The past, present, and future coexist simultaneously in Sharpsburg, and for the moment, one hasn’t pushed the other out.

By Emma Riva 

If Paris had its salons where artists and writers gathered to bounce ideas off each other, than Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania has Red Hawk Coffee on Canal Street. On any given day, the tiny café will be full of painters, writers, musicians, and filmmakers both drinking from ceramic vats of coffee as well as being the ones brewing them behind the counter. How’s the book going? Has that piece sold yet? Hey—you mind if I try my new standup bit out on you?

Red Hawk is situated in an art deco building that used to be police headquarters for Sharpsburg, a riverside former mill town at the foot of the hills which rise north of Pittsburgh.

“We don’t have as many shiny things as somewhere like New York, but the things we do have, we cherish. We’re like that guy that never forgets about ‘I was the baddest quarterback in high school,’” said artist and community advocate Corey Ochai. A native of Braddock, not that far away, and Ochai now lives in Sharpsburg, where his art and video production studio are on Canal Street next to Atithi Studios, an art coworking organization which rents out multiple studio spaces filled with art therapists, photographers, and painters alike. Ochai served as community director of Atithi until summer 2022 and still holds his own studio next door.

It was outside Red Hawk that Ochai and entrepreneur Sukanta Nag, who manages Pittsburgh’s Adda Coffeehouse chain as well, thought up the idea for a community art space in the former Murray’s Furniture, a business which also happened to have included a hotel in the upper floor, latter purchased by a blueprint company, and then once again abandoned in the 2010s— all across the street from the café.

I first met Ochai a year ago at an art show at .5 Gallery, a tiny sliver of a gallery in-between a gastropub and an appliance store in Etna, Sharpsburg’s westward neighbor. Upon hearing I was a writer, Ochai opened up Amazon and bought my book right in front of me, then immediately invited me to appear on his podcast. This was my first taste of Sharpsburg’s hipster hospitality. Later I would be interviewed on Ochai’s podcast at Atithi Studios, and I knew I had stumbled into somewhere doing something a bit different.

Ochai moved to Sharpsburg in 2010 to give his daughters a more peaceful childhood than he had as well as access to the education provided by the school district, which encompasses the prestigious Fox Chapel schools. Once in Sharspburg, he found he had the mental space to use his interest in visual art to grapple with some of his own demons. He’s not the only one to follow this trajectory, because Ochai’s Sharpsburg, with its tiny, quirky riverfront streets, has become the unlikely hero of Pittsburgh’s art scene.

When I crossed over the 62nd Street Bridge into town, I marveled at how the elevated highway wound down into the forested hillside and how the treetops smudged the clouds. And when I turned onto Main Street, it boasts a strange, otherwise unmarked building titled with a vinyl banner reading The Internet Court of Lies and a few John Fetterman campaign and antiwar activism stickers. It’s still not clear to me what exactly is behind its doors. A few blocks down, I encountered a Christian-themed fitness facility called Glorybound Gym which boasts an illustration of a straining Jesus Christ with the tagline His Pain, Your Gain. Almost Lynchian, but entirely more pleasant.

The three cultural fixtures on Main Street and the surrounding area are Atithi Studios, founded by Sukanta Nag in 2021, Ketchup City Creative, founded by Nanci Goldberg in 2018, and Zynka Gallery, founded by Jeff Jarzynka. Goldberg, an art teacher in the nearby Fox Chapel schools, saw her students from Sharpsburg get called “river rats” by the wealthy residents of that tony school district. “If I opened a business here, I thought it might make the kids feel better about their town,” she said.

Ketchup City Creative was the first art business to open on Main Street. Sharpsburg’s art institutions, perhaps in part because of Goldberg’s original example, are not so much galleries where people only come in to look at others’ work, as they are dynamic community art spaces. They straddle the line between spaces that allow for creation and spaces that allow for viewing, with the result being a degree of community involvement uncommon in similar establishments.

Part of Sharpburg’s visual art boom has been due to the affordability of housing, while the relationships between landlords and tenants are even surprisingly friendly. For example, Goldberg ascribes her ability to open KCC to the flexibility of her landlord. The degree of mutual respect owners have for each other comes from a mutual desire to see the town succeed—Goldberg’s main goal has been not just to create a more vibrant art scene, but to lower the number of empty storefronts. When Sukanta Nag launched Atithi Studios in 2021, Ochai remembers that there was a conversation between himself, Nag, Jarzynka, and Goldberg about avoiding competition. “We all worked together, almost like an ‘art mob,’” Ochai recalled. “We wanted people to come into Sharpsburg and think that it’s an arts town.”

