Sleeping Octopus uses art to save abandoned properties in Wilkinsburg

click to enlarge A painter in a brightly colored jacket completes a work at Art JAM in Wilkinsburg
Photo: Rebekah Dunn
Depending on the situation, art can be inspirational, intimate, or provocative. In the case of one Wilkinsburg event, art will strive to be transformative, particularly in regard to neglected properties in the borough.

Art JAM returns to the Yingling Mansion on Sat., Aug. 27 with a full roster of creatives from Wilkinsburg and around the region. Organizers describe Art JAM as “an inspiring setting where artists create and refine their artwork while members of the public observe and engage with artists in action.”

The free, family-friendly event, presented in partnership with the Sleeping Octopus Arts Initiative and supported by the Wilkinsburg-based nonprofit Hosanna House, will feature 20 artists working in mediums such as clay or wire sculpting, painting, garment making, and more. There will also be performances by Jonas Pickering, Pittsburgh Old Time Appalachian Jam, and “six dynamic singer-songwriters,” including Louie Castle and Donna O. The event will close with a special performance by contortionist Camille Zamboni of the Pittsburgh Circus Arts Collaborative and Drum Circle.

Art JAM parties go back to 2018 and have celebrated everything from Halloween to the vernal equinox. This year, however, the party will try to inspire community-based urban renewal with its first-ever house tour.

The guided house tours, happening the morning before Art JAM, takes guests to four to eight properties, including single-family homes, apartments, and commercial storefronts, “in various stages of predevelopment and occupancy” in Ward 3, described as “collectively Wilkinsburg’s most blighted neighborhood.” Each property will showcase a variety of works by Wilkinsburg artists.
click to enlarge Artist Lisa Tabb smiles in a Winnie the Pooh hat as she makes her spinning trees artwork at Art JAM
Photo: Rebekah Dunn
Lisa Tabb makes her spinning trees artwork at Art JAM.
Art JAM itself resides in a restored Wilkinsburg property, an abandoned mansion originally built in 1907 by Roswell Gardner Yingling, owner of a Kittanning-based brick company. According to a 2019 TribLive article, Brian Seiffert and his wife Nicole Santella bought the then-rundown mansion in 2016 and converted it into the Sleeping Octopus arts and event space, where they also live.

"Homeownership is getting increasingly challenging. There are many viable vacant homes within the borough,” says Seiffert in an email to Pittsburgh City Paper. “Many of these homes are located near green spaces and long-time residents. Saving some viable vacant homes will result in positive impact for current homeowners.”

Art JAM organizers hope that, through the tour, guests will “learn what it takes to stabilize a vacant house and transform it into a comfortable and attractive home.”

“We're excited to add the tour this year to help connect people to the opportunities and showcase the creative community in Wilkinsburg,” says Jennifer Salmans, director of grants and corporate relations for Hosanna House. “The tour features artwork by local artists, helping blighted properties in transformation feel more like a welcoming space. The tour further demonstrates that people are investing to improve their neighborhood and that there will be opportunities for people to get involved as well. Our hope is that we can make an impact in the ever-challenging climate for homeownership.”

Art JAM Vacant House Tour. 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Sat., Aug. 27. Yingling Mansion. 1300 Wood St., Wilkinsburg. Free. Registration required.

Art JAM. 6-10 p.m. Sat., Aug. 27. Yingling Mansion. 1300 Wood St., Wilkinsburg. Free. Donations accepted.