In our Member of the Month series, we celebrate different organizations in our community every month. This month’s highlighted member is the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, better known as the Clemente. Throughout the month, we will be investigating the center’s long history, its founders, and its current residents.
The Clemente houses many artists of many different practices, most of which have been in the building for a long while. FAB spoke with painter Miguel Trelles for his history with the building, along with his take of the evolution of the Clemente and the Lower East Side.
Miguel Trelles: I’m a visual artist from Puerto Rico. I’ve been based in New York since 1992. I started off in Williamsburg, then arrived to the east village in 1995, and then got into this studio in the Lower East Side…so it’s been real. A lot of neighborhood changes, a lot of exhibitions, here and abroad…I’ve always staged them here, and I’ve always been involved with this building through everything. The good, the bad, the ugly.
What’s your relationship with the Clemente? How long have you been in the building?
I’m a resident visual artist here, and I’m the secretary of the board of directors. I’m also the chair of the programming committee for the gallery and the visual arts. So I wear three hats. the one that I hold most dear, of course, is my residency as a visual artist, and because I believe in participation and civic engagement, I’ve participated in influencing – hopefully for the better – in taking the Clemente forward, to serve its mission, to serve its community, and to serve the resident visual artists here.
What have you seen the building do for the community?
The building is almost like a weathervane: it channels cultural lightning, and thanks particularly to one resident group, called the Sociedad Educativa de las Artes – otherwise known as SEA – the building has provided a couple of signature events over the last 10 years. Most notably, the Borimix festival, which I am a cofounder of, along with Manuel Moran, the head of the SEA’s children’s bilingual puppet theater company. [During the festival] we mix Puerto Rican culture with everything. So we put out a call on a Puerto Rican topic, and we invite artists at large to join us…so it’s not just Puerto Rico, or Puerto Ricans, and that germ opens up. And because there’s been a big Puerto Rican community here, over the years, we’ve been able to draw some of them in. The other signature event is Three Kings Day. And we’ve broken through the ethnic barriers and it’s not just Puerto Rican and Dominican kids. So now you have Asian kids, because there’s a very strong Chinese community and growing, and Bengalis on Orchard Street…
We also have Open Studios, which comes form the visual artists in the building. Community is starting to come in, but sometimes its not the kind of thing that attracts them. But more and more are coming, and the broader New York community and the artistic community has always come to that. I remember the open studios from 1996, the year I came here was the year it started.
It seems that the artists and performers work together for the community in addition to practicing their art. When and how did that come about?
Maybe 2005 on or so, there’s been an increasing ecumenical feeling in the building. We’re doing a show of installations throughout the building right now [There Will Be Art Here, curated by resident artist Sarah Beatty]. And the visual arts gallery has taken on many shows, but also given the internal artists more play, so theres more of that feeling of collaboration, and it makes a huge difference.
One of the beautiful things about the Clemente is the residents, the community. Even though people come and go, we’re opening a swath of studios that are going to be rotating. The wonderful thing about this is, yes, we’ve grown to be civil, we understand the mission of the Clemente, we understand that we have a civic responsibility with the surrounding community, whether they’re art-savvy or not.
But we also treasure our disagreements. We’re all artists, we’re all different once you close the door. You know, there are some people who need silence or whatever, but as long as those things are verbalized in an elegant way, and doesn’t transcend into bad blood, I think that’s the beautiful thing. We’re not a football team, we’re not touchy feely, there are people here I love, there are people here I don’t care about. But we’re like any other building in New York City. We’re together in this, theres a modicum of commonality that we have to espouse and treasure, but we do differ. And I think that adds a bit of richness to the endeavour.
Can you talk about your studio practice, and if its been influenced by the building?
I’m a painter. I’m an old-fashioned painter on canvas or wood, I also do printmaking, so for a visual artist of my medium, permanence and stability are very important. I was extremely lucky, thanks to this visionary Ed Vega. When I left grad school, I had no idea what I was walking into. My mother, who was a journalist, interviewed Vega for a book she was doing on Puerto Rican artists. She said there’s a building you should check out, and in any case…so I went to hunter, came out, met Ed Vega, and it was just like, a handshake and you’re in.
Some people here close the door, don’t want to talk, and I totally respect that, but sometimes I say what is this circus? It’s people coming in with dogs, people having a conversation about Beckett, people doing things I don’t want to go on record with…you know, to me that’s always been what i wish and what I work for in terms of the Clemente. It’s distracting, and maybe disruptive to the creative aspect of the process, but I fancy myself as a very fortunate visual artist because even though I pay my dues, etc., the big project is the building. Sometimes you have to interrupt the very remarkable and selfish process of individual creation for the also very remarkable and completely collective process of the building, and with the outside world.
There Will Be Art Here, an exhibition of installations around the building, is up now. Is that the first time that something like that’s been up?
We’ve had theater, which was great because we convened and they took us around the building, and we’ve had impromptu exhibits and open studios, but I think this is the most organized and well thought out exhibition. The most exciting thing is that it’s one of our revolving studio artists. Sarah Beatty is bringing in some outsiders, but also some old-time Clemente residents, so I think it shows the Clemente’s evolution, and its remarkable impact on people coming through here. People that won’t become permanent residents but will leave a permanent mark in terms of the new things they bring to bear. So its old and new.
The building is like an organism, man. It takes people in, but it also chews and spits people out…we’ve had permanent residents all along, but there was also this sense that anything could happen here any time, you know. Furniture would appear in the halls, you’d find a hall full of people smoking pot late at night, there was a crazy bar downstairs that we had to eject…I am very conflicted about that, because we’re artists. This is New York. We can’t be totally cut and clean and everything, but of course, if we don’t handle that correctly, we’ll be out the door tomorrow. But still, you lose some of the whimsy, the wildness, so it’s hard to preserve some of the wildness when you go institutional.
This is obviously a rapidly changing neighborhood, and a bastion of hope is this preserved cultural center. But you also talk about innovation, with some new folks invested in injecting life back into it. Do you see that in the neighborhood?
In terms of the lay of the land, there is such a thing as rent control – thank God – and we still have plenty of families making a living. Some of them are choosing to go because you get tired of people waving money in your face, and the truth is there has been an erosion of permanence.
But there is a silver lining. Some of the new people coming in couldn’t care less about the community, but some of them are also remarkable people that want to set up roots, or they want to deal with youth, or other people, or across intergenerational spans. Some of them are coming here. Depending on the socioeconomic/educational factor, they might be primed to check out arts, and some of them are also highly aware of the process of displacement that they themselves are a part of.
There’s also the remarkable influx of Chinatown coming in, which is very exciting. My work is called Chino-Latino, so for me, the mix of Asian and Latin is a new frontier all across the board. It’s two frontiers that have not yet gotten total exposure to each other.
Are you hopeful about the neighborhood?
I always am. Because it’s living tissue, you know. When the economy’s really good, more gentrification happens. The economy is not so good. I don’t wish that on anybody, but this real estate could contract. Some of the restaurants around here that are a little too high priced are closing down, so maybe the landlords will feel more sensible, and rent to a little fritter joint or something…what I’ve lost in my tenancy in the Lower East Side is the people in the street. That’s life. That’s New York.
Edits have been made for clarity and brevity.