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In Pittsburgh, a Home for Literature, Art & Asylum

by Quelcy Kogel

In Pittsburgh, a Home for Literature, Art & Asylum via Design*Sponge

Be interested, not interesting. It’s one of those motherly sorts of advice I stumbled upon recently, and it really struck a chord after visiting the home of Diane Samuels and Henry Reese. From exploring the intricacies of cracks and histories of an alleyway, to completely converting that alleyway into a cultural hub for art, literature and political asylum, Diane and Henry are interested, and they are interesting — but they are also gracious and giving, attributes which shine through their work in founding the City of Asylum.

In 1997, controversial author Salman Rushdie lectured in Pittsburgh as part of his re-emergence into public life and referenced the International Cities of Refuge. Diane, a visual artist, and Henry, an entrepreneur, were both in the audience and both were inspired. It took several emails, over the course of several years, but in 2004, Henry and Diane opened the doors of City of Asylum, on their street, Sampsonia Way, in Pittsburgh’s Northside neighborhood. For many years, their home was the hub of programming.

The mission of COA is to provide sanctuary to literary writers who were exiled and under threat of persecution. The program offers longterm housing, insurance, legal assistance, and publishing opportunities, so authors can truly begin anew. Sampsonia Way was once a derelict row of houses and a hub for drug sales, but through their home, and through COA, Henry and Diane have transformed the street into a walking library.

When Chinese poet Huang Xiang arrived in 2004, he used the facade of his residence, neighboring Diane and Henry’s home, to showcase Chinese calligraphies of his poems — a bold display of his new freedom. This “House Poem” led to the development of a series of asylum houses, each with text-based murals. City of Asylum recently expanded to include Alphabet City. What was once an abandoned Masonic hall has been reborn as the permanent home for COA programming, as well as a bookstore featuring works in translation, and the Casellula Wine & Cheese Cafe.

One lecture led to an entire community of creativity, cultural exchange, activism and artistic expression. Being interested truly does go a long way. —Quelcy

Photography by Quelcy Kogel

Image Above: Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, founders of City of Asylum, a sanctuary for international literary writers in jeopardy, stand in front of the Pittsburgh Burma House, one of the writers-in-residence houses they created near their own home. Burmese writer, Khet Mar, wrote a story that blended her Burmese existence with her new Pittsburgh reality. Her husband, Than Htay Maung, illustrated the story on the walls of their residency as part of the City of Asylum program.

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Cork floors define the kitchen from the rest of the main living space. Before founding Alphabet City, Henry and Diane hosted many City of Asylum readings and events in their home, so the ability to move the furniture and set up folding chairs was a huge benefit to their open plan.

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The open kitchen features a table made from reclaimed bowling alley lanes. Diane made the aluminum cast tiles that sit behind the stove. They’re castings of Sampsonia Way, the street where they live. The lace-like light fixtures are by designer Tord Boontje via the MOMA store.

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Henry and Diane bought their home in 1979 and worked with an architect to make changes to the layout. The previous owner, Barbara Luderowski, a sculptor and later, the founder of the contemporary art museum, the Mattress Factory, designed and installed the very sculptural spiral staircase. The stone and wood sculpture, entitled “Seven Moons for Harriet Tubman,” is by Thaddeus Mosley, a 91-year-old sculptor living in their neighborhood. The print behind the stairwell is by Russian emigres Rimma and Valeriy Gerlovina. Most of Diane and Henry’s art collection comes from friends or by people they know. Diane says “it’s like having portraits of your friends around — or being surrounded by their presence in some way.”

 

 

 

 

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Seeing Diane and Henry’s home begins to explain how their passion for art and literature led them to found City of Asylum, a sanctuary to endangered literary writers from across the globe. Through their own home renovation and the creation of City of Asylum, Diane and Henry have converted their street from a derelict row of drug houses to a rich public art scene and a place for cultural exchange.

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A Mission Style chair makes the perfect spot for sitting and reading any of the poetry books in this collection. The layered cardboard lamp is by architect Frank Gehry.

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Diane made the living room coffee table by making a mold of a pothole on their street. She used pink alginate, which is more commonly used in dentistry to make molds of teeth. Anyone or any car that crossed the street that day became part of the artistic process of compacting the material.

