In Upper Manhattan, artists and art lovers are neighbors. If you were living in an uptown neighborhood like Harlem, Washington Heights, or Inwood before 2003, though, you may have been completely unaware. Franck de las Mercedes, an abstract artist living and working in Washington Heights, often feels the anonymity of Manhattan. “New York can be like a small city, but it can be like a big city at times. And you know, sometimes it’s just like a whole universe.” Mercedes was shocked to find out, through his participation in the Uptown Arts Stroll, that two fellow artists lived just around the corner from him.
In 2003, the birth of the Uptown Arts Stroll changed this dynamic of disjunction. Created as a daylong event by Mike Fitelson and Rosa Naparstek, Arts Stroll, which has been sponsored by Columbia since at least 2009, was initially an effort to scout and make available much needed dedicated gallery and performance spaces. Five years after its inception, the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance took over the festival and nurtured its enormous potential. It has since ballooned into a month-long event, taking place in June, featuring open studios, art exhibitions, concerts, literary events, and performances. This year’s Arts Stroll begins with the opening reception on May 28 and runs through the end of June. As of now, the Stroll features dance, comedy, theater performances, concerts, exhibitions of painting, sculpture, photography, staged readings of plays, film screenings, open mics, workshops, artist talks, and more.
Through these events, the Stroll has unified and fortified the already-vibrant artist community in uptown Manhattan by spinning a vast web of connections between artists, art lovers, and local businesses, as well as by creating opportunities for artists to display their work in public spaces, to develop technical skills, and to receive intimate feedback. Just as the Stroll energizes the art world in uptown Manhattan, uptown Manhattan community members are what fuel the Stroll. Joanna Castro, executive director of NoMAA says that a diversity of disciplines, mediums, and perspectives has caused the festival to grow and evolve. “People keep pushing the limits in terms of really being avant garde, and thinking outside the box, so you can see really great work without leaving the community.”
Joanna Castro, executive director of NoMAA, works at her desk.
A CHANCE FOR VISIBILITY
The conceptual kernel Fitelson and Naparstek agreed upon was that new gallery space needed to be forged uptown and that artists needed to be connected with those spaces in order to exhibit their work. It was a twofold project of increasing visibility: Artists would get exposure for their work, and art would become readily available to people in the community. Fundamentally,” Naparstek remarks, “The Uptown Arts Stroll has allowed artists to have places to exhibit and to be seen. And that’s invaluable.”
At the time, Fitelson was working as an associate publisher for a bilingual newspaper called the Manhattan Times, which, according to him, sought to “unite the community” by transcending the language barrier. Fitelson remembers brainstorming ideas to further that goal of unity and thought of art as a possible method, as he calls it, “a universal language.”
He reached out to Naparstek, founder and director of Artists Unite, a nonprofit organization focused on facilitating artist cooperation and exhibition, who had plenty of her own ideas about expanding gallery space. In fact, through her efforts with Artists Unite, she was in the midst of what she describes as a “10-year struggle with the MTA” to allow artists to display their work in subway elevators, a struggle which Artists Unite eventually won.
The project of visibility has surpassed intra-uptown promotion. Beyond individual artists gaining exposure in their own communities, the Stroll has brought attention to uptown Manhattan as a whole. Fitelson says he thinks the Stroll has been so momentous in recent years in part due to the pride of sharing uptown culture with people who may not normally experience it. It’s a chance, he explains, “to be able to invite friends and family up here for a change, to come and see what we do, and how we do it, to be proud of the community spirit that infuses the Stroll.”
The Arts Stroll is open to anyone within the large chunk of uptown Manhattan (specified on NoMAA’s website as “Upper Manhattan, West 135th to 155th Street from Edgecombe Avenue west, and West 155th to 220th Street river-to-river”) to participate, by simply registering online.
The festival has been sponsored from its start by Columbia’s Office of Government and Community Affairs, Castro tells me. She calls them a “long-standing community partner.”
I ask Fitelson about how he sees uptown fitting into the landscape of other New York City artistic hubs like the East Village and Bushwick, and whether he’s noticed an influx of new creatives to the area in recent year. “I feel like there’s been a critical mass of artists up here for a very long time,” he replies. “That was one of the reasons why we started this and it was so easy to do is because there was so much talent.”
