Artwork Becomes Him | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Artwork Becomes Him

Plasterer and performance artist Steve Pellegrino puts his crafts where his neighborhood is

It's dusk on a late-summer night, and Steve Pellegrino is in rehearsal. The house-plasterer and experimental-theater veteran's stage is itself a house: a big old three-story job in Oakland Square.

The house is under renovation, with Pellegrino among the tradesmen. (He also once owned the building.) The band for the new show includes his 15-year-old son, Leo, who's sitting on a cooler behind a would-be wall of bare wooden studs, a scrap of sheet music clipped to his saxophone. Beyond the front window, right across the tree-lined square, Pellegrino's own house is visible through the mild gloom.

His wife, Mary Shea, is out there too. Pellegrino ... dressed in painter's pants and a T-shirt, all in his characteristic white ... leans out the second-story window. "Mary ... are you somewhere?" he hollers. "Could you do something? Call Mike for me. And tell him to bring his sticks."

A few minutes later, in walks Pellegrino's neighbor (and tenant) Mike Yaklich, a stocky, bearded guy in a tie-dyed T-shirt. Yaklich sits on a five-gallon bucket of joint compound and tests his mallet-headed drumsticks on a second, empty bucket braced between his sneakered feet. Then Shea climbs the steps, ready to sub for a carpenter pal of Pellegrino's as they rehearse "Ballet for Hanger and Carpenter." In the glow of worklights clamped to the studs, Pellegrino clasps a slab of half-inch drywall under one arm. He faces Shea, who grips a length of half-inch plywood. As Leo plays a sinuous sax line and Yaklich tolls a rhythm, Pellegrino directs himself and Shea in a stylized dance. They step toward each other in sync, then go off into a series of solo movements.

The production number is part of Pellegrino's Drywall Macbeth. The music-theater riff on Shakespeare is set in the world of general contracting in Oakland: Three real-estate agents prophesy that Mac will be named project manager for the firm of Duncan and Son, while Mac's wife goads him to murder his boss. It's the 22nd installment in Pellegrino's "drywall" series ... shows that the composer, accordionist and vocalist began staging in 1985.

Most artists find life experience informing their art; many hold day jobs. Pellegrino is rare not only for the blue-collar nature of his lunch ticket, but for how his fanciful, often bizarre, performances consistently incorporate the tools and materials of his trade. His art doesn't imitate life so much as renovate it.

Yet more so than in earlier shows, which are full of surreal imagery and cryptic ritual, Pellegrino's purpose in Drywall Macbeth is explicit. As a two-decade homeowner on Oakland Square, he wants to change the perception of the area from stick-a-fork-in-it student ghetto to burgeoning family neighborhood. He's making art not merely to alter his audience's consciousness, but to change its real-estate-buying habits.

"I wanted to take it one step further," he says of his work. "I wanted it to function in a way that helped the community."

On a weekday morning, Pellegrino's lemon-yellow van is parked at a curbside in Friendship. Inside the house, big, dark-stained wooden cabinets huddle in the center of the dining room, shrouded in the same gossamer plastic that drapes the wainscotting, swathes the mantel and bellies out from the windows. Sunlight filters through leaded glass. On the brown paper taped to the hardwood floor, like some misplaced Native American petroglyph, is a mysterious line of white footprints (the homeowner's), each naked toe distinct.

In the adjoining foyer, Pellegrino crouches over a foot-long metal tray, making mud. Dressed in tattered white coveralls, a white T-shirt, white sneakers and white canvas work gloves, he mixes plaster powder with water and joint compound. Once the mixture reaches the proper consistency for patching cracks, Pellegrino steps onto a 4-foot-tall wheeled scaffold.

Pellegrino is 53, but could pass for 15 years younger. He's slight and lively, with dark, bushy hair, high sharp cheekbones and a surprisingly deep, gravelly voice he uses to striking effect on stage. Up on the scaffold, he wields his drywall knife with practiced strokes; when he's filled the cracks in one section, he shimmies his hips to buck the scaffolding a foot or two to the next.

The dramatic visuals, the eccentric locomotion, the precise and rhythmic actions ... it all might be a sequence from one of his shows. Pellegrino even dresses the same to perform. He sees his theater pieces less as narratives than as musical compositions. The productions have included such elements as numbers scored for drywall knives and the image of Pellegrino himself, as a Prometheus figure, plastered to a rock. The prop rock, in fact, stood upon this very piece of scaffolding.

