Detroit native Deavron Dailey follows a path that is guided by communities and landscapes that capture his attention, with a good dose of happenstance thrown in. This mixed media artist arrived in Pittsburgh several years ago on what was intended to be a brief stop-over on a trip home to Detroit from Florida. The city’s dynamic geography and vibrant art scene captured his imagination and solidified his identity as an artist. His most recent piece, The Arms of East Liberty, a ceramic tile and metal installation on the exterior of 5906 Penn Avenue, addresses the neighborhood’s past, its current conflicts, and its hope for future unity, confirming Dailey’s adoption as a Pittsburgh artist.
Dailey calls himself a self-taught artist who has been creating from his earliest years. Seven years ago, he was involved in a serious accident that left him unable to work. He began to travel throughout the United States, staying with friends and supporting himself by making prints and graphic T-shirts. He recalls, “I was in Florida at the time, and I had
an idea for a campaign T-shirt. I was heading back to Detroit and a friend of mine suggested I make a stop in Pittsburgh along the way. I found the Braddock Carnegie Library and used their print-shop to create the shirt.” It was at Braddock that he first used clay as an artistic medium and experimented with images on tiles. Dailey was fascinated by Pittsburgh – by its spectacular views and its contrasts and similarities to his native Detroit. He says his work is inspired first by scenery, location, and place, taking on undertones of social justice and urban issues.
The “stop-over” in Pittsburgh turned into a year’s residency with Transformazium, a community-centered group of artists affiliated with the Braddock library. Dailey says, “I found myself more and more committed to the art scene here in Pittsburgh and decided to relocate here permanently. It was at this time that I finally made the choice to consider myself an artist.” His work appeared in local shows and he assisted with Transformazium’s participation in the 2013 Carnegie International.
In 2016, The Kelly Strayhorn Theatre and Community Arts Center, along with Alphabet City, a real estate development company, issued a request for proposal for a public art project in the heart of the East Liberty business district. East Liberty is a city neighborhood that has experienced periods of transformation over the last fifty years. Once Pittsburgh’s “second downtown” in the first half of the 20th century, the neighborhood was reconfigured in the late 1960s with a traffic circle and high-rise low-income housing that eventually cut off the area and gave rise to economic decline and high crime rates. The 1980s saw the beginning of a period of economic redevelopment, with national retail chains investing in the area. The success of Home Depot, Whole Foods, and Target stores led to housing development projects and the ongoing gentrification of the neighborhood. The area’s diverse communities face challenges today in reconciling these changes. Dailey was drawn to the project, with its focus on place and community. “I attended a meeting,” he says, “with about twenty artists, where they outlined the project and showed us the possible places where the work would be displayed. I started to kick the idea around in my head, researching and studying all about East Liberty. Even though I’m not from around here, I cared about this project. I turned my proposal in just under the deadline.” Dailey was awarded the commission.
Work began in late February of 2017. Dailey’s piece is an 8-foot by 16-foot installation of ceramic tiles in a stainless-steel form depicting nine brightly-colored raised fists superimposed over a street map. Dailey describes his concept:
The arms are more of a representation of the strength that is created when a diverse group of people channel their energy into a common goal. The "Black Power" imagery that it is reminiscent of is meant to convey the social issues and unity of the community of East Liberty. This includes the individuals that make up the community and the developers with projects going on in East Liberty. I believe that all groups will need to be in communication and working in unison to achieve the goals of the community and the goals of people and company that plan to invest in East Liberty.
Dailey entitled the work, The Arms of East Liberty, a nod to the neighborhood’s perceived violent past now reborn with the colorful hope of diversity and strength.
The creation of the piece was a massive project, aided by representatives from Pittsburgh’s arts community. “I reached out to my entire network,” Dailey says. The piece is comprised of 128 12”x12” tiles, rolled from Standard’s 420 sculpting clay. At Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Kelly Bogel Stokes, Kyle Houser, and Audra Clayton worked to make sure Dailey had studio space to produce the tiles needed for the piece. “They really gave me anything I needed,” he gratefully exclaims. Sandy Simon, the owner of Kiln 'N' Time in Lawrenceville, provided kiln space for firing some of the tiles. Dailey’s assistant, Chrystal Alexander, helped organize the complex project. “I brought her in towards the end of the project,” Dailey says. “She really helped me keep things on course at the end. She is a data analyst in her profession, and those skills came in handy for me at critical times.” She helped him keep track of the complex numbering and coding system for the arrangement of the tiles, which were created on slab rollers and cut to size using a wooden template. To prevent warping, he stacked the partially dried tiles in groups of four and then weighted them with a 50-pound box of Standard clay. Dailey used Mayco Stroke & Coat glazes and 1,300 pounds of clay.
The steel grid upon which the tiles are mounted was another large project. Dailey used over 1,000 lbs. of stainless steel. His friend Ben Grubb fabricated the frame at the Blumcraft Building, an artist coop creation space in North Oakland. Both Dailey and Grubb are members of the art collective Babyland located in Polish Hill. Though the piece is about East Liberty, its focus on community reflects Dailey’s collective disposition as he drew on many of the neighborhoods of his adopted city to bring it to fruition.
Dailey continues his wandering about the city of Pittsburgh. He is currently living in Hazelwood. He continues to travel back to Detroit regularly, which he still considers home. “I had some dark days here, at the beginning,” he recalls, with no family support system. But Pittsburgh has a hold on me now.” The Detroit visits serve to rejuvenate his creative energy, piquing his observation skills and deepening his understanding of the urban landscape, as he anticipates new commissions and exhibits in the future. We can be sure that one of the raised fists gracing East Liberty’s streets is that of Deavron Dailey, bringing to our city his power to transform and unify through art.
With a 75-year history as one of Pittsburgh’s major arts organizations, Pittsburgh Center for Arts and Media (PCA&M) has weathered many changes. Founded as a conglomeration of individual art groups in 1945 as The Arts and Crafts Center, it grew to become a nexus for art education and exhibition with a unified vision and strong leadership. When the center’s current Executive Director, Kyle Houser joined the organization in 2013, a decade of uncertainty had left the group in financial difficulty and organizational turmoil. Houser’s dedication to rebuilding the center’s strengths contributed to a major reorganization in late 2019. Houser says, “2020 was the year to turn the ship around. Unfortunately, in March, we hit an iceberg.”