Touted as "Pittsburgh's Most Colorful Landmark" and "The Happiest Place in Pennsylvania, the public art space/museum known as Randyland certainly earns the right to inspire such superlatives in all who step through its brightly painted threshold. But Randyland is more than a place to take in a rainbow of mood-lifting, sky-scraping murals and art -- it's also the home of artist and Pittsburgh native, Randy Gilson. In fact, if you visit Randyland on any given day, chances are you'll meet Randy himself, who is just as colorful as his namesake museum, and will be more than pleased to chat with you about art, life, and philosophy, as well as answer any questions you might have about this unique gem in the Mexican War Streets.
A brilliant courtyard packed from corner-to-corner with treasures is the central feature of Randyland, With a 40-foot-mural towering over one end of the space, visitors can wander through the multiple seating areas (don't miss a chance to lounge on the ornate red metal chairs from 1920s-era Paris) and smaller visitors can arrange and rearrange the scores of plastic animals on the massive sand pile. The walls are covered with Gilson's original art, some of which is painted on repurposed wooden doors and other discarded materials. Locals often come to enjoy lunch hour at Randyland's covered picnic table, careful to leave nothing behind out of respect for the privilege of eating a meal in this one-of-a-kind museum. Gilson and his groundskeepers often have classical music lilting through the space, making it a perfect spot to sit, relax, and absorb the spectrum of curiosities that surround you. Admission is free, but you are welcome to leave a donation in exchange for the positive energy you can't help but feel after spending just a few minutes in Randyland's dynamic atmosphere. Randyland's caretakers are always in need of paint and other supplies to keep every surface looking bright, vibrant, and welcoming. You can also leave a donation by way of Randyland's website, which also has a link to some colorful t-shirts, mugs, and other souvenirs in the Randyland store.
Getting to Randyland is easy: walk or drive along Arch Street in Pittsburgh's Northside and you literally can't miss it. Thirty years ago, however, before Gilson gave now-Randyland its signature look, it was just another aging row house adjacent to just another empty lot. Inspired by the architecture and wanting to be a motivating presence in bringing a sense of life and revitalization to a neighborhood going through tough times, Gilson set aside a portion of his earnings as a waiter and began cleaning up the neighborhood. Focusing first on litter removal and the planting of little "mini gardens" throughout the area, he then invested in old whiskey barrels, which he filled with foliage and placed in front of vacant houses. In 1995, Gilson purchased the future site of Randyland with the help of a credit card, and began turning the neglected structure into his own personal "expression of art." His background in street art and urban gardening informed his process, and using plenty of recycled materials and cast-off items he found in Northside alleyways, he was able to bring his vision to life with minimal money and maximum imagination.
Gilson credits his mother with the ingenuity that enabled him to make Randyland a reality: "I think the seed for Randyland was planted in me long ago from my inspiration, my mom. She raised six children as a single mother, sometimes homeless and many times scraping for food, but that adversity has taught me many life lessons.
"While struggling, she taught us that no matter how many people are ahead of you, there are tenfold behind you, and that we have to embrace that.
"But as much as I've done in this neighborhood, I couldn't have done it alone. As I kept going from one project onto the next, more and more people joined me, pitched in, and began to take pride in the neighborhood. The more people that helped, the more I realized that I have so much more to give.
"When you do more for others, you find that you do more for yourself. And that's the story of Randyland."
By Gayle Pazerski, freelance writer, actor, and playwright
Hotel waiter and community activist, Randy Gilson (b. 1958), has been utilizing found materials and everyday objects to transform a previously blighted Pittsburgh neighborhood since 1996. Gilson re-loacted to the Northside from Homestead in 1982 to pursue an education in culinary arts. A vital figure in the ongoing Northside revitalization efforts, Gilson estimated in a 2008 Pop City article that he has "installed 800 streetscapes, 50 vegetable garden plots and 8 parks."