Arriving at the firehouse-turned-studio where sculptor and architect Dee Briggs centers her art practice, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that you’ve stumbled upon a well-kept secret. Located in Wilkinsburg, a small town just outside of Pittsburgh that’s become better known in recent years for its economic decline rather than its prosperous history, the building is partially obscured from public view by an abandoned house that towers over nearby Swissvale Avenue. In fact, nearly every street within walking distance of Briggs’s studio features either a vacant lot or an abandoned home, nature quietly reclaiming the open spaces and derelict structures in a tangle of thistles and ivy. The reality outside her front door, however, is not lost on Briggs. Instead it’s an issue that occupies her thoughts and informs her work.
“I really believe that people should take responsibility for their surroundings,” says Briggs. “They should be engaged, ask questions, and form opinions.”
Last year Briggs put her words into action with the House of Gold project, which found the artist purchasing the vacant house next door to her studio and, with help from friends, painting it gold to act as a beacon in the distressed neighborhood.
“I realized that I had a responsibility to say something,” says Briggs, “not just about this house, but about the lives of the people who had lived in and around it.”
After telling the story of the house and its inhabitants through its website, Briggs originally planned to demolish the structure and create a green space. As the project has evolved, however, so too has the plan. Briggs is currently raising money with a Kickstarter campaign to fund a “gentle demolition” of the house, with the long-range goal of building a neighborhood coffee shop on the site.
Her intention with socially minded projects like the House of Gold, Briggs explains, is to “shine a bright light on the problem with the hope that it will provoke more people to get involved in solving it.”
Briggs’s commitment to the neighborhood where she lives and works—and to Pittsburgh as a whole—is long term, she explains. In 2003, she returned to the city after nearly three decades living in New York. Born in Burgettstown and raised in northern West Virginia, Briggs has long considered the Pittsburgh region her home. She solidified her roots in 2009, however, after purchasing the former firehouse and converting it to a studio.
Briggs’s work falls into two categories. There is the formal/spatial sculptural work, such as her ring and plate pieces installed in the homes of private collectors as well as public spaces like downtown Pittsburgh and soon Foley Square in New York City. And then there are the social/political pieces, like House of Gold and Art You Can Get Into…if you have $12, which was installed at the Mattress Factory in 2012.
“The formal/spatial work is based in my fascination with various operations of symmetry,” says Briggs. “The social/political come from a sense of responsibility to say something about situations in need of attention.” Finding a viable balance between the two, both creatively and economically, is often the greatest challenge.
“I have a sort of Robin Hood art practice,” says Briggs, smiling. Which is to say, the well-paying private commissions financially support the socially minded projects that she pursues.
“I would certainly like to spend the next 30 years making all of the work that I am compelled to make without starving,” Briggs says. “My practice has just arrived at a place where I am really beginning to be able to experiment more deeply with ideas, materials, and processes. And I am very interested in continuing to make large scale and building-integrated work.”
Projects of that nature require support, she admits, whether from a private collector or institution. In Briggs’s experience, however, funding is often a secondary concern to the work itself.
“I honestly didn’t begin making art because I had a plan or vision for being an artist,” Briggs says. “I simply couldn’t help myself. So I expect that I will continue to plow head first into my ideas as they present themselves and see where that takes me.”
Studio Visit is a monthly series that offers a candid look at the workspaces and art practices of professional artists who live and work in the Pittsburgh region and beyond.