Why I’m a Feminist Rather than a Humanist: A Letter for my Lover

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I wrote the following email to a guy I used to date because we were having a lot of arguments about feminism. It was really the first time a man I was dating had ever really questioned me on this topic and I realized that I couldn’t quite answer even for myself why I consider myself a “feminist” and why the word is so powerful for me. His belief was that if you are truly for the equality of both sexes, then you should actually consider yourself a “humanist” rather than a feminist. I get it. If I’d had this discussion at age 20, I would have agreed with him. But when I got out into the much broader world, I started to realize that I couldn’t deny the particular type of attention that my femininity was being given and I had been trying to deny it even to myself. Enjoy and keep an open mind please.

I’ve been thinking further about this word “feminist” because if I’m going to self-identify as one I think it’s important to know why at its very core. The word “humanist” is based in good intentions. I myself used to identify only as one in regards to gender mainly because I was afraid to admit I had feminist ideals and I did fear that men were being taken out of the conversation. I have empathy for the particular struggles that men as a whole tend to deal with: The pressure to always be strong and “act like a man” even when they want to curl up somewhere and cry for a bit. These expectations have affected my father and his father, many of my male friends, and even you, love bug. There are so many men that don’t fit the mold of masculinity…they identify more with women or find themselves in both worlds of masculine and feminine (these men are not necessarily gay). Many women feel the same and have taken shelter in learning about feminism and the historical struggles of both sexes. Rarely will you find a women studies or gender studies course that doesn’t cover the male experience. The truth is whether we call it women studies, feminist studies, masculine studies, or gender studies…a lot of men and some women tend to opt themselves out of the conversation. The most fascinating conversations I’ve had regarding gender and, yes, feminism has been with males. Many of them had a lot to say on the topic and some of them kept quiet and listened. Not necessarily because they were placating me or didn’t want to rile me up, like you said. Many were genuinely interested in what I had to say and were themselves riled up about the inequality of men and women. Saying “humanist”, while obviously not a bad thing because we should all be humanist even when you are also a feminist, in regards to gender inequality, even with the best of intentions, completely erases the individual and complicated experience of gender and the female experience from the conversation. Historically, this has been a major issue with men tending to be the default of almost every institution. Women and girls on a global scale are still the victims of intense hate crimes and physical violence simply because they are female. Although it is not on a genocidal level here in the united states, almost every woman has experienced some form of sexual abuse or harassment or some form of inequality in the workplace or at home. These feminine voices should be heard (as well as the femininity within males) and taking feminine out of the conversation would be a detriment and a disservice to all those women who have been invisible. It’s not like these things do not happen to men because they certainly do but the statistics of sexual abuse, domestic violence, eating disorders, unequal income, career disadvantage, lack of self-confidence, etc. tends to lie significantly more heavily on the shoulders of women and girls. In reality, there’s nothing wrong with self-identifying as a feminist. Just as much as there’s nothing wrong with self-identifying as a Christian or a Buddhist or an artist or a writer. What I don’t believe in is judging others for who they wish to be or telling them to be anything less when it comes to their principles. I don’t care if you don’t believe in the label of feminism. That’s your choice but it shouldn’t stop us from having healthy conversations about what it means to be a man and woman in this world. I’m not saying we should have them all the time because goodness knows even I get tired of talking about it, but you love a feminist. Take it or leave it, love bug. It isn’t a bad way to be. I don’t think that makes me dogmatic (i.e. inflexible). I love you even when we don’t always agree.

-Margaux Galli

Dance Parade 2015 celebrates 25 Years of Americans with Disabilities Act, Featuring Mary Verdi-Fletcher of Dancing Wheels

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Dance Parade 2014

Dance Parade 2014

Dancing Wheels Company and School performance

Dancing Wheels Company and School performance

OKAY. We’ve made it. The sun is out and New Yorkers are down to party. Well, we’re always down to party but especially minus the twenty pound, full-length puffer jacket. Now it’s time to celebrate our freedom and what better way to do it than at NYC’s 9th annual Dance Parade 2015?

