Attracting customers, the curious, and lovers of free wine and finger snacks alike– the art crawl is a beloved institution in almost every city in the world. For Jason Sauer, the driving force behind the wheel of Garfield’s Most Wanted Fine Art gallery and the Learn to Earn program, crawl doesn’t seem to be in his vocabulary.
Covered in tattoos and traveling in a van emblazoned in spray paint, Sauer is hard to miss. With his wife, Nina Gibbs, and his business partner, Jeff “Rockstar Jeff” Ault, they run Most Wanted Fine Art gallery on a stretch of Penn Avenue now peppered with townhouses, art galleries, and coffee shops. But if you look behind the street’s recently-gilded facade, you’ll see mixed neighborhoods of medium-low income housing. Garfield is still one of Pittsburgh’s rustier sections of town, rife with graffiti and pock marked with vacant homes. It’s a part of town people refer to as, “up and coming,” flanked by neighborhoods like Friendship and East Liberty.
Areas of Pittsburgh that are a bit under the radar are a source of inspiration for Sauer, who with his team regularly works to aesthetically change these places. His art and his community service often blend together in the form of structurally functional art installations that usually block vacant spaces between homes and contain a component for public seating. Combining his artistry, civic mindedness, and entrepreneurship, he’s built a team that functions not only to make Pittsburgh more beautiful, but safer, and more economically viable for some of the city’s most underserved populations.
When I met Sauer this winter, he was handing out free beer during a First Friday gallery crawl. I purchased a small piece of metal, emblazoned with Sauer’s insignia, pressed on pieces of the now defunct 2015 Pittsburgh Art Car. It had just made its way back from San Francisco after being destroyed by a giant, paint-slinging robot. We talked spray paint, demolition derbies, and I became intrigued with his work and the space he had developed for himself and colleagues. But here’s the thing… Sauer’s greatest contribution might have nothing to do with demolition cars or painting.
Inside his gallery, we sat between the 98’ Protege and 73’ Plymouth. Dismantled, the exterior pieces of the cars adorned two of the gallery’s walls, some pieces more smashed than others. These are the remains of former demolition derby cars, an obsession of Sauer’s that blends machinery, art, and high-impact driving. It’s also what he hopes will be the subject of his potential reality series, Build, Smash, Repeat.
If you talk to Sauer, he’ll immediately fill you in on his projects, and there’s a laundry list of them: art projects, hip-hop and rock concerts, screen-printing classes, he’s even talking about a TV show. But after listening, what caught my interest is his work with recently released prisoners and juvenile detainees. In them, he saw an opportunity for a large number of Pittsburghers coming out of incarceration and for the underdeveloped neighborhoods of his local communities. “I noticed two things,” said Sauer. “Number one: these guys were coming out owing a lot of community service and two: I was living in a neighborhood [Homewood] that required a lot of community service which most of these dudes were also coming from.” In an effort to clean up neighborhoods and find work for these young men, they started the Learn To Earn Program.
Sauer’s program works like this: through Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Sauer has secured a grant funding minimum wage and bus fare to compensate reformed offenders while coming to poor communities and doing work that also counts towards often large amounts of community service hours. If someone joins Sauer’s program, they’ll be pushed in an entrepreneurial direction and taught a field where an entry-level business owner can begin, maintain, and grow a successful company. They’re taught things like landscaping, HVAC repair, plumbing, or general construction and contracting skills. As his reputation spreads through Pittsburgh neighborhoods, more people are showing up for the program. “They find their way to me,” he said. Through “an underground pipeline of judges, POs, cousins, grandmas– they know about my program,” according to Sauer. After 180 hours (nine weeks and 20 hours), if they don’t have a job or start their own company, Sauer hires them. In 2016, a new option offered by the program will give participants a chance to also build equity in a Garfield property. “Really we’re a community service center. We’re just disguised as an art gallery,” Sauer said. What started as a small landscaping program with 11 yards in Homewood eventually became the Green and Screen program (a similar, community service-based project), and then eventually evolved into the Learn To Earn program.
Moving forward, Sauer hopes to do even more for the communities who seek out his help.”I’ve been with Jason from Most Wanted for eight, nine… over ten years now,” Keishon Martin said on a recent Youtube video uploaded to the Most Wanted channel. “He helped my brother out, helped him out, man… Jason helped me out, he got me on the right path. I can’t thank him enough. He helps people out, he’s a real community dude. He comes out, cleans up the streets, talks to the neighbors, he’s all around. Everybody knows him and everybody loves him,” Martin said. Through Learn To Earn, Sauer says Most Wanted Fine Art has already graduated 60 people and is moving toward their new model for community projects.
Fellow entrepreneurs also recognize the value of Sauer’s community building efforts. “He’s just really family-minded in how he brings people into the fold,” Tara Sherry-Torres said. Sherry-Torres, a member of the Board of Directors for the Pittsburgh Land Bank and founder of Pittsburgh’s Cafe con Leche, is also a collaborator of Sauer’s. “He has an, ‘if I win, we all win and I’m bringing everyone with me,’ mentality. It’s a great way to lift people up and elevate his own platform at the same time. Oftentimes those things don’t happen and people who are successful leave people behind,” Sherry-Torres said. The two will work together this year to bring eleven artists into the Most Wanted gallery for residencies as part of a project to promote Latino culture in Pittsburgh.
Louder than the long-coming clamors of praise for his work, the roar of the derby is again calling to Jason Sauer. Somehow between painting metal, fixing communities, promoting art, and generally being the coolest guy in the neighborhood, he’s gearing up to take his show on the road and travel across country to smash this year’s project car in another demolition derby. Considering the four-wheeled medium, the artwork itself is sort-of-amusingly cyclical: the smash will then lead to the repeat, and, for Sauer, this violent struggle and reaffirmed sense of purpose become as equally vital as the build.