A few months ago, the image of a woman sitting on a bed reading to passers-by in Market Square turned up in my Twitter feed. The woman was reading selections from “All About Love,” a book of essays by bell hooks, the influential African-American essayist and feminist who died last year.

To anyone over 55, the bed-in was immediately reminiscent of the one staged by John Lennon and Yoko Ono decades ago in a hotel room in Amsterdam to protest the Vietnam War.

For the artist, Tara Fay Coleman, who was processing a bad breakup at the time, it was an opportunity to “explore what love looked like” and “to give love to other people in a way that was healing and redemptive.”

She was especially eager to “share a space” with people she doesn’t typically interact with in the arts community. So reading essays about what it means to love aloud to passing strangers and those who stopped to listen to her, including the unhoused and those dealing with mental health issues, appeared to be a mutually beneficial strategy. Staging it in a gallery space would’ve limited the intimacy and been too impersonal.

Tara Fay Coleman
Tara Fay Coleman. Photo courtesy of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh.

The name on the artist’s Twitter handle felt like a masterstroke in itself: “Taravaggio.” I instantly decided that anyone clever enough to make a pun out of the name of a notorious, but beloved Renaissance painter like Caravaggio was someone worth following on social media.

“I think he’s an interesting figure and I like his work, so it seemed like a cool Instagram handle,” the 35-year-old conceptual artist and independent curator says, explaining the origin of the name.

Coleman had posted an image of Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” on Instagram when one of her followers dubbed her “Taravaggio” in response. Coleman liked the synthesis of the names enough to appropriate it.

While Coleman’s sense of humor is evident on social media, including her often cryptic, but entertaining tweets, the work she performs in galleries never fails to challenge the narratives the status quo prefers to paint of what it means to be a Black woman in America in general and Pittsburgh in particular.

Tara Fay Coleman
Photo courtesy of Tara Fay Coleman.

One piece she performed in the spring was a response to the University of Pittsburgh’s 2019 report about how inhospitable Western Pennsylvania can be to the hopes, dreams and lives of Black women.

In the piece, Coleman alternately kneels and sits while balancing a steel bar representing regional challenges for Black women on her neck and shoulders. In her vulnerability, she is like a modern-day Atlas struggling under the weight of the sky.

Asked to explain her piece, Coleman is the opposite of the tongue-tied artist too reluctant to spell out the logic behind her work.

“I get a lot of criticism around my work being rooted in trauma,” she says. “I think that’s really reductive when you consider the fact I make work about a lot of Black women’s experiences. A lot of it is rooted in trauma, but that happens to be my lived experience. I also make work around having grown up in poverty and how that impacts me as an adult woman raising two kids.”

Coleman grew up in Buffalo but moved to Millvale with her family when she was in high school and graduated from Shaler Area High School. During her years in Pittsburgh, she has also lived in Lawrenceville, Troy Hill, Perrysville and for the last few years, Bloomfield.

Instead of making a beeline to Manhattan, as had been her original plan upon turning 18, a relationship with her high school sweetheart kept her in her adopted city. She studied fashion and retail management at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh but commuted to NYC often to keep in touch with the zeitgeist.

Today, the performance artist maintains a high profile on the local art scene thanks to social media and the cooperation of quality galleries and art associations around town. She also works for The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, so she is paying the bills with work aligned with her spirit.

But like all artists, Tara Fay Coleman is eager to get to that next level of expression where her work, always challenging and idiosyncratic, yet truthful and compelling, more than pays for itself.

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.