But this morning the scaffolding is merely a tool.

Pellegrino began plastering in 1979, after buying a fixer-upper in Polish Hill, his first house in Pittsburgh. He'd grown up in the Mon Valley coal town of New Eagle, the son of an Italian immigrant. "Don't ever be a plasterer," the old man told him, warning of back-breaking labor. "It's terrible, miserable work." But plastering his own home, Pellegrino discovered a craft that matched his own personality. "You have to do it fast and you have to do it with your wits," he says. "There's something that appeals to me about something that doesn't give you a second chance. I've always been the sort of person that likes to do things on the fly."

His turn to theater had been more drawn-out. One formative experience was a Finley Junior High drama-club trip to A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. It was the late '60s. A body-suited Puck summoned the production's incidental music by dropping coins in a jukebox; the actors performed upon a revolving stage. "They're running against the thing turning, and it was like, 'Whoa,'" says Pellegrino. "I was totally beside myself. It never left my psyche."

In 1971, the summer before Pellegrino became the first in his family to attend college, he worked on the technical crew for an opera production in Baltimore. "These people were all addicted," he says. "When I came back, I was primed." The second day of classes on the University of Pittsburgh's main campus, he switched his major from engineering to theater and never looked back.

Summers during college he worked on a labor gang at U.S. Steel's Carrie Furnace, in Rankin; the rest of the time it was experimental theater.

With a profusion of local groups including Pitt's 99 Cent Floating Theatre Company, the '70s were a good time for envelope-pushing performances in public spaces and other nontraditional venues. As a kid, Pellegrino took accordion lessons; now he composed an opera based on Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf. Another avant-garde influence was the 1976 Philip Glass-scored opera Einstein on the Beach, with its plotless musings on physics, nuclear weapons and AM radio. "It was like, 'Jesus Christ, this is the future,'" says Pellegrino.

In grad school ... University of Maryland, Peabody University, American University ... Pellegrino's original efforts sometimes incorporated dozens of choreographed dancers. His "Jeff Jones" cycle of plays had a hero in a wheelchair; one of the plays was staged on a roof, at night.

Returning to Pittsburgh in 1979, Pellegrino found a burgeoning scene, including the fledgling City Theatre. But mostly, he did his own thing. Arts funding was readily available; one commission, from The Mattress Factory, let him block off a North Side street for a choreographed show that included slide projections, 20 dancers and a dancing pick-up truck.

Pellegrino's one-man show A Night in Pittsburgh found admirers including filmmaker Tony Buba, and the two began collaborating. Probably Pellegrino's most widely seen performance is his accordion-driven rendition of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" in Buba's 1981 short "Mill Hunk Herald": It starts solo, Pellegrino and button-box atop a barroom pool table, and ends with him leading the Gen. Braddock High School marching band in its final performance. (The idea, says Buba, was to use the Rolling Stones' classic to spoof the pied-piper role pop stars play in the culture.)

The footage was also cut into Buba's acclaimed 1988 independent feature Lightning Over Braddock ... soundlessly, because Buba couldn't afford the song rights. Pellegrino also contributed the film's score and songs including "End of the Iron Age Café": The sequence memorably accompanied performers wearing air-filter masks while doing an angular modern-dance routine at the shuttered Carrie Furnace No. 7, where Pellegrino had once worked.

Meanwhile, Pellegrino had married, and settled into a day job as a general contractor, all while writing and performing one or two new shows a year. Many artists make ends meet by teaching, or at desk jobs. But Pellegrino found manual labor compatible with art, and not just because the work is daydream-friendly.

"It's analog," he says. "There's no measurements." He likens plastering to Chinese calligraphy, with its measured sweeps of the hand.

Pellegrino gets most of his plastering jobs by word of mouth, a lot of them inside the arts community. He says some homeowners are willing to wait six months for his services. The dining-room patch job in Friendship is at the home of a musician friend and his wife.

Today it's easy going, but Pellegrino's careful to keep his tools clean: One bit of old plaster in the new makes it harden too quickly. The best approach is to make small batches and work fast. "The more you play around with it, the less you're going to be able to work with it," he says. "You get a couple hits and that's it."

