Sowing hope through Pittsburgh neighborhood garden prints

Ms. Natalie Thomas remembered looking out the window of her Beltzhoover home and glimpsing children in the lot across the street. She thought to herself, “How wonderful is this?”

That moment propelled her to plant a seed, and in 2011, the whole neighborhood worked together to help that space blossom into the Unified: Positive Effect Community Garden. The garden now hosts a community “lunch bunch” with the kids and even an annual tea party.

While seeing children enjoy some greenery was always a blessing to Natalie, she never anticipated just how much hope it would bring her in the days ahead; in 2018, she was diagnosed with cancer.

“When I came home that day, I sat on the porch, I kicked my feet, and I cried and I cried,” she recounts. “The buses stopped, I heard the kids laughing, the birds, and the cars. I heard it all, but I couldn’t bring myself to lift my head. But then when I finally did, there were two rainbows right over the garden — my eyes lit up. I knew that I was going to beat the cancer, and I knew that I was going to be alright. The garden helped me overcome it all.”

Today, that feeling of faith is forever marked in a piece of art by Charlie Barber. The work is one of many in his series of neighborhood garden prints; each is $200, and all proceeds are donated back to the garden keepers for supplies. Tonight is the last night you can see the artwork on display (and buy one for yourself) by visiting Pullproof Studio in Bloomfield between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Artist Charlie Barber with Ms. Natalie Thomas of Unified: Positive Effect Community Garden.(📸: Francesca Dabecco)

Charlie has always been fond of the unique landscapes and residential architecture that pervades Pittsburgh neighborhoods. He’s been a practicing artist here for the past five years, mainly focusing on creatively rendering Pittsburgh houses (which you can see on his Instagram account, @pgh.houses) and working out of his print screening studio in Bloomfield, Pullproof.

“I spent years exploring this subject matter with pen and ink illustration, digital illustration, and screen printing,” Charlie said. “The through line of this work was celebrating overlooked elements of the city; creaky awnings, modest dormers, the traces of perpetual DIY home improvements.”

His drive to highlight the beauty of humble spaces took on a new resonance during the pandemic and the country’s reckoning with its racist history last summer.

“I knew there were communities in Pittsburgh that felt these waves of change much harder than I, so I contacted Neighborhood Allies and pitched them an open-ended art project concept,” he said. “I offered to do a pro-bono project that would celebrate communities in Pittsburgh that could benefit from such recognition.”

At the same time, Neighborhood Allies — a group that works to foster healthy communities in the greater Pittsburgh region — had lost funding for its Love My Neighbor program supporting seven neighborhood garden projects.

“Because of COVID-19, we had to change our funding priorities. We weren’t able to support these gardens, but Charlie loved the idea of basing a project around them,” said Tamara Cartwright, Program Manager for Social Impact Design at Neighborhood Allies. “So I got all of the garden owners into an Excel sheet, and he called them one by one, visited them on site, and got to see their community members volunteer and their passion for it.”

After meeting each garden caretaker, taking notes, and snapping pictures, Charlie made a thoughtful design depicting each place of refuge. His illustrations capture places where neighbors could still gather, find peace, and nourish themselves during a profoundly stressful time.

Each poster of Charlie’s work is made with seven colors and mixes layers — like purple overlaid on yellow to produce brown — in order to form new hues.

“To apply a layer to a poster, I print a black image of that layer on transparent film, ‘burn’ that image into a screen coated with photo-sensitive emulsion, wash the screen out to create a stencil, dab ink onto the screen, and pull the ink through the screen onto the poster with a squeegee,” Charlie explained. “Seven posters with seven colors in editions of 15 means I’m burning 49 screens and pulling the squeegee 735 times.”

We got a chance to see his prints on display, and Charlie told us a little bit about each garden and the inspiration behind his designs.

African Healing Garden (Larimer)

African Healing Garden print by Charlie Barber (📸: Francesca Dabecco)

“Ms. Betty Lane and I methodically paced around the paths and perimeter of the African Healing Garden when I visited. There are many striking elements within the garden: a tall, sculptural gate in the shape of twisting limbs and flowers; a reflecting pond with spiraling rock formations; brightly painted African symbols and animals cut out of wood lining the fence; and a billowing pear tree in the middle of the garden. Just when I thought there was more than enough imagery for me to design a poster around, a large hawk landed 10 feet from me as I was taking pictures. I quickly took some photos and edged away back towards Ms Betty, who was talking with a neighbor. I pointed out the hawk to them, and all three of us quietly discussed its presence and how it was probably looking for mice. Needless to say, the hawk made its way into the poster.”

