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Student-designed Holiday Art Installation Illuminates Messages of Hope

Words and images slip by silently in sequence in a new installation at the Forbes Digital Plaza gallery.

Hand-drawn and handwritten, the brightly colored Messages of Hope for the Holidays are gentle, heartfelt gifts from University of Pittsburgh students, offered to all who pass by the bustling pedestrian plaza in the city’s Oakland neighborhood:

“It’s not how much we give, it’s how much love we put into giving.”

“Without a sense of caring, there can be no sense of community.”

“We will forever be reminded to be more kind, more loving, more intentional, for the rest of our lives.”

The installation was conceived by psychology major Alana Castle with the help of Department of Studio Arts faculty member Aaron Henderson and brought to life through the creative contributions of fellow students.

Castle, a first-year student from the tiny northern tier community of Canton, Pennsylvania, found herself searching for ways to help and heal her new city following a gunman’s attack on worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in the nearby neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. The day after the deadly rampage, she stood in the October rain outside Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, one of hundreds of people unable to fit into the packed building for a vigil inside.

Like many, she wanted to do more. Castle asked family and friends from her church community for prayer as she sought to discover how she could help.

The idea of creating a lasting mural on campus came to her, and ultimately she connected with Henderson, who curates the content on the Forbes Digital Plaza screens.

Along the way, she was invited to help plan the University’s Nov. 5 “Stronger Than Hate” tribute, an event that drew thousands of Pitt faculty, staff and students to the University’s Cathedral of Learning lawn to mourn as a community.

It’s all about the intimate quality of the messages — amplified because they’re in the contributors’ handwriting.

Aaron Henderson, associate professor of studio arts

A mural is still being considered, but more immediately, she and Henderson coordinated the digital gallery’s Messages of Hope for the Holidays display.

“When she reached out to me I was trying to figure out what our next display should be,” said Henderson. Nothing seemed quite right. “It felt wrong to just put on some generic ‘happy holidays’ images,” following a display featuring a menorah and a tribute to those who died.

Then Castle shared her desire to respond with art.

She sought out submissions through her own campus connections: “A message of Hope for the Holidays can be a few words of encouragement and support, a drawing, or another form of artistic expression that exemplifies love, joy and peace for all people,” she wrote in a brief note to friends, floormates and clubmates.

“I liked checking the Messages of Hope emails,” Castle said. “It was interesting to see the creative directions.”  Some students adapted the “Stronger than Hate” symbolism; others created drawings, penned poems or shared quotes in response.

From about 30 submissions, Henderson selected a handful — those most suited for the resolution of the screens — for display.

“They are very sweet. They’re disarming. It’s all about the intimate quality of the messages — amplified because they’re in the contributors’ handwriting,” he said.

By design, the messages are unaccompanied by audio.

“The quiet is part of what makes them intimate,” said Henderson.

Castle said the effort may seem small: “Why would words mean anything? But I feel empowered knowing I could do something. And for 30 people, it means something to know they did something to provide encouragement after this tragic event.”

“And knowing that time has passed, we’re showing that we won’t forget.”

On a plaza less than a mile from the site of tragedy, these silent messages of hope shine:

“When a community comes together, it proves love is real.”

Messages of Hope for the Holidays

On display at the University-owned pedestrian plaza at the corner of Forbes Avenue and South Bouquet Street in Oakland, Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through early January.

Innovation culture on display

The Forbes Plaza Digital gallery displays curated multimedia art exhibits on a wall-mounted digital canvas and community information on a large LED screen.

The outdoor digital gallery opened in 2015 as the first installation of the Oakland Business Improvement District’s “Innovation Oakland” digital district initiative.

Anchored by the University of Pittsburgh, the Oakland neighborhood is home to some of the world’s top research, educational, medical and cultural institutions. The public space integrates sound, information, interactivity and art to create an outdoor experience that showcases Oakland’s innovation culture.