This was a tough weekend in Pittsburgh. As you may have heard, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill was the site of a horrendous terror attack on Saturday, where 11 people were killed in an explicit and outrageous attack of antisemitism. You can read more of the details at your favorite news outlet, but needless to say, the local problems have pushed the upcoming elections (in a significant swing area) to the background as the city struggles to cope with what has happened.
Sidebar: We are safe. The Tree of Life Synagogue is about a mile-and-a-half from where we live, and much closer to friends that we were with until 11PM the night before the shooting, but we were not in the area when the shooting was happening.
Pittsburgh has been relatively wound-free in the American epidemic of mass shootings. So wound-free, that on NPR last week, the superintendent of Pittsburgh schools was on the radio talking about a pending vote to arm school police officers (it was voted down 2 days before Tree of Life), and repeatedly cited that Pittsburgh hadn’t been faced with a mass shooting.
That’s all the setup for our trip to the happiest place on earth. Weird, right?
Pittsburgh is not the city that everyone we’ve met thought it was, which seems to be a foggy film noir version of post-industrial-revolution industrialization. Pittsburgh is a city of hills, of rivers, of beautiful scenery, and of art.
Andy Warhol is the city’s most famous native, but Randy Gilson is equally as singular and spectacular, and significantly more alive, than his fellow Pittsburghan.
If you’ve never been to Randyland, go to Randyland. Randyland is a slice of the world we’d all love to live in, and Randy Gilson is the person we all want to be friends with.
We’ve been on this trip for 4 months, and I’m certain that nothing we’ve done so far will be as memorable as meeting Randy Gilson. We planned an afternoon visiting the National Aviary (which was incredible in its own right) on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, and planned to swing through Randyland to kill some time before dinner.
We expected it to be another ‘found art’ experience, which has become Janna’s new favorite thing, similar to Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden near Rome, Georgia; or the Magic Gardens in Center City Philadelphia. We were enjoying the art, the found objects, the paintings, the ‘international welcome wall’ (which Randy says is the biggest in America).
But then we heard a nearby group pipe up with “is that Randy?” And out came a man, the man, Randy Gilson, with flowing blonde hair, covered from head-to-toe in paint.
Randy Gilson has ADD, OCD, and autism, and is gay. Randy, along with his mom and 5 siblings, fled from an abusive father when he was a young child. Randy struggled in school, but his mom refused to take him to a doctor for treatment for the above, saying that ‘Jesus made him this way for a reason.’
Randy has never been medicated, has never been subjected to the standard run of care and treatment that is prescribed to individuals who have the conditions that has, and that has allowed him to create the happiest place on earth.
I can’t retell his whole story, because there’s just too much going on. In short, when he and his mom and siblings ran from his dad to Homestead, Pennsylvania, they were very poor, and he began helping out his neighbors for money, and eventually made a solid living. By the time he was 20, he had become involved in partying and drugs and had money and he feared that people in Homestead would come after him, and that his family was in danger because of his presence.
So he moved to Pittsburgh, to a North shore area that in the 1970s was a dangerous area heavy with gangs. He befriended the gang members and recruited the neighborhood children to start cleaning up the lots, cutting the grass, to start community gardens and parks. But he’s not a soft, artist type. In his words, ‘you don’t fuck with Randy, I’m crazy.’
Eventually, there was a building in the neighborhood that was due to be torn down (it was the local grocery store), and because of his work in the community that had received coverage in the newspapers, he was able to get a $10,000 line of credit from a local bank to purchase the building.
And that’s where Randyland was born – a place that Randy describes as the Home of Happiness.
Admission to Randyland is free, because as Randy says, ‘he likes being poor.’ And that’s not lip service – Randy’s $10,000 property is now valued at $3 million. Instead of selling his property and living out his life as a wealthy man, he’s decided to ‘give it back to the community,’ just as he says Jesus has given him the ability to ‘do art.’ The building will be turned into a facility that cares for people like him, with a first floor coffee shop, and other grand plans. But Randyland will continue to exist.
It was by pure chance that we met Randy, and he would then hold court for the group that happened to be there for almost 2 hours. He kept apologizing for talking too much, but I would’ve stood there and listened to him for another 2 hours. He even let us come into his workshop, where he showed us his next project – a series of 10-foot tall flowers made out of wood he found in the basement of the building. He’s also putting together a series of brilliant and beautiful paintings of faces that are so visually stunning that Carnegie Melon has started sending architecture students to his home to study the way that different colors can go together in unexpected ways.
Randy even has a plan laid out to collaborate with the nearby Andy Warhol Museum.
His art is brilliant. Not in a ‘condescending, good for him’ kind of way. But it’s truly beautiful and moving and touching. His story is what turns his art from beautiful to iconic. It’s almost unfathomable to me that he’s not selling art for hundreds-of-thousands of dollars. I think he will. I think the heyday of Randy Gilson is yet to come.
When you sit and watch Travel Shows, Anthony Bourdain reruns, scroll through #wanderlust on Instagram and dream about how glorious your life would be if you could travel like that – this was that experience. We got every bit of the Randyland experience, and left feeling like we’ve made the best friend we’ve ever had. He’s positive, he’s got a beautiful perspective on life and the world, he stands up for the people he cares about, and he sees the best in the world. He called himself a ‘dummy’ at least a dozen times in our 2 hours with him, but the more time you spend around him, the more you realize that he’s far from dumb. He’s brilliant. Randyland, USA: a Ray of Happy in a Time of Sadness.
Randy did break down from his positivity briefly to mention the shootings in Squirrel Hill, and how they affected him, and how on this day, Randyland was not a happy place. But, it didn’t take long for him to wind back up into a message of how to make the world a better place, how we all need to treat each other better, and what we can all do to reach our personal goals and our goals for the world. He can’t help but exude his special brand of inspiration that would put your favorite TED talk to shame. And he’s there, in person and in his art, at Randyland, every day from 10-7 (though, he’s not always out and about).
So, if you’re ever in Pittsburgh, head to Randyland. Hang around until Randy comes out. Ask him a question. Rev him up. You won’t regret it.