Pellegrino's father, Stephen, oversaw the coal barges at a power station. On the side he did carpentry, and he'd bring home bent nails for Steve Jr. to hammer straight. Labor, as theme, ethic and practice, has been Pellegrino's lot ever since.

"We grew up in the Mon Valley. We know what hard work is," says Larry Rippel, a longtime friend and collaborator who grew up in Monongahela, just across the river from New Eagle. "It's incorporated into our whole belief system. Everything [Pellegrino] does he does to the max."

"His work is always evocative of the everyman, the working-class man," says Brian Czarniecki, a frequent collaborator who's playing the lead in Drywall Macbeth.

"Work is everything," says Pellegrino. "The work you do, if you're lucky enough, becomes really important to you, because you're so good at it."

Though he occasionally gets funding from groups like the Three Rivers Arts Festival and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Pellegrino usually has to go into his pocket to fund his art projects. But he doesn't entertain the notion of dropping everything for a career in theater. "I wouldn't want to be a full-time artist," he says. "You have to be able to make all these compromises to make money."

Nor would the life of full-time artist even jibe with his philosophy.

In the mid-'80s, Pellegrino attended a couple residency programs at the Yellow Springs Art Institute, near Philadelphia. Architect John Clauser, who created the program, emphasized the need for the artist as shaman, the priest-like figure whom Pellegrino defines as "the crazy [person] who isn't afraid to run around naked and screaming." Aboriginal cultures, Pellegrino reflected, don't distinguish between aspects of life that modern societies compartmentalize: Religion, Work, Art.

"I didn't want to separate what I did in my artwork [and] what I did in my life to make money," says Pellegrino. "I decided I would create an aboriginal culture based on what I did every day.

"There's this incredible desire on my part to ... deify or iconize everyday or prosaic or mundane things," he adds. "A lot of people say it's funny, and it is. But I'm dead serious about it. ... There is a religious experience involved when you are at work and it's really just happening. A lot of work is just drudgery, but a lot of work is an excited, elated feeling, and I wanted to harness that in terms of creating art."

In an early drywall-series sequence, Pellegrino made a mask out of drywall onstage. He learned that 4-inch and 6-inch Hyde-brand drywall knives, clapped together, sound a G-minor chord. And he started finding more connections between the everyday ritual of work and the rituals enacted in myth and shamanic cultures.

Of course he kept on simply living, too. For several years starting in 1988, he did no public performances because his wife asked him to take off while their two sons were young. "I was like, 'Cool,' because she's always helped me out with my stuff," says Pellegrino.

But he was frustrated by what he calls the "straightjacket" of not being able to perform. When his hiatus ended, the result was Prometheus Bound/Unbound, staged in 1995 at the old Pittsburgh Public Theatre, on the North Side. It was Pellegrino's riff on the Greek myth of the demi-god who, as punishment for stealing fire from the gods for man, was chained to a rock where a vulture daily tore out his liver, which regenerated itself overnight.

"For five long years I watched life go by," sings Pellegrino, as the title character trapped in plaster. Later, he sings defiantly, "You can take away my teeth / You'll never have my bite." He's freed by the deus ex machina of one of Pellegrino's touchstone icons: the Refrigiolith, an outer-space entity that looks like an old-fashioned fridge. (Pellegrino says the figure has its roots in a recurring childhood dream in which a huge refrigerator saves him from becoming a human sacrifice.) Prometheus completes his escape across a small plain made of 60 overturned five-gallon buckets. A few other buckets end up nailed to the shoes of a trio of satyrs who serve as the work's chorus, performing a percussive concluding dance in that footwear.

By this time, and at Shea's suggestion, Pellegrino had given up general contracting, and even most of his drywall work. He was concentrating instead on plaster, work that put him in touch with Pittsburgh's vast stock of century-old houses with cracked walls. It was the best decision he could have made, he says, and not just from a business perspective.

"When you go into an old house and breathe new life into it, it's thrilling," he says. "Like [being] a house shaman."

Shea defines her husband's artistic mission this way: "I think he just shows people how your life is theater."

"My wife says the only reason I do these drywall shows is to get customers," says Pellegrino. "I say, 'No, I do drywall jobs to get an audience.'"

