The purpose of The Biography Project is for participants in fresh art‘s workshops to describe what the creative process means to them. The project also illuminates the importance these workshops have in their lives.
Suzi Bigliani, a long-time sock monkey sewer/volunteer with fresh art, interviewed five artists who participated in fresh art’s three workshops that ran from Fall 2011 through Spring 2012. Suzi took time out from completing her MA at Columbia University in Arts Administration to interview and photograph the artists at their residence agencies/housing facilities. “It has been wonderful to meet and speak with so many of the artists that fresh art helps,” Suzi said.
Bernie De La Cruz • Bernardo De La Cruz was a participant in teacher Joan Mellon’s Open Studio Workshop. When I first met Bernie, he was leaning over a painstakingly intricate pencil drawing on canvas of a nature scene. I quickly learned that Bernie was a meticulous and detail-oriented artist with an incredibly deep imagination.
Bernie began creating art while studying at Brooklyn College. He took a few classes and found that making art “came easier to him than most.” Since college Bernie has always had “an inner urge to paint.” He loves making art now because he enjoys that “it makes other people happy” and it is a “great way to pass time.”
Bernie loves to paint but also works extensively in pen and ink as well as pencil drawings. When Bernie begins a new painting, he pours over multiple practice sketches. In fact, Bernie is so concerned with detail that he must ask for specific small brushes and will often wear them out. Bernie recently painted a view from outside Saint Margaret’s House. He used a photograph for the work and the details proved to be immensely time consuming. While Bernie was very pleased with the work, he enjoys painting from his mind for more “freedom of experimentation.”
Bernie often looks to the works of other artists for inspiration. He loves the old masters, specifically Michelangelo for his realism and details, and Picasso for his inventive use of color and space. Bernie paints abstractions in addition to landscapes and nature scenes. Bernie says he sees abstractions as an ideal way to take risks, and he enjoys “playing with the relationship of objects in space.”
On July 21, 2010, Bernie received recognition for his intricate and powerful work when his painting, “Untitled,” was chosen as the First Place winner of the FEG*S Haym Salomon Arts Awards Competition. “Untitled” was selected by a panel of judges, and Bernie received a limited edition Haym Salomon Medal as well as an honorarium.
Marjorie Grimm • Marjorie Grimm was a participant in teacher Beverly Bergman’s painting workshop at St. Margaret’s House. Within minutes, or maybe even seconds of speaking with Marjorie, I was captivated by her stories and passion about her art making. Marjorie was an abstract expressionist painter who trained under Robert Motherwell as an undergraduate at Hunter College in New York City. Marjorie later received her Masters in Fine Arts at Ohio University after receiving a full scholarship. Marjorie also taught studio art and art history at the New School. Despite her incredible skills, Marjorie gave up painting following the passing of her husband. It was through fresh art that Marjorie began painting again. Though she always worked in abstraction, Marjorie began painting realistic images at the fresh art workshops. She enjoys painting floral arrangements and finds inspiration in everything from the real flowers given by friends to small images on paper napkins. Fresh art has also introduced Marjorie to acrylic paints. She used oils for her entire professional career, but loves the colors and sharp contrasts she can achieve with acrylic. Marjorie professes a “love” of fresh art for bringing her back to painting. She didn’t realize she had missed it, but painting again has made “such a difference” in her life.
Obie Johnson • Obie Johnson has the vision of not only an artist but a historian as well. While he enjoys drawing, photography is his main passion, and he loves to capture a moment in time through his camera lens. Obie was born in Georgia but considers New York his home, and he uses his camera as a way to preserve memories. He finds that the neighborhoods continue to change, and through his camera he can always keep a memento of what was there.
Obie came to New York for the “bright lights and big city,” and the lights of New York are what inspire Obie most. He uses different techniques to play with light, and he especially favors making the “glitter of light” translate to film. Obie is proud of his pictures and is thankful that fresh art‘s workshops enable him to take so many pictures and exercise his artistic vision.
Sung Chen Lee • Sung Chen Lee was a participant in teacher Joan Mellon’s Open Studio Workshop. Though Sung Chen Lee only began painting three years ago, she is an accomplished painter who loves to experiment with color in landscapes. Sung began painting in a workshop at a senior center. Her teacher’s encouragement helped her progress quickly. Sung says people loved her work and complimented her even though Sung felt she was still a beginner. “I never knew I would like it [painting] so much,” Sung says. Now she looks forward to every opportunity she has to paint.