A WEB OF COMMUNITY
Franck de las Mercedes poses for a portrait in his studio with artwork in hand.
Mercedes has started his life over from scratch, twice: Once in 1985 as an 11-year-old child fleeing his war-torn hometown of Masaya, Nicaragua for Washington Heights, and again in 2014 as a 40-year-old man, returning to Washington Heights after a fire in his New Jersey home vaporized all his possessions and life’s work in just seven minutes.
As he tells me all this, Mercedes moves around his spacious, painting-filled apartment, unencumbered and spry. He emphatically describes his work, careening toward it, using sharp hand gestures. He remembers that upon resettling in Washington Heights, the community took him in and that the Arts Stroll was a big part of that community-building.
Mercedes is a repeat participant in open studios for the Arts Stroll, which is a popular component of the festival in which artists open their creative spaces for an afternoon and invite the community visit at their leisure, offering a somewhat ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at their work and process. In the case of Mercedes’ open studio, this means also opening his home. He reports that people will enter his studio and say “‘Oh my god, we’ve got an artist here!’”
Mercedes’ distinct artistic style is a combination of many influences. He considers himself to be in the school of abstract expressionism; seeing Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm” spurred his epiphany that perhaps he was more than just a serial doodler. His bright color scheme has roots in the vibrant, lush nature of his homeland in Masaya and the artistic movement of primitivism that is popular there. He is also creatively stimulated by his immediate environment in Washington Heights, namely the street art and graffiti that decorates countless surfaces. “I’m always looking around this neighborhood, you know, for like someone to depict or you know, use in some way for a painting or artwork.”
de las Mercedes assesses a frame.
Mercedes claims that the Arts Stroll is a great way to “build a bridge” between artists and the community. “It’s reciprocal. The viewer and the artist are enriched by the experience.”
Between the years of 2006 and 2016, Mercedes embarked on something he calls the Peace Boxes Project. He collected cardboard shipping boxes, made abstract paintings on them, placed a label on them reading FRAGILE HANDLE WITH CARE, CONTAINS PEACE (or hope, love, etc.), and shipped them out to anybody who wanted one.
This endeavor, perhaps Mercedes’s most iconic project, came from a suggestion made by a local postal worker. Mercedes had formed a somewhat subconscious habit of cleaning his brushes on, and even painting the boxes he used to ship his artwork to buyers. “They would see me walk in with these painted boxes, and one day the postal worker said to me, ‘Ever occur to you that your boxes are works of art too?’”
Mercedes says he knew he “had something” with the painted boxes, and that something eventually evolved into a massive effort in which he sent over 18,000 boxes to 70 countries worldwide. Even though he is largely finished with the peace boxes, they are still being created by schools, mental health counselors, and art therapists. Reflecting on the whole experience, Mercedes says, “It was that interaction with people—which is again, back to why it’s important to have open studios and things like this—that interaction with people— that makes you a better artist.”
Mercedes says that he’s flourished since coming back to Washington Heights in 2014: He feels more accomplished as an artist, and he’s realized that art sometimes starts at home. “You realize that when you’re an artist, sometimes you’re looking out or far ahead or far away from where you are, and then you discover that right where you are is a great opportunity not only to make art, but to network, to grow, and to even build a following, if you will, with the people that are around you.”
Maggie Hernández poses for a portrait in her studio.
Just a few blocks away from Mercedes lives Maggie Hernández, an abstract painter and long-time Arts Stroll open studios participant. For her, art is about joy, catharsis, resiliency, and most importantly, freedom. The language of abstraction allows her to express the outspokenness and independence she feels was stifled in her childhood as a sixties baby in the household of her fairly traditional mother. Her paintings are a dazzling landscape of bright colors that relentlessly engage the viewer. Looking at the heaps of decorated canvas in her apartment studio, I can easily visualize how she describes her painting process—she works quick, with music playing, moving freely. “I just literally dip wherever my hand goes,” she laughs.
Hernández used to work at Citibank, and her co-workers knew she was an artist, “so it was a constant flow of people buying.” She would sell her paintings for top dollar: It was a “goldmine.”
She found she had to tweak her model, however, once she started participating in open studios. “I’d have the Art Stroll open studio, and then people in the neighborhood would come, and they’d ask me how much, you know, for a piece. And I would tell them like $1,500, $3,000, and nobody could buy it. I was like, that is just so wrong.” So Hernández scaled down. She switched to smaller and cheaper canvases, and started buying them in bulk when the materials are on sale, so that she could in turn sell the paintings for less.
