Interview #9: Sonja Sweterlitsch

Sonja Sweterlitsch stands inside the front window at 709 Penn Gallery.

And… we’re back!

I had a fabulous holiday, and I am more excited than ever to continue to meet and interview yinzpirational Pittsburghers in 2011. So, let’s get started.

Meet Sonja Sweterlitsch!

When Sonja was nominated for an interview on Yinzpiration, I knew right away that I must meet her. Why? Because these paintings took my breath away…

Are you yinzpired yet?!

Oh and guess what. The women in these paintings—Heather Hackett, Tara Gainfort and Angela Seals—all live in Pittsburgh. Such beauties, no?

I had a wonderful time meeting with Sonja at Crazy Mocha downtown. She’s super friendly and sweet. I loved hearing about her life in Greenfield and her experience working in Pittsburgh’s art community. Can you believe she coordinates 300+ artists for the Three River’s Artist Market we all know and love? I admire that she has truly made a career in art; something that most are told is nearly impossible.

Her work is represented by Box Heart Gallery in Bloomfield, which I have never been to but now I know I must visit! I have always liked their signage…

After we finished our drinks, we took a secret alleyway (well, it felt like a secret to me!) to 709 Penn Gallery, where she serves as the curator. I had visited 709 before during a gallery crawl, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Sonja told me about an upcoming installation by Jill Larson, called After the sky has fallen. In this exhibition, Jill Larson reveals her grueling divorce process and subsequent re-emergence and re-invention. Doesn’t that sound interesting? I hear a giant cocoon is involved…

Details below:

After the sky has fallen
January 14 – February 20, 2011
Artist reception on Friday, January 14
709 Penn Gallery
Downtown Pittsburgh Cultural District

Enjoy learning more about Sonja below, and don’t forget to check out her blog and website!

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Name: Sonja Sweterlitsch

Job titles: Artist; Community Arts Manager, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust; Artists Market Coordinator, Three Rivers Arts Festival

Website: www.sonjasweterlitsch.com

Blog: Visual Art: Work and Inspiration

Neighborhood you live in: Greenfield

Coffee Shop Drink of Choice: hot chocolate with whipped cream

Current Shampoo Preference: Aveeno – Nourish

Why do you choose Pittsburgh as your home?

I went to college at CMU, moved away to work at the Smithsonian, and then moved back because my boyfriend-now-husband, Tom, was in graduate school. We both fell in love with the city and decided to stay. After seeing many other places, it is still our favorite place to be and truly feels like home. We delight in all the wonderful things that make our city unique – the arts, the rivers, the cityscape, the food, the sports teams, and the friendly people.

Who do you spend your time with?

My husband, Tom. We also spend a lot of time with our close friends, many of whom live within just a few blocks from us in Greenfield.

What are your favorite aspects of your job?

I love working with so many artists. I get to work with 500+ artists a year through coordinating the Artists Market for the Three Rivers Arts Festival, gallery exhibits, the visual art for First Night, and studio art classes and workshops. It’s very inspiring to get to know the artists and their work.

Curating 709 Penn Gallery in the Cultural District is one of my favorite things I get to do in my job at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, showcasing the talents of local artists whose work I admire so much. I work with an amazing team who operates the gallery day to day and helps with the installation of the exhibits. Many of them are artists themselves. They keep the gallery running smoothly. It’s very stimulating to work with such creative people, and to work for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust – an organization which has such a positive impact on our city, through the arts and our downtown.

The Three Rivers Arts Festival has also been my favorite event in Pittsburgh since I moved here during college, and it’s a thrill to get to help create that experience for the hundreds of thousands of people who come to the festival each year.

Those are my favorite aspects of my day-job. I will also tell you my favorite aspect of being a painter of portraits. That is very simple: I love celebrating the beauty I see in other people.

Do you have a soul food?

Waffles with whipped cream and strawberries on top.

What are some of your recent personal goals?

I’ve been lagging behind with social media. Maybe I’ll join Facebook. Maybe I won’t though. Also, I hope to be a super mom in 2011

What are your favorite Pittsburgh restaurants?