This year’s Dance Parade New York will be celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, an important civil rights legislation. Mary Verdi-Fletcher, Founder of Dancing Wheels, will be 1 of 4 Grand Marshals leading Dance parade. Dancing Wheels is an integrative dance company and school that collaborates both stand-up and sit-down dancers. As one of the first professional wheelchair dancers, Verdi-Fletcher is a teacher and advocate for people with disabilities and without disabilities. Over the span of over 3 decades, she has been the leading force behind the creation of Dancing Wheels School since 1990, has conducted master classes and lectures, consulted with arts institutions, and has developed state and national programs for the arts and disability service organizations.

MG: How did you get connected with Dance Parade and what about this event’s core values align with Dancing Wheels?

MVF: They actually found me somehow! I believe they were looking to be inclusive of all dance so they found Dancing Wheels on the Internet. We align closely with the event in that we are inclusive in many ways…ethnicity, age, gender, and physical ability.

MG: Have you or Dancing Wheels been part of such a large-scale event with so many dancers before or is this the first time?

MVF: We have not been in a parade before but the company has performed for the opening ceremonies of the Paralympics and on national TV with a live audience and on stage with many luminaries for the Christopher Reeve: a celebration of Hope, just to no name a few.

MG: What are you most excited about for Dance Parade?

MVF: Being in the mix of so many incredible dancers

MG: You’re a motivated, ambitious person. What has given you so much drive over the years?

MVF: I’m the type of person that puts 100 percent in whatever I do, but dance has been my passion for as long as I can remember. I see how it changes attitudes and perceptions and inspires others

MG: For those who are interested in the arts and face challenges, what advice would you give them, disabled and/or otherwise?

MVF: Do what ever inspires you, we all have some sort of artistry within is, even if we do not know it! Never let anyone tell you that you can’t. You can find a way to achieve your dreams.

MG: What are your future hopes for Dancing Wheels and yourself? Any future projects you have lined up?

MVF: [Dancing Wheels is celebrating] our 35th anniversary which coincides with the 25th anniversary of the ADA and we are producing a Legacy Concert Tour that is based on the 5 themes of the ADA. We hope to tour to 35 locations in the nation! We also have created and published a training manual that I am working to institute in universities throughout America.

MG: What has been the most rewarding experience with Dancing Wheels?

MVF: Seeing the joy it brings to so many and the inspiration and understanding it brings to the children

I personally found it very inspiring to learn about Mary’s story and her drive to succeed in whatever fills her heart. Dance Parade should definitely be given props because too often disability is left out of both the arts and diversity education. The truth is we all have limitations but it shouldn’t stop anyone from exploring their own personal expression. I think people need to see wheelchair dancers integrated in various capacities so that we can all learn about another and more varied perspective to the face of disability.

Dance Parade’s annual celebration of diversity and culture will be showcasing 75 styles of dance with over 10,000 dancers in the streets of New York City on Saturday May 16, 2015. The procession starts on 21st Street in Manhattan at 1:00pm and continues through Union Square to a Grandstand on 8th Street and University Place. The parade finale will end with DanceFest in Tompkins Square Park featuring 5 stages.

—Margaux Galli

Dance Parade 2015: http://www.DanceParade.org
Dancing Wheels Company and School: http://www.dancingwheels.org

Aaron Nagel “Fathoms” exhibition at the Lyons Wier Gallery

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Photo credit: Tobias Batz

Photo credit: Tobias Batz 4surface_lrg

Another successful show at the Lyons Wier Gallery in Chelsea! Aaron Nagel’s intense collection called “Fathoms” will be on view from now until June 7th, 2014. I spoke to the artist who was pretty forthright about the intention of his work:

“I’m not interested in conveying any kind of message. I just like a mood and whatever people want to gleam from that is fine with me,” says Nagel.

The work features realistic female nudes that utilize light and graphic design elements to highlight Aaron’s simple homage to beauty in the female form. Using strictly oil paint as his medium, Aaron has a very traditional style both in his painterly efforts and his composition. Playing devil’s advocate, I asked Aaron about the possible risk of sexualizing women, especially since many of his models do fit within a certain kind of body aesthetic.

