After four months of exhibitions and public programs for Fourth Arts Block‘s latest public art series FABLES, the project will come to a close this month. Fourth Arts Block opened FABLES: a public art project to coincide with the first annual Lower East Side History Month in May 2014, to celebrate the beauty of our neighborhood, its community, and all the stories that pulse through its streets.
Though we are saying goodbye to the physical manifestations of these projects, we are very excited to share in-depth interviews from each of the artists involved in FABLES, and explore their cultural heritage and relationship to the ever-evolving Lower East Side.
To start things off, we have Miguel Trelles of “Posters on the Wall: Our Nuyorican Story,” a carefully curated presentation of Nuyorican Posters from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies‘ extensive image archive, with prints dated from the 1960s through the 1990s. In partnership with artist Juan Fernando Morales-Nazario, Trelles and Morales-Nazario toyed with the notion of a show within a show for this First Street Green Park exhibit.
Can you give some background into your work with Centro (Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College) and how the Posters on the Wall project came to be?
Back 1993 or so, as I was working towards an M.F.A. @ Hunter College, I became involved with the Wexler Collection of Puerto Rican prints at the Wexler Library. I volunteered and subsequently was paid to create a catalog for the collection, with an emphasis on Puerto Rican printmakers from the Island. It was on again, off again and then I graduated in 1995. It was a long and winding road until 2007, when as an adjunct for the Art Department at Hunter I was given the opportunity to curate an exhibiton of the Wexler Library Collection of prints for the Leubsdorf Gallery. The project came full circle and a modest but handsome catalog was produced. Centro, who has a library that has been my go to for many personal art projects (especially prints), and whose Journal I have followed throughout the years commended me on this Wexler effort and subsequently asked invited me to study their collection of Puerto Rican prints, with an emphasis on Puerto Rican printmakers from New York and the diaspora. The aim is to produce another catalog where I can delve into this fascinating subject.
What was your intention to allow the public to add their own artistic statements to your installation at First Street Green?
As visual artists we are cognizant of everyone’s artistic potential and we believe certain projects such as this, are enriched by public participation. Besides FABLES has set a very high (but constructive and fun) bar in public art projects that dynamize the Lower East Side and its rich heritage.
Do you have future plans for Posters on the Wall and the conversation it’s been fostering?
I definitely think the FABLES forum has paved the way for me to revise the essay I have been working in for the past year so that the catalog can be designed and printed sooner rather than later. Additionally there has been some interest in turning this into a traveling exhibition that after Centro, The Clemente Soto Velez Center, and FABLES, can visit university galleries especially in the North East.
How have some of the artists behind the posters responded to the project?
They have been supportive and seem amused that these time/place specific “notices” can be reactivated in different contexts thanks to the prescience of the Centro archives in collecting them.
Have you received any interesting feedback on the installation at First Street Green?
My favorite feedback was an email forwarded by FABLES where a very concerned neighbor expressed dismay at the posters (in this case reproductions) where getting pummeled by the elements! More often the feedback came from Puerto Rican residents who had a “Proust” moment. It was also very pleasant to be warmly encouraged by the broader LES community at large who felt the project provided a fascinating glimpse at the travails, concerns and accomplishments of a community that neighbored their own or that they felt close to in some way or another. In other cases, and this was very gratifying, others expressed their excitement at becoming acquainted, for the first time, with our Nuyorican aesthetic.
What was the initial draw to applying for this project? How did you hear about it?
After premiering at Centro in 2013, Posters on the Wall was featured as the 2013 Borimix visual arts exhibition at the Clemente Soto Velez Center. The people at FABLES, Tamara and Keith, were then instrumental in inviting Juan Fe and myself to apply for the FABLES 2014 public art venues.
When you came across the application, did you have a pre-existing idea in mind or did the open call inspire a wholly new work?
Both. We were very prepared because Juan Fe Morales had carried out what I consider to be a highly attractive exhibition design. And yet the open call, the potential for outdoor site specificity, the highly contagious and supportive energy of Keith and Tamara (and the whole FABLES crew) and the glorious early summer hanging all contributed to infuse this iteration of Posters on the Wall with a unique appeal. A certain enchanting quality is best transmitted when the public at large, especially our Loisaida folks, decides to pay attention and interact with a project. . .
Was this your first public art project? Did the framework of “public art” change your approach in any way?
I truly think this was a first for me. I have done murals and have been involved in a remarkable NYC Loisaida Cultural Center atmosphere (the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center) since 1995. And yet, this project gave me the unique opportunity to project my scholarship and admiration for the Nuyorican aesthetic into the public arena in a way that made it so much more meaningful to me and, apparently, to other folks as well. And also, the curatorial process shared with Juan Fe, a fellow artist, a curator colleague and a friend, became ever more seamless.