My favorite places to eat are Coca Cafe, Rialto’s, Spice Island Tea House, Taste of India, Hough’s, Bangkok Balcony, Smallman Street Deli in Squirrel Hill, Pamela’s, La Feria, Enrico’s in the Strip, Dozen, Piper’s Pub, Dave and Andy’s ice cream, Crepes Parisiennes, and Mad Mex (any location). We are regulars at all these places. Seriously. I hate doing dishes.

Describe your ideal day.

Aside from Publisher’s Clearing House knocking on my door with one of those really giant checks, my ideal day is an ordinary Saturday. I sleep in really late, eat brunch with Tom, paint all day, and then hang out with friends late into the night.

What is the most memorable live show you have seen in Pittsburgh?
Neko Case at the Byham Theater. She is a siren. Also Gillian Welch at the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

What do you think Pittsburgh will be like in ten years?

I wish the city and the people who live here great success over the next 10 years… but I hope that Pittsburgh isn’t too very different than the way it is right now.

What do you love most about the city?

I love how Pittsburgh is unpretentious, and how no matter where you are, when you meet someone else from Pittsburgh, there is an instant near-familial bond with them. It’s the real Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

 

When was the last time you connected with someone new?

connected with someone

Photo by Mandy Jay Photography

About Yinzpiration
Inspired by the positive energy of the Steel City and a presentation by Nicole Crimaldi, I’ve set a goal to interview 100 Pittsburghers.

Nicole challenged our class at PodCamp Pittsburgh 5 to have coffee with someone new every week.

So, I decided to start an interview blog, and Yinzpiration.com was born (thanks to the help of Nik, my web developer husband). I hope you return to read what I have learned over the next 100 cups of coffee… or tea, my drink of choice.

About Kate
I thought it was only fair to introduce myself Yinzpiration style after asking so many others to do the same. I hope you enjoy!

(If you’re looking for a more formal third person bio, scroll past the Q&A.)

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Name: Kate Stoltzfus (pronounced stoltz-foose)

Job title: Editor/founder of Yinzpiration.com, CreativeMornings/Pittsburgh host, co-pilot at Propelle, and digital strategist at Plumb media.

Twitter: @katestoltzfus, @yinzpiration

Blog: Yinzpiration

Neighborhood you live in: The ever vibrant and energetic Garfield!

Coffee Shop Drink of Choice: Hot chamomile tea (cold day) iced hibiscus tea (hot day)

Current Shampoo Preference: My latest was purchased purely because of the packaging. It’s rectangular bottle and covered in a bright flower print.

Why do you choose Pittsburgh as your home?

Well if you haven’t already gathered from the content of this blog, it’s Pittsburgh’s people that have me falling in love with our city over and over again.

In my own experience, I’ve discovered that Pittsburgh is the perfect place to be a young, imperfect dreamer.

I moved here the day after graduating college, and the only thing I knew about the city was that there are lots of bridges and that my then boyfriend (now husband) Nik resided in a neighborhood called Squirrel Hill.

I soon got my very first job, spent a year as a PULSE fellow, quit my job, fell into a depression (aka Mac ‘n Cheese syndrome), broke through depression, got hitched, began to write, bought and renovated a building, failed hard and often, celebrated many victories, embarrassed myself, surprised myself, disappointed myself, and delighted myself.

Pittsburgh was with me through thick and thin. We’ve cultivated quite a relationship over the years. I love this city and I feel my roots here growing deeper and stronger.

I’ve got 57 reasons for living in the ‘Burgh and they’re just scratching the surface. I’m reminded daily how lucky we are.

Who do you spend your time with?

My dapper husband, Nik, our cat, Sgt. Pepper, amazing friends, co-workers, neighbors, and clients.

What are your favorite aspects of your job?

  • Yinzpiration: I get to meet the most amazing people every single day. Hear their stories, share some of mine, learn how we can help each other and repeat. Then I get to share them with the world!
  • Propelle: The women entrepreneurs that attend our our networking events and workshops are incredible.
  • CreativeMornings: witnessing the postitivity that happens when people take the time out of their week to share new ideas and inspiration.

Do you have a soul food?

