A Conversation With Randy Gilson | Local Vocal | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation With Randy Gilson

Randy Gilson has planted hundreds of tiny gardens -- in wooden whiskey barrels, at the base of trees, and everywhere else -- throughout his North Side neighborhood. He has also been creating what the locals call "Randyland": a sculpture garden...



How'd you get started putting gardens in the North Side?
In about 1979 I moved here from Homestead. I was trying to protect my family, because I was bad. A lot of my friends were starting to go down the road of the mob, of guns, the trafficking of miscellaneous things. I was always told that I was never going to be anything. I never had any mentors except my mother. She was always doing for everyone around her. She was always saving people from themselves and their problems. She became like an angel, and she told us to do good angel-like deeds.


So I was sitting on my steps on Taylor Avenue, drinking wine. I looked to my left and my right and I saw a lot of beautiful homes, a lot of nice cars -- and a lot of weeds. Stoop-sitting is very popular around here: We shared bottles of wine and talked and laughed. But I thought, "It's kind of dirty over there five doors down." I had $1,000 of unemployment, so I bought a bunch of whiskey barrels and soil, put shrubs in it and planted flowers all over the place. The next time I sat back out there, it looked really nice.


What did the neighbors think?

They laughed at me, they pointed fingers, they shook their heads. But no one stopped me.  I put over 800 gardens on this street -- whiskey barrels and the base of trees, vegetable gardens and parks. People say, "How were you able to do it all?" Well, I was insane. I was all over the place. I was coming home at 1 in the morning; I didn't even know where I was. It was sort of a high, baby.


And all the sudden I get people wanting to talk about horticulture. I'd say, "I have no idea what you're talking about." I have no experience in gardening and art; I'm supposed to be living underneath a bridge, drinking wine and smoking herb. I didn't know how to do it; I just faked it. If it doesn't grow, maybe it needs more sun. If it's burned on the tips, move it to the shade.


Why gardening, of all things?

My gardens are my therapists. This past summer I was weeding the path, and I came back the next day, and where I weeded, there were weeds again. I was so mad. Then an angel came to me. I have garden angels all around me. And I thought, "My God, how can you get mad at weeds?" Because if I didn't have to come back to my garden, I wouldn't get my therapy. Weeds are important; they keep you in the garden.


"Randyland" is filled with sculptures, plants, and 40-foot-high murals you've painted with clouds and castles. How do people react to it? 

Thousands of people come from all around the world to the [nearby] Mattress Factory [art gallery]. The Dave Matthews Band came by about two months ago. They jumped out of the van and took pictures. Mayor Murphy was jogging by one day. I said, "You want to see my alligators?" He said, "Randy, you're not allowed to have alligators in the city." I said, "You want to see them?" He's in his Spandex or whatever. So I showed him Randyland, and after he saw the cement alligators he laughed.


Your plan is to open Randyland to the public someday along with a coffee shop; what will people do there?

The goal is to make this an incubator, a place of hatching. This is going to be a place I hope will crack thousands of people's shells.


I'm no artist, I'm no gardener, and yet I create. And I want you to know that I believe in you. You have so much. I guess my mission is to teach people that they are their own nucleus. Be your own best friend, and you can do anything. I want this to be a place where you can go deep within your soul and reflect. From time to time I might come out here and yell at everybody, "Hey, guess what? You're not allowed to talk to the person you're talking to anymore. You need to meet somebody else, because that person might be a whole new wonderful experience." And wouldn't it be great to have a new wonderful experience?