Drywall Macbeth draws on mainstream culture more than did Pellegrino's previous works, which largely invent their own mythologies. But it's not his first stab at the Shakespearean classic. When he was 10, he read a classic-comics version of the story and decided to stage it with some friends. In a neighbor's yard. On stilts.

Some of the kids forgot their lines, but the play itself was memorable. It went on at dusk, and as Pellegrino recalls, "Everything was framed in this pink light.

"The hardest part, he adds, "was to get everybody to stay on their stilts." But "I was very good at convincing people to do stuff."

Over the years, Pellegrino has gathered a cadre of collaborators. Local actor Brenda Marks, for instance, answered an open casting call for a show called CITIscape, in 1984. Pellegrino had auditioners do vocal exercises. Marks stood out from the crowd with a daringly high-pitched sound. "I let out a note and he said, 'Yeah, I can use you,'" she recalls.

Marks thinks Pellegrino is attracted to "someone who was open and willing to try something ... someone who was willing to put themselves out there." In Drywall Macbeth, she's one of three witch/real-estate agents. "Whenever he calls me, I'm always on board."

Others keep working with Pellegrino because he's adventuresome. "I'm still trying to wrap my mind around his chord changes," says Maurice Rickard, a Pellegrino collaborator who calls himself "Pittsburgh's only avant-garde electric-ukulele player." "His musical knowledge is really, really deep. ... It's complexity and simplicity interweaving."

In 2002, Pellegrino, on a plastering job in Edgewood, met the client's neighbor, artist and designer Frank Ferraro. They went on to co-found LOSER (the Loose Organization of Surreal Ethereal Realists), a collective that's done several projects since. Ferraro and Pellegrino also teamed on "Calling Mr. Conrad," a 20-minute "outdoor radiophonic opera" that doubled as a séance for Wilkinsburg-born radio pioneer Frank Conrad.

Performed at the 2005 Three Rivers Arts Festival, "Conrad" took place on the Stanwix Triangle. People departing the festival as it closed on each of two Saturday nights came upon Pellegrino perched atop a big radio-dish prop, from which he accompanied a host of saxophones and 15 dancers with his own electronically treated vocals.

If nothing else, the work exposed the unsuspecting to Pellegrino's deep, resonant voice. Ferraro compares that voice to his collaborator's accordion: "I always think of his chest as being an extension of that bellows," he says.

Three Rivers Arts Festival Executive Director Elizabeth Reiss recalls another Pellegrino/Ferraro collaboration, "4Quarters." During the 2004 festival, saxophonists set up on each of the four street corners at Sixth Street and Penn Avenue. The musicians ... their presence among the everyday crowds left unexplained ... dressed in white coveralls and perched on low platforms. They played atonal riffs, and then traded corners when the traffic lights changed.

"He is trying to get people to upset their rhythm for a minute," says Reiss. "To think, 'What's going on, where am I?'"

Few question Pellegrino's talent, or his fearlessness as a performer. But his work's plotlessness, surrealism and experimentation can leave even his biggest fans scratching their heads.

"He can go way off, like everyone knows what's on the inside of his mind and cares about it," says Mary Shea, who calls herself "the first audience" for her husband's works in progress.

"Sometimes he's even said to me, 'Who cares about the audience, it's what I want to do,'" adds Shea, a database administrator at Pitt. She often offers lyrical or musical suggestions. "I take the role of the more normal person in the audience. ... If you get it past me, then it's OK."

"You get that moment with Steve. ... You have to decide, 'Am I gonna stick with it?'" Reiss says. "If you make that leap, it becomes a very interesting and inviting prospect."

"Thirty years from now people will look around in this city and there'll be nobody to compare him to," Ferraro says of Pellegrino. "He's a one-man show."

Pellegrino is willing to write, produce and finance shows on his own. But neighborhood revitalization is no solo undertaking. When keeping an appointment to discuss Drywall Macbeth with CP, Pellegrino invites no fewer than four neighbors to the house on Oakland Square, where they tout Oakland's charms and share their hopes for its future. Community-development activists all, they include Kathy Boykowycz, Nathan Hart, and Jeff and Kate Maurin.

