“Ix Chel’s Dream” Collaboration with Chris Soria

Photo by @slimjim72
Photo by @slimjim72

This month I had the pleasure of collaborating on a mural with an artist I’ve admired for a long time, my friend Chris Soria. As our approaches have a lot in common, especially our love of layering and patterns, we chose to fully integrate our two styles into one cohesive mural instead of simply dividing the wall into two sections. The location was on Harman Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Our piece is the latest to be organized by Spread Art NYC, an initiative led by the Arabic calligraphy street artist and tattooist, Rocko, who has a community-oriented approach to his projects. Many of the murals in the area feature Puerto Rican icons in reference to the local culture. Chris and I spent time considering many potential themes for our mural, but ended up creating a design inspired by the story of Ix Chel, the Mayan goddess who was killed for having a relationship with the Sun God, but was then awoken from death by hundreds of dragonflies. We liked the fact that the story featured a strong female character, as most of the nearby artwork was male-dominated. We also recognized that the Latino population in Bushwick are from many nations, not just Puerto Rico. As various Mayan peoples dominate southern Mexico and much of Central America, it is fitting to have a mural inspired by a Mayan story. As we painted, we were welcomed by the residents, who even brought us cold drinks and sweets. Thanks to everyone on Harman Street and to Spread Art NYC!

Holy Cow! New Mural in Staten Island

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When Maria, the owner of Fab Cup Coffee Shop in Staten Island, commissioned me to paint a mural on the large outdoor wall of her establishment, her only request was that it should feature cows. Maria is from Russia, where the rural Siberian scenery she was immersed in growing up always included cattle, leading to a life-long fascination with these animals that give her nostalgia for her homeland. She and her Cuban-Brooklynite husband, Juan, ended up settling in Staten Island, where they have a new baby and a new business: Fab Cup! All that was missing was some artwork for that big blank wall facing a major commercial corridor.

IMG_0692I admit that at first I wondered to myself, what’s so special about cows that will provide me inspiration for an entire mural? But after a little research, I realized that these are truly significant animals to human history and cultures around the world. From the famous holy cows of India to the Mother of the Sun in ancient Egypt- portrayed as a cow- humans have always found inspiration in these creatures. Due to their milk-producing nature and vital role in farming, many peoples consider cows to be symbols of fertility, Mother Earth, and renewal. I found many interesting photos of cattle to use as references, from the milk cows we are accustomed to seeing in rural America to the long-horned (and very hairy) highland cattle of Scotland; and of course I had to include the cow’s male counterpart, the bull, an animal similarly steeped in symbolism. Thanks to Maria, Juan and the whole Fab Cup crew for the warm hospitality (and excellent coffee and sandwiches) during my four days of painting!

Artistic Noise: Art with Youth in the Justice System

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An explosion of creativity in our workshop!

An explosion of creativity in our workshop!

This year, I have been leading arts-based workshops with youth involved in the justice system. Through the organization Artistic Noise, I worked with teens in Brooklyn and Harlem who have recently been in trouble with the law, engaging them in creative activities and the life experience of creating art to be exhibited publicly. Together we had discussions and presentations, went on field trips, made stencils and collages, explored abstract expressionism, painted a mural, made custom T-shirts and learned painting and aerosol techniques. For one project in Brooklyn, the students created self portraits on canvas in which they spray painted their stencils over their own abstract backgrounds. In a second project, we had discussions about what positive achievement each of them would like to one day be known for. This was a question many had not previously considered, assuming that they could only be in the media for negative actions. They glued newspaper collages onto canvas, spray painted their own images on top and then created headlines that they dreamed they would one day see: achievements in the fields of medicine, sports, science and entertainment.

In one workshop in Harlem, the participants came up with a concept for a collaborative mural: the face of a young man would be full of thoughts, with one side featuring people’s negative judgements of them that they struggle against, and the other side including positive statements of self-affirmation that they wished others could know about them. We discussed the racism and stereotypes that these youth face on a daily basis, which they said leads them to feel that society views them as being criminals, drug addicts, uneducated, lazy and uncaring. They expressed that they wanted people to know who they truly are; young men and women with a strong desire to be positive members of their communities and succeed in their educational and career pursuits. We spent weeks working on the mural together, putting all these ideas into it.

A stencil piece by the student who is now facing a murder charge.

A stencil piece by the student who is now facing a murder charge.

 

Of course, things didn’t always go smoothly, as there are challenges working with this population. The worst moment came when one participant, who had been doing quite well and was seemingly headed in a positive direction, was arrested for murder. He was well- liked by the group, who were understandably upset by the news. He is still in Rikers awaiting trial. However, the rewards of this work far outweigh the difficulties, as I believe it is this population that most needs positive adults in their lives and creative activities to direct their energies toward. I enjoyed working in partnership with two licensed art therapists, who made sure that each workshop included therapeutic elements. It is amazing to see kids open up about their lives while making art in a way that they may not have been comfortable doing in a traditional therapist’s office. One 17-year old boy disclosed that he was stressed because he his girlfriend was pregnant, exactly the situation I had found myself in at his age. I was glad to be able to share my story with him and let him know that while being a parent is especially challenging at that age, it can also be an amazing experience and one that does not need to disrupt one’s life dreams.