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Diane and Henry have nearly 2,000 books dispersed throughout various libraries in their home. The living room features their cookbooks and poetry collections, arranged by authors’ last names. James Turrell’s aquatint series, First Light, lines this library wall. They once hosted the conceptual artist when he was visiting the Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum in Pittsburgh.

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Thoughtful and diligent are two words that describe Diane’s visual art, including the piece lining the living room bookshelf, entitled “Mapping Sampsonia.” Diane spent six months methodically photographing and documenting the urban alley where she and Henry call home, collecting the stories of its wear, tear and metamorphosis via its cracks and potholes. She then gridded the photos to scale, to produce a 48-foot panoramic map, complete with pressed plant matter and handwritten records from interviews with the neighbors, in which she asked them to describe home.

 

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Henry and Diane’s home was completely raw when they first bought it. Henry said their goal was to “make minimal intrusions, maximize openness and accommodate books and art gracefully.” Their home does just that with its gallery-like displays and library nooks. Diane uses the drywall additions to display a rotating collection of artwork, and the Frank Gehry cardboard table showcases rarer books and handmade objects.

 

 

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Diane jokes that Henry likes to look at online book auctions when he needs to procrastinate, which is how he found this antique, concertina format, Cambodian script on mulberry paper. It contains 38 miniature paintings. The table also contains an Ethiopian Magic Scroll and the small table and chairs by artist Allan Wexler, who created an installation at the neighboring Mattress Factory Annex

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This bold canvas marks the passage from the main living space to the library, a room within a room. The piece is by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who created a permanent installation at the neighboring contemporary art museum, the Mattress Factory. She is known for her repetitive patterns and polka dots. 

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No matter how many bookshelves Henry and Diane install, their collections quickly catch up with them. This library nook, with a combination of built-in and IKEA shelving, houses their collection of dictionaries and fiction. The ikat on the antique Mission Style Chair is from a friend who traveled to Indonesia, and the rug Henry and Diane purchased when traveling in Greece.

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The main focal points of the bedroom are the deep blue bedspread made by Habibou Coulibaly, an artisan in Burkino Faso, and the kimono hanging on the wall. Diane made the piece as part of a fashion show fundraiser, in which artists were given canvas and asked to make a kimono. She liked the idea of contrasting graceful movements with restrictive angles, so she used canvas and wood. The kimono has an audible rhythm when worn.

 

 

 

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After their initial renovations, Diane and Henry decided to expand their bathroom, but they didn’t want to lose light. They worked with architect Gary Cirrincione who used a frosted panel to carry light from the exterior window. Diane added the window detail. She took a photo of their street, then cut away everything but the cracks to create a concrete lace. The newspaper bowl is by San Francisco artist Kay Sekimachi.

 

 

 

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The reverse side of Diane’s window installation. The art over the toilet was made by a student at Winchester Thurston, a local private school in Pittsburgh. In Henry’s past business, they would use children’s art for the holiday cards. The teachers at the school would host an exhibition, and Henry and Diane would select the young artist’s work to be featured.

 

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Another library nook on the ground floor. Diane likes to read, write and think while taking in the view to her garden. Diane said she chose the desk and matching stool because “it looked like a desk that would be in Bartleby The Scrivener.” On the wall, she pins current inspiration such as a Cyclatic figures (female figures carved from stone).

 

 

 

 

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Part of the impetus for purchasing their home was Diane’s need for a large, open studio space, which she achieved on the ground floor with a combination of sawhorses and 4 x 8′ panels. My eyes were a little wide with envy, as this space reminded me of my high school art room in the best possible way.

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A detail from Diane’s art series, One Book, One Drawing“I’m a geeky lady” Diane says when explaining her process for these works. She begins by counting and averaging words/page, then pages/book, then maps out her own handwritten words per square inch. She reads each line of a book, one at a time, then transcribes it to handmade paper by memory, as a way to test her memory as she ages. This piece, “‘The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas’ and ‘Testimony against Gertrude Stein,'” is a complete transcription of the book by Gertrude Stein, who was born near Diane and Henry’s home. Many artists objected to how Stein portrayed them in her book, so Diane represented their protests in purple. Stein famously said, “a rose is a rose is a rose,” so Diane features Stein’s texts in pink hues, and she coated the paper with pulverized roses she grew in her garden.

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What Henry and Diane love most about their home is each other. The painting in the background is a part of a mural on one of the City of Asylum writers-in-residence homes, which provide sanctuary to endangered literary writers, so that they can continue to write and make their voices heard.

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