James de la vega

+  MOUNTAIN LAKE WORKSHOP

NYC community-artist James De La Vega converts the walls of East Harlem into an open air canvas documenting New Yorks’s Barrio culture. The walk up Lexington Ave. to 106th St. is punctuated by his various murals portraying an eclectic combination of subjects including Picasso’s “Guernica” dead hip-hop stars, and religious icons, all illustrating the hybrids of Harlem’s Caribbean, African, Latin and american cultures. De La Vega claims public space with the speed and ferocity of his neighborhood's graffiti artists (at times collaborating with them), transforming the barren walls of his surroundings into into life-infused pieces with a distinct agenda. His work has trickled throughout the city, appearing on sidewalks in the form of painted cigarette butts (to trick the viewer) and inspiring “street philosophy” chalk drawings, spray paint silouettes, and masking tape outlines. De La Vega’s signature spray paint and masking tape technique is used to depict Christ and the Last Supper with accompanying commentary on the conditions plaguing the city’s people. In 2000, Ray Kass invited James De La Vega to Blacksburg, Virginia, to conduct a week-long Mountain Lake workshop combining all of his various image-making techniques in a large, narrative mural to be created collaboratively with students from Virginia Tech and community members.

JAMES DE LA VEGA: TALKING WALLS AND SIDEWALKS, 2000

by RAY KASS

James De La Vega converts the walls of East Harlem into an open air canvas documenting New York's Barrio culture. The walk up Lexington Ave. to 106th St. is punctuated by his various murals portraying an eclectic combination of subjects including Picasso's "Guernica," dead hip-hop stars, and religious icons, all illustrating the hybrids of Harlem's Caribbean, African, Latin and American cultures. De La Vega claims public space with the speed and ferocity of his neighborhood's graffiti artists (at times collaborating with them), transforming the barren walls of his surroundings into life-infused pieces with a distinct agenda. His work has trickled throughout the city, appearing on sidewalks in the form of painted cigarette butts (to trick the viewer) and inspiring "street philosophy" chalk drawings, spray-paint silhouettes, and masking-tape outlines. De La Vega's signature spray paint and masking tape technique is used to depict Christ and the Last Supper with accompanying commentary on the conditions plaguing the city's people.1

 

A long-time neighbor of mine in East Harlem, James De La Vega began making his reputation as a street artist in the mid 1980s. His wall-mural portraits and street inscriptions were unique and unlike the highly stylized script-like graffiti that adorned the New York City subways at the time. The spray-painted subways were transformative images of sacred terror that roared downtown from and disturbed the complacent consciences of the establishment. The anthropomorphized presence of the serpent-like trains gave presence and voice to the disenfranchised minorities in the South Bronx who created them in the night-time train yards. I thought that they were beautiful and scary, but most of the downtown public just saw the scary part; since the crack-down and clean-up, subway trains have never looked so good again. 

De La Vega’s figurative mural works usually paid homage to Barrio legends and were eloquent, poetic evocations of Puerto Rican culture. His chalk and masking tape sidewalk inscriptions were uplifting and intended to inspire people underserved by the society that surrounded their ghetto. His sense of purpose to my mind elevated him to an artist of stature who could take a seat beside other community leaders. His high-mindedness did not prevent him from being arrested, along with many of the graffiti artists, during the “Broken Windows” policing policy, a crackdown on misdemeanors that occurred during Mayor Giuliani’s administration.

 

In 2000 I invited James De La Vega to Blacksburg, Virginia, to conduct a week-long Mountain Lake workshop combining all of his various image-making techniques in a large, narrative mural to be created collaboratively with students from Virginia Tech and community members. As I had done for Howard Finster’s Mountain Lake “workout” in 1985, I prepared for De La Vega’s workshop by having plenty of regular paint, spray paint, many different color chalks and masking tapes, canvases, and sixteen reinforced 4 ft. by 8 ft. grey-painted plywood panels that were hung on panel clips on Tech’s Armory Art Gallery walls. De La Vega arrived with many stencils and cut many more during the workshop. It was amazing to watch him draw his elegant forms with a box cutter knife with such ease. It was equally amazing to watch him when he went out on campus and used masking tape to “draw” a huge image of Christ on the cross on a campus plaza with no preparation other than his innate sense of scale and proportion. 

James gave a well-attended slide lecture that emphasized his ideas about the positive role that public art can play in uplifting the community. After the collaborative gallery installation was completed, he led workshop participants in making sidewalk inscriptions all over the campus and downtown Blacksburg. I jumped through quite a few hoops to get administrative approval for these activities—but most of them were removed in a day or two anyway.

 

 

1 Text adapted from unnamed author in Flyer, #29 (Dec. 2000), p. 25.

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