Pittsburgh Art Places


City of Asylum

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Poetry, Writers, Jazz, Mural, Rhor

Artwork Type

Mural, Permanent, Integrated

House Publications: House Poem, Pittsburgh-Burma House, Jazz House

Huang Xiang, Than Htay Muang, Oliver Lake


Commissioning Entity City of Asylum
Owner City of Asylum

House Poem by Huang Xiang was the first of such House Publications. The Chinese dissident writer was the first writer-in-residence on Sampsonia Way. After years of imprisonment and censorship in his native China, Xiang was given the freedom to write in Pittsburgh. Soon after he arrived, Xiang began covering the exterior walls with his poems, rendered in the Grass Style of Chinese calligraphy (Xiang is also a master calligrapher). Eventually, the whole house became covered with his poems, a joyful testament to his freedom to write without fear of persecution.

Khet Mar, the City of Asylum’s third writer in residence, arrived in Pittsburgh in March 2009. Mar’s husband, Than Htay Muang, a visual artist, painted a colorful wave that wraps around 324 Sampsonia Way. Based on a dream that his wife relayed "in which her home in rural Burma and her new home in Pittsburgh began to merge,” the artist fused images from their homeland of Burma with their home in exile, Pittsburgh. The front of the house shows Pittsburgh’s skyline, the iconic yellow bridges, and the city’s river. Turn the corner and on the side of the house, Muang takes the viewer from Pittsburgh to Burma, from the Mon to the Irrawaddy River. Unlike the dreamlike image of Pittsburgh, the image of Burma is a bit more nightmarish. Here, Than Htay Muang depicted peasants and mothers and children huddling together behind a prison wall, while birds of prey fly overhead. Throughout the composition, the artist included Burmese texts.

The fourth House Publication, The Jazz House, is a collaboration between jazz musician Oliver Lake and artist Than Htay Muang. Lake, who is also an artist, created small-scale paintings that Than Htay Muang made into maquettes for the larger house paintings. The main image, a giant, multicolored safety pin with the words “Just Be Good,” stems from Lake’s childhood memory of an eccentric man in the neighborhood: “This man would walk around in a top coat and hat, even in the sweltering summer. He covered his coat with safety pins and whenever he met a child, he would  pin a safety pin on their shirt and declare that they are now in the Club.”  The man told Oliver that the only requirement to remain in the Club was: “Just be good.” 

By Sylvia Rhor, Ph.D.


City of Asylum Pittsburgh: http://cityofasylum.org/
Brian Honigman: “Walk down Sampsonia Way: House Poem by Huang Xiang” Sampsonia Way:  On Online Magazine for Literature, Free Speech & Social Justice, June 2, 2010
An Online http://www.sampsoniaway.org/blog/2010/06/02/walk-down-sampsonia-way-house-poem-by-huang-xiang/
Digital Sanctuaries Pittsburgh (website/app): http://digitalsanctuaries.com/pittsburgh/locations/sampsonia-way/
Poet on Fire by Huang Xiang (video) 
Dr. Sylvia Rhor is Associate Professor of Art History at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, Pa. She has written extensively about murals, the history of museum education, and political cartoons. Her doctoral research was the first full-length study of the historic mural collection in Chicago Public Schools. Recently, she published “The Evolution of the Chicago School Mural Movement” in The Decorated School: Essays in the Visual Culture of Schooling (Black Dog Press, 2013), and she co-authored, “Shaping Spaces/Shaping Publics: A Short History of Mural Painting in the United States” in The Companion to Public Art (Blackwell Press, forthcoming). Her current research focuses on the early 20th century labor murals in Pittsburgh. 



City of Asylum is a not-for-profit organization that provides sanctuary and support for writers who are persecuted in their home countries. Though there are other branches of City of Asylum in the United States, the Pittsburgh group is the only one not institutionally supported, and the only branch that provides longer term housing for artists and writers. Since its founding in 2004, the Pittsburgh City of Asylum has provided sanctuary for five international writers-in-residence and hosted a number of visiting international writers. The organization has also expanded its programming. In addition to these House Publications, the City of Asylum hosts a number of public readings and holds a free, annual Jazz-Poetry concert on Sampsonia Way, and works with the Office of Public Art in the creation of a series of temporary public art projects on the North Side.