After a piece has been sitting around unsold in her apartment for a few years, she puts it in the lobby of her building for people to take for free. “People in this building tell me ‘My house is full of your art!’”
Hernandez is not interested in galleries. “I’d rather make the art for the people in my neighborhood, and that’s what I do.”
She says she’s found that “there’s a certain type of person that’s into art and it’s usually not just like local people.” She continues, “I find that local people are just kind of like busy, just working, getting food on the table, like the normal demands of living. Right? And looking at art, or going to museums, leaving the neighborhood for some is just not even something that is available.”
“I grew up with people who never left the Heights,” she says. “What?!”
Hernández hangs a painting on her wall.
She wants anybody to be able to experience the same joy she feels when creating paintings. “I think there’s a lot of value in art. … And why should only the affluent be able to enjoy that?”
Hernández has found her calling in abstract art. “I don’t ever see myself going back to do anything that resembles anything at all.” She goes on to mention the one exception: the backdrops she paints for her old dance teacher, who lives in the neighborhood, stages performance shows. “I’ll paint and draw ballerinas for her, you know, whatever’s needed. But other than that, never.”
A LABORATORY FOR ARTISTIC EXPERIMENTATION
Sky Pape is an abstract painter who has been living in Inwood for 18 years. For much of her artistic career, until 1999, she also held a position as a schizophrenia researcher at NewYork-Presbyterian (then Columbia Presbyterian). The interplay of science, math, nature, and human perception is central to her work, and she constantly experiments. “I often work with sort of traditional materials used in untraditional ways. … I’ll use brushes that I make myself or I use palm fronds as a drawing tool.”
An open studios participant almost every year since it was introduced to the Stroll in 2004, Pape has come to recognize the value of viewing art in the space of its creation. As opposed to galleries which, in her experience, display art with a focused and cohesive theme for marketing purposes, the studio is more relaxed and allows for more variety. This setup is more conducive to the way she works as an artist. She’s constantly digressing from her primary projects to explore, creating what she calls “one-offs.”
Open studios is a chance to see some of Pape’s “tangential explorations,” as she calls them. “I’ll pull all sorts of weird stuff out of my drawers and toss it up on the wall,” she says. Pape remarks that seeing these “one-offs,” works in progress, or nontraditional materials gives viewers “a broader appreciation of the creative process.”
James Bosley has been participating in the Arts Stroll since 2010 as artistic director of UP Theater Company, an organization dedicated to producing new plays by contemporary playwrights, which, according to Bosley, often “push the envelope.” The company hosts a reading every year during Arts Stroll, and this coming year it is Bosley’s own play, “The Greater Compassion,” about a family of urban Buddhists.
Bosley says that because of the extensive labor of putting on a full production, which the company does every spring, the Arts Stroll reading is a great place to test out new material in a less intensive way.
He also mentions that because much of the audience are uptown folks—“they could be neighbors and friends”—it is a more comfortable experience. “You feel safe, you know, in a situation … where you’re being encouraged, and there’s a certain amount of helpfulness in the audience, rather than very harsh criticism.”
Much of Pape’s art investigates the interplay of science, mathematics, and nature. This particular piece, “CelNav,” features a continuous knot interrupted by what Pape calls “impossible shapes,” which appear in much of her work. She notices that upon viewing these impossible shapes, the mind automatically tries to make sense of them.
"CelNav," water, Sumi ink, Flashe on paper, 51-3/4" h x 39-3/4" w (Courtesy Sky Pape & June Kelly Gallery, NY. Photo: Jean Vong) © Sky Pape.
She hopes that her pieces will perhaps disarm that impulse to cohere the impossible to human principles of logic. “Can we sit in that space of uncertainty or what happens when you sit in it, and you know, if you say, wait that conclusion's wrong or, or are you even able to question your conclusions?”
“Play it Backwards” is another piece of Pape’s that explores the same themes.
"Play It Backwards," water, Sumi ink, Flashe on paper, 51-1/2" h x 69-3/16" w (Courtesy Sky Pape & June Kelly Gallery, NY. Photo: Jean Vong) © Sky Pape.