Sung most frequently paints landscapes. Though she uses pictures as guides, she lets her feelings dictate the color choices. Sung likes to experiment by interpreting the pictures she is painting in a new way. She also enjoys painting portraits and still lives of flowers. Initially, Sung felt daunted by painting the intricate patterns in floral arrangements, but after much practice, flowers have become a favorite theme in her work.
Sung also loves to use travel and design objects as inspiration. She goes to museums in New York as much as possible to get ideas for her own work. Though she loves artwork of all kinds, Sung chooses only to work in the medium of paint because she feels that she can best express her feelings and emotions through color.
Joan Quilter • Joan Quilter is an enthusiastic artist who developed her passion for painting as a teenager in England. When her teachers discovered her artistic talent, they asked Joan to paint an image of the school’s entrance. Today, painting continues to inspire her.
Joan is most interested in painting landscapes and portraits, and she combines the two in her work as often as she can. One of Joan’s recent paintings is a vibrant portrait of a woman in the lush jungles of Vietnam. Joan spent her career as a legal secretary but enjoys how much time she has for painting since she has retired. She loves the “soothing quietness” of the practice of painting. Joan relishes time spent in fresh art’s workshops and spoke with great enthusiasm about her teacher, Beverly Bergman. “[She] inspires me to do my best—she really does.”
For her winter/spring 2006 internship with fresh art, Biansa Cox, an undergraduate student at The New School University, interviewed and photographed artists at three social service agencies/supportive housing facilities. Here are Biansa’s interviews with the artists as well as her photographs of the artists and artwork.
Project Renewal is a leading organization in the fight against homelessness. Through residential programs, outreach, treatment and substance abuse rehabilitation, as well as employment training and job placement, they work to revitalize and renew the lives of New York City’s homeless. Their efforts have provided many people another chance at self-sufficiency and independent living.
fresh art had the opportunity to interview men working within the art room at the Third Street residence in downtown Manhattan. Their shared experience illuminates the importance of Project Renewal’s programs.
Greg Johnson • My first interview at Project Renewal was with Greg Johnson. Very open to my curiosity, Greg appeared a seasoned artist with clear ideas about his inspirations and sensibility- so much so that I was surprised to find out he has been painting for only eight months. An expressive writer of poetry for twenty-eight years, Greg ostensibly stumbled into the art room looking for a quiet place where he could think and write. Geoff Rawlings, one of the facility art teachers and an artist himself, encouraged Greg to try painting, telling him that all writers are artists.
For Greg, this proved true. His style is unmistakably his own; drawing on his studies in history as well as his love for comic books, each painting truly engages the viewer with its bright colors and vigorous subject matter.
Greg was very interested in my impressions of his work. We spoke about the symbolism and historical qualities in his paintings. He made it clear that he wants to grow as an artist and hopes that his work will inspire others to try new ideas. Greg’s main concern is not perfection, but rather “bringing something unique into existence,” and “defining grace.”
Esteban Carrion • Esteban Carrion painted throughout our interview, asking periodically how I liked the progression of his work. We were always in accord: “It’s beautiful, don’t you think?”
Each of Esteban’s paintings is a burst of beauty and contrast. His method of painting is natural, fluid, and heartfelt. He works directly from his inner world to the paper, each painterly movement coalescing into his unique vision.
For Esteban, the aesthetic value is what drives his work and he knows it when he sees it. Simply put, he says, “We all want to look our best, no?” And this is readily seen in his powerful explosions of organic and flower-like shapes, textured scenery, and multi-colored, linear buildings. The occasional figures, biomorphic or geometric, evoke unique interpretations from each viewer, but rarely miss that fundamental beauty.
But beauty isn’t the only result in his work- Esteban’s entire process brings tranquility to him and the daily pressures that he faces. His time at Project Renewal has shown him the importance of art in his life and allowed him to take it seriously.
Village Adult Day Health Center
Village Adult Day Health Center is a community based not-for-profit organization serving older adults and persons in need of medical, rehabilitation, and continuing services. The center offers a comprehensive therapeutic recreational program of creative arts.
Eileen Cullen • From the moment she set foot in Village Adult Day Health Center, Eileen Cullen has been participating in the art room. Her patience and deep consideration of her work is one of the first things I notice. “I create a completed visual image in my mind before attempting to begin,” she says. The product of Eileen’s forethought is a piece that exudes a delicate power.
Her art teacher, Pat, noticed something special in Eileen’s line quality and approached her about collaborating on a portrait project, which now consists of about 32 exquisite portraits and is still growing. It is clear from looking at their collaboration that Eileen takes great care in color choice and subsequent layering of those colors.