“It [has] not really come up. People have made comments about the models being models versus not models. That to me is painting what I find aesthetically pleasing. To me that’s the most important part of painting. I like the way it looks so I paint what I’m attracted to visually. As far as sexualizing women goes, to me nudity is not sexual. It can be but being sexy or cute or anything that is intimate is the furthest thing from my mind when I’m painting them. People kind of come up with that themselves. I don’t really care, but that’s not what I’m trying to do.”

The best thing about Aaron? He’s completely self-taught. Originally a native of Oakland, California and born in 1980, he is an accomplished graphic designer and musician. He’s drawn since childhood but took up oil painting in his early twenties and hasn’t stopped since. Come check out his work at the Lyons Wier Gallery (www.lyonswiergallery.com) or online at http://www.aaronnagel.com

-Margaux Galli

James Gortner: The Rebirth of a Painting by Margaux Galli

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“Brenda, Crossroads” by James Gortner

It was the opening of the MIA in MIA group Exhibition at the Lyons Wier Gallery in Chelsea. It was deathly cold but the opening was teeming with people and as I made my way through the swarm, a pair of eyes caught my attention. I immediately was drawn toward a painting of an ethereal woman with dark hair. The beauty of the piece became apparent as I admired the heightened color and intense patchwork of texture…the gaze. The gaze of the woman drew me in the most. Admittedly, it reminded me of Wynona Ryder but it was also her posture, her placement within the painting. She was totally submerged in the environment and the movement; she was everywhere. The painting was called “Carolina, The Hanged Man”(top). Within minutes, I was talking to the artist, James Gortner. Dressed casually, his shoulders crowned by a furry parka and wearing a whimsical smile; toting the California lassiez-faire. An affable and friendly person, James was more than happy to discuss his concept and even a little insight on his technique.

We met up for an interview at “lion north” (per James’ instructions) in front of the New York Public Library where the majestic lion statues were covered with snow. After trudging through the gray slush, we finally settled at the echoing eating area of the library’s lobby. There’s a quote by James on his website that says “energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be transformed.” Transformation is an important element in Gortner’s work that points to his interest in utilizing found objects and old paintings to collaborate with his own mark; figurative work of intense narrative and emotive quality. He transforms these materials by cutting them into abstractions within the painting field, creating a mish-mash of styles and a new kind of energy that was once dead and now has been revitalized by Gortner’s intuitive touch. He considers these found paintings to be collaborations and is mused by the elderly quality of them.

“If you think you’re alone in life or that you’re making your work alone, you should check your facts. That gets back to the idea that all art is collaboration no matter what you do…when it leaves your hands, it will change over time. Not because someone’s doodling over it but it’s going to change because someone is going to think of it differently over time and you’re not going to be there,” says Gortner.

“It’s not really yours anymore,” I say.

“I mean if it ever was yours.”

I felt the wisdom of that moment as it sunk in deeper than James’ technique or charisma. It spoke volumes about his ability to be humbled by creation itself, through lines of history and energy pouring in from every corner. For his most recent collection, “The Lovers”, a series of female figures that are translated through the tarot and the gaze of Gortner’s life partner Carolina Palmgren. Using Palmgren’s photography as subject, Gortner seeks to capture both their relationship and the essence of Carolina through the collaboration of her lens and his interpretation.

“I was envisioning a project where I would use her photos and make a portrait of her through the photos. It would be an excerpt of a photo she took, something to me that really looked like it was a reflection of her, sort of bouncing back through the lens,” says Gortner. Gortner’s figures are without stagnation as they weave in and out of the abstractions on the canvas, pulling you in with their gaze. The women make you wonder but the artist’s work never hits you over the head with a particular message. The work moves James, not the other way around.

“It’s less about my process or what I’m doing. It’s more about what I’m pointing to or the language I’m trying to develop. An artwork is not made by someone; it’s made with them,” says Gortner.

