socially conscious art

Working with paintbrush in hand, award-winning Manhattan-based artist Miguel Diego Colón recently brought his skills and vision to First Street Green Art Park. After he had finished his mural, I posed a few questions to him:

Although your artwork surfaced publicly this past year on a huge billboard near the Kings Plaza Shopping Center, this was the first time you actually painted in public. What was that experience like?

It was amazing! I loved interacting with passersby who stopped to watch me. I loved hearing people’s interpretations of what I was doing. And I felt flattered when people took photos of the mural and of me while I was painting.

All of your images reference some kind of economic or social injustice. How did you decide which images to incorporate into your mural?

I researched online the term “social justice.” I then visually interpreted particular issues that stood out…that particularly mattered to me.

And so the overall theme of your mural is social justice — or the lack of it.

Yes. I am concerned with oppression of all kinds…what it means to have one’s rights taken away.

Is there any particular segment of the mural that you especially like? 

One of my favorite segments is the image of the couple embracing during the collapse of a sweatshop. I like the way it represents connection — the way people can connect, especially during trying times.

What’s ahead?

I’m currently applying for a number of grants. And I would love, of course, more opportunities to paint in public spaces. I’m also working in my Fountain House Gallery studio on a painting modeled on my First Street Green Art Park mural, “Liberty’s Last Embrace.”

It sounds great! Good luck with it all! And, thank you, Jonathan Neville and First Street Green Art Park.

Interview conducted and edited by Lois Stavsky. Photos by Lois Stavsky

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Just a few blocks from the Kings Plaza Shopping Center in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a huge, beautifully-crafted, provocative billboard greets passersby. I’d met the artist, Miguel Diego Colón, several months ago in the studio he shares with other Fountain House artists in the Silks Building in Long Island City. At the time he was working on the images he’d planned to incorporate into this project. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with him and find out more about this ambitious venture:

What an impressive, powerful mural “Stand Up” is!  Can you tell us something about its theme? Its intent?

I was interested in creating a public mural that reflects the many forms of oppression that I have faced and have observed in my community here in New York City. Among these are: the destructive forces of racism, sexism, inequality, and the stigma against those struggling with mental illness. It is my way of providing solidarity with others who are oppressed.

Did any specfic recent events or incidents spur you to focus on these themes of inequality and resistance?

I had heard about a photographer who had been slammed to the ground at a Trump rally. And that had me thinking about all the bullying that has been taking place at various Trump rallies and the importance of  “standing up.”

How were you able to access such a huge, visible space?

Betty Eastland, a peer-specialist and artist, working at Fountain House Studio had sent me a link to 14×48, a non-profit project that repurposes vacant billboards as public art spaces. 14×48‘s mission is to create opportunities for artists to engage with public art. I sent 14×48 a sketch, along with a proposal, and examples of other paintings on the theme of social justice. I was amazed when I found out that I had been selected.

How long did you work on “Stand Up?”

About five months. Once I was ready to paint, I constructed stretcher bars. I then started with graissaile before adding paint.

This was your first public mural. How have folks responded to it?

Everyone has been so supportive. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.

What’s next?

 I would love to create more work in public spaces. I think of it as an audition to do more public works. And I’d love to bring my vision to Manhattan. Times Square would be ideal!

Yup! That would be great! And congratulations on “Stand Up.”

Photo credits: 1, 3 & 4 Courtesy of the artist; 2, 5 & 6 Lois Stavsky

Interview conducted and edited by Lois Stavsky

Note: To find out more about Miguel–his educational background, influences, personal circumstances — you can read an extended interview here.

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Two brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed murals – one by Sonny Sundancer and the other by ASVP – surfaced last month on the exterior walls of IS 318 in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Sonny’s mural– at the corner of Lorimer Street and Throop Avenue – depicts a Yawanawa girl from Acre, Brazil, along with a jaguar, representative of a species that is sacred to the indigenous peoples and at risk of extinction. ASVP‘s black and white tower mural — painted on the opposite wall — features an elephant, bear, tiger and more, all interdependent and threatened or endangered in some capacity.

While visiting the school last week for the murals’ dedication and ribbon cutting, I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to Greenpoint Innovations founder Stephen Donofrio, who had organized the The Point NYC project.

