Irma Freeman Center for Imagination weathers pandemic with shops, shrines, and support | Visual Art | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Irma Freeman Center for Imagination weathers pandemic with shops, shrines, and support

click to enlarge Cabinet of Curiosities in the Irma Freeman Center foyer - PHOTO: DIANE KEANE
Photo: Diane Keane
Cabinet of Curiosities in the Irma Freeman Center foyer
For a winter Friday night during the pandemic, there are a surprising number of people in the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination for the opening reception of Shrines. The new installation is displayed in all its shiny glory in the back gallery, its name spelled out in large, gold letter balloons.

Before the pandemic, this particular night would have been just another First Friday Unblurred monthly gallery crawl in Bloomfield, when crowds of people would stroll up and down Penn Avenue to see the latest shows at Irma Freeman Center and other spaces. In this Friday’s case, the handful of masked visitors coming in and out of the Center are enough to create a vibe many have missed since COVID-19 put an end to most public gatherings, all while allowing for social distancing.

Overall, the Irma Freeman Center demonstrates how galleries in Pittsburgh and beyond have had to adapt in order to survive. Sheila Ali, the Center's director and curator, and granddaughter of its namesake, points out that Shrines is the first solo exhibition for artist Eryn Oberst, a young painter who also does tattoos, comics, and zines. They also work at the neighboring Bantha Tea House, and copies of their zine titled “The Best Makeout Spots in PGH” were on sale at the reception.


“Basically, I find a lot of older artists are pushing their shows to next year,” says Ali. “I'm thinking it's giving more young people and less experienced people more opportunity. … We've always tried to include emerging artists in group shows, but a lot of times, people who get the shows are pretty well-established artists.”

Oberst, who also goes by Eryn O, says they have displayed work at the former Black Cat Market space in Lawrenceville (the business has since moved to Garfield) and on the walls of Spak Brothers pizza shop.

“I've had shows at coffee shops, restaurants, and cafes, but to have this space all be mine and be able to do what I want, it feels amazing,” says Oberst. “I've had so many ideas and wanted to do an installation but didn't have the space. I feel like I'm taking all my ideas I couldn't use for previous art shows and finally putting it all together.”

Shrines is only one part of the Irma Freeman Center experience, however. No space is wasted, as the foyer has become a mini-exhibit, and the front gallery has been converted into a boutique selling an eclectic array of items made by local artists, ranging from an impressive, full-length robe made of recycled afghans to jewelry and bags. Most items, save for some mass-produced posters, are one-of-a-kind.


Currently, Ali says she represents about 20 artists — many have previously shown at the Center — by selling their work in the boutique and through an online shop. She wants to keep the retail side “exploding with product” by constantly adding new things and keeping it fresh.

“I'm trying to help out these artists, and I think the artists are happy that their stuff is somewhere,” says Ali, adding that prints by Oberst will also be available. “It's an outlet. Even if people aren't buying, they're definitely looking.”

Ali says the shops are part of an effort to generate income in a time when funding for spaces defined as non-essential is hard to secure. She has had to cut gallery hours significantly, but encourages visitors to make appointments to come in. “We've been here for so long,” says Ali, who opened the Center in 2009 to honor the legacy of her grandmother, a prolific local artist. “We really have been a central hub for people meeting before the pandemic, and we had staying power. We saw a lot of people go, and now I know a lot of people are struggling. I don't know what's gonna happen. Nobody knows.”
click to enlarge Shrines artist Eryn Oberst - PHOTO: COURTESY OF ERYN OBERST
Photo: Courtesy of Eryn Oberst
Shrines artist Eryn Oberst
The Center’s foyer holds its own treasures, including a Cabinet of Curiosities containing dioramas by Diane Keane, glass artist Michael Magnifico of Fig Studios, and paper artist Katy DeMent.

With Shrines, the Center has also become a temporary place to mourn, an aspect made all the more prominent by the exhibition being in a gallery dedicated to the memory of Sandra Streiff, a local artist who passed away last year, and whose signature “shadow paintings” are on display in the space.

As Ali puts it, Shrines — with its abundance of iridescent streamers, rhinestones, and glitter — is “very glam, but it has this undertone of despair.” The show is Oberst's tribute to six young friends who died tragically over the course of the pandemic. Entering the gallery, I was met with artistically enhanced photos of the deceased, all part of a display accompanied by a bouquet of roses.


“It's definitely been hard to mourn,” says Oberst. “I want people to come in here and feel like they can have a space to remember someone.”

Oberst says that, in addition to memorializing friends, Shrines also memorializes moments, even potential ones lost to the pandemic. For example, A Shrine to “Halloween,” which features a string of winged jack-o'-lantern lights, conveys Oberst's own feelings about not being able to celebrate her favorite holiday.
click to enlarge Shrines memorial to six friends at the Irma Freeman Center - PHOTO: ERYN OBERST
Photo: Eryn Oberst
Shrines memorial to six friends at the Irma Freeman Center
Ali says that, while the future of the Center may seem uncertain, for now it can serve multiple purposes, as a place to support the creative, financial, and emotional needs of artists, and as a place for visitors to reflect. She recalls how receptive people were when she held a naming ceremony for the Streiff Gallery in October 2020.

“People came out because they needed it, they wanted to see it,” says Ali. “It's a way for people to process.”

Shrines by Eryn O. Continues through Sun., Feb. 28. Irma Freeman Center for Imagination. 5006 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. Every Sunday from 2-5 p.m. or by appointment. irmafreeman.org

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