His childhood in East L.A. most likely influenced his previous projects that include the Darkside Portraits as well as Exit Strategy. These two series of portrait works immortalize the residents of a section in East Bushwick, New York; a poor neighborhood nicknamed “Darkside” in the 1970s and located near a conglomerate of cemeteries. Gortner lived there for two years documenting the faces of the derelict building that he took residency in under the watch of Brenda, the madam of the house and the neighborhood’s local Santeria shaman. It is often a point of controversy when an artist is an observer and becomes a voyeur, seeking to gain success from the outsider perspective of ghettoized communities. The context of race came up briefly in our discussion because of this. However, it’s important to note that Gortner had a personal experience with this project. He lived among these people and views it simply as a documentation of his experience and also the lives of those he connected with.

“Meeting people and taking their photograph, it got to be known that I was taking photographs and it was okay with most everybody. I thought of them as just being the people that were in the building where I was living that were anything from homeless people to transients to gang members to members of an underground religion. For me, it was about otherness but it wasn’t necessarily racial. This was just one project, this was not my career of painting,” says Gortner.

A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, a fact that is a piece of the subtext rather than the headline for the artist, Gortner was originally discovered through his thesis exhibition by gallery owner Mike Weiss who referred him to gortner’s current representation, Michael Lyons Wier. The artist speaks highly of the gallery owner, whom he felt an immediate connection with.

“He follows his creative gut. I’m just in line with his sort of vision and he’s creating at the same time. It’s a symbiotic relationship between an artist and a gallerist,” says Gortner.

For Gortner, Death and rebirth or an important theme in his artistic expression. From the death of a childhood friend that reawakened his artistic abilities to the cemetery community to his technique of giving life to found paintings, Gortner is mused by crossroads and the fluidity of conceptual realism that plays with these two juxtaposing ideas, creating windows into hearts of people and communities; entire worlds upon worlds.

“Art is a sort of continuous, malleable thing that goes over time and history. We’re contributing or building into that collectively. The idea being that the art isn’t actually these things that we make; objects. But it’s more the ideas; it’s more the feeling. It’s more the situation around the artwork being created; the larger space around the piece.”

 

—-Margaux Galli

Margaux is a New York City based writer and artist. She is the Editor-In-Chief of Pop Surrealism Magazine.

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Gina Martynova: Starry-Eyed Ambition by Margaux Galli

Gina Martynova

By Gina Martynova

Artwork of Gina Martynova

 

