People around the world have contributed $17,000 — well above the $10,000 goal — to send Pittsburgh artist Randy Gilson and his partner, Mac, who has terminal cancer, on their dream vacation. The two want to see the Grand Canyon and walk along a California beach together before Mac succumbs to the disease.
The couple created Randyland, a colorful three-story house covered in murals and eclectic folk art that has become a popular Pittsburgh landmark. Gilson said most people don’t realize he and Mac built it together. The couple have been with each other for 23 years.
“We were newly lovers and all of a sudden in ’95 we got this giant building, and we came up every day and started gutting it out and cleaning it up and doing as much as we could,” Gilson said.
Gilson said many visitors don’t know the two men are a couple, despite the rainbow flag that hangs in the entrance. He said they first locked eyes at a festival in downtown Pittsburgh in 1994.
“He started smiling at me, and boy was he pretty,” Gilson recalled. The two men began dating and fell in love. After a year, Gilson convinced Mac to help him build Randyland, which he said is now one of the most painted houses in the world. By the time they purchased the 100-year-old house — built long before Pittsburgh’s steel industry collapsed in the early 1980s — it had become just another eyesore on a street overtaken by gangs, according to the painter.
“I saw it had been kicked in and used for drugs and squatters. So I took my flashlight and went to the building and thought, ‘Oh, if I could buy this building, I would give it back … So I thought, ‘God, if you give me this building, I’ll give it back better than it is,’” Gilson said.
The artist purchased the house on a credit card for $10,000, which he paid off by waiting tables at a local hotel for 30 years. After he and Mac gutted and cleaned the property, they bought thousands of gallons of discounted “oops paint,” custom paint that fickle costumers decide not to buy. Gilson got to work painting murals of dancing silhouettes, butterflies, dinosaurs and other whimsical images along the 40-foot-high walls. He repurposed old junk into colorful pieces of art that overflow its courtyard.
“It is one piece of art in itself,” he explained. “It’s a giant puzzle, is what it is.”
The 60-year-old, who has lived in Pittsburgh his entire life, keeps the property open to the public for free. It can get hundreds of visitors a day, he said. Art students eager to meet him are ushered in on buses, while local residents peek in after eating at nearby restaurants. He said many visitors are tourists who heard about the landmark by word of mouth.
“I hate being famous, but I am,” said Gilson, who is often spotted wandering his property in a paint-spattered shirt and jeans. Gilson said he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which he said causes him to be passionate. He frequently stops mid-sentence to greet visitors.
“I want you to know I love you! I don’t know you, but I love all of you!” he exclaimed to one group as they entered the property.
Mac, too, can often be found in Randyland’s courtyard, but he is shy and tells visitors he’s “just the gardener,” according to Gilson.
“There are people all over the world, they love me so much, [but] a lot of them don’t know Mac, because Mac has always been the quiet one on the back burner,” Gilson explained.
Mac was diagnosed with advanced cancer in 2016. Gilson was devastated to learn his longtime partner had only six months to live. He said their trip to the Grand Canyon and California will be their first and probably last vacation together.
“I will have to say goodbye,” Gilson said, his voice breaking. “It’s going to break my heart. It’s probably going to be one of the worst days of my life. It’s going to be a happy day, but the worst day.”
Gilson said he could sell his house for at least a million dollars, but wants to follow through on his dream to turn it into a nonprofit museum.
“If I sold Randyland I could be very wealthy,” he said. “I could live in a nice house, and live happy ever after. But my goal is not to live like that. I just want Randyland to be gifted to the people of Pittsburgh.”
Gilson said he plans to hang pictures of himself and Mac together throughout the property so people know they are a couple.
“I’m a guy who was kind of afraid to come out and say I was gay, because I didn’t know the people coming into my yard,” Gilson said.
“Now it’s time for me to say it is a gay man that actually built this,” he concluded.