You can play ‘the floor is lava’ on Pittsburgh’s Strawberry Way this summer

The artwork is about social justice and equity — not just games and selfies.

A sketch of the art coming to Strawberry Way

A sketch of the art coming to Strawberry Way

courtesy of Julie Mallis
MJ Slaby

Remember jumping from one couch to another in your parents’ basement playing “the floor is lava?”

Soon, Pittsburghers will be able to skip the couches and keep playing atop new art coming to Strawberry Way in Downtown this summer.

“I want a little kid to come to the alley and get so exited, and they want to run across it or dance across it,” said the artist Julie Mallis, of BOOM Concepts, a community organization for artists, musicians and entrepreneurs, and an education project manager for Bike Pittsburgh.

Mallis’ artwork — “Who eats the most fruit?” — will combine a favorite childhood game with images of local fruit and thought-provoking social justice questions.

Stretching on the surface of Strawberry Way from Grant Street to Liberty Avenue, the new artwork will replace the current artwork on the alley, which has been on view since 2016.

On Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Art Commission approved Mallis’ plans and work is expected to start in early summer, once the alley’s surface has been washed and prepped.

A sketch of "Who eat the most fruit?"
Courtesy of Julie Mallis

Mallis, 28, of Garfield, chose a selection of cool colors — purple, blue and green — to dominate the artwork intending to give it a dreamy feel and making sure it would stand out from the typical red, green and yellow of Downtown traffic lights and signs.

And inspired by the name Strawberry Way, Mallis chose locally grown fruits to appear in the negative space without color and plans to order them based on when they are in season — strawberries to cherries to peaches to grapes to watermelon to apples and pears.

It’s up to passersby and people using the space a pedestrian path to decide how they want to interact with it and play “the floor is lava,” they said — maybe they’ll jump from fruit to fruit, maybe they’ll try stick to the purple parts.

The art will also include two large questions —Who’s missing from your table?” and “Who gets to eat the most fruit?” — in the art.

The questions are philosophical and can be discussed with family and friends, or serve as a prompt for thinking while walking, they said. Mallis wondered about the stakeholders and who owned the space in the past.

It’s about social justice and equity, not just for selfies, they added.

The artwork is a joint $15,000 project from the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and the Office of Public Art, which is based within Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. In addition to the budget, PPG donated paint.

The current artwork was always intended to be temporary and last for two or three years, said Sallyann Kluz, director for the Office of Public Art. Here’s what it currently looks like:

Kluz added that paving was starting to deteriorate, causing new artwork to be selected this year instead of next.

Mallis was selected through an application process. Like the previous work, the new mural is expected to be in place for two to three years, Kluz said.

This is also Mallis’ first piece of public art, and they’re excited to use art to transform a public space. Plus, it’s art that’s free and accessible, they said.

“It’s not passive in a museum,” Mallis said, “and there’s a chance for interactivity.”