Linda Wallen has always been an artist. A longtime Pittsburgh resident, she spent her early career painting portraits of “the rich and famous,” and then “retired into” teaching French and Spanish (through art) to elementary school students. But it was in the 1990s that her interest in public art really took off, after a trip to Barcelona.
“There’s so much mosaic in Barcelona,” Wallen says, “It’s extraordinary. So I came home and started breaking up dishes and china and tiles and whatever I could find, and gluing it on the front of my house. Pretty soon people started asking me to do murals for the community, and that’s how I got started in public art.” Creating mosaic on the front of her house reinforced for Wallen some Big Truths. First: if you stand outside doing something that looks like fun, people will stop to say hello, and they’ll want to get involved and help out. Second: it’s vital, energizing, and community-building to seek beauty for beauty’s sake.
For the past eight years, Wallen’s teaching contract has stated that she has one day off per week to devote solely to public art in the community. That’s a lot of public art projects she’s left in her wake, from welcome signs to murals. But no public art project she’s ever started has garnered as much interest as the one she’s got in process right now. It’s big. It’s capturing the imaginations of her neighbors. People are coming out of the woodwork, wanting to get in on the action. What is it?
Pigeons! Big ceramic pigeons with enormous eyes, painted in all kinds of whimsical colors, and installed on streetside rock surfaces all over her Spring Hill neighborhood, so that they look as if they’re swooping right up Spring Hill. Wallen’s recent ioby campaign, started to raise money for a new batch of pigeons, as well as a pigeon-oriented scavenger hunt for kids and seniors, was such a hit that it raised over $1,000 above its target.
It all started when Wallen and her students began to research the history of their community, to get ideas for a ceramic mural they wanted to make at the top of the hill. “We discovered that the German settlers brought their own pigeons here with them on the boats from Germany,” explains Wallen. “They were racing pigeons, and on the weekends, they would drive them up to Erie Pennsylvania, and race them back to Pittsburgh. And the kids became obsessed with this idea of pigeon racing! So there were a lot of pigeons flying through that mural.” When kids are taken over with that kind of fascination, it’s usually a good sign that you’re onto something.
Well, one thing led to another, and soon enough, Wallen was asked to do a similar mural at the bottom of the hill, too. She couldn’t resist sticking a few more brightly colored birds on the new mural.
“Then,” she says, “I had a couple extra pigeons leftover from that project, and I said to myself, why can’t I just stick these up on the cement block next to the bus station, which is kind of ugly? So I put three pigeons on the bus stop, graffiti-style, when no one was looking. And nobody arrested me, so I started doing more!”
Pretty soon, friends and neighbors started asking Wallen if they could help out, and before they knew it, they had over 180 pigeons flying up the hill on three different streets. People smile when they walk by, honk when they drive past. They’ve been asking Wallen if they can have pigeons to put on their homes. People from other neighborhoods are saying they want to do something similar on their streets. Recently, a neighbor came out of his house when Wallen was doing an install. “Are those pigeons gonna last a long time?” he asked her. She said she thought they sure would. “Well,” he said, “I might just cut down some of the weeds.”
“There’s some people responding in ways that tell me that suddenly they’re taking notice that maybe they can do something to make their environment better. Anytime you get people smiling and laughing and doing stuff,” says Wallen, “it does create a kind of magnetic positivity that people are attracted to. If you’re having fun, and doing something meaningful, people want to do it with you.”
If Wallen had sat down to ask herself or her class to really analyze their mural plans in a very rational way, and to ask themselves what would be the most historically important or socially impactful image to portray, they might not have landed on the pigeon. Instead, they all followed their curiosity, and just dove in. Maybe we could all use a little more of that, today.
“I figured out early on in my life that I needed to look at things that would make me feel good,” says Wallen. “Working with children has really reinforced the fact that it doesn’t take much. And I think that’s what’s been so successful about the pigeons. It’s that whimsy. They’re sort of fanciful – they’re not normal pigeons. They’re all different colors. They might be red with yellow spots, giant eyes. There’s one mime pigeon that has a black and white striped shirt, and that’s for my husband who did pantomime in Paris. People love the whimsy of the birds, and the fact that there’s so many of them, and that they’re so unexpected. This is a working class neighborhood – it’s nothing fancy. It’s not been taken care of in some respects. And so this adds some color, and something beautiful. It’s not about paying your bills and how you’re going to get your car started. Does it distract us from our troubles? Does it just add a moment of something… nicer?”
Tempted to create some art in your neighborhood?
Wallen is a seasoned ioby campaign leader – this campaign was her third with us, and it was hugely successful. Here’s her advice for first-time ioby leaders:
- Know that you’ve already got the most important ingredient for success. “If you’re thinking about getting a project going,” says Wallen, “you probably already have some enthusiasm, and that’s what it’s gonna take.”
- Get by with a little help from your friends. “Get one or two people on your team,” advises Walden, “so that you have people to bounce ideas off of, and to help lift that bale and tote that water.”
- Show people how their money and/or effort will pay off. “It’s not hard to get community members involved once they see how positive it is,” Wallen says. “I’d walk around with pieces of the ceramic pigeons in my pocket, and say to people ‘look at this bird, isn’t he silly?’” By the time she started crowdfunding this project, she’d already put in a ton of her own time and energy, and had dozens of flying pigeons to show for it. Friends and neighbors were already in love with the concept.
- Establish personal connections before soliciting online. Wallen often left handwritten notes at people’s homes, or chatted with them on the sidewalk, to say hi and let them know that a more formal request for donations would be coming in their email box. After a round of emails had gone out, she’d then follow up again in person. Go slow to go fast, as they say!
Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.
Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Have a great idea, but feel like you need a blueprint to get you started? Or a recipe to follow? We’ve got you covered. Check out some of our very best recipes for change, here.