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Michael Lotenero: A Contemporary Face of Pittsburgh

A third in a series by Buffalo transplant David Neimanis taking a deeper dive into PGH’s art community

“How did you end up in Pittsburgh?”

“Well, I went to college here, and I just ended up sticking around.”

This is a commonly heard exchange here in Pittsburgh, with an abundance of great universities, an affordable cost of living, and plenty to offer all within close quarters. This is something artist Michael Lotenero recognized early on when he graduated from The Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1988, and since then he’s had the chance to witness many changes in this city, especially in one of Pittsburgh’s longest standing industries; art.

Walking into Michael Lotenero’s Strip District studio is not only a powerful sensory experience, but a humbling one at that. The space contains more paintings and sculptures than one could ever imagine keeping track of, with some paintings towering well over our heads as we walk around the studio.

I would best describe the vibe of the studio as immaculate chaos. Canvas works in progress stretched across the floor (Lotenero’s preferred painting style), funky furniture, paintings stacked along the walls, sculptures serving as beautiful obstacles, paint brushes maintaining their moisture in repurposed espresso cans, all cued up to the psychedelic sounds of Tame Impala. While maintaining this chaotic freedom, there is also an element of fresh, thoughtful organization. There is a sense of a designer’s touch, and that’s truly part of who Michael Lotenero is – a designer.

Shortly after the collapse of Pittsburgh’s steel industry, Lotenero found himself graduating from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. At a time when many graduates fled to culturally dense cities, like New York, Lotenero and his two close friends, Rick Bach and David Zimmerly, saw an opportunity in the Pittsburgh art scene. Without wasting anytime, the three young, eager artists started up their own boutique design firm called 96 Eyes Design in addition to their cow punk band, The Cavemen from Oklahoma. After a successful run and development of new networks, the firm and group both disbanded in 1993. At this timeLotenero founded Michael Lotenero Art + Design, and this is when the small city’s opportunities really began to magnify.

Bakery Living Study and Lounge

In addition to freelance design, Loteneros’s works were soon being displayed in many museums and galleries, including the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, The Carnegie Museum of Art, and The Mattress Factory, something the artist believe would’ve been much less feasible in other cities.

DN: “How did a 23-year old with limited experience get their works in such well-established museums and galleries?”

ML: “It was just – stupidity. Calling people from the Warhol, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, the Carnegie, and asking,“Hey, do you want to come to my studio?” and 99% of the time they would say, “yeah.”  It was a matter of not knowing the rules and just asking people. It’s the whole thing about asking the universe what you want, and you’d be surprised – people are just petrified to ask.” 

DN: “Do you think you would’ve had opportunities like this in a city like New York or Los Angeles?”

ML: “Would never happen. You would have to know someone or be at the right party. It’s the nice thing about Pittsburgh – people answer the phone and respond to emails. People are really into supporting one another and making things happen. It’s awesome.”

Michael Lotenero has since gone on to have his paintings and sculptures displayed all over the world, and as a designer has worked with esteemed clients such as Nintendo, Sony Pictures and Panasonic, in addition to work published in TIME and The Wall Street Journal. Locally, Lotenero recently has displayed works for the main lobby interior collections at Bakery Living (shown above).

In 2016, Lotenero moved his studio out of Zerrer’s Antiques in the Strip District to a new studio space, right across the street that he can finally call his own. On a sunny weekend afternoon, you’ll likely see the garage doors open to the public, where you can journey through this creative paradise and meet the creator himself. If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind statement piece for your apartment that also supports a local artist, you’ve come to the right place.

Michael Lotenero Art + Design
2708 Penn Avenue, PGH, PA 15222



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