Can you give us a quick glimpse into the inspiration behind this piece?
The remarkable opportunity to experience past “public” art (the poster) in a new context and a new era. We soon discovered that Nuyorican artists crafted prints/offsets that have withstood the test of time and still call a passerby’s attention. Our community and NYC has a collective memory that registered many of these icons so that they endure, and this art with a documentary purpose (the sublime poster), is much more fascinating for its dynamic mix of historical information and artistic means.
What was it like working on your location? Did the history or current use of your specific location have any influence on your project?
Working at the park was a blast. Shade and breeze in the sun thanks to the trees, people hanging out checked out the hanging, passerby’s commented, we had some loved ones get enthused helping us. . . It felt kind of like being Tom Sawyer painting that fence. . . Others wanted to join and whether physically or emotionally they did. Of course the location meant a lot to me. The Lower East Side/Williamsburg frontier has been a destination of the Puerto Rican NY diaspora since before the mid 20th century, when it became a true bulwark, along with El Barrio and The Bronx . Besides, Loisaida became a unique cultural epicenter thanks to Miguel Algarin, Pedro Pietri, Mickey Pinero, Bimbo Rivas, Jorge Brandon, Lucky Cienfuegos, Papoleto Melendez, Sandria Maria Esteves and many other Nuyorican poets that afforded the community a source of pride in good times and through bleak years as well.
How would you describe your relationship to the Lower East Side? How did it permeate into your work for this project?
It has been a love affair full of bliss. “Storm and stress” and also some form of civic commitment, enchantment, disenchantment, re-enchantment and more commitment. In short, it has been wonderful. These days, when things are good (and I arrived here late, in the mid 1990′s when things were improving but latinos were finding it increasingly hard to stay, definitely diminishing the neighborhood’s real life vibrancy) it seems difficult to imagine the epic struggle of so many to survive and even improve the neighborhood around them. I feel humbled by their efforts and encouraged to advocate a neighborhood where all kinds of folks from all walks of life can share–and if not to actively help each other, at least respect and celebrate the differences. Allow me to quote Bimbo Rivas “Loisaida” (1974)
. . .una mezcla, la perfecta
una gente bien decente
de to ‘as rasas
que te adoran
que no saben explicar
lo que le pasa
cuando ausente de
tus calles peligrosas
si te aman
A ti, mi hermosa Loisaida
O what a town…..
even with your drug-infested
pocket parks, playgrounds
where our young bloods
waiting, hoping that
one day when they too
get well and smile again
your love is all
they need to come around.
Loisaida, I love you.
Your buildings are
that we got to stop.
Loisaida, my love,
How has this project inspired or fostered ideas about how to integrate your community and history into future work?
How to integrate the NY, Loisaida and especially the whole Latino/Puerto Rican family into art and culture projects is perhaps the best way to describe the mission of the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Education Center, where I have the privilege of working as an artist, programming exhibitions and serving on the board. Thanks to the Puerto Rican/Latino performers and artists in the centers as well as the many other artists that work there we are constantly looking for and finding new ways to bring Latino/Puerto Ricans into contact with all kinds of art and theater (FringeNYC, Cutlog, etc.) and all kinds of people to experience Latino/Puerto Ricans art and theater (Borimix, Open Studios, etc.).
What are your thoughts on the current state of the LES? Hopes, dreams, fears, hesitations?
As with many historic neighborhoods what has been gained in safety, security and general quality of life improvements has often represented a loss of diversity due to growing unaffordability. Whereas this trend has been both good and bad, it sometimes appears as if Bimbo’s dream will remain unreachable to the children and grandchildren of the people that worked to make it happen. For now, the greatest hope is that new developments consider the plight of former longstanding residents forced to evacuate, but that we don’t shoo away newcomers either, so that young artists and recent arrivals can find a spot and that we develop job opportunities beyond bartending.
Any upcoming projects you’d like to share?
Borimix Puerto Rico Fest 2014 is around the corner. The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center has hosted this festival Manuel Moran and I have worked on for almost a decade. Produced by Sociedad Educativa de las Artes (SEA), the Festival opens in November and includes theater, music, art etc., seeking to mix in Puerto Rican culture and artists with the New York matrix. We showed Posters on the Wall here in 2013 and this year we will hang a group show, Aquous Fervor, of work allusive to water and its imagery in the poetry of Julia de Burgos. Please join us.