Marrying the Macho and the Magnificent"I built my own gallery space with my dreams. I got the opportunity to do it here."
Penn Avenue in Garfield is lined with art gallery after art gallery, part of this downtown neighborhood's recent transformation from blight to hipness. But it's easy to find Jason Sauer's gallery, Most Wanted Fine Art. It's the one with his souped-up, painted "art car" out front.
In his gallery and his life, Sauer, 36, melds the macho and avant-garde. He's a devoted mixed-media artist, impassioned community leader and crazed demolition derby driver who affixes metal scraps from his smashed-up cars onto his canvases.
Even his tattoos marry his macho and softer sides. Muscle cars and Botticelli Madonnas crawl up his sturdy arms. The facade of Sauer's art gallery looks like a garage, but instead of grease-stained floors it has African mahogany doors wide enough for a car to drive through.
"I built my own gallery space with my dreams," he says. "I got the opportunity to do it here."
Sauer grew up an hour north of Pittsburgh, but moved to Seattle and Texas after a stint in the Army. He returned home after learning that a community redevelopment group, the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, was awarding grants to help people convert abandoned buildings into art galleries.
New Year's Eve 2006 was one of his first days in Garfield. At the stroke of midnight, when he heard the clanging of his neighbors' pots and pans, he was moved by the sense of community. "I knew right then and there this is where I wanted to be," he says.
His crumbling building on Penn Avenue became his canvas. After emptying its innards into nine Dumpsters, he went to work. He lovingly laid down white oak and hickory floors from uneven planks of wood. He rebuilt the interior walls and the front of the building, using made-in-Pittsburgh steel and other recycled materials.
He erected a stage, inviting in rappers, other musicians and poets to perform regularly.
When Sauer is not making art, he is often out helping to revitalize his neighborhood. On any given day, he's helping to install outdoor sculptures designed by local artists or organizing volunteers to paint vacant buildings or clean up the street. As a Goodwill mentor, Sauer hires ex-offenders and teaches them construction skills.
"He is a very dynamic figure on Penn Avenue," says Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation.
Sauer's art is masculine: urban sculpture twisted on top of abstract painting. But the soft side comes out in a self-portrait of him reading letters during mail call from his Army days.
He and his wife, Nina Gibbs, rent out their gallery space to artists for four hours on Friday and Saturday nights for $150.
The couple and their son, Rowdy, live above their gallery in a home that has counters fashioned out of bowling alley lanes. (Which is probably not that radical for someone who considers demolition derby "performance art" and holds an art car celebration every year.)
If that weren't enough, Sauer also runs a restoration business, which pays the bills and helps transform a neighborhood that has embraced him as much as he embraced it. As Sauer puts it, "Pittsburgh has treated me with nothing but awesomeness."
Check out Jason's Pittsburgh.