Artists from Mattress Factory discuss making it in Pittsburgh

By Britnee Meiser / Staff Writer

For many artists living and working in Pittsburgh, creative expression isn’t just a fun hobby or a means of making extra cash — it’s a way of life.

That’s the case for local artists Danny Bracken, John Peña and Ben Sota, whose work will be featured in the upcoming “Artists In Residence” exhibition at the Mattress Factory. For the exhibition,which opens tonight and runs through the end of next May, five Pittsburgh artists created installations at the museum.

While these artists are individual thinkers when it comes to their work, they have similar views on Pittsburgh as a hub for creativity.

“Pittsburgh is pretty amazing [in terms of] how much support there is for artists,” Bracken, who previously lived in Chicago, said. “It’s a small city, so there’s not as much competition, and it’s very affordable. You’re able to spend a lot of time focusing on work rather than paying your rent.”

Bracken’s Mattress Factory installation will be a combination of large, multi-sensory pieces and small, visual pieces, which are often synchronized with music, to combine the physical and the abstract.

In a profession as unconventional as art, it can be difficult to make a living based solely on creative projects. 

Sota —a Pitt alum and the artistic director of the Zany Umbrella Circus, a street theater and circus company — has considered art to be his sole job for 13 years.

“My work is performance-based, so I’m different,” he said. “But it’s all about referrals. I’ve never really had money for marketing. It’s hard at times, but [focusing on art] is beautiful.”

Sota’s exhibit will be an installation portrait of the Zany Umbrella Circus. In his own words, it’s a “temporary autonomous zone that operates using community, connection and inspiration.”

Bracken, too, recognizes the importance of word-of-mouth marketing. In addition to grant funding, he relies on larger, installation-based projects to get exposure for his visual art. He also makes music for film, including the short films “Tell Me” and the 2013 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for documentary, “Blood Brothers,” to support his income.

Alternatively, much of Peña’s work can be sold directly, and, from those sales, he earns commissions. He also takes on other tasks like speaking at universities and museums, including Carnegie Mellon and La Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia. But Peña knows that his situation isn’t uniform for all artists.

“There is a whole range of people [working locally as artists], and how they earn their income is very unique to each person,” said Peña.

Peña’s installation will focus on the relationship between humans and nature, which, according to, “evokes appreciation for the ordinary moments in daily life,” by using three-dimensional word balloons supported in space by wooden scaffolding and beams. 

Though their ways of making a living differ significantly, Sota acknowledges that being an artist in Pittsburgh is like its own community. 

“It’s tight-knit within different genres of art form,” he said. “[Local artists] are becoming more interdisciplinary minded, which is a new thing that has happened.”

As far as a set daily routine for these artists, there really isn’t one — their schedules are typically project-based.

“I try to keep normal working hours, but I’m not super strict,” said Bracken. “It really depends what I’m working on, and sometimes I pick up last-minute projects.”

Peña’s routine is a bit more set, but that, he said, is a by-product of his process. He prefers to handle the business side of his career in the morning, and he also writes a daily note addressed simply to “The Ocean,” which, once returned to sender, goes on display in his “Letter to The Ocean” exhibit. He has accumulated more than 3,000 returned letters since 2003.

For his exhibit at the Mattress Factory, Bracken has been working 9-5 days with assistants to make the most out of his time.

“They invited me to take part a year and a half ago,” said Bracken. “I didn’t have to submit a proposal. They just let me do whatever I wanted. They’ve got great resources for materials and brainstorming and [have been] open and accessible to help me.”

For young artists looking to make a name for themselves locally, metropolitan areas are often a launchpad. 

“There’s no book on how to be an artist,” said Sota. “Find a mentorship in the city. Take advantage of the resources Pittsburgh offers [for artists]. Think outside the box.”