Since late May, a Free Little Art Gallery has stood in the side lot of the Gino Brothers pizza shop at 713 Main Street. The project invites people to donate and take small pieces of art displayed in a dollhouse-like setting, complete with a tiny easel and figurines acting as gallery patrons.
The box, which sits atop a pole, similar to the way a birdhouse would, is part of a growing community of Free Little Art Galleries popping up around the country. The Sharpsburg addition, like the ones that came before it, is meant to foster creativity and connection in the community, and encourage giving, as every piece is free to take.
“Some people shouldn't feel obligated to, that second, give something back because sometimes we do have an overflow,” says Caleb Adams, a teen artist who conceived the Sharpsburg Free Little Art Gallery with his mother, Susan. “And in that case, it's completely fine to just take something. But the whole goal is, somebody take something, and then come back another time and give something. It's a cycle.”
Susan and Caleb also saw the gallery as an opportunity to still support artists and cultivate a sense of connection during the dregs of the pandemic, when museums and other art venues were closed.
The gallery has an Instagram account that tries its best to track what goes in and out, though sometimes, a piece is gone before it can even be documented.
“Originally, we just said, ‘Please, when you drop something off, tag us so we can know that you put it there,’ because we're not going to go every day to check it,” says Susan. “And that was sort of our way of saying, ‘Oh, if they do that, then we don't have to go down there every day to take a picture.’”
As time went on, however, even if artists were not keeping tabs, some takers were happy to contribute.
“We had one woman, she's actually taken a few things, and she has curated a little wall,” says Susan. “And she tagged us and it was neat to see where the stuff landed, and how she's putting it in her home.”
The sense of community and creativity also extended into the building of the gallery.
“So the whole thing was built by this handyman who likes to be called Scrappy,” says Susan, adding that he made the gallery with recycled materials from around his home. “And he put this really weird feature in it. He put this mirror in the back. And I think it's kind of funny because people, when they go to take a picture, they realize they're there in the picture because it's their reflection.”
So far, donated works have ranged from painting and drawing, collage works, and photography, to small quilted pieces, stickers, and even a painted shell. In terms of size, Susan says they have seen works measuring up to 8-by-10 inches.
Susan and Caleb, who live in Fox Chapel, launched the Free Little Art Gallery during the Sharpsburg Art Adventure crawl. From there, it has slowly gained a following on social media and by word of mouth, says Susan.
To make it happen, the mother-son duo teamed up with Caleb’s art teacher at Dorseyville Middle School, Nanci Goldberg. Originally Susan thought the gallery should go up at the school but was dissuaded by Goldberg. Instead, they decided the Sharpsburg location would make it more accessible to the public, benefit from the foot traffic, and be more visible in general.
Susan sent an email to Ferdi Baylassin, owner of Gino Brothers, who agreed to host the gallery at the shop. Even better, the location is right across the street from Ketchup City Creative, a regular-sized art gallery and studio space run by Goldberg.
Washington Post story about a Little Free Art Gallery in Seattle. Susan says that, besides Pittsburgh, many other cities have started joining the movement and have even formed a supportive network.
“I would say something that surprised me in this process is how many of the other tiny galleries all over are following ours, and vice versa,” says Susan. “All of a sudden, there's this weird meta-community of other galleries.”
She adds that they get messages from other little gallery operators who have even sent donations of art through the mail. Susan also expressed excitement over being followed on Instagram by the gallery that inspired the Sharpsburg project in the first place.
The concept is similar to little free libraries or food pantries, which have become a common sight up all over Pittsburgh. But for now, the Free Little Art Gallery in Sharpsburg is the only local one of its kind. However, Susan says someone has reached out to her about opening their own Free Little Art Gallery in Oakland, so more could be forthcoming in other neighborhoods throughout the city.
While concerns over the gallery being destroyed or violated in some other way are justifiable, Susan says that, so far, people have been respectful. She says that even when the tiny easel or doll-like patrons, which are meant to stay in the gallery, disappear, it usually works out in the end.
“We've actually had people who have donated patrons, like they put little figures inside for us,” says Susan. “So just as many that have gone away have probably come back.” This is backed up by posts on the gallery’s Instagram, including a June 29 update showing a new set of donated patrons, more specifically an African-American doll family with seven members.
As for the future, Susan and Caleb say the gallery will stay in its current location for as long as it’s welcome. They also installed it in a way that enables them to move it if necessary. For now, they hope it can serve as a sort-of marketing tool for artists, many of whom have been hit hard by the aftermath of COVID-19, and as a fun, unorthodox, and totally free way for people to experience art.
“I think, in some ways, I almost feel like our work is mostly done,” says Susan. “Like we put it out there. And now it's for people to use.”
Free Little Art Gallery Sharpsburg. 713 Main St., Sharpsburg. Instagram @flagsharpsburg or flagsharpsburg.wixsite.com/website