In 2006, James E. "P-Wee" White was working night turn at a juvenile-detention facility in Florida. To stay awake, in the 10-minute intervals between room-checks he rendered friends' portraits in pencil, based on their driver's licenses. While P-Wee hadn't drawn much before, he proved pretty good. "It became a thing where everybody at my job wanted me to draw them," says P-Wee, 47.
P-Wee, who grew up in the Hill District and Beltzhoover, kept drawing after returning to Pittsburgh the following year. He was working a similar night job at a facility in Baldwin, and by day cutting heads at Big Tom's Full-Service Barber Shop, in the Hill. Artist friends gave him technical advice. Soon P-Wee sold his first piece, a drawing of Steelers defensive back Bryant McFadden. The buyer was McFadden himself, also a customer.
"He said, 'What you want for that?'" recalls P-Wee. "I said, 'Twenty dollars.'"
Recently, P-Wee's girlfriend spoke to a man hauling a large painting of Tupac Shakur out of the local veterans' hospital, where she works. The painting was done by a hospital resident, the artist known as Biko. She told the man holding it, Pat McArdle, that her boyfriend drew, too.
McArdle asked for White's phone number. And now P-Wee's drawings aren't hanging only on the walls of Big Tom's. Images like his portrait in pencil of legendary vaudeville performer Bert Williams are also displayed at McArdle's Brigadoon Art Salon, in Edgewood, alongside work by Biko and 18 other local African-American artists.
The exhibit The African American Artists of Pittsburgh is a labor of love for McArdle. The noted former concert promoter is a longtime art collector specializing in outsider art (work by self-taught artists). While he launched Brigadoon seven years ago, this is his first formal exhibition -- a tribute to artists whose work has often gone unhung and unsung.
"There are more self-taught artists in the Western Pennsylvania region than any area that I know of," says McArdle.
Not all the show's artists are self-taught. George Gist, 59, is a professional portraitist, muralist and jazz musician (and former television-news courtroom artist) who studied painting in college. The Hill resident's works at Brigadoon include "The Piano Lesson," a large-scale black-and-white painting inspired by the eponymous August Wilson play, and "Fanny Lou Dammit," a portrait of civil-rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer standing defiantly, with green and gold sunbursts behind her.
But James White isn't the only participating artist who learned on his own. The artist who calls himself JR is a former mechanical draftsman who took up art later in life and paints on glass. Jorge Meyers was past 40 when "an argument with God" after the death of his grandmother turned the former body-shop owner into an abstract artist. The late Dorothy Williams rendered flower pots and domestic scenes with colored string. Sculptor Vanessa German is largely self-taught. Chris Mozley, 52, is a gas-company service worker in Jeanette who makes small art-boxes like "God Bless Our Home," with its full-sized light switch on a half-broken-out pane of glass veiling a miniature tenement scene.
The Brigadoon show is also a window into little-known aspects of the local art scene. Some contributors, for instance, were affiliated with The Archive, a 1970s-era Hill District studio and exhibition space run by artist Dennis Morgan. They include Gist; sculptor and collage artist Amir Rashidd; and the late Carl "Dingbat" Smith, a sculptor known for his inventive use of nails.
While some artists in the show have exhibited elsewhere, McArdle and many contributors agree that gallery opportunities for black artists are limited. And it's not just a matter of Pittsburgh's moribund art market, which sends even pros like Gist out of town to sell their work. "A lot of times when I'm in a show, I'm the only black guy in the show," says Meyers.
P-Wee had it tougher still. True, enough people were buying his drawings -- images of everyone from newlyweds to the deceased -- that he was able to quit his night job. But getting an exhibit was a different story.
"I've always tried to get my pictures in a gallery, but no one would accept me," says P-Wee.
The call from McArdle changed that. P-Wee's slightly stylized drawings -- like the one of Bert Williams -- and a more intimate, realistic one of a dignified-looking fellow that the artist calls "40," dominate their corner at Brigadoon. "P-Wee was the star of the show," says no less than Gist, one of P-Wee's artist mentors.
And P-Wee expects that he'll soon have a solo show somewhere. "Now people is calling me and asking me would I put my pictures in the same gallery that turned me down."
The African American Artists of Pittsburgh continues through April 23. Brigadoon Art Salon, 1033 S. Braddock, Ave., Edgewood. 412-512-2830