Open the door to 5405 Broad Street and you’ll feel a lot like you’ve wandered into Pee Wee’s Play House. That is of course if you replace all of the talking furniture with pieces of ongoing projects—lighting rigs, puppetry, video props, and art installations to name a few. Dave English actually made the comparison himself when I visited his home and studio space, The Schmutz Lodge, on June 26, 2011. In a way it’s the perfect vehicle for explaining what Dave English and Don Orkoskey do: create a space where creativity, education, and innovation collide.

The Schmutz Lodge is nestled into a line of mill-era row houses a block away from the Penn Avenue Arts District in Garfield. It serves as home base for The Schmutz Company—a collaborative arts organization that does everything from teaching children animation to performing live puppet shows.

It’s hard to believe that when the Schmutz duo first met they were working as mortgage processors. Luckily cubicles are notoriously ineffective structures for containing artists. Don and Dave broke free and decided instead to focus on their respective crafts of photography and puppetry. A few years after their escape, they found themselves at Dave’s place constructing creatures from wire, wine corks, and other flotsam of which they then took a sequence of photos. This was the first day of animation for the Schmutz Company.

Since then, The Schmutz Company has taken on many projects, including Papermation. Made possible through a partnership with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Spark-funded Papermation teaches children (and adults) how to create animations using stop-motion photography. When asked if they were ever surprised by the children’s abilities or the type of work they created, Dave replied,

“Surprised might not be the right word but impressed definitely. Of course we’ve worked with kids who are skilled beyond their years as fine artists, as storytellers, or as group leaders but we’ve come to expect profound content. Kids have an uninhibited threshold for creativity that many adults lose once they start paying taxes. If somebody surprised us it would have been a Russian three year old who told the story of a rocket kissing a fish. Or maybe the girl who turned a charcoal animation into a statement on eminent domain.”

Papermation workshops have been hosted by the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, the Warhol Museum, the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and various other venues throughout the region. The nomadic ability of the project allows for a much wider audience than do static installations. Don pointed out that although Pittsburgh residents may live within driving distance of cultural districts and events, they don’t always view these resources as accessible. Projects like Papermation aim to change that, and in doing so to provide a valuable learning opportunity to area children.

“We want them to retain three main lessons. We want them to appreciate the sense of teamwork that comes from working on a group project with people who they may not know or who may be very different from them. We want them to recognize the simplicity of the process we use to make our animations. We want them to learn how to tell collaborative improvisational stories.”

In addition to their work on Papermation, the Schmutz duo is also at work establishing a new artist residency. Located right next door to the Schmutz Lounge, come July 1st, the Garfield Bridge will be inhabited by its founding resident artists painter/educator Paul O’Brien and musician/singer Autumn Ayers. The Schmutz team describe their vision of the residency:

“The residency will house two artists of different disciplines whose coexistence and cross-pollination will shape the work they produce. The residency’s goal is to put artists in the role of well-supported community organizer supporting cultural growth and community interaction that will be relevant to the neighbors. (…)The work they create will overlap their artistic goals with the interests of the existing residents. The first few months of work will focus on improving the property at 5407 Broad, developing interpersonal connections in the neighborhood, fundraising, and grant proposals.”

They plan to host an opening event in the fall of 2011.

Talk to Dave and Don long enough and you’ll hear one word again and again—community. The two are clearly invested in the region and in using their projects as tools for strengthening communal connections and making Pittsburgh a better place. The Schmutz Lodge is a perfect example of the transformative power of art and this metamorphosis doesn’t end on Broad Street. Thanks to Papermation and the work being done by the Schmutz company, artistic innovation is alive and well in Pittsburgh.

Photography by Jessica Pachuta. See more photos from The Schmutz Lodge.

For more information visit The Schmutz Company website.