These hugely impressive murals are one component of The Point NYC initiative. Just what is The Point NY?

It is a collaborative venture — among Comics Uniting Nations, Greenpoint Innovations, Hypokrit Theatre Company, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and UNICEF — that brings together artists, producers, educators and local environmentalists for a series of artistic productions and events. Among these are: a comic book, public murals, a theatrical experience, open dialogue and an educational toolkit.

What is its ultimate mission?

Its mission is to respond to the human impact of climate change and to exercise the power we all have, particularly the youth, to take action for a better future.

And what inspired the direction that this project has taken?

It was inspired by a comic book story —Tre, by Sathviga ‘Sona’ Sridhar — about a climate change superhero. Sona had become passionate about climate change when her town in Chennai, India was flooded and when she heard about the Climate Comic Contest by UNICEF and Comics Uniting Nations, she decided to submit her art.

How did you connect with Sonny Sundancer and ASVP? Their murals are perfect for this project, as they are exquisite and brilliantly reflect environmental issues.

Karin du Maire introduced me to Sonny, and I met ASVP at the Moniker Art Fair in Greenpoint this past spring. Both Sonny and ASVP were ideal to work with, as they are not only wonderful artists, but caring people.

Were you presented with any particular challenges in seeing the project through?

Coordinating with the Department of Education was somewhat of a task. And then discovering that a segment of the wall that Sonny had completed had been coated to protect it from any lasting paint was another challenge. But – with considerable effort — we overcame them both!

How have the members of the local community responded to these two murals?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. They love them.

And thank you for initiating this project!

Photo credits: 1 & 2 Lois Stavsky; 3 Karin du Maire aka Street Art Nomad; interview conducted and edited by Lois Stavsky; 

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Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to meet up with Poornima Sukumar. A muralist and community artist based in India, she is the founder and director of  the Aravani Art Project, a collective that creates spaces for people from the transgender community to connect with other communities and cultures in their local neighborhoods. In July 2016, Poornima was invited to present the Aravani Art Project at the Global Youth Forum, and she was hosted by the World Bank as a panellist for the LGBTQIA+ discussion in Washington DC. She is also a TEDx speaker.

What is the mission of the Aravani Art Project? Can you tell us a bit about it?

It aims to create a collective space for people from the transgender community by engaging them in public art and other interventions. We are interested in providing opportunities for members of the transgender community to collaborate with artists, photographers, filmmakers and general members of society to voice issues and engage in dialogues. We want to help society see people from the transgender community in a new light. We also make an effort to become invested in their personal lives. We look out for them just as we would look out for our own friends. The projects are completely built on trust and friendship, and friends always look out for each other! We are intent, in fact, on providing members of the transgender community with access to health care, as well as the skills they need to procure jobs.

When was it started? And why?

It began in January, 2016. After 3 ½ years of working on a film about the transgender community in India and making close friends among members of that community, I wanted to remain involved.  I was concerned about the violence and the prejudice that so many of them encounter. I felt the need to bridge the gap between  members of the their community and society, at large.

Who are some of the other folks who have worked with you in implementing your mission?

Among them are: Sadhna Prasad, who serves as the project’s art director; trans leaders Shanthi Sonu and Priyanka Divaakar and trans artists Chandri and Purushi.

About how many people has the Aravani Art Project engaged so far?

Since the project began in 2016, we’ve engaged over 1,000 folks in 25 projects.

How have you made these opportunities for collaboration and exchange happen? That’s quite an impressive number of projects.

As a muralist and illustrator, I know many artists. We’ve also received commisions. This past year, Facebook, in fact, invited us to their office in San Francisco.

How has the general community responded to the Aravani Art Project?

Very beautifully – folks open up to us slowly, and, organically, folks want to connect.

And what about the name Aravani? What is its significance?

The term Aravani means a person who worships Lord Aravan, the patron God of the transgenders.

What’s ahead?

We are looking to forge more collaborations internationally and reach out to more communities whose voices remain unheard. We are planning two projects abroad and five in India. We are always seeking visibility.

How can folks become engaged in your projects?

We are eager to engage all folks — straight, gay, transgender — in implementing our projects. And if you are interested in becoming involved, you can write to us here.

That sounds great! And we look forward to seeing you back in NYC with the Aravani Art Project!