After many generations of a presumably dying genre of the fashion industry, fashion illustration is now making a comeback in the vein of wearable fine art. In our times of advanced technology in the world of digital printing and photography, traditional techniques are again rising in popularity to contrast the shiny and predictable world of mainstream fashion. With improved techniques for printing on clothing, fashion illustration is developing beyond the confines of concept art and commercial use to be deeply ingrained in the aesthetic of clothing itself.
Despite some overlaps and various collaborations, fashion and fine art have, for the most part, remained respectfully distant cousins, “frenemies” in some cases. However, there is a need for accessibility in art as well as fashion. As much as many would love to keep art and fashion in the their proverbial places, watching one another tentatively, the rest of us are unimpressed.
Gina Martynova, a New York based surrealist fashion illustrator and designer, believes in the accessibility of both fine art and fashion. In an industry that favors digital painting over traditional, Martynova leans more towards the traditional, preferring the use of watercolor, pencil, and ink for original creations. She does, however, utilize design technology to translate, enhance, and repeat her original works onto clothing, deriving her skills from her educational background in textiles.
She is also a designer for Ozone Socks and is working on their newest project for the Metropolitan Museum’s first sock collection.
Gina intends to ride the wave of swelling interest for her one-of-a-kind pieces featuring the “Starry aesthetic”; a character the artist uses to personify her style. Martynova’s Starry Collective is a grassroots fashion operation co-run by business partner Bjorn DelaCruz and fashion designer/seamstress Melissa Farra.
The collective has participated in pop-up shops and art exhibitions but they have dreams of runway shows, a legitimized brand, and a store. Currently, they are sampling scarves and designing a kimono featuring Starry. Martynova discusses the importance of local product and community to further her projects:
“We’re trying to keep it local because there’s a lot of issues in the world where people are being overworked. [I want to] create a creative community because that’s slowly getting lost in New York and I think it’s important to keep it because that’s what New York is about. It’s about fresh ideas and open-mindedness. We don’t want [Starry] to be a cheap article. We want it to be beautiful, very thought provoking.”
Gina describes “Starry” on her website as a “vagabond alien botanist who travels the universe exploring nature and specimens of life.” A bit of a vagabond herself, the artist gleams her style from a variety of cultural influences and life experiences. Describing herself as a “third culture kid”, her work visually embodies her sixteen years living in Thailand (Her father was a UN translator), her Russian heritage, and an American-based education through an international school in Thailand. Before coming to New York to attend the coveted Fashion Institute of Technology, she spent a year in the UK studying at the London College of Fashion. Martynova’s Multi-cultural consciousness is especially noticeable in her Of F & F Tales Collection. These whimsical pieces display portraits of women in a Euro-Asian aesthetic and wearing headdresses featuring culture infused pattern. Martynova nostalgically associates this imagery with Russian folklore and its connection with nature, as well as fruits and fauna of Thailand. The incorporation of clothing itself is also a factor in the way of distinguishing culture. “When you go to a Russian church, like Russian Orthodox, you actually see women covering their hair with the kokoshnik (headdress). In the northern hill tribes in China, they also wear headdresses as a daily part of life… The whole thing about the headdresses is this sort of contained opulence or contained detail,” says Martynova.
Gina also describes her work as “eerie yet inviting” and it undoubtedly can be seen in the Starry Forest and Of F & F Tales collections where she combines charming and stylized imagery with darker, juxtaposing images such as flies and skeletons in color palettes of blues, purples, pinks, and reds. The creatures she composes are decidedly feminine but also hold a sort of “otherworldliness” that is haunting and fiercely lovely. One cannot decide if it is frightening or beautiful and Gina is not interested in just one or the other. Her simple conclusion is balance, a calling she associates with Taoist philosophies of harmony and Japanese ukiyo-e prints.
The existential distance of the arts is what keeps it whimsical and mysterious in the eyes of the viewers. However, it could also be the death of it and it’s important to keep it accessible to all communities.
“I think the next step is to get one-of-a-kind fashion where you customize it for yourself and it doesn’t matter the size or what gender you are. Most people can’t afford art, especially original art but wear it on your shoes, wear it on your shirt, as a gown…usually fashion illustration is very straightforward. It’s not very deep; it’s not really considered fine art. Now I think the gaps are closing and fashion illustration can be fine art,” says Martynova.
Whether we would like to admit it or not, fashion is often an intricate part of how we choose to visually represent ourselves. In some ways, clothing is more personal than a painting on the wall because it has many different personal uses. It is weaved into the everyday. It is something like a second skin, a material that can induce comfort and personal expression. Despite reservations, fashion can serve as a viable agent in building bridges because of the personal and massively attainable nature of clothing.
Don’t miss an opening exhibition party on April 10 for Gina Martynova at Bristle + Crème in Manhattan featuring her Spring Fashion Tales collection in celebration of spring’s arrival. The exhibition will last a month. For more information, check out http://www.bristleandcreme.com.
For further inquiry on Gina Martynova, check out http://www.ginamartynova.com

This article is soon to be published in Pop Surrealism Magazine at the end of March (www.popsurmag.com)

—Margaux Galli
Margaux Galli is currently based out of New York and is the Editor-in-Chief at Pop Surrealism Magazine. She is also a freelance writer and artist. For more of Margaux’s writing, check out her blog at http://www.urbanartistsblog.wordpress.com. Her artwork is located at http://www.margauxgalli.com

Presa Hall: Through The Eyes of a Black Sheep

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There is an aspect of artistry that contradicts the most important part of being an artist.  The main purpose of an artist is to create.  However, a creative must also shed away in order to begin anew and within the same token must preserve their foundations so that the seeds of creation can grow. 

Presa Hall, a new artist to the city of New York, has proved herself worthy to the progress of life.  Originally from Utah and raised in a strict, Mormon family, she has been influenced by her own spiritual struggles and seeks to explore the “good and evil that battles inside all of us.”

