes every night outside bars such as The Black Beauty's Lounge or The Flamingo on Wylie Avenue inspire his art. He insists that most of his work grows out of conversations with the Hill's struggling denizens.

"I used to think August Wilson was weird because he was always writing down what people were saying," Myers said of the Pulitzer-winning playwright who transformed the passion, pathos and humor he found on the Hill into art. Awe creeps into Myers' voice whenever he speaks of the sculptor Carl "Dingbat" Smith, whose manipulation of nails, tin and bronze put the Hill's visual artists on the map. His eccentricities inspired Myers to adopt a distinctive look.

"Dingbat was a great promoter of himself and the neighborhood," he said. "He wore hammers around his waist, a cape, a scarf tied around one leg and a floppy hat everywhere he went. In just being himself, he made people ask: Who is he?"

"I didn't understand the [appeal of the nightclub the] Hurricane or the Crawford Grill or why George Benson was sitting behind the Ellis Hotel on a stoop practicing his guitar. It took me a while to understand that what they did was rooted in the community and that the community created August Wilson, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Art Blakey, Dingbat, me."

It is this acute and mystical sense of place that drives Myers to create magnificent and varied works of art, sometimes from the detritus and decaying sinews of buildings that have existed in the Hill District for generations.

"Jorge has tapped into the richness of the Hill," said Calvin "CJ" Jackson, the neighborhood artist whom Myers credits with teaching him the difference between abstract and graphic art when he began painting.

Jackson and Myers designed and built the stage that sits in the middle of a privately owned but empty lot that hosts the weekly Tuesday night "Jazz and Poetry on the Hill" series. It's Jackson's caricatures of drummer Art Blakey and the Turrentine brothers that adorn the front and sides of the stage.

Finding his muse

At one time, Myers considered all artists in the neighborhood curiosities, but he found their self-discipline and enlarged sense of potential alluring.

Jorge Myers' mother, Joan, named her son George but gave him permission to change the spelling to match his artistic flair. "He has always been the affectionate son," says Joan, with Jorge and, left, his niece Janee Johnson. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

"He'll change [the neighborhood] by challenging it to be better than it wants to be. At the same time, he's protecting it," Jackson said. "He's the first to tell the community that it has to develop from within. If it doesn't, it will die."

The sentiment is echoed by Tracyce Reed, a state police officer who works security part time at The Black Beauty's Lounge.

"I've admired him for about four years," she said. "I see him here in the winter hauling trash and working to improve the neighborhood. He's changed this whole corner," Reed said. He gestured toward lots that once were overrun with weeds and trash, but now are well mowed, festooned with elaborate flower arrangements and stripped of litter daily.

"As long as Jorge's here, there's hope. He keeps the peace. I follow him around to make sure he's protected. If he weren't here doing what he's doing, I probably would've left a long time ago," Reed said. For a woman who is probably younger than Myers by a decade, she sounded maternal, a charge she gladly cops to.

Other cops apparently don't have the same appreciation for Myers' work as Reed does. Last summer, while salvaging junk from an abandoned storefront a block from The Black Beauty's Lounge, Myers was arrested by police officers who said they were answering a burglary call.

In the heart of the Hill, surrounded by buildings, gardens and public installations testifying to his civic mindedness, Myers was treated like a crack fiend scavenging for copper pipes to sale. Officers who for years had watched him beautify the neighborhood greeted Myers and his girlfriend, Stacy Arnold, with guns drawn.

Myers insists he was assaulted by an officer and has filed a complaint. He, in turn, has been charged with disorderly conduct. He will have a hearing on the charges before the summer is out, but there's a possibility that both sides will settle before it goes to trial.

Art from the heart

The walls of The Black Beauty's Lounge showcase some of Jorge Myers' strongest work. With nine mixed-media sculptures and assemblages mounted on burlap and screwed into the establishment's red brick walls, Myers has transformed an ordinary neighborhood bar into an art gallery permeated with shimmering bronze and gold colors.

A picture of a smiling Jorge situated above a black-and-white photo of Jean-Michel Basquiat are the first things one sees after looking up from the cigarette machine at the bar's entrance.