IMG_0658After four months, we headed to the annual Artistic Noise exhibition in Harlem, in which works of art by dozens of court-involved young people were displayed for the public to experience. My participants were blown away; there on the walls were their creative expressions, exhibited professionally with a crowd of people from all walks of life admiring them! Many of the pieces were sold, to the delight of the young artists. What an experience for a teenager to have! Even better, some of the organization’s most dedicated participants had paid jobs in which they curated the show and created artwork, learning many skills along the way.

I am currently planning future arts-based projects with youth and adults in the court system, including those who are currently incarcerated, as I believe our justice system is broken and fundamentally unjust. Through the arts and advocacy, these issues must be brought to the light and humanized in order for us to have a long-overdue societal dialogue.

Palestinian- Israeli Art & Dialogue

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IMG_0674I recently got back from the ancient land of Israel/ Palestine, where diverse peoples claim the same tiny slice of our planet and have been unable to resolve their conflict to this day. While politicians fail to find solutions year after year, ordinary Jews and Arabs generally live separate lives and fear one another, even when they live close together. While some believe these two groups cannot coexist peacefully, a brief glance at history shows otherwise. Jews were an integral part of Muslim societies across the Middle East and Northern Africa for centuries, and for most of that time the two lived in peace as neighbors; much more so, in fact, than either group experienced with Christian Europeans. Over half of the Jews in Israel today are descendants of these communities and it was sometimes impossible for me to distinguish between them and Arabs, as they share both physical characteristics and cultural heritage. While the current political climate does not bode well for a resolution of the conflict in the near future, many ordinary people are organizing grassroots initiatives to end the cycle of violence, hate and fear.

IMG_0539Taking inspiration from such initiatives, I partnered with fellow US-based artist and educator Max Frieder and his Artolution initiative to facilitate a series of community-based mural projects with Arab and Jewish young people, many of whom had few opportunities to interact. With support from the US embassy and consulate, we visited communities across Israel and the West Bank to meet people and learn about this fascinating but complex region. We collaborated with local organizations and schools to lead workshops with youth in which we would explore issues important to their lives and the value of bringing together diverse peoples. The students were introduced to the murals of other young people around the world who had participated in similar projects, which was an inspiration to them. Excited, they came up with dozens of ideas for their own mural. As a collective group of Jews and Arabs, they worked together to organize all their ideas into one cohesive mural design, and then painted it as a team.

IMG_0806One of the groups came up with the image of a boat floating on a sea. Out of the boat grew a tree with branches that became human figures. They wanted to send a message that despite their differences they all had the same roots, and that they were all on the same boat together. Another mural in Jerusalem told a story of the journey from disunity and conflict to peaceful coexistence, reflecting their desire to make this journey a reality in their region. While these values may sound obvious to outsiders, it is highly controversial in the Middle East. The school where we worked in Jerusalem, Hand in Hand, is the rare example of an institution where both Arabs and Jews study together. It recently suffered a vicious arson attack carried out by Jewish extremists, illustrating how intensely some elements in society oppose coexistence. The mural we created there was then installed on the outside area of the US Consulate, where people of all backgrounds must wait together in long lines together when applying for visas.

IMG_0528As we worked together, I was struck more by what united our two groups than what separated them. They were both teenagers after all, laughing nervously when around the opposite sex, singing along to the same pop songs and, at the end of one day of painting, they all broke out into a spontaneous dance party, with everyone dancing together to songs in Arabic and Hebrew. Of course, at the end of the project they would each return to their communities and things would not be so simple. After all, it is not easy to forgive when loved ones have been killed by members of the other side or a family’s ancestral home has been taken. But we hope that through many projects that bring the two communities together, there will slowly be an opening up, an understanding of the other’s perspective even if there is not agreement. I felt hopeful listening to many of our students’ words after these interactions; they noted that they had always been taught to fear the other, but that now they had made new friends and had a new perspective. Our goal going forward is to train local Israeli and Palestinian artists and educators to continue these public arts-based projects in order to bring new generations of youth together for dialogue, cooperation and friendship.

Brooklyn is the Future

I recently had the opportunity to paint two murals for Brooklyn is the Future events; one in Bushwick and the second, called “Writing on the Walls,” in Brownsville. Thanks to both of these communities who made me feel welcome; curator and artist (and Brownsville native) N Carlos J for inviting me; the event sponsors, Brooklyn Arts Council and Liquitex Paints; and to my partner in crime, CJ Thomas aka Karlinha das Pinturas!

Exhibition at the United Nations Headquarters!

DSC01389I was honored have photography that I took of my arts-based community work with Syrian youth exhibited at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. I have traveled to Jordan three times with the organization aptART to work in refugee camps and host communities. Partner organizations for these projects were ACTED, Mercy Corps and UNICEF. Thanks to the Jordanian mission at the UN for including my work in the exhibition and for inviting me to the opening reception, where I had the opportunity to meet the ambassadors of Jordan, Venezuela and the US and discuss my work with them.

The Warriors! East Harlem youth mural project

IMG_0510IMG_0134I spent an incredible two weeks at Innovation High School in East Harlem for their intensive enrichment program. I worked with students and staff to create a mural in the school that featured warriors from a variety of cultures around the world, both male and female, in reference to the school’s mascot. We studied public art, went on field trips to see murals and museums all around NYC, created stencils, made T shirts, and visited legendary graffiti artist Angel Ortiz (LA2) in his studio. Thanks to everyone who participated and to the school for inviting me!