Soft-boiled egg with toast. My mom taught me (and her grandmother taught her) to break the toast into pieces in a bowl and then place the soft boiled egg on top. Cut it into quarters with your fork and mix together. Add salt and pepper and you’ll have one delicious breakfast.

What are some of your recent personal goals?

  • Do something that terrifies me every day.
  • Take a cross-country road trip. (Completed this one in 2012!)
  • Host more dinner parties. (I love pairing friends who don’t know each other all that well.)
  • Write a book.

What are your favorite Pittsburgh restaurants?

  1. Lunch: People’s Indian Buffet. My favorite dishes are the vegetable korma and palak paneer.
  2. Happy Hour: Harris Grill (You can’t beat the patio on a perfect summer evening) + Verde (love the chips and guacamole!)
  3. Fancy Pants: Salt of the Earth. Sitting at the bar watching the chefs work their magic is my favorite thing!

Describe your ideal day.

  • Wake up early and naturally.
  • 3 mile run, with hi-fives and bands playing along the way.
  • Receive a 90 minute massage in my home.
  • Brunch at a friends house including several courses and mimosas. We’ll laugh until it hurts at least 3 times.
  • Meet one new person who is doing something awesome in Pittsburgh and beyond.
  • Write something that inspires and helps at least one other person.
  • Buy and wear a new red dress.
  • Receive a hand-written note.
  • Take a sunset boat ride around downtown Pittsburgh, with champagne, personal chef, and on-board karaoke.
  • We see at least 3 shooting stars.
  • At the end of the night: fireworks. Lots of fireworks.

What is the most memorable live show you have seen in Pittsburgh?

My Morning Jacket, summer 2010. The lights, the beautiful weather, all the dance dance dancing. Unforgettable.

What do you think Pittsburgh will be like in ten years?

Beautiful. Thriving. Unstopable.

What do you love most about the city?

I love that Pittsburgh is full of people who care, help each other, and work hard to make our city an incredible place to live.

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Looking for a formal bio? Here’s some sweet third-person action just for you:

Kate Stoltzfus wants to live in a world where dinner parties outnumber meals in front of screens, handwritten notes are just as common as a tweet, and heartfelt conversations happen every day.

As the creator of Yinzpiration.com, an interview and connection adventure blog, she’s changing the way people think about meeting their neighbors and making new friends.

One reader described her insights as, “a pitch perfect blend of intuitive knowing, warm hospitality, and willingness to challenge.”

As a connection enthusiast, she’s been featured in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, WTAE-TV, and Pop City. She was recently honored as a 2013 40 Under 40 recipient from Pittsburgh Magazine.

In addition to her work with Yinzpiration, Kate is the co-founder of Propelle, a venture that helps women entrepreneurs take flight. She also serves as the host of CreativeMornings/Pittsburgh, a monthly breakfast lecture series.

When she’s not connecting up a storm, you can find her running in Highland Park, taking road trips with her husband Nik, and snuggling with her cat Sgt. Pepper.

Discover more about courageous connecting at yinzpiration.com.

***

10 things to love about Greenfield

People often call Greenfield a “suburb in the city”—not a flashy moniker, but it fits: the streets are crowded with houses, but the houses are roomy and most have full lawns, trees and a few even have backyard swimming pools. We’re a quiet neighborhood, residential. If you don’t know where Greenfield is, we’re the neighborhood that borders South Oakland, Squirrel Hill and Hazelwood, sloping steeply downhill along Greenfield Avenue until it terminates at the Monongahela (2nd Avenue).

Like most Pittsburgh neighborhoods, Greenfield was a mill neighborhood, with easy access to the mills in the South Side, Homestead and Hazelwood—the “Pittsburgh Toilet” is common in houses around here, a basement toilet and/or shower so the steel workers could clean up before heading upstairs. Many families from the Steel era still live in Greenfield, but like the rest of Pittsburgh, Greenfield has recently undergone a dramatic change, with an influx of graduate students and young professionals who’ve moved here for easy access to Oakland and Downtown.