Oakland Square is small section of Central Oakland just off Parkview Street, centered on a narrow grassy island and overlooking the pond in Panther Hollow. Last year, the four neighbors led the successful campaign to designate Oakland Square and the surrounding area an historic district (as reported in "Squaring Off," in the April 27, 2005 CP). The hope was that imposing new standards for exterior building renovations would discourage slumlords. That might improve the housing stock, thus encouraging sales to homeowners, and even families with children, who'd otherwise choose suburbia. And it might reduce rentals to college undergraduates, who tend toward rowdiness and trashed-up porches.

Over the years, protective neighbors have even purchased properties simply to keep them from absentee landlords. Pellegrino and his wife, for instance, own the building next door to their house, and the one next to that. They rent both to nonstudent tenants. "I got tired of people 2 in the morning yelling 'Fuck!' and drunk," says Pellegrino.

Ironically, Pellegrino himself was among the first undergrads to live in Oakland Square, some 35 years ago. A decade later, after he and Shea married, they went house-hunting here. Shea, then a social worker with a background in community activism, had a thing for old houses. Pellegrino recalls her first sight of their Oakland Square place, then containing three rental units. She walked into the dilapidated building, then right out again. "I don't even want to see it," Pellegrino recalls her saying. Then Shea, channeling Scarlett O'Hara, had a vision of what the ill-used building might become. "She said, 'Tara.' She's real dramatic. 'We have to have this house.'"

Pellegrino and Shea renovated, and stuck it out as the neighborhood got more student-oriented. Eventually they bought other old houses and fixed them up. "They've taken things in their hands and done things their own way," says Maurin, who works in software for PNC Bank and is president of the Oakland Planning and Development Corp. "They've been kind of relentless in their love for Oakland and their pursuit of making it a better place to live."

Pellegrino sold one such house, around the corner on Parkview Street, six years ago, to the Maurins. They'd once lived in the neighborhood as renters, and moved to Highland Park. "We just really missed the vibrancy of Oakland," says Jeff Maurin.

"Oakland Square," he adds, "can turn into the greatest residential neighborhood in the city."

The Maurins, in fact, bought the Drywall Macbeth house from Pellegrino himself earlier this year. The dwelling is about 3,000 square feet, with a dramatic view of Schenley Park, including Phipps Conservatory. After extensive renovations, they hope to sell it for upward of $240,000 ... and use it as a "demonstration project" to get others to follow suit.

Drywall Macbeth itself might provide another nudge in that direction. The show runs Sept. 20-23. The house accommodates just 20 people per show, so Pellegrino might add performances if there's interest. The audience will assemble at the corner of Parkview and the Boulevard of the Allies, where a docent (who's also a neighbor) will lead them on a brief insider's tour of the community. The tour will end at the Maurins' house, whose interior will still be exposed studs and bare brick. "It'll be just about the time electric and plumbing is happening," says Pellegrino.

Pellegrino's adaptation is in colloquial dialogue, much of it improvised. Two of his witches/real-estate agents are set on exploiting Oakland for short-term profit, while the third argues for turning the neighborhood around; all three sing a song titled "The Bottom Line." Mac himself is a community-minded soul who'd like to reclaim Oakland for homeowners. His wife, Missy (played by Kellee Van Aken), is fed up with "shit college students" and plots murder to secure the promotion that'll get them to the 'burbs. There'll be a party, complete with live band; some characters might seem to simply wander in off the street.

Pellegrino's script outline indicates that he won't shy from slipping in a few lines of dialogue plugging Oakland as an up-and-coming place to live. But if anyone can use Shakespearean tragedy as a vehicle for community advocacy, it's Pellegrino.

Not everyone, of course, shares the same vision of Oakland Square's future. For instance, Fred DeIuliis, a lifetime neighborhood resident who owns several rental properties there, vocally opposed the historic designation. More than a year later, DeIuliis remains upset about its passage by city council. He contends that the designation was engineered "behind everybody's backs," and that it unfairly restricts how property owners, including many on fixed incomes, use their property.

Asked if he knows about Pellegrino's upcoming show, DeIuliis sounds nonplussed. He's told Pellegrino is a performer.

"What performer? He does drywall!" says DeIuliis. Yes, he's told, Pellegrino has staged dozens of shows over the years.

"He can't be very successful at it," DeIuliis responds. "He does drywall every day."

Comments (0)

Add a comment