Tyler Calpin is looking for something.
At the moment, it’s a room temperature Tecate that he’s fishing out of his loaded backpack — notebooks, camera equipment, a change of clothes — to ease his mind after a long day.
He’s walking through his latest work at AIR, a print shop and art gallery on the North Side. The work is a mixed-media piece called Searching for Jenny, named for the now-closed Jeanette Furnace in Calpin's hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. While Calpin is located in Pittsburgh now and Youngstown looms large in these pieces, the works capture images and realities familiar to many Rust Belt cities. Searching for Jenny channels their stories: the despair of losing industry and livelihood, and the hope that something resembling redemption will eventually come their way.
The most impactful of the pieces is a video that accompanies the photographs on display. Scrap metal recovered from the roads leading to abandoned industrial areas are stacked together to form a crude sculpture. It’s superimposed over a film strip of steelworkers from the 20th century. For the first five minutes of the film, nothing appears to happen. Patrons get bored and move on to something else, shuffling through the display to admire the photographs of abandoned mills and desolate concrete structures. But by the time they finish, they’ll glance back at the film to see that the structure has crumbled without them noticing, an echo of how these industries seemed to collapse out of nowhere, all while right in front of our faces.
The works stand on their own as individual pieces, but there's a throughline that keeps the viewing experience cohesive, which Calpin seems to have a unique talent for. And it’s one that Calpin plans to pursue and develop in Pittsburgh.
“I’m staying here,” he says. “That’s why I came to this city. If I can do it here, I can do it anywhere, and I wanted to prove that to myself.”
Calpin speaks highly of the arts community in Pittsburgh and the support system it provides for him. He feels it would be foolish to leave that behind for Los Angeles or New York City. His work is an ongoing document of the phenomenon in Pittsburgh that longtime residents have been feeling for the past decade: it’s getting younger, and those younger people are sticking around.
He’s active in the streetwear community, including a day job at the Social Status downtown sneaker and streetwear boutique. When Calpin isn’t seeking out metaphors for his blue-collar background and sensibilities, he photographs young people in the city in their natural state, capturing their youthful and brash essence as they show off the latest Off—White x Nike sneakers or Heron Preston apparel.
“I’d like to just keep getting opportunities to show,” he says. “Keep getting my vision out, get more opportunities at the more prestigious places in the city. I’ve still only really shown my work outside of Point Park-affiliated places like three times. I just want to keep expanding what I’m doing here, meet more people, and do more of this kind of work.”
“I like it here,” he continues. “It’s far enough away from Youngstown that I can be independent, but still be close to my family. I love my family, man. I need to be close to them.”
That’s his life in Pittsburgh for now and the foreseeable future, though questions remain about the fate of his hometown's recovery.
Call it optimism or the youthful naivete of a 22-year-old. But Calpin isn’t losing confidence.
“Youngstown is tough, man. The people are tough. They’ve been there their whole lives, and their families have been there. This is the place they love, and they’re not giving up on it or themselves.”