"I haven't been on a vacation in 35 years!" says Randy Gilson, the lively ringmaster of Randyland. He's not complaining; he just has too much energy to stop.
Randyland, his creation, is a circus-colored oasis of sunny vibes on Pittsburgh's formerly grim North Side. The neighborhood's revival is due, in some significant part, to Randy, who began planting guerrilla mini-gardens in the community in the early 1980s (They now number in the hundreds). His job as a part-time waiter gave him some free time, so in 1996 he purchased the abandoned buildings and yards that now comprise the Mr. Rogers-on-hyperdrive Randyland.
"I bought it for 10,000 bucks on a credit card," Randy says. "People said, 'You're a waiter; you don't have any money; what are you gonna do with it?'"
Lack of forethought has never bothered Randy, who told us repeatedly that he knows nothing about painting, art, or gardening. He has nonetheless used all three to transform the formerly derelict street corner into a showcase of outsider art, although he insists that it's merely proof that anyone can do anything if they just give it a try.
One wall is covered with a 40-foot-high mural that includes dinosaurs, butterflies, giant ladybugs, waterfalls, mountains, two moons, a golden castle, and doves of peace. Randy says it's a metaphor of his life and that he painted it in only five days when the local building inspector was out of town. Randy drove to a local museum, looked at its Lewis and Clark mural, then drove back and tried to copy its clouds, trees, etc.
There are planters made from sewer pipes; plastic pink flamingos and parrots amid the banana trees; hearts, Smiley faces, peace signs, dragonflies, and a suit of armor holding a giant flower. Old metal lawn chairs hang from a fire escape, vintage street and advertising signs are bolted to a wall, disembodied mannequin heads congregate on a table. Randy points to two silhouettes painted on a former window: it's Randy talking to Randy. "That's me and that's me. Look at those schnozzes!"
Randy seems to be everywhere at once, greeting and hugging a steady flow of visitors ("Hi! What can I do to make this day great for you?"), regaling us with tales behind various Randyland art creations, or breaking into "Randydance" when words can't contain his enthusiasm.
Randy runs at full throttle; we only spent an hour with him and we were exhausted (He apparently never shuts down). Conversations often end with feel-good aphorisms, delivered with a big smile. "There's a present inside," he tells us, tapping his chest. "Don't wait for your birthday to unwrap the gift of you."
Everything that can be painted is painted at Randyland, in neon yellows, fuchsias, vivid oranges and teals. There are polka dots on the soffit, stripes on the moulding, rainbows on every window lintel. Life-size cut-outs of musicians and dancers are outlined in day-glo lavenders and limes, suggesting either frenzied motion or the mad auras of schizophrenic cat art.
Randy tells us with pride that over 50 paint colors are currently in use at Randyland, all of them purchased cheap from local stores after normal people returned them as too crazy (One of the few donations that Randy refuses is boring-colored paint).
Randy calls Randyland an "incubator" and modestly says it wouldn't have been possible without the support of his North Side neighbors ("People projects by people create a peoplehood!"). A large map on one wall showcases his favorite neighborhood spots near Randyland, such as the place where the Ferris wheel was invented, the doorway to the Borden Ice Cream mansion, and the largest birdhouse in America.
"I want people to see that we have wonderful things in the best neighborhood in Pittsburgh," Randy says. "Yessiree, I'm having the best life in the world!"