Interview by Lois Stavsky with Bonnie Astor; all photos courtesy the Aravani Art Project

Note: Hailed in a range of media from WideWalls to the Huffington Post to the New York Times, our Street Art NYC App is now available for Android devices here.

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Tara Houska

With her passion for justice and her elegant aesthetic, Brooklyn-based Lmnopi has been enhancing public spaces in NYC and beyond while raising our consciousness. I recently had the opportunity to visit her studio and speak to her:

When and where did your artwork first surface here on NYC walls?

I pasted up the first time in 2008, in Williamsburg, a stencil of my cat, Joe. I think it was on North 9th Street.

What inspired you to do so?

The thrill of lawlessness. Freedom, beauty, passion and communication beyond gallery walls. I just felt like it.

Delon the Pigeon

Was there anyone in particular who inspired you to hit the streets?

I remember hanging out at Ad Hoc Art on Bogart Street a bunch and meeting other artists there. Chris Stain gave me some solid advice early on about stencil painting. I used to be really into C215. I love the artist Blu. He’s probably my all time favorite, actually. It wasn’t any one person though… more the lure of freedom that inspired me.

You’ve gotten up and painted in legal spots – such as Welling Court Mural Project and Arts Org in Queens. Yet much of what you do is unsanctioned. Have you any preference?

I prefer pasting up without permission. I have favorite places that I revisit now and again. It takes me awhile to pick my spots; I watch them for a little while first. Placement becomes more important when your paste-up is the only one in existence at a particular site. I also love the aesthetic of decay as erosion happens. Right now there is a piece of mine on Jefferson — that has been there for so many years — all that is left are her eyes and her mouth. It’s uncanny how that happens. It makes me pause and wonder: Why did her eyes and mouth stay the longest? What’s that about?

Have you any preferred surfaces?

My favorite is plywood. My least favorite is brick. I love pasting on glass, especially new condo windows.

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How do you feel about the increasing tie-in between street art and gentrification? The role of street art in gentrification?

People often blame gentrification on artists — instead of the underlying cause which is capitalism. Street artists are often used as tools for real estate CEO’s to increase their property’s value. However, it’s up to us as artists to decide if our work serves the community’s interest or the profit motive. I try to approach my work with the community in mind. When painting a mural on someone’s block, I take into consideration who lives there and how can I reflect their reality in my work. As great as it is to see tons of murals on walls, it turns people’s neighborhoods into destinations for outsiders to spend money in businesses that are run by non-local owners, so the financial benefit is not kept within the community, at all. The neighborhood becomes hollowed out; a place where people who grew up feel they no longer belong or can afford to live. The money spent there leaves the neighborhood when bodegas are run out by bourgie delis and trendy cafes and bars. When rich developers from other countries altogether come in and tear down perfectly good buildings and build hideous condos, it rips a hole in a community. It changes the landscape, removes the character and homogenizes the place. Gentrification is essentially urban colonialism. Creating community run-organizations which provide gathering spaces not centered around commerce and profit,  but instead around: discussion; education; making art, growing food; organizing and sharing resources, is an effective way to combat gentrification.

Yes! And in the current political climate — more necessary than ever.  I’ve also seen your work in gallery settings. How do you feel about bringing street art into galleries?

I enjoy group shows and getting out and being with the community of other street artists. I like to make miniatures of my murals for folks who want to bring them home and live with them. I struggle with the dissonance between anti-capitalism and the need to survive in a capitalist society. But it’s a great feeling to sell work.

Do you prefer working alone or collaborating with others?

I generally prefer working alone. but in the context of a larger community working towards change, I prefer being part of that wave.

Backwater Bridge

Are there any other artists with whom you’d like to collaborate?

I look for certain people when I am out scouting locations, locally. It’s like having a delayed visual conversation on the street with other wheat paste artists like Myth NYCity KittyEl Sol 25, QRST, Sean Lugo… I also am inspired by the work the Justseeds cooperative is doing. Art and propaganda are like cinnamon and sugar on toast. So delicious. I’d like to collaborate with Chip Thomas from the Painted Desert Project. I also hope to do some painting in Indian country soon. I want to collaborate with people who are also committed to environmental justice.

Are you generally satisfied with your finished piece?

Yes. I feel like they come alive.

