Randy Gilson found happiness in a garbage can.
It started with salvaging other people’s throwaways to transform into Christmas gifts for his siblings, then it evolved into cleaning up an old house and the drug-infested neighborhood it stood in.
What he created is Randyland, an iconic Pittsburgh landmark that attracts visitors from all over the world.
But the real icon is Gilson himself.
An eccentric folk artist, Gilson created a child-like art installation in his backyard and invited the world to experience it for free. A walk through his garden is a glimpse into his brain - an explosion of colors with subtle surprises. He added life and whimsy to everything there - walls, fences, sidewalks, and once-drab lawn ornaments, all reimagined into pieces of art.
“I’m very silly,” said Gilson, 64, on a recent afternoon, his eyes bright. He was in his workshop on the first floor of his home, wearing one of his signature paint-splattered shirt and pants, his graying hair in a ponytail.
Gilson’s personality is a cross between Willy Wonka and Robin Williams - part innocent dreamer and part theatrical ham. He’s silly, happy, irreverent, unconventional and a bit of a visionary.
Twenty-five years ago, he and his partner, David “Mac” McDermott, bought their house for $10,000 at a time when crime had a chokehold on this edge of the community.
“It was ugly there everywhere,” said Dante Harasz, Gilson’s friend and Randyland’s web developer. Gilson had an idea that his home - a former crack house - could infuse hope.
“If people liked what it looked like, they wouldn’t feel like they were living in a concrete jungle,” Harasz said.
As Gilson cleaned up his own home, he began to freshen up the neighborhood. Where a bench once stood among weeds, he cut the grass and added landscaping - over and over in hundreds of spaces throughout Pittsburgh’s Northside.
“Randy went into a building that was fairly ... well, it needed some love,” said Maggie Connor Pippi, president of the local neighborhood association, called the Mexican War Streets Society. Turning his home into an art expression was a crime deterrent, Gilson told her.
“He was making the statement that somebody cares here. Randy took it not just to caring about the building and not just the neighborhood, but caring about the people here, spreading this message of love and hope,” she said.
Gilson’s messages of love, hope and happiness embody his essence, his building and his art. He’s so well known for his exuberance that he was included in a 2015 documentary called “Pursuing Happiness: The search for the happiest people in America.”
If a Randy fan is lucky enough to meet him, he’ll pose in one of his painted jackets, positioning himself with a large grin and open arms as if he’s on the Broadway stage belting out a show tune.
He’s been on a happiness mission, of sorts, since he was young.
His childhood was the source of his greatest pain and, perhaps, his greatest inspiration..
“People used to call me scatterbrained. I was called retarded, scatterbrained, slow, stupid, dumb. ... But the thing is - think about it - they said that because I think so fast, so much,” he said, smiling. “The thing is that my struggles became my strengths.”
His abusive father, a minister, left his wife and children to start another relationship. His single mom raised six children alone with little money. She worked so much that his predominant memory is her standing at the kitchen sink, washing dishes. The thought of it brings him to tears.
“A lot of people called him stupid, but his mom never treated him differently,” said Diana Morgan, who works at Randyland.
Gilson flunked kindergarten and third grade, he said, because he has ADD, OCD and autism.
His mind moves through philosophies, advice and stories like he’s sprinting down three paths at once, explaining where happiness comes from (your heart) while finding an answer for others who may be struggling through the pandemic (set a goal each month in 2021) then pointing to a photo of his mother (she died of cancer).
As a kid, Gilson met an inventor who was considering new, more efficient ways of working and living, Morgan said. The man showed the boy a zipper that closed by moving down rather than up. It made an impression.
“As a 7- or 8-year-old kid, he thought, things don’t have to be the way that they are,” Morgan said. “He applied that to everything.”
That’s how garbage became gifts and lawn ornaments became canvases and how a $10,000 house on Pittsburgh’s then-seedy Northside became a piece of art.
He learned gardening at a young age, watching the tilling, planting and harvesting on farms his family visited in Western Pennsylvania. Those tasks kept his busy mind occupied.
He often uses the garden as a metaphor for living a sunnier life.
“You’re a seed in the garden,” Gilson said. “Don’t bring anything negative back to yourself. As you feed the seeds, what you feed is what they become - love, joy, happiness, understanding and, hopefully, God is in that fertilizer.”
While raised by ministers, Gilson isn’t a church-goer, but he is religious. His strong faith helped him endure the loss of McDermott, his partner of more than two decades. Mac was the introvert, the man behind the scenes at Randyland, while Gilson was the showman. Mac died of cancer two years ago, with Gilson at his side.
“He’s everywhere now,” Gilson said of his partner.
Retired from decades as a server in downtown Pittsburgh, Gilson lives on the second floor of the house and paints, sometimes painting the same objects over and over, a type of therapy. He’s considering how he might one day move out of the neighborhood but maintain Randyland for visitors.
Pippi can’t imagine her neighborhood without Randyland in it.
“I got just a little bit sad about thinking about a future that it doesn’t exist. It’s like asking me what it would feel like for me without my right arm,” she said.
Without a job, donations to Randyland pay Gilson’s bills, and contributions are low because the free art exhibit has had fewer visitors during the pandemic.
Diana Morgan and Dante Harasz work with Gilson to create options for him, to share his artwork beyond the Mexican War Streets neighborhood.
They work on Gilson’s ecommerce store together, and Harasz handles all the other technical work needed along with some carpentry and painting. Morgan does all of Randyland’s social media. An artist and author herself, Morgan has helped to paint some of Randyland, and she turns Gilson’s work into digital art that’s sold online.
Gilson, who doesn’t like to be called an artist, doesn’t sell any of his original work. All of it is a gift he creates for the public.
On one wall of his studio are rows of paintings, colorful faces on pieces of slate. He calls them “Thinkerers.” It’s a project he’s been working on for years, Morgan said. Like everything in Randyland, Gilson has a vision for it outside in his garden, out where joy grows like weeds.
He said: “Happiness is not outside (yourself). It’s actually the little baby things that make my day. I walk down the street and I see somebody ... maybe they’re sad, and you say, ‘Have a good day.’ You’re making someone’s day. It makes you feel good. It’s called karma.”