Each of the pieces on the wall is a synthesis of organic form and metal, wire, fur and gears that showcase Myers' powerful sense of composition and whimsy. A piece called "Miles," in honor of trumpet player Miles Davis, features a heat vent grille on top of an animal pelt surrounded by rope.

Another cubist collage sports three stovetop coils in a complex interplay of rusted grilles and trident forms. Only a few pieces are anthropomorphic, with homages to fish, birds and lions clearly evident.

Most of Myers' work consists of colorful abstraction on canvas or hard surfaces. His earliest pieces, a salute to Basquiat, are currently on display at the 801 Gallery on Liberty Avenue as part of the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

Galleries are not the usual venue for his art. Myers considers it his duty to make art accessible to people who believe it belongs either in the clubs or in institutions of high art.

Every Tuesday night, Myers, who has never been accused of being a shrinking violet, drops all remaining vestiges of reserve on stage as the host of the Jazz and Poetry on the Hill series.

Myers looks over the ruins of the Ellis Hotel at 2044 Centre Ave. in the Hill District. He had started a petition to save the historic building but lost the fight.

Like a carnival barker wearing a dashiki-like outfit he painted himself, Myers stands on the stage calling out to people in the medium-sized crowd by name while the band tunes up. Someone passing by could easily assume he was the lead singer, given his prominence on the stage throughout the evening.

"Jungle boys out of control," he shouts, a reference to a botched compliment made by a foundation representative recently. It was a case of Myers taking a negative encounter and turning it into a mantra to dilute its sting.

An activist is created

"The purpose of an artist is to inspire," he says days later, standing in his six-room apartment above the Crawford Grill. It is crammed with paintings, and several exotic birds live in the rafters.

Books about Basquiat, Picasso and modern art are propped against his own work. There are pictures of Myers from his previous life as a fashion coordinator for a men's clothing store, a certified paint refinisher who specialized in expensive cars and the proprietor of an all-female car wash.

When friends he hired to be caretakers of an auto body shop he once owned failed to protect it from burglars, Myers confiscated the painting materials of the employee who was a freelance artist. It couldn't compensate for his financial loss, but the tools of the trade inspired him to explore what it meant to be an artist.

A short time later, he lost his building because of a bureaucratic snag, a dramatic property tax increase and indifference of local politicians to his appeals for intervention. Furious at how shabbily he'd been treated, Myers started a grass-roots movement to preserve historic buildings and property in the Hill District.

"When redevelopment came through the Hill and made them bring all taxes up to date, my property was put up for a sheriff's sale. Even though I had the money to cover the debt, I needed letters from [elected officials] to OK it. That permission never came. I'm here to make sure that what happened to me doesn't happen to anyone else," Myers said. Recently, he led a failed effort to prevent the URA from demolishing the historic Ellis Hotel, the home away from home for jazz royalty that came through Pittsburgh during the Jim Crow era.

It didn't take long for Myers to combine his newfound interest in painting with historic preservation. Using leftover paint from his car refinishing business, he experimented with large canvases and created bold works of art. All he needed after that was a prominent place to display it.

"It occurred to me one day that each of these buildings is like having a billboard without paying to advertise," he said. "As soon as I started putting the art out there, people started paying attention."

Myers began fastening canvases and objects salvaged from the trash to the doors and windows of abandoned buildings, beautifying the area and barring entrance to the premises by crack users. He didn't stop there. He systematically cleaned the neighborhood's abandoned lots and enlisted university students, children and community activists in his crusade.

It was the beginning of a revolution that continues to this day.

"I always knew he was different," said Joan Myers, his mother. "I didn't know he'd get involved in this stuff, though. I told him to go to law school."

Joan Myers told story after story about her son, whose affinity for principled stands began at an early age. When asked how she pronounced the name on his birth certificate, she laughed. Myers squirmed, a smile creeped across his face.

"Well, he was born George Arnold Myers, but I gave him permission to spell his name J-o-r-g-e back in 1969, when he started complaining about all of the people named George in our family," she said. "He wanted to be different and to stand out on his own. I'd say he got his wish."

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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