At age nineteen, Presa slowly began to doubt her religion after a personal struggle influenced her to look deeper into the beliefs she had been raised with since childhood.

“After studying and actually learning about the values, I started to doubt because it didn’t fit with what I thought my values should be. Instead of leaving the religion right away, I decided to study a little bit more about other religions and [make a] full decision about leaving it. After I finally decided that [it wasn’t] the religion for me, it was like a weight off of my shoulders. I felt really good about myself,” says Hall.

 The years following this epiphany inspired Presa to discover what was beyond the standards of Mormonism and what she considered a sheltered upbringing.  In her painting called significantly The Black Sheep’s Glory, a group of sheep is depicted with one black sheep in the center.  This piece encapsulates Presa’s personal experiences and rather than falling prey to negativity surrounding her upbringing, she chooses to remain light-hearted and uses humor to establish her narrative language as an artist.

“A nickname given to me was ‘the black sheep’ and it’s a joke with my family and I. As a kid, I followed the religion to the T but I always had this outlook about what people who aren’t Mormon do. I thought it was in the club, throwing bottles, being crazy, being sinful, and it was almost like this painting is a satire on what I thought as a kid.  I painted that black sheep in the environment that I imagined to shed light on how silly it is because obviously there are different shades of white and black, there’s gray. It’s not black and white. It’s not this is evil, this is good,” says Hall.

Coming from an artistic family Presa has been influenced by a ballet dancer for a mother, a published author for a father, and a painter for a sister. Being the last of five children, a young Presa found ways to stand out amongst the gaggle of family. She learned to express herself not through words, which were sometimes lost, but through visually representing her feelings.  According to Presa, the best way to get to know her would be to look at her artwork.

“When I was a little girl, I wouldn’t really say much that was emotional or personal. I didn’t feel like I had to say it in words. , I would talk a lot to shout over my brothers, over my sister, over my family and I would never get responses or answers.  So I would go do my own thing and then eventually my family would want to see all my artwork. Then you can’t ignore that, a piece of art that your kid made to show how she feels about something.”

Although some of her work stems from past challenges in her life, Most of Presa’s pieces seem to represent the musings of a young woman exploring her newly found independence and contrast within herself. As a further extension of her talent and her need to express emotion, most of her work has been inspired by her poetry and life experiences. “I want my paintings to tell a story, and invoke the emotion I had while creating it. I hope that my paintings will portray a moment in my life, a feeling, a person or place that made a significant impact. Colors can symbolize the feeling I want the viewer to have or invoke an emotion or memory of their own.”

Like many artists and ambitious individuals, Presa dreamed of coming to New York since she was a teenager, a dream fueled by the idea that the city was a hub for serious artists.  Eventually, as Presa grew older, the dream rose up again when after many years of living on her own and working at jobs she wasn’t passionate about, she decided to make the big move. Presa describes New York as a challenge and felt it was the driving force on what has kept her on an artistic path.

“When I had to make that final decision of should I go to L.A., should I go to New York…it was kind of a toss between the two…I decided to go with my original plan of when I was a teenager and envisioned that life for myself and just took a chance. It was kind of spur of the moment, got a one way ticket, and just came here with one bag.”

After three years in New York and many layers shed to form the woman she is today, Presa feels more confident as an artist because she is finally being true to herself. Despite many spiritual and lifestyle differences, her family shows pride in their daughter’s success. A lot of us can relate to Presa’s story of feeling out of place and realizing that some values you’ve been raised with are no longer who you want to be, but this artist has clearly made peace with the past and carved out a place in the art world where she can be free to express herself. This ambition and fearlessness has earned Presa numerous solo shows, mural spaces, and a place in this year’s Miami Art Basel through Hangar Gallery where she showcased her most recent series of work called Eye Constellations. In this collection, Presa juxtaposes close ups of irises, star constellations, and NASA images of stars. Gleaming off of the idea that the eyes are windows to our soul, Presa uses the glints in eyes to form the star constellations of different astrological signs.  Each piece in the collection represents a different constellation, utilizing color and features of the eye to represent the “personality” of that sign. A both clever and beautifully conceived collection, Presa hopes to continue the use of texture that she created with recycled materials dipped in acrylic and ceramic base in her future pieces.

