Getting to know Bunker Projects is much like taking a trip down memory lane, as my first impression of the space transported me to a West Oakland artist-run warehouse space that, like most, no longer exists. In all of its charm and defiant glory, as a young artist, what is not to like?—when all things are functional so to speak, just raw and rough around the edges. When you’re able to create a world where few rules exist, it allows for all channels of creativity to blossom, a pure nirvana type of experience, so to speak. Wintertime visits by small guests can be overlooked when one is given the physical space to create whatever that burning desire is at that very moment. As an adult, those moments become fewer and fewer, as the weight of responsibilities and the choices you’ve made over your entire life start dictating your path. So one must choose wisely, while also keeping in mind that there is no road map, atlas, or one true guide. Take that as you will. I just want the best for everyone.
Bunker Projects provides artists with a safe place to explore, create, make, be, sleep, meet, and dine. (Keyword in that last sentence: SAFE.) All of your essentials are covered here. This access that Bunker provides equals freedom, which is not only truly priceless, but also has become a rare commodity these days. We all need a place to call home, and that structure needs land to support it. Their landlord, the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation, is responsible for several buildings along Penn Ave in the Arts & Cultural District, and because of their dedication to the neighborhood, young arts groups have been able to blossom along the corridor.
Bunker, which is nestled on the second- and third floors of the Roboto Building on Penn Ave in the Garfield Neighborhood, has everything that someone these days desires. Within just a few blocks of one another, you have shops, markets, restaurants, cafes, galleries, art event spaces, and other non-profits. Which reminds me, I want to give a shout out to the kids over at Pull Proof Studio, who are right next to Bunker. They run a tight clean ship of a screen-printing studio, and the artists that operate this space are all super talented and very dedicated. If you haven’t visited them on a First Friday, please check them out! As a visitor, having all these amenities accessible at your fingertips is really a luxury. Not having to be dependent on public transportation or driving is truly a beautiful thing. Getting to know a place through the act of walking is an intimate process—as you glide yourself through the urban terrain, looking and processing the details of the architecture and streetscape, while always monitoring your footing, because those sidewalks, especially in the winter, can be treacherous! We all know that not every neighborhood is designed with that much thought and ingenuity. I guess it’s about location, and in Pittsburgh that’s tough because of the geography; it naturally isolates people. If you don’t have a car and you don’t like biking in a challenging city (few bike lanes, narrow roads, and literal mountains), then relying on public transportation can also leave one isolated. Using car services (Lyft/Uber) can definitely take its toll on your bank account, but in special circumstances it’s reassuring to know that it’s an option, because a night out with friends could take you to one of the 90 neighborhoods in the city, and nobody wants to get stranded on a hilltop. I should leave the suspense hanging here, but no, this did not happen to me. I don’t want any weird urban legends being started about me. I just got to thinking about what life must have been like here before the use of cell phones and GPS technology.... Ok, that’s another article, sorry, I will no longer diverge :)
As I was getting to know this rugged terrain of a city, the people are what caught my attention. Those that are doing some exciting things are from Pittsburgh or the region, and of course what they are doing is attracting others to gradually flock here. In 2013, Jessie Rommelt did just that. After she finished her undergraduate studies at Penn State, she moved to Pittsburgh, and with a few other artist friends they started Bunker Projects. From the collective beginnings of scraping together what they each had, borrowing from close friends, and raising matching funds through Kickstarter, together they embarked on a new adventure. From the very raw beginning state, when the space originally had no heat and no electric, they converted it into a living and working home for artists. And when I say “they,” I mean Jessie Rommelt, Cecilia Ebitz, Abbigael Beddal, friends, family, and volunteers put in long hours to get the place up and running. You can still smell their sweat (equity) when you’re in the front gallery space, but that’s mainly because they are still making improvements to the space even years later, because they care. Jessie and her board are committed to the mission of this young non-profit, and provide safe (and affordable) living and working conditions for artists so that they can focus on their practice and enhance their professional growth.
During the residencies, Bunker connects artists to the community through studio visits and engagement events like their potluck dinner night. If an artist needs access to equipment ,they are usually able to find it through their network. Since there are only two bedrooms, two studios, and one bathroom, Bunker can only really host up to two artists at a time. This intimate setting, though, helps foster new bonds and friendships among artists. It’s also possible that during an artist residency an artist’s stay may overlap with multiple other artists, thus creating a more diverse network and set of experiences for them.
Bunker is one of the many gems in this city. Each one that I’m uncovering is truly unique in their own right, and Bunker is no exception. For a young organization that is poorly funded, they are holding their own weight, plus some. There is a stellar list of artists that have come through the space--The Moon Baby, Shikeith Cathey, Kirstin Lamb, Devan Shimoyama, and Tate Leone, to name a few—and the impact that these artists have made on the community, and their furthering contribution to society at large, is evident. I wish more funders would take greater risks and place more value on how the ripple affects the water over time. Sometimes just making a big splash can lose people’s interest, as it gets boring and mundane quickly. You need to be flexible, agile, and receptive to the changing needs around you, because that is the only thing that is constant: change.
Tina Dillman – Artist
I would like to especially thank Madeline Gent, Executive Director of Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, for sponsoring her residency; Jessie Rommelt, Executive Director of Bunker Projects, for hosting; Tara Fay Coleman for suggesting her for the residency; and Dawn Weleski for making the initial introduction. Sometimes the unknown can be scary, but if you can embrace that which you are afraid of, and hear your inner self, your body will speak to you, so be quiet and listen.
XXO to My Community