Third Thursday: Block Party event connects Wilkinsburg artists


Bella Colaianni | For The Pitt News

Museumgoers at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Third Thursday event.

By Isabella Colaianni, For The Pitt News

A usual visit to a museum might include viewing famous paintings, standing feet away from casts of ancient sculptures and maybe visiting the gift shop on the way out. What’s not usually expected is the sound of steelpan drums playing “Hey Jude” in the hallway while other museumgoers sketch portraits alongside a local artist. While not common at most museums during the day, unconventional experiences like these occur one night every month at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Third Thursday events.

The Hall of Sculpture at the Carnegie Museum of Art was lined with interactive art tables presided over by local Wilkinsburg artists on Thursday for the adults-only Third Thursday: Block Party event. From 8 to 10 p.m., attendees were able to grab a drink from the Great Lakes Brewing Co. table, speak with local artists and even create some of their own artwork such as graffiti sketches, still life fruit drawings and screen printed bags. This fresh take on the museum experience is one that Laura Zorch McDermit hopes will bring a younger and diversified audience to the museum.

As the CMOA’s manager of social engagement, McDermit has spent almost four years in charge of what she calls the museum’s “Department of Fun.” As the only person in this department, her job is to plan and coordinate Third Thursdays, after-hours parties, 21+ parties and wellness programs.

McDermit said that Third Thursdays are just one way that the CMOA is attempting to bring in a diversified audience and make the museum experience more memorable for visitors. Her fear for the CMOA — and for museums everywhere — is that if they don’t adapt and come up with new events that cater to younger audiences, they won’t stay relevant.

“It was part of a strategic planning process to start thinking about how we can engage with new audiences,” McDermit said. “I think our audiences are getting older, so the idea is to get everybody interested again and living their life at the museum and having a different perspective on what you can do here.”

Third Thursdays, which launched in January 2016, always have a theme for the night. Other Third Thursday themes in the past have included a silent disco, a dance party with Hot Mass and a wedding giveaway with more than 600 attendees. This was the first theme based on a neighborhood. The idea came from the mayor of Wilkinsburg herself, Marita Garrett, who attended a Third Thursday late last year and talked with McDermit about planning a neighborhood party to celebrate the art and community of Wilkinsburg.

Haylee Ebersole and Kyrie Bushaw, two artists who co-own a print shop in Wilkinsburg called Meshwork Press, were in attendance at the Block Party to teach attendees about screen printing. They brought 150 blank tote bags and 100 posters onto which people could print a famous Albert Einstein quote, “Be a voice not an echo.” Their table was one of the most popular of the night, running out of bags and posters more than a half-hour before the event was over.

Ebersole said the quote’s inspiration came from the community work she does with children from the Wilkinsburg Youth Project. She feels that the ease and accessibility of the screen printing medium makes kids excited about it — even the kids who don’t feel like they have any artistic skills.

“I work with a group of youth every week and they’re the ones who suggested we do this quote. The significance of it is to have a voice and make sure that you’re heard,” Ebersole said. “Screen printing is really exciting working with youth because anybody can do it and you don’t necessarily have to be an incredible artist to make something interesting with screen print.”

Another artist in attendance was Valerie Herrero, who has spent six years with the CMOA as the program manager for its offsite Art at the Market program. The program operates in Wilkinsburg, East Liberty, Carrick and Swissvale and serves as an opportunity for people of all ages in the neighborhood to take part in creative projects based around fruits and vegetables.

For this Third Thursday, Herrero brought her community activities into the CMOA, giving visitors a taste of her farmer’s market-inspired program by organizing still life food drawing sessions and a collaborative strawberry vine project.

“[People] are drawing a strawberry and writing what they love about their community and then adding it. The idea is that strawberries grow in these clusters on a vine, just like people,” Herrero said. “We don’t grow by ourselves — we grow in a community with others.”

As an artist and educator, Herrero appreciated how interactive the event was for attendees and noted that even people who were not confident in their art skills were able to participate and make something.

“There doesn’t need to be a boundary — we can be at the museum and we’re exploring artworks in our collection and also exploring art that’s happening right now outside in your community, so I like that we’re mixing that space,” Herrero said. “Even with the strawberry thing, for people who are like, ‘Oh, I can’t draw,’ I’m like, ‘Well, good thing strawberries come in all shapes and sizes.’”

One of those boundary-breaking artists is Damon Solomon, a local portrait artist whose work was also displayed at the event. At Solomon’s table, visitors viewed his numerous portraits of Mac Miller, Freddie Mercury and other celebrities who have inspired him, and were also able to sketch a portrait with him if they wanted to. Solomon firmly believes that anyone can do art if they’re really motivated to.

“The only difference between somebody who can’t do this and somebody who does this is that they just haven’t tried to put the hours in,” Solomon said. “I really think it’s in everybody.”

While his portraits come off as advanced and unique in their fingerprint design, Solomon is still fairly new to the art scene. He shared not only his art with those who were interested, but his story as an artist as well. An art major in college, he knew he wouldn’t be able to pursue art fully as a career until his kids were out of school. However, with the recent graduation of his last kid, a shoulder injury that prohibited him from working and the introduction of the perfect muse, everything fell into place for Solomon to work on his art full-time and really develop as an artist.

 “I found myself with the right person that turned that switch back on and my life changed a lot. All the stories about having a muse and somebody that turns on that desire — it’s real,” Solomon said. “I wanted to do the things that I found difficult, the things that scared the s*** out of me. These [portraits] that you see are the people that move my compass and my life — this is my way of paying homage to them.”

This celebration of art and overall theme of inclusivity was present at Solomon’s table and every other table as artists and visitors talked about, created and appreciated art and community together in a unified space. The event was one step in the right direction towards fulfilling the hope that McDermit has for the CMOA and for people’s experiences of museums.

“We’re trying to create a very welcoming and inclusive space for people to come and hopefully make a memory and think about the museum in a slightly different way that keeps them coming back and keeps them excited about this institution that should be your museum, the community’s museum,” McDermit said. “We’re really trying to open it up to people and it shouldn’t be an intimidating place. Often museums are, and if you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t know much about art,’ it’s okay.”