“I wanted to show a little bit more depth because I feel like in my life, a lot of my friends’, and when people talk to me there’s always a struggle in the day-to-day of even simple decisions and a lot of self-doubting. I want to have pieces now that represent that conflict. I want to evoke a feeling the moment they look at it.”

For further inquiry about Presa Hall, please check out her website at http://www.artbypresa.com
Article to be published in April 2014 for NY Centric Magazine (nycentricmagazine.com)

  —Margaux Galli

Jon Siegel: An Artist of Space and Community

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299075_10150455791674535_1905322262_nviracocha

 

I met Jon Siegel a couple years ago by recommendation to attend an open-mic poetry and performance event at Viracocha; his antique shop by day, venue by night. At this point, Viracocha is synonymous with Jon Siegel. Through threads of his own history and the contribution of the local artist community of San Francisco, as Jon prefers it, space is his art and his life. It is the orifice through which local community, artists, and consumers can connect as people, creating a life of richness through reuse of preexisting goods and supporting local artists. To understand Jon as a person and artist, I think it fair to start with Viracocha itself. Like much of Jon’s personal journey, Viracocha is a hodgepodge of facility strewn together by the community who has nurtured, built, and supported the endeavor since 2009. This community includes musicians, poets, artists, businesspeople, locals, and whoever happens to stumble into the place which is not unlike stumbling into a time portal or a looking glass. Stepping into Viracocha can transform people. Jon’s continual emphasis on community, visual flair, and expression is what makes this so. “In use and feel of course the one thing I [want is] to inspire people. I want to inspire people to snap out of what they were going through on the sidewalk, on the street, in their lives and when they walk into this space to be transported. To get out of their own heads, to be thrust with their own sense of creativity…to have the artistic process within them start the moment they walk in.” says Siegel. For me and I know for others who experience the space on many levels, have felt inspired because it is quite possibly one of the most unique, well-conceived art spaces in San Francisco.

This article is not about Viracocha. I’m not writing a review despite the fact that everyone should know about this place. The motive for me is to showcase an artist which is not easy when Jon is so wonderfully humble. He considers himself a very shy and reserved person, preferring not to be always explaining what the space is about, therefore he rarely does interviews. But I hope my years of adoration for the space and somewhat consistent rapport with Jon has allowed him to feel comfortable divulging his thoughts on the matter of artistic exploration.
We met up for an interview in early July on a hot summer day, very fittingly where Jon spends most of his time, at Viracocha. Jon was only five minutes late and I couldn’t help but feel honored to witness him sprint down Valencia Street, momentarily removed from his generally composed and serene demeanor. The store was thankfully cool inside and things had been rearranged from the last time I’d come by. On a personal level, Viracocha always harkens back to so many fond memories of mine and is a vein that has connected me to so many people that to be in this space again for this purpose restores a sense of belonging and a desire to impart this possibility to others. Jon has continued to impress all the while choosing to stay mostly behind the scenes and ensure the bolstering of other people’s artistic endeavors. “For me, the whole thing is an experiment. It’s sort of a sociological and economic experiment to see if people can gather together, work together, [and] make a life for each other, certainly all contributing as much as they can. Also that means the community as well and to have a rapport with them; to make sure that we’re not a cancer within their world, their community but certainly trying to enliven what’s already preexisting…I think having people that you love, care about and believe in, and [then] watching them succeed is a much better motivating factor than just your own success, your own artistic endeavors. I think it’s much more about service to your community than it is about you and your own personal expression,” says Siegel.