10 things to love about Greenfield

My wife and I moved to Greenfield in 2008 after renting in Shadyside for several years and fell in love with the neighborhood. There are many things to love about Greenfield, but here are my top 10:

1. The views from the hills.

Driving, walking or biking through Greenfield can be exhilarating—one moment you’re threading narrow streets hoping not to hit the rearview mirrors of parked cars, or you’re negotiating uphill switchbacks, when unexpectedly, you turn a corner and the view opens dizzyingly, affording panoramic vistas of the Downtown skyline. Many Greenfield houses have elaborate back decks to capitalize on the views, and on clear nights you can even see the fireworks from the 4th of July!

2. McCarthy Sandwich at Szmidt’s

On Greenfield Avenue, in the shadow of St. Rosalia’s, is Szmidt’s Old World Deli. It’s in the same space that Elena’s used to be, a space that floundered as a short-lived coffee and convenience store until Szmidt’s moved in. Darrin Smith, the owner, makes everything from scratch, based on his grandma’s recipes: he prepares the meats, bakes the bread for the buns and makes his Pierogies by hand. The Pierogies are a must—either “old world” classics or “new world” flavors like Buffalo or Southwest style chicken.

My go-to here is the McCarthy “Szmidwich”—slow roasted Top Round, sautéed onions, mushrooms, peppers and provolone cheese with Horseradish Mayo. (And, mentioning the “McCarthy” lets me mention that Greenfield is the neighborhood of Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, raised in Pittsburgh and still a hometown presence through his charity work).

3. The Churches: St. Rosalia and St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church.

There are several churches in Greenfield, but these two need special mention:

St. Rosalia Catholic Church on Greenfield Avenue. This church centers the neighborhood with weekly Mass, Bingo nights, Lenten fish-fries, voting polls and social events throughout the year. It’s a dominating presence on the block, with a beautiful stained glass rose window and church bells that still chime throughout the neighborhood.

St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church on Saline Street. This church is not only important as the spiritual center for its worshippers, but also to the heritage of Pittsburgh and is crucial to the understanding of American culture as a whole. St. John Chrysostom is Andy Warhol’s boyhood church and it seems increasingly likely that Warhol, a lifelong Catholic, based his artistic imagery on the Iconography he learned here.

4. Pasta night at Big Jim’s in the Run

The “Run,” (actually Four Mile Run, named for a small watershed about four miles from the Point), is a section of Greenfield that’s almost its own neighborhood because of its isolation from the rest of the City. Heading down Greenfield Avenue, there’s a sharp right turn onto Saline Street that takes you into the shadow of the Parkway overpass—there are a few bars here (including Mike McCarthy’s family’s old bar), plenty of houses, St. John Chrysostom Church, and Big Jim’s in the Run.

Big Jim’s is a good place to take an out-of-towner for a crash course in old-school Pittsburgh—there ain’t nothing fancy here—and the best time to go is Monday for pasta night. For three bucks, you get a plate of spaghetti. The back dining room is always crowded, so come early.

10 things to love about Greenfield

5. The Festivals.

Greenfield has small, but nice, family-friendly festivals throughout the year, including the annual 4th of July footraces at Magee Field, the Hough’s summer block party and the St. Rosalia’s summer festival in June, but my favorite is the “Celebrate the Season” holiday parade.

This past year, my wife and daughter watched the parade through the large picture windows at Hough’s to stay warm while I stood outside with a group of friends. The parade had marching bands, politicians and the Pittsburgh puppets, but nothing tops when the hard-mouthed Santa Clause arrives riding on the back of a flatbed tow truck, throwing (not “tossing,” but throwing) hard candy at the crowd. Well, maybe one thing did top Santa this year: the full set of fireworks set off at Magee Field.

6. Sometimes the best thing about Greenfield is getting out of Greenfield.

Greenfield has two separate business districts, plenty of restaurants and even its own Giant Eagle, so you never have to leave, but one of the best reasons to live here is how easy it is to enjoy what the other neighborhoods have to offer. Like many newer people to Greenfield, my wife and I first learned about the neighborhood because we wanted to stay near familiar Shadyside or Squirrel Hill, but couldn’t afford to buy a house in either of those neighborhoods.

