Pillbox

Not just a T-shirt shop

It’s a vast studio space on the North Side, walls plastered with ads, posters, and various artwork. It’s not quite a gallery — more of a gallery/studio/print shop. The ever-expanding Artist Image Resource (AIR) was founded on a new approach to contemporary culture: the artist and the community.

It began as just an idea. “[We thought of] what kind of organizations didn’t exist in Pittsburgh that would facilitate creative work and help artists,” said Robert Beckman, AIR’s director. That was 1994, and print shops were sparse in the Pittsburgh area. So came the plan for a space with printmaking components, but not strictly print-making components.

AIR’s founders also wanted a way to share their own art, because, as Beckman admitted with a laugh, “there is never enough exhibition space.” Moreover, Beckman and others hoped AIR would become a place that could be open to the community as a source of information and instruction. Two years later, Beckman discovered AIR’s current space — a former storefront on the North Side’s Foreland Street. He credits John Mueller, of Mueller’s Hardware Inc. “We had done business together,” Beckman said, “and he allowed us to come into the space and put the place together.” Since then, AIR has been improving upon its venue, expanding it in parts so as to broaden the possibilities.

The year 1996 saw the initiation of what has since become an annual tradition; December 1996 was AIR’s first resident artist project exhibition, a show featuring seven artists’ print projects. Since then, AIR has exhibited four to six professional artists every December. “Every year, significant things happen,” Beckman said.

In addition to the contributing artists — from both the staff and the community — there are hardworking volunteers. One such volunteer, Nathan Mould, began as a silk-screening intern. Mould credited an open house at AIR as part of what inspired him to become more involved. Like the rest of the willing staff, Mould’s main motivation is simply to help. That, and “pumpin’ out my own art,” he said.

“We’re all kind of in this together; people need to realize that,” Beckman said. To demonstrate that to the community, AIR initiated open-studio time in 2003 as a chance to bring in young artists and make AIR more accessible to the public.

Beckman admitted that, over the years, some people have taken AIR’s time and space for granted. Still, he wanted to be able to continue offering the space to the community; Beckman emphasized the importance of art that is accessible to many different points of view, especially those within the Pittsburgh community.

The staff goes above and beyond in its quest to support art. Artists have an opportunity to rent out the shop and use the materials to suit their needs; there are tutorials on Wednesday evenings and prospective artists can make appointments for private tutorials starting from $75 a lesson. Alternatively, open-studio nights operate on a first-come, first-serve basis. “We try to have people in those evening circumstances that can kind of facilitate what you’re doing,” Beckman said.

And the artist-run resource center strives to convey forward-thinking ideas, culture, and inspiration. “We’re not just a T-shirt place,” said Bill Rodgers, a staff member charged with the aspects of operation and workforce. “Our mission is important. You have to believe it.” The mission, according to AIR’s website, is to support creative interest and activity through an active imaging lab.

“First and foremost, we are a production facility,” Beckman said. The space is for professional artists to work and create. But prompting a community’s interest in art is important too, as is bringing artists in from that community. “What artists do is valuable, and that ... [people] have access to the thinking, the questions that artists are asking, the methods that artists are using to find those answers.... That’s valuable,” Beckman said.

Interaction is another concept significant to AIR’s mission. There’s more to an artist’s work than gathering around it at a gallery showing. Beckman encourages asking artists questions: Why this color? Why this shape? Why this size? What is the basis of that decision?

“[We’re] fostering cultural awareness,” said Rodgers. That includes bringing students in for workshops and tutorials to demonstrate various printmaking processes. Students from schools in the Pittsburgh area — including Schenley High School, Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and North Allegheny High School — come to experience AIR’s approach (that is, combining the best aspects of galleries, studios, and print shops) and to learn techniques such as relief, intaglio, and lithography. “It’s not academia, it’s not [an] after-school [program],” Rodgers said. “We teach people so they can produce.” In addition, internships are offered for college credit at schools including Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, and Clarion University.

As a nonprofit organization, AIR is technically a public charity. The organizations that give AIR funding have been extremely helpful, Beckman said. “The Heinz Endowment, a small arts initiative funding stream, [has been] pretty instrumental,” he said. Over 13 other organizations or groups donate to AIR as well.

With the white walls framed with prints and art, and paint-splattered aprons hanging on various hooks, AIR is surrounded by the feeling of a creative community. Artists’ works and inspirations meet the eye at every turn. It is not your traditional print shop. Or gallery. Or studio. It’s more like all of them combined.

So don’t call it a T-shirt shop.