There are two ways to start this article. One is to go conventional: Ask you if you want to see the most colorful, joyous, FREE tourist attraction in Pittsburgh, PA — a courtyard of wonders that’s a rainbow backdrop for your photographic and emotional aspirations.
I would ask you if you’ve heard the title “Randyland” before, and if not, what you’d imagine such a spot to be.
But there’s a second way to write this, and that’s to open a window to what this writer is experiencing in her fluttery heart — right now — while her fingers tap-dance out memories from last month’s visit to Randyland and Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.
You see, I’m a teacher, and it’s the end of August.
As I arrange these carefree Randyland photos upon the page — artifacts of July’s vacation — my mind keeps careening towards the coming school year: curriculum, colleague collaboration, excitement about the exhilaration of working with youth, and dread of my punishing 5:15am alarm. The teaching year is almost here!
There’s always a double consciousness when writing: re-living the experience from the past through flowing words, while the thumps of the present periodically puncture that mental movie. Randyland… SCHOOL… Pittsburgh… BOSTON. As this story weaves out, however, it becomes clear that Randyland and teaching are connected. How? Read on.
The clue to the connection lies in the history of Randyland. In 1995, a formerly homeless community activist and waiter named Randy Gilson bought a dilapidated Pittsburgh house for $10,000 on a credit card. That house was slated for demolition, but Randy’s purchase pulled it from destruction, and through tireless work and design, into fame.
Over the subsequent decades, Randy used paint, found objects, and superhuman creativity to transform the walls and garden into one of the most remarkable public art displays in America.
If you visit (which is free, 7 days a week — usually — between 10am and dusk) you’re likely to run into Randy, himself, painting and exuding wisdom. Though our visiting group missed a Randy sighting, my friend Jeremy (Pittsburgh expert) who was showing us around told us of several fascinating conversations he’s had with the artist.
Check out the Randyland Facebook page for videos of Randy speaking. The man is a national treasure!
In fact, Randy was named one of the happiest people in America by the documentary, “Pursuing Happiness.” His Randyland creation has served to spread happiness, too. It’s a widely popular attraction now, and it helped to launch the success of the Mexican War Streets section of Pittsburgh’s Northside as a flourishing art destination.
Now that you have that history under your belt here’s the connection between Randyland and waning-summer educators: A teacher at the end of August can feel a bit like Randy might have in 1995, staring at that empty, drab house he’d just saved from being demolished.
“Well, this is mine now,” says the teacher to her echoing, empty classroom. “What will I make of it?“
As Randy scavenged his city for art parts, we teachers forage for supplies. Schools provide varying items depending on the district, but most teachers use our own resources and ingenuity to furnish classrooms.
For example, my spouse (also a public school teacher), just returned home with a car full of used binders, thanks to an organization that collects surplus office supplies. I just posted fundraising proposals on Donors Choose for thousands of dollars in computer equipment, as mine is on its last legs. Meanwhile, who knows where in Pittsburgh Randy discovered the scarlet chair pictured below, but it sure is fierce!
The next parallel between Randyland and the start of the teaching year? Unity in wild diversity. In just over a week, I’m going to walk into a classroom with students from all across the city, sparkling from every background.
As a 7th grade teacher in a 7-12 school, it’s my job to make sure those students connect with each other across differences, and each feel included and appreciated by our community.
Isn’t Randyland the perfect metaphor for this teacher goal of connection across differences?
Gaze at the mirrored wall below, replete with magenta flamingos, a bird cage, and teal blue head. Not only do these diverse elements dance deliciously together, but they are always changing. Pittsburgh expert Jeremy stops by Randyland regularly to see the new elements Randy keeps inventing.
I aim for my classroom to also exude such harmony in heterogeneity — honoring every individual, while connecting each to the whole. Similarly, that teal head in the Randyland scene below stays vibrantly teal, but meshes perfectly with the flamingo kissing its nose.
Another connection between Randyland and launching the school year? The reminder that art revitalizes, and humor keeps us human. Just look at the jewel-toned signpost below — with its arrows declaring, “PEACE this way!” — and try to keep your heart from grinning.
Creativity saves spaces from destruction. Randy’s courtyard creation has been an engine to turn around a neighborhood that people once avoided, into one that tourists and locals flock to enjoy.
I’m reminded, peering almost 2,000 miles south on a world map, of this neighborhood in Curaçao (an island in the Caribbean) which was similarly flipped through art, or Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, where perfect pastel paint saved a district from ruin. Art has tremendous economic and emotional power!
Just as a teacher is never “done” learning the craft of teaching, one is never done exploring Randyland. Every nook hides a new delight. I neglected to photograph it (foolish!) but there definitely is a robot that gives mechanical hugs at Randyland. Those hugs are metallic, but loving.
(Side note: If you want more pops of color, check out Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens for some of the most amazing flower displays in the country!)
Final inspirations Randy gives as I dive into my 15th year of teaching: One person can change everything for the better (and brighter!), and fitting in isn’t always best. Where would we be if Randy just let that house be demolished and turned into polished condos? A whole lot duller and sadder, that’s for sure. And too few giggles!
Randy has explained that he has ADHD, which caused problems for him growing up. In our classrooms, let us celebrate the Randys of the world, letting their gifts shine and blossom, because that energy — when supported and channeled beautifully — can help the whole community.
Convinced that Randyland is a must-see attraction in Pittsburgh? Great. Here are logistics for visiting. For directions and background, here is the Randyland website.
Next, fashion: Plan your outfit well. Clearly, I didn’t (despite all my big talk about travel dresses), and also was having a “hair situation” (aka, humidity horror), so am only in one photo here.
Don’t make my mistake! Randyland is THE spot to take great photos. That said, professional photography is not allowed without special permission, so all you models out there, slow your leggy roll.
What about visiting Randyland with kids? It’s a great match! Randy has been repeatedly quoted saying that kids get how to interact with his art more quickly than adults. Regarding price, while Randyland is technically free, tips are appreciated. Really, it’s remarkable that Randy offers his art and home (he lives in that building!) to the world without a price tag.
Want a similarly unconventional and exuberantly creative museum in Pittsburgh (also free)? Check out Bicycle Heaven: over 3,500 vintage bikes displayed by an avid collector — including famous ones used in movies!
Also consider seeing the unbelievable Cathedral of Learning — the tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the most beautiful, too.
Thank you, Randyland, for bringing such a magical burst of color to our world. As I arrange my students’ chairs this week, I will remember how you painted your salvaged chairs green, blue, and pink, and dangled them off a roof! Creativity forever, you inspiration.
So what about you? Have you visited Randyland? Pittsburgh? Would you like to? What’s your favorite part of this wild art display?
The author, Lillie Marshall, is a 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!