Along with the art boom, the town has seen an uptick in diversity. Ochai, who is Nigerian-American, partnered with Nag, an Indian immigrant, and Goldberg, a Jewish woman from Long Island. “A lot of the time you’re not really welcome in some town, but Sharpsburg is different,” Ochai said. “I’m really good friends with people who’ve been there their whole lives. There was pushback, but it couldn’t overpower the love and community aspect of what Sharpsburg does.”

Goldberg agreed, and has even been able to work with organizations like Roots of Faith, a community mutual aid network associated with the Methodist Church, due to their shared values of charity and kindness for those in need. Local politicians like mayor Brittany Reno have championed the more culturally diverse Sharpsburg that’s naturally developing through its art scene. It’s hard to know whether the diversity of the town caused the art scene or the art scene has grown the diversity, but perhaps the answer is a sort of symbiosis.

In the past three years, Atithi, KCC, and Zynka have attracted a huge variety of talent from of all ages and backgrounds. One painter whose work drew me in immediately is Claira Heitzenrater, a native of rural Western Pennsylvania whose art has a deep connection to the mountains that surround the town of Sharpsburg. “The idea of being Appalachian never really crossed my mind. It’s simply who I was, and am,” she wrote to me. “Now that my awareness has expanded, I incorporate a lot of the intrinsic value of being an Appalachian artist into my work.” Heitzenrater often uses canvases shaped like half-moons, triangles, or semicircular windows to depict twilight mountain scenes and enormous red moons over pine trees like those that tower over the river community.

Heitzenrater describes herself as a “recorder of the liminal reliquary” in her artistic process. Liminality is one of those words I heard so often as mumbo-jumbo in art school, just another term like juxtaposition or praxis, but to be liminal is to be in-between—between daylight and night, between birth and death, or between a peak and a valley. Pittsburgh, and Appalachia as a whole, exist within the mountains, rather than at their peaks or valleys.

“Our rolling memories of mountains older than bones speak to me so deeply, and I’m proud to share their stories in my work now,” Heitzenrater said of her Appalachian identity. Living with the mountains, both literally and metaphorically, and existing within that liminality, as Pittsburghers do, creates more horizontal community relationships like those seen in Sharpsburg. On what being Appalachian means to her, Heitzenrater said: “It means everything. It’s who I am, who I was, who I’ll always be–just a kid eating dirt in her grandmother’s woodland driveway, always on the lookout for a wayward coyote.”

I can’t help but hear the resonance in the syntax and word choice – Heitzenrater used the past, the present, and the future to describe her own identity. It would be wrong to describe Sharpsburg only by its past, a mill town split in two by the railroad, or only by its present as a growing art community, or only to look at it and see dollar signs for future riverfront property or chain coffee shops on Main Street. The past, present, and future coexist simultaneously in Sharpsburg, and for the moment, one hasn’t pushed the other out.

I’ve observed a desire among everyone I meet in the art industry for something more earnest, more focused on beauty just for beauty’s sake, more caring and less pretending not to care, less ironic and cynical and less focused on a cool factor. Sharpsburg is a community that speaks to what art really is rather than what art does. Art may revitalize local businesses and create new opportunities, but more importantly art is a spiritual practice. A connection between the self and other. Your dreams and your anger put into something tangible. Art is survival. In Sharpsburg, those complexities are allowed to coexist by the affordability of the town. It’s a model of how a local community with person-to-person support and socio-economic resources can become a creative hotbed.

Many of Sharpsburg’s “art mob” business owners used language around birth and death to describe the town. “I’m hoping to see even more of an increase in vibrancy, something that feels alive,” Goldberg said. Ochai agreed, adding that “Old Sharpsburg doesn’t have to die for new Sharpsburg to live.”

When I moved to Pittsburgh, I experienced a color in the sky I’d never seen before. It’s a shade of periwinkle blue right after the rain stops but before the sun comes out. It’s subdued enough that it makes the leaves on the treetops look technicolor but bright enough to make me know that the rainfall is over, at least for now. I’ve never seen that color anywhere but Appalachia. Heitzenrater captures it in Copper Sun (2022) and other pieces from her Fernweh collection, When I press my cheek against the window on the bus to Sharspburg on days like that and look out over the Allegheny River, the grey sky makes the hills practically glimmer. All of nature works together to create a liminal beauty more poignant than the sunniest day. If I were to name that color, I’d call it Sharpsburg Blue.

Emma Riva is the managing editor of UPan international online and print magazine that covers the intersections of graffiti, street art and fine arts. She is also the author of Night Shift in Tamaqua, an illustrated novel set in the Lehigh Valley. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA.