“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!

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!

Project Jericho: Peace-building with court-involved teens

Springfield, Ohio 2014: "Upward Through the Storm" mural art and poetry project with court-involved young people. Collaboration with Project Jericho.

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photo by Lauren Houser

Project Jericho, an organization that uses the arts to engage court-involved young people in central Ohio, invited me to facilitate the creation of a giant mural that featured the participation of 75 students, including teens recently released from juvenile detention, current inmates, those on probation and also children who are involved in the YMCA, where the mural was painted. The participants used poetry and painting to reflect on violence in their community and the importance of the youth taking a leadership role in the struggle to cultivate a peaceful and positive environment. This project was the culmination of months of workshops in which the Project Jericho teens participated in activities such as dance, drawing, theatre, music and performed at a public event.

From the Ashes: the Power of a Second Chance

Bloomington, IL 2013: "From the Ashes" created with students from the Regional Alternative School.

Bloomington, IL 2013: “From the Ashes” created with students from the Regional Alternative School.

The student participants from the Regional Alternative School.

The student participants from the Regional Alternative School.

“From the Ashes” was a homecoming for me—literally. I left my hometown of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois when I was 18 and have since lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Washington DC and Brooklyn as well as stints in places like Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Santiago de Cuba, El Salvador, Cape Verde and on and on… I’ve always gone back home regularly to visit my parents, and the idea came up on many occasions to organize one of my art & social action projects there.

The opportunity finally came by way of local partners who came together to help organize and fund the project. I worked with a group of high school students at the Regional Alternative School who had, for a variety of reasons, not been successful at their traditional high schools and now were being given a second chance at getting an education. I’ve always especially enjoyed working with kids who’ve had a rough time in life, the ones who are considered “challenging” but who I often find to be the most interesting and inspiring. This is probably partly due to my own adolescence, when I had a few challenges of my own. While I wouldn’t compare my experience to some of the severe cases that I’ve come across in my work with young people, I remember feeling isolated and misunderstood, and acting out in a variety of ways: vandalism, shoplifting, drugs… and then a relationship I was in when I was only 15 and 16 years old resulted in pregnancy. While my relationship with my son ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me, it was quite a shock to my teenage mind to discover that I would be a father—so much responsibility at such a young age!

One of many workshops that led up to the design and creation of the mural.

One of many workshops that led up to the design and creation of the mural.

The first week with the students was all in the classroom. We discussed issues important to their lives and their communities and came up with the theme of “Second Chances” for our project. We studied mural art and its impact on humanity from ancient cave paintings to modern street art and graffiti, took turns drawing each other in different poses, learned a variety of artistic skills and concepts, played games, wrote poetry and songs based on our theme, and created individual works of art. All of this led up to the design of our mural, which we painted over the course of the second week.

Using their ideas, I came up with a design that had several principal figures but that had room for each individual to express themselves through their poems, abstract designs, drawings and written messages, all inspired by the importance of second chances in life, of recognizing unrealized potential, and of the possibility of the rebirth. The students were excited about the project, especially as they have no art in their normal curriculum. It was amazing to watch them represent their own experiences and feelings on the wall, putting it out there for the world to see. One bright, energetic 16- year- old girl pointed to a heart she had painted that had been stitched up. “This is my symbol,” she said, and told me that her childhood had been rough and she had experienced a lot of heartache in her family, but that she had made it through and was feeling positive about her future.

We had a great time painting, being interviewed by local media (TV, radio, front page of the local newspaper!) and coming up with a presentation for the inaugural event, which took place on a beautiful autumn Saturday in the parking lot in front of the mural. There was a big turnout, with friends and family members, local officials and even the mayor, who gave the inaugural speech. I spoke as well, as did three of the students. Thanks to all the sponsors who made this experience possible: the Downtown Bloomington Association, the Mirza Arts & Culture Fund, the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation, and a big thanks to the students and staff of the Regional Alternative School for all your hard work!!!  –Joel B

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