This story was originally published on page 8 of BGC’s The Bulletin.
Many East Enders fondly remember an 8,500 square-foot mural, entitled “Lend Me Your Ears,” that wrapped around a building at Penn and S. Euclid Avenues for more than a decade.
Created by artist Jordan Monahan in 2004, the mural served as an informal gateway, greeting the neighborhood’s visitors with images of children at play, interspersed with colorful patterns and designs.
In 2015, the building’s owners arrived at a difficult decision to remove the mural in order to make renovations to the building. The loss of “Lend Me Your Ears” is still felt throughout the community. Now, five years later, there is a new mural in its place—one that tells another story.
In October, Duolingo unveiled a large-scale artwork – created by Detroit-based artist Ann Lewis – on the side of that same Penn Avenue building, where the company is now headquartered. When Duolingo moved into its offices in East Liberty back in 2016, the idea to create a mural was not the first thing on the world-renowned, language-learning platform’s agenda.
“The idea developed over time,” said John Tronsor, facilities manager at Duolingo. Eventually, Tronsor and his colleagues determined that not only would a mural beautify the building, but it could also provide an opportunity for Duolingo to engage with the East Liberty community in a meaningful way.
“East Liberty has a long and complex history. The neighborhood is, and has been, responding to the effects produced from a significant amount of development,” Tronsor said. “Duolingo choosing to have its headquarters here puts us in the middle of this changing landscape. We want to be good neighbors, and part of that process is being open and listening to our community.”
Duolingo kicked off the selection process in early 2019 with an open call to artists from around the world. The process was advised by Morton Brown, a consultant and expert in Pittsburgh’s public art history; an artist selection committee was convened, including three of the company’s senior executives and two East Liberty community members.
Over 160 artists, representing seven countries, responded to the call for applications. After narrowing it down to five finalists, the Duolingo team selected Ann Lewis in July of 2019. “Ann was selected for the originality and quality of her portfolio, her experience in large-scale public artwork, and her commitment to creating this artwork in a process that actively involved the local community,” Tronsor said.
A community-led art process + fund
The initial process included a short residency with the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies in East Liberty. During the residency, Lewis spent time discussing ideas of “community” with students during several language & visual arts classes. Those discussions led her to the mural theme: “We rise together.” The words blend seamlessly into a geometric, maze-like design stretching the length of the building’s west façade. Lewis completed the piece between late August and early October of this year.
Boasting a vibrant orange and purple background, the artwork has quickly become an eye-catching presence on Penn Avenue. Lewis dedicated the mural to the students of the Barack Obama Academy, as well as the local artists and activists she engaged with throughout the process.
According to a Pittsburgh City Paper article, Lewis stated: “This wall has a complex history, and I am very grateful that the mural helped reestablish a dialogue between Duolingo and the community.”
Local filmmaker Chris Ivey documented the residency and community engagement process in a new short film [We Rise Together]. In concert with the unveiling of the new mural, Duolingo also recently announced its $150,000 commitment to creating public artwork in Pittsburgh by supporting local artists and arts organizations; monies will be used to fund several public art projects in Pittsburgh over the next three years.
Local artists Natiq Jalil and Alison Zapata are the first two recipients of grants from the program. Their selection brings the project full circle, as Zapata assisted Monahan with the creation of “Lend Me Your Ears.”
“We recognize how our removal of the ‘Lend Me Your Ears’ mural deeply affected many people in East Liberty. The mural’s removal was unavoidable, but we understand that we have a role in its removal,” Tronsor said, “and the creation of the Duolingo Community Arts Commitment was partly inspired by a desire to do something about just that.”
An open call for arts-oriented grant applications is scheduled for launch next spring. In the meantime, Duolingo is fielding a wide range of responses to the building’s new “skin.”
“What we’ve seen people respond most positively to is the story of the work’s creation,” Tronsor explained. “Lewis arrived at a simple, direct, three-word statement that should give us all pause when thinking about our own community—and our responsibilities toward one another: ‘We rise together’.”