The Cre8tive YouTH*ink crew get to work on “East Bway”
The Lower East Side’s East Broadway has long been home to memorable murals about Jewish life. An exquisite “social-realist” mural of peddlers at work once graced Garden Cafeteria, the defunct 24/7 dairy spot frequented by the Jewish Daily Forward’s intelligentsia that included future Nobel laureates Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel. The Forvetz’s offices were a few feet down the block.
Tucked inside the lobbies of the formerly socialist (and now quite capitalist) Seward Park cooperatives you can still find startling mid-century murals hidden painted by committed communist Hugo Gellert, and with not-so-subtle imagery of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein. The murals, commissioned by the International Ladies Garment Workers in 1959, were Gellert’s least subversive work. The non-profit CITYArts commissioned local teenagers to paint what they knew in 1972 – which resulted in a surviving mural at 232 East Broadway. That mural, Our Strength Is Our Heritage, Our Heritage Is Our Life, depicts key eras in Jewish history including Nazi Germany – some of the young artists were children of Holocaust survivors who lived in the neighborhood.
Mista Oh with the Cre8tive YouTH*ink crew meet Jordan Casteel, Icy & Sot‘s Fake Smile in the background
The Jewish community may have dwindled but if you know where to look there’s an impressive new political mural by young artists on East Broadway worth checking out – just not on a Jewish theme. Try Sargent’s Daughters, an influential Lower East Side gallery at 179 Broadway that opened in November 2013, notably also a few feet from the old Forward building. The artwork is not exactly in the gallery; to gain a look, you have to ask for access to a hidden backyard that once belonged to Birnbaum’s Winery, the original tenants in a booming local kosher wine industry that is no more.
Crystal, Naiky and Moise getting it done. Icy & Sot‘s Fake Smile in the background
The young artists chosen to paint the wall were selected by Jerry Otero aka Mista Oh, the 55-year-old kinetic director of the non-profit Cre8tive YouTH*nk. The organization’s Art School Without Walls is an apprentice program for young inner city artists to learn craft painting murals alongside prominent working artists.
First Officer in Charge of Intergalactic Affair
Cre8tiveYouThink also offers gallery and museum art crawls for youth connected to the non-profit; a program overseen by Robin Cembalest, an art journalist and social media consultant also in her 50s, who until recently was Executive Editor of ARTnews. Without Cembalest’s years and reputation in the industry, the kids would not likely gain access to the world’s leading artists and gallerists or be able to put what they are seeing in context. Cembalest was attending a 2015 summer exhibit at Sargent’s Daughters when the door was opened for air.
Trevonne and Eric working hard and smart
Although hidden, the wall was the ideal size and texture for the organization’s seventh large-scale mural. Cembalest knew high profile members of the art community are often at the gallery, ones that might help careers and could be led out back. She had a quiet word with the gallery director Meredith Rosen, who had good news for her: the 26-year-old artist Jordan Casteel’s show “Brothers” was opening at the space in fall. (It opened October 16). Casteel, one of three recipients for the upcoming 2015–16 season of Studio Museum in Harlem’s coveted Artist-In-Residence, was serendipitously looking for a mentoring project.
The only catch: a mural would need to be pulled off mid-August, before the gallery took a two-week break. Were Mista Oh and Cembalest still game?
Six artists were contacted by the organization, program “veterans” who had participated in previous murals, and who could be counted on to pull through on such a short window. They came from across the city by subway and toured the backyard space, and then they participated in a follow-up live discussion on a closed Facebook group that Casteel joined as well.
The Cre8tive YouTH*ink crew with Jordan Casteel
The artists agreed to paint separate panels, with the unifying theme a riff on Black Lives Matter. “The muralists wanted to avoid “clichés” of Black Lives Matter. Rather than death and tragedy there was a “desire to focus on lives and aspiration,” said Mista Oh, interviewed in late August while the artists were painting the wall a few feet away. Every few minutes he glanced up as rain had been predicted for the evening that could shut down the creative operation.
Jordan Casteel pointed out a wheat-pasted artwork in a corner of the yard that she said also offered inspiration for the artists she was mentoring. Fake Smile was a vestige from a long-closed exhibition of yet another incarnation of 179 East Broadway, the Allegra LaViola Gallery. Two enormous police officers stand against the wall, one smiling wide and one in shadow menacingly holding a truncheon. Casteel explained that the disturbing piece had been created by two Iranian brothers, Icy & Sot, who visited the United States on artist visas in 2012 and were later granted political asylum, after multiple arrests for painting and wheat-pasting their protest art on the streets of Tabriz and Tehran.
For further stimulus, Casteel had walked her group around the neighborhood. “As they were doing individual panels, I wanted them to put the mural into geographical and historical context.” Some of the panels have Chinese imagery incorporated – the East Broadway they toured has a heavily Chinese population, and much of the old Lower East Side has long been consumed by Chinatown which greatly expanded in the years before Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese government in 1997.
After working with Jordan Casteel, most of the artists went on to work on a mural in the new Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling where they were mentored by artist Saya Woofalk.
The participating muralists on East Bway were Eric Avila, Crystal Gonzalez, Moise Joseph, Vince Maximin, Naiky Paradis, and Trevonne Walker.
Jordan Casteel’s current show closes November 15, 2015, but there is no closing date for the mural now available for public viewing. Just tell the staff Untapped Cities sent you.