When I ask Eileen what drives her work, she says that she is “creating a toolbox for the future.” She explains how art has allowed her to grow and learn techniques, asking, “Who ever thinks that colored pencils could bring knowledge?”
Francis Vitiello • Using repetitive pattern and occasionally overlapping shapes, Francis Vitiello creates a quilt of color. Once decided on the appropriate choice of colored pencil or marker, he systematically fills in the page block by block, twisting and turning the sheet as necessary to complete each section. When his hands get stiff, he pauses, takes a deep breath, and keeps on going.
Francis works tirelessly within the outlines of his shapes and colors using an even-handed, back and forth pressure. By remaining within his self-imposed limits, the resulting image manages to transcend the individual forms. Each piece is delightfully and identifiably graced by the Francis panache.
Francis began making art at home, but became more prolific with his arrival at Village Adult Day Health Center. When I ask him why he thinks this is so, he explains that at the center he has a designated time and place at which he can dedicate himself to his work. When I ask him what makes him want to continue making art, he responds quickly and directly with a no-nonsense, “I like it.”
Peter Stroles • Peter Stroles finds his artistic inspiration in nature. I caught him drawing a bird in its nest; with a flick of his wrist, his lines captured the essence of the animal in quick staccato strokes.
Peter frequently uses the color red in his paintings, explaining, “It stands out more than the other colors.” In his portraiture, the red-faced heads seem to burst forward, floating amidst a sea of yellow or orange.
Peter tells me that prior to his time at Village Adult Day Health Center he had tried weaving, beadwork, decoupage (which he still works on), and even ceramics. When he arrived at Village Adult Day, Pat, the center’s art teacher, introduced him to watercolors- now his preferred medium. He often supplements the watercolors with an underlying layer of waxy crayon or oil pastel, repelling the water and giving the finished piece a three-dimensional quality.
Center for Urban Community Service at The Prince George,
a Common Ground residence
CUCS is a national non-profit organization based in New York City that provides a continuum of housing and services for homeless, disabled, at risk, and low-income people.
Anthony Hanley • becomes “absorbed” by his work. Recently his thoughts have turned toward abstract subject matter including doubt, miracles, death, and the universe. At age 91, he is asking himself the big questions, and the ongoing debate is evident in his work.
Mr. Hanley’s use of shape and his keen sense of color are critical to the experience of his artwork. From pitch-black to jet-black, or coal-black to ebony, his subtle blending guides the viewer almost unwittingly into a collision of color. The resulting depth, floating within it a myriad of free-form shapes, proves as expansive, infinite, and abstract as the universe he has been pondering.
Although he cannot explain why he is so driven to paint, nor from where, exactly, his vision stems, Mr. Hanley knows that his life experience and place in society have contributed greatly to his artistic ability. “As a boy I looked at the work of artists like Renoir and thought they must be superhuman,” he said. Now he understands that it takes diligence, focus, and desire.
Harlem Horizon Art Studio
The Harlem Horizon Art Studio advocates intuitive art as a vehicle for improving the health and quality of life of children/adolescents in central Harlem. It is one of the Injury Prevention Programs in the Divisions of Pediatrics and Pediatric Surgery of Columbia University at Harlem Hospital Center in New York City.
Founded in 1988 by artist Bill Richards, the studio has provided solace and hope for more than a thousand young people. With a population comprised of in-patients, out-patients, interested community children and now adults, the art program has contributed significantly to the healing process of many young people and has impacted positively on numerous families, the hospital, the community and beyond.
Many of the participants have been severely traumatized by serious accidents or illnesses. Painting has become their medium for reconstructing a sense of totality. The results have been miraculous health improvements and the production of powerful, authentic paintings. The work of these artists symbolizes their courage and the necessity for meaningful personal expression while underscoring their high achievements.
Harlem Horizon artists have been featured in over twenty exhibitions. Their work has been purchased by private and corporate collectors.
The program’s director is artist Bryan Collier.
The Biography Project staff (1999-2002)
Terrell Porter, photographer: Terrell Porter is a member of fresh art‘s Advisory Committee. He is a photographer, vocalist, musician and AVID non-linear editor. Terrell also works as a Senior Outreach Worker/Case Manager at the John Heuss House, a drop-in center for homeless adults with mental illness.
Tim Flinn, interviewer: Tim Flinn is a Masters’ student at New York University majoring in Folk Art. Tim is from the Atlanta, Georgia area and taught elementary school for twenty-seven years. He is also a talented self-taught potter and has exhibited and sold his work at numerous art fairs throughout the south, most notably the Kentuk Folk Art Festival.