The Sleeping Octopus Garden (Wilkinsburg)

The Sleeping Octopus Garden print by Charlie Barber (📸: Francesca Dabecco)

“There is a lot that can be said about the Sleeping Octopus Garden: the history of the large mansion it’s based around; the types of natural gardening techniques that ensure natural proliferation of plants; and the artists that stay in the house in residences. In my short time visiting I tried to absorb and retain all the information [Nicole Santella] had to share. What resulted from my educational visit was a depiction of one of Nicole’s gardening principles: using wood chips to cultivate mycelium, an underground network of fungus that recycles nutrients and produced fertile ground for more plants to grow. I wanted to show how this small detail formed the basis for all the life within the garden. Nicole also explained the namesake of the garden: a sleeping octopus curls itself into a ball, but unfurls when it awakes. That is the mission Nicole sees in this space: once a private residence, then hospice, then abandoned shell that will open up and bring in all new types of people.”

The Gardens of Millvale

The Gardens of Millvale print by Charlie Barber (📸: Francesca Dabecco)

“I met with Denise, Maya, and her son at the hoop house in the Gardens of Millvale. Our tour took us through several sections of the Gardens [including] an orchard, a picnic area, and a lot full of planter beds, all dispersed across several scattered blocks tucked away in Millvale. The area by the hoop house was the most active that day. Denise and Maya’s son were looking at bugs in the plants and someone was tending to their planter bed. This is the image I depicted, with the added bonus of getting to illustrate a background of classic Pittsburgh houses that I love so much.”

When we asked Charlie what he learned from this project, he said: “Gardens are a reflection of a community’s relationship with the land. Sometimes that relationship describes a personal journey, and other times it highlights a societal necessity for self reliance.”

Peace and Friendship Farm (Hill District)

Peace and Friendship Farm print by Charlie Barber (📸: Francesca Dabecco)

“I met Kent Bey on a hot day in early September. We sat in two lawn chairs overlooking the rows of raised vegetable beds in Peace and Friendship Farm. We sat in the open and talked as cars occasionally drove by and two people were grilling and talking across the street at a small store. We talked about the history and use of the space before eventually walking through the rows to talk more in-depth about the things growing and the efforts it took to grow them. One such effort was keeping a persistent gopher out of the tomatoes. Kent had tried caging the crop with wire and surrounding the beds with plywood, but the gophers still found a way. We talked through alternative ways to keep them out involving bricks. Kent said that might work; he cares a lot for the details in this farm and it shows. It’s neat, organized, and has lots of room for people to come and plant something.”

Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers (Homewood)

Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers print by Charlie Barber (📸: Francesca Dabecco)

“I worked with Free Blackwell and Raqueeb Bey to design the Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers poster. It highlights two important areas of the farm, [one of which is] the hoop house, where enough produce is grown to nourish hundreds of nearby residents. The large variety and quantity of fruits and vegetables grown here is a testament to the hard work this community does in order to offer healthy, happy living. The other area depicted is a serene grove just outside of the hoop house. What used to be a plot of brush and bramble reaching six feet tall is now a beautiful forest of tall, thin trees which serves as a gathering space for the neighborhood.”

Homewood Rain Garden (Homewood South)

Homewood Rain Garden print by Charlie Barber (📸: Francesca Dabecco)

“The photos depicted in the design for The Homewood Rain Garden show the people who have worked over the years in developing a shrubby corner of land into a welcoming space teeming with interesting natural details. [There are] old tree limbs intertwined with chain link fence, succulents lining brick pave ways, and purple brushstrokes of lavender throughout the garden. This is an area most people wouldn’t know about if they don’t live nearby or use the Wilkinsburg Park and Ride. However, Zinna Scott — the local Homewood resident who led the creation of the garden — myself, and the people that pass by this space on their commutes appreciate the effort that went into this space.”

Unified: Positive Effect Garden (Beltzhoover)

Unified: Positive Effect Garden print by Charlie Barber (📸: Francesca Dabecco)

“This was my first and most impactful garden trip. Over the four hours I spent with Beltzhoover local and Unified: Positive Effect Garden owner Natalie Thomas, I learned about the history of the area, Natalie’s personal journey, and her vision for the neighborhood. Natalie grew up on the block where the garden is situated — she pointed to different sections of the block as she told me stories of her childhood, growing up, dealing with addiction, falling in love, and finding a passion in making something beautiful for others. Natalie was animated and energetic as she showed me the current garden and described her vision for the other corners of the block; she sees the abandoned house becoming a coffee shop powered by solar power; a dog park on the grassy hill; and a home for children in the large estate across from the garden. Her positivity is infectious and clearly demonstrates the purpose of the garden: to energize and uplift anyone who comes and visits Natalie.”

Good to know:

Reminder: Tonight is the last night to see the artwork on display (and buy one for yourself) from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m at Pullproof Studio in Bloomfield. Just a heads up: many of these prints may be sold out and no longer available.

🌱 To donate to the Neighborhood Allies’ Love My Neighbor program supporting these neighborhood gardens or to learn how to get involved, visit their website.