Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Bright Existence and The Lamentable End of The Tom Museum.

This past Saturday I had the honor to be one of the very last official visitors at the Tom Museum over on the North Side. It was the closing reception, and local artist Tom Sarver was saying goodbye in preparation to move on to other things. If you're not familiar with this project, it originally started with a grant, and the support of the Mattress Factory. Tom had envisioned building an environment for his art, and keeping it open to the public. It was always a work in progress, and there was a large element of improvisation allowed by the concept. The building itself was simply a row house- a residence owned and rented out by the Mattress Factory's co-director, Barbara Luderowski. The initial plan called for the residency to last about a year, but it was extended for an extra 12 months, with Tom and the Mattress Factory becoming loose partners.

The facility itself was intimately-scaled, and filled to bursting with (often interactive) artwork. Sarver completed a mural on the front of the house that depicted a whimsical landscape of Pittsburgh itself. It was meant to capture the interest of passersby, and designed to be especially inviting. All along Sarver has tried to make the world of art more accessible to those with little familiarity or knowledge of it, and the Tom Museum served this purpose in an exemplary manner. Upon entering the front door the visitor made his way through an ever-evolving foyer called the "Universe Room", up-and-down some makeshift steps, and through another door into what would be considered the main gallery in an ordinary museum.

This "multi-purpose" room was the reception area for people who chose to kick up their feet and stay awhile. It also housed many of the numerous temporary exhibitions that Tom hosted throughout the last couple years- which included the cardboard contraptions of Doug Hill and "visionary" outsider Steve Smith. Some of the shows Sarver put together featured Small Works, Artist Made Books, and Mix Tapes. There was even a permanent installation by Jeremiah Johnson in the attic. At the other extreme, Sarver constructed his "Earth Pond" in the basement. This was meant to describe the various states of humanity's interaction with the environment, and included such pieces as the Island of Barren Wasteland and the Island of Pristine Wilderness.

Rounding out the offerings was the second floor, which included the Puppetry Archives Room and a mini-stage for the periodic performances Sarver would produce and share. This was in many ways the spiritual center of the Tom Museum, as its proprietor first gained notoriety in the 'burgh by co-founding and organizing the Black Sheep Puppet Festival. This annual event has brought significant joy to an ever-growing group of adults and children for nearly a decade. The Puppetry Archives shared the modest space with MIMA (The Miniature Museum of Modern Art) which (of course) was exactly what it sounded like, with little dioramas sunk into the wall. Alberto J. Almarza was responsible for that extended exhibit.

Sarver's one-room living quarters, and the facility's only bathroom were also on the second floor. The former was the only space that was not open to prying eyes. This was no doubt a boon for Tom, as he realized just how difficult it was to live within the extremely accessible environs of the Tom Museum. Nevertheless Sarver was upbeat and gracious as I spoke with him in his back courtyard last weekend. His greatest joy has been exposing a lot of people to a lot of art. The month of June will be dedicated to dismantling the innards of his Museum (keep an eye open for a possible closing sale), and the rest of his Summer is scheduled as a transition period of relative inaccessibility. Sarver has received a scholarship from SUNY-Purchase in Yonkers, NY to earn his MFA. He will receive many Western PA wishes of good luck upon his exit.

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