Franck de Las Mercedes
This piece by Mercedes, “Millennial Chombo,” features the patron saint of Masaya, Nicaragua, reimagined. Instead of his usual cross, he carries a makeshift rifle and a smartphone, two tools that students in the violent power struggle in Masaya (and Nicaragua writ large) are using to defend themselves against the despotic government.
“Millennial Chombo” 2019, Acrylic on canvas 28" x 38" (Courtesy The FdlM Studio)
With this piece Mercedes says he hopes to revive the ancient meaning of the saint and imbue him with youth to show what he means for millenials. He describes that the church has been supporting students who are at the center of anti-government protests in Masaya. “A lot of what I do is commentary, not necessarily, I wouldn't even call it political. It's more like a social awareness, you know, I'm a lot more about awareness and trying to expand consciousness.”
This piece, “Sun Este” speaks to the collision of Abstract Expressionism and Primitivism that manifests in Mercedes’s work. Abstract Expressionism, including artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, is marked by a suspension is recognizable figures in favor of gesture, or the energy involved in the process of making the art. Primitivism, including artists like Paul Gauguin, and Mercedes’s favorite, Jean-Michel Basquiat, is marked by bright colors and tribal resonances.
“Sun Este” 2019, Acrylic on canvas 26" x 20" (Courtesy The FdlM Studio)
Maggie Hernández’s home studio is as bright and lively as the art that fills it. Natural light, french doors, and buttercream paint on the walls give the space a carefree zest.
Margaret Maguire / Senior Staff Photographer
This piece of Hernández’s, called “Whipped,” has a loose playfulness that reflects her process, which prefers the act of creating over the result of any one piece.
Whipped, 2019, Acrylic on Canvas, 24x24” Maggie Hernandez
“When you work intuitively like that and you're just moving, moving and you're not really thinking about it, sometimes they're bad to look at. But as an experience, for me, it's like cathartic because I'm just in it. Going, moving with a brush and not thinking about anything. It's almost like people who say that they spend hours in meditation clearing their mind, that's what I feel happens to me.”
A GATEWAY TO NOMAA
NoMAA is a gold mine of artistic support and programming for Upper Manhattan. Besides the Arts Stroll, it offer all kinds of events throughout the year, such as technical assistance like grant writing and social media workshops, themed exhibits like Women in the Heights and The Art of Healing, and events purely for fun like neighborhood Halloween parties and free dance improvisation classes in Inwood Park.
The Stroll has not only grown in duration, from a day to a month, but also in level of participation. Castro, who plans, organizes, and promotes the Arts Stroll along with much of NoMAA’s other programming, recalls that when she served as program director of NoMAA in 2014, the guide listed 175 events. Last year it listed over 350.
Castro and her team of two people—Michelle Orsi Gordon, executive coordinator, and Martin Collins, 2019 Uptown Arts Stroll coordinator—are constantly looking to improve the Stroll. The three visit all the open studios and give feedback to the artists. They also send out a survey to every participant, seeking new ideas and improvement. “Our mission is to visit as many events as possible…” Castro says, “It's a really great opportunity to connect and reconnect with folks.”
In the future, Castro hopes to sustain the explosive growth of the Stroll, and encourage the artistic talent that exists uptown in surplus.
Artists have lived in Upper Manhattan for a long time. The arts haven’t suddenly “arrived” in Uptown; rather, through grassroots efforts by a few diligent community members, the Uptown Arts Stroll has invigorated and connected the art world in uptown.
When I ask Naparstek about her initial ideas for the Arts Stroll 16 years ago, she says she thought about starting a bus tour to bring tourists and people from downtown to uptown Manhattan to see art. That idea morphed into something different, something with a focus on the people in its own backyard as the audience.
Pape acknowledges the art world’s tendency to place emphasis on a “specific slice of artists,” and says that “there’s a whole community of underrepresented artists who have been here all along, who are just not in the spotlight.”
As Upper Manhattan faces the shuffling around that often accompanies rapid urban development, it could turn to the infrastructure of community created by the Stroll to sustain connection as their landscape changes. Art could serve as a way for the neighborhoods to see themselves, in the place where they live.
Naparstek says, “The maybe dream for us was to make our own community aware of the arts ambition that’s right here.”
Enjoy leafing through our eleventh issue!