What percentage of your time is devoted to art?

Most of it when I am not sleeping or gardening or exploring.

Welcome

Have you a formal art education?

Yes. I studied painting and printmaking at SUNY Purchase where I got my BFA.  But most of what I am doing now is all self-taught.

What is your ideal working environment?

I’d love to have a studio in a straw bale house on land by a river with enough open area to grow food and enough forested area to forage wild mushrooms. I have a tiny studio which works all right for the time being, though, with my rooftop garden here in Brooklyn.

How do you feel about the role of the Internet in all this?

The Internet never forgets…which can be good or bad depending on what is out there to not be forgotten. For my kind of work, which is ephemeral by nature, it’s great. I love instagram because I get to see fellow artists’ work from all over the world. There is little static; it’s all visual. But as someone who was an adult before the phenomenon of the Internet existed, there was something really profound about seeing work in person that seems a bit lost now because everything is so accessible. People don’t have to travel to see anything; they just click around. Maybe that promotes a devaluation of work. I make a lot of work, but I don’t put a lot up. I think less is more…kind of a homeopathic approach.

lmnopi-Indiria-2015

Did any particular cultures influence you?

Ancient wall art. Petroglyphs. The earliest known graffiti art. I’ve seen them in person and it’s a mystical experience being in the presence of art that old.

How has your art evolved in the past few years?

From paint brush to x-acto knife back to paint brush. I went from painting with oils – high brow – to materials I could buy in a hardware store. The transition from oil painting was through stencils and spray paint. But I got really sick of using an exacto knife…too rigid. I love the paint brush. These days I like painting with house paint the most.

Do you work from a sketch or do you just let it flow?

When doing a mural, I sketch it out first; usually, I make a small painting of it prior to getting up on the wall.  When I am working in my studio, I just go to it.

Earth Revolution

What inspires you these days – with both your street art and studio art?

Right now my heart is very much with frontline communities who are bearing the brunt of the fall out from the corporate take over of the government: climate change (aka climate chaos), the fight against the fossil fuel industrial complex, the plight of kids caught in refugee situations and the Indigenous environmental movement. I am working from these struggles — working to communicate and amplify those voices, especially those of women, elders and kids.

What’s ahead?

I’m busy making art about everything that everyone else I know is also freaking out about. I am working on staying calm and making self-care a priority so I don’t burn out. I am developing some prints from paintings and drawings, a way to duplicate my work to make it more accessible for people who might enjoy having it or wearing it. I am thinking in terms of how to translate the continuous tone of painting into printable dot and line patterns for printing. I love the aesthetic of engravingsl and I have been training myself to paint in a way that mimics it. I am weaving the concept of editions that was possible with stencils together with the language of paint strokes I have been cultivating. In my painting practice, I have been destroying the object in a sense, breaking up the portrait with under-paintings of topographical maps, macro designs from botanicals and geometric forms and bringing in the occasional surrealistic imagery..Travel and time in nature are ahead of me and more frontline stands, hopefully some hot springs, plenty of walls to paint out there and forgotten doorways to paste up in.

What do you see as the role of the artist in society?

Artists are change makers and translators; art transcends borders and language barriers. Art is a unifying force. Artists can speak truth to power. We can show that the emperor is not wearing any trousers. We have artistic license; so far we still have free speech. We lift people’s spirits and let them know they are seen. We embolden people to laugh at fear. We clear out tear ducts.

Note: You can follow Lmnopi on her Instagram here and check out her online store here.

Interview by Lois Stavsky; all images courtesy of the artist

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This is Part II in an ongoing series of posts featuring politically and socially conscious works that have surfaced on NYC streets:

Caleb Neelon and Katie Yamasaki collaborate on a memorial wall for Kalief Browder at Welling Court in Astoria, Queens

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East Harlem wheatpastes

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Shepard Fairey in Coney Island

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Kesley Montague leaves a message in Nolita

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Icy and Sot at Welling Court in Astoria, Queens

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Chris Stain and Josh MacPhee in the East Village, fragment from mural in First Street Green Park

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David Shillinglaw and Lily Mixe for Earth Day in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

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Photos: 1 & 2 Dani Reyes Mozeson; 3, 4, 6 & 7 Lois Stavsky and 5 Tara Murray

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