There was a time when the Hill District was among the most vibrant and influential African-American cultural centers in the nation. It was home to jazz greats such as Stanley Turrentine and Art Blakey and writers such as August Wilson, the future Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Most of what locals knew as "The Hill" during its heyday (1930s-1950s) is gone now; the Mellon Arena replaced the Lower Hill, while riots after Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968 ravaged what was left. It has yet to recover.
The glory of the Hill comes alive again at 709 Penn Gallery in artist Leslie Ansley's show Dreams Inside Reality. (Subtitle: "Images of the Hill District's hopes to regain its identity while facing obstacles towards change.") In an abstract-realist style that bursts with energy, Ansley, 34, recaptures the Crawford Grill, a now-defunct club that hosted some of the best jazz in the world, and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a Negro National League baseball team that fielded Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell.
"There was such a rich history in terms of jazz culture. All kinds of artists spawned from that neighborhood, and I want to pass on that history to the youth who have no clue who George Benson was," says Ansley. "I want to give them something to be proud of that is not covered by this new Hill, all this development and new housing. I want to give a voice to the present, both good and bad."
You may have come across Ansley's work outside of the exhibition. Along with her frequent gallery shows, she is the artist behind the murals at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts; on Jacksonia Street, on the North Side; and at Murray Avenue at Forward, in Squirrel Hill.
Not all of the art in Dreams Inside Reality recalls the Hill's good old days. There is the future, too. In a series of vivid portraits painted on canvases made from layering jagged pieces of wood, Ansley captures her students at the Hill District's Miller African-Centered Academy, where she teaches, in expressive movement: holding a flower, arms open with a smile, releasing a bird.
"These kids, with their hopefulness and energy, are the future of the Hill District," says Ansley. "Children represent something bigger than themselves, especially when they are painted. They have this innocence and strength to them at the same time."
I ask her why some of her pieces are stamped with the logo "Dupont Tyvek." She laughs. "Everybody asks me that. I put that there because every time I go into the neighborhood I see this brand of insulation for the new buildings everywhere I go. I had to use that logo because it's like the fabric of the neighborhood, almost representative of its takeover by all these brand-new developments."
Ansley looks around at her artwork. "Ultimately, this show is about the joy of letting your dreams fly and not being afraid of what the future holds."
Dreams Inside Reality continues through Sat., Nov. 22. 709 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-325-7017 or www.pgharts.org