Greenfield, on the other hand, is very affordable, and once here we realized how easy it is to still walk to Forbes and Murray to catch a movie at the Manor, or walk to Oakland to see Phipps or the Carnegie Museum of Art, or along the Eliza Furnace Trail to the South Side Works and Carson Street. The Waterfront is a short drive away and the entrance to the Parkway is here as well. Commuters downtown can take the 58 bus along 2nd Avenue and commuters to the universities can take the same bus in the opposite direction through Oakland (that is, until the transit cuts come through, when Greenfield might lost its bus service entirely).

7. The green fields:

Greenfield really is green. As I mentioned earlier, most houses here have full lawns and trees, but we’re also a short walk away from Schenley Park where you can hike up to the overlook or through the woodland trails.

The Eliza Furnace trail is in Greenfield taking you to the South Side, as is the Junction Hollow Trail that will lead you eventually to Panther Hollow Lake. Baseball is legendary in Greenfield, with Bud Hammer playground and fields and also Magee Field, which is really almost a stadium, and a great place to take in a game. Greenfield also has one of the city’s major cemeteries, Cavalry, a quiet space for somber reflection.

8. The Giant at Rialto Pizza

The Giant is…absurd. They say you should measure your front door before you order this thing because it might not fit. And that’s true. The first time we ordered the Giant, we had to walk it because it didn’t fit in my buddy’s car—and it didn’t fit through the front door once we got it home; we had to, sort of, angle the box to get it inside!

Now, we’re better prepared and often eat the Giant at Rialto, which is a great pizza joint with flat screen TVs, plenty of tables, and delicious pizza and hoagies. I’ve tried many Pittsburgh pizza places, and have my favorites, but Rialto’s is right up there at the top.

9. Hough’s and the Copper Kettle Brewing Company

Boston may have Cheers, but Pittsburgh has Hough’s. If St. Rosalia’s is the spiritual and civic center of Greenfield, then Hough’s is the social center. This place is perfect—a clean, family-owned and operated, friendly bar and restaurant that offers a full menu, a full bar, over three hundred bottled beers and a huge selection of drafts.

Hough’s has the polished wood luster you’d hope for in a classic bar, but also has the number of flat screens you’d hope for in a contemporary bar. It’s comfortable, a great place to sit at the bar with your friends, to take a table with your family, or to watch the Steelers or Penguins around the massive projection screen.

You always see a friendly face here, whether because you run into people from the neighborhood, or because you see the owners’ parents, John and Barb, who will chat with you, hug you, give you a handshake. And, just recently, Hough’s got even better when they purchased the neighboring storefront, fixed it up and turned it into the Copper Kettle Brewing Company, a brew-your-own beer establishment.

10. The neighbors and friends:

I’m a transplant to Pittsburgh, having grown up in Ohio until I came to CMU for college. I stayed because I met Sonja here and we couldn’t bring ourselves to move away from the places that were so special to us. Most of the people I’d known from college were transplants too, and even though the group of us that stayed were getting to know and love the city as Pittsburghers, there was always a part of being a “Pittsburgher” that’s elusive to a transplant—the “if you’re a Pittsburgher, you’re family” feeling. One of our college friends bought a house in Greenfield, and once we were ready to buy we followed him to the neighborhood.

Moving from Shadyside, my wife and I had a solid group of friends, mostly people we knew from college and some new friends we’d made through our jobs, but once we came to Greenfield our number of close friends easily tripled—quintupled, maybe. Not only do you meet your immediate neighbors on snowy afternoons when we all come outside to shovel sidewalks and watch cars struggle up the hills, but there are so many great people who have moved to Greenfield over the past few years that living in the neighborhood can feel like an ongoing family party—movie nights, pizza nights, nights at Hough’s, the Greenfield Supper Club, Super Bowl parties, taking walks with friends, carpooling to Pirates games, watching fireworks from the hillside, meeting friends of friends and becoming friends with new people because of it. A lot of us are having kids, now, too, and thinking that our kids will grow up together is a good thought, a comforting thought.

Living in Greenfield, I get what it is to live in Pittsburgh—that you treat strangers like your friends, and your friends like your family.

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Thomas Carl Sweterlitsch lives in Greenfield with his wife, Sonja, and daughter, Genevieve. He writes science fiction and works as a “Reader’s Advisor” at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. You can follow him on Twitter, @LetterSwitch