Despite Jon’s reservations, there is a story behind the owner of Viracocha who was not always a businessperson in his own right but started out primarily as an artist which, of course, is still the case. He doesn’t profess to have it all figured out by any means.
Jon Siegel was born in 1976 on Valentine’s Day in Bogota, Colombia where he was placed in an orphanage immediately. He lived there for a little under a year until he was adopted by American parents. He grew up in New Jersey and was raised primarily by his mother for the first six years of his life. His parents had split shortly after he’d come to America. He cites his mother as being his first driving force that encouraged him artistically. “She was always trying to inspire me, throwing crayons in my face, colored pencils, going to the art supply store. So I was always drawing from a young age. Around sixth grade, I started getting into poetry and writing.”
The question of artistic training is an important component that I believe every artist has their own personal experience with and opinion on. As a person who has had a considerable amount of time outside of an academic environment and because he’s had a wide range of experiences, I was curious about his take on self-teaching and conventional training. Jon seems to take an egalitarian approach to both sides, believing them both to be very important in the sense that conventional training can serve as a guide in the form of a technique or a teacher that could take an artist to a new path that they may not have found on their own and self-teaching as being an inherent factor. “You’re always going to have to teach yourself about every aspect of your life and it’s always going to filter its way into your work. Just keep your eyes open,” says Siegel. Self-teaching, he believes, is just part of the artistic process and will always be available when needed and, unlike conventional training, is a lot less expensive. Stemming off of the two schools of thought, Jon maintains that talent is the driving force of a successful artist. “If you have talent, you will go somewhere. But it’s also marketing too so there’s a business aspect to the arts education that seems to be left out quite a bit in the academia world.”
Jon moved to New Orleans to attend college for writing and poetry but eventually discovered that he had an aptitude for acting. He began pursuing theatre alongside photography and, to a certain extent, interior design that foreshadows the beginnings of Viracocha. “Living in New Orleans, I got a chance to sort of learn about antiques and it was kind of an older world down there. I [would] go into some thrift stores. It was my first time away from home and decorating my own space…that was the inspiration for me to take my time and really develop my home as an extension of my own artistic self.” After college, he moved to New York City to pursue acting full-time, during which he continued to collect items and had brought a couple with him from New Orleans. After a year or so, friends and friends of friends took notice of his decorating talents and hired him to design their apartments. Jon describes how Viracocha eventually began to take shape in his mind: “It started in New York and it kind of started just up in the sky. I was reading a Sky Mall magazine while flying somewhere and I saw this umbrella and I was like ‘yeah, this is pretty cool. I have absolutely no need for this umbrella but it’s something that I think is a neat design and I think that it’s something somebody should buy…so it started taking on this idea of a store or a boutique, collecting things that I thought were a good design and making a sort of ‘best of’. I was going through New York and I saw [a lot] of retail spaces for rent and the idea started tinkering about at that point in time.”

What I appreciate most about Jon is his ability to take a small idea or thought and gradually manifest it into something great, not only great but something beyond himself. Outside of Viracocha, Jon also hopes to finish his first book which is comprised of three or four poetry serials. He plans to launch them as a compendium of about eight hundred pages. It became obvious to me throughout the interview that Jon is a person who follows his heart and believes in making a life out of combined talents and passions, which is often contrary to what much of the current societal structure tries to impart on us. We are often taught to accept what has been laid before us and walk a certain linear path of life events influenced by what others want. These “others” may include our family, friends, peers, teachers, media, or simply what is valued in our current culture. Artists are those that are struggling to not be put into a particular box or path. Despite the inherent nature of a creative, the world encourages artists to play it safe even though the very basis of creativity is to take risks and challenge boundaries through exploration of different forms of expression.
“’Artist’ or ‘poet’ is not a role, it’s a way of life. It’s who you are so once you dedicate yourself to ‘I am this’ even if you are many things you might have to live a very fractured, psychologically crazy life in order to just accept that you’re an artist because it’s difficult…This world will deem us successful based on our monetary achievements quite often. Mainly, it’s the people you touch. If you’re an artist, that’s a tremendous feat… If you’re able to effect people positively and leave the world a better place, if you’re able to enlighten people, give people the ability to understand themselves…I think as an artist that’s the most important thing”, says Siegel.

Almost every artist comes to a point or perhaps several points where their expression is challenged by varying factors and they experience a hiatus from creative work. The factors that can contribute include stress, lack of funds, traumatic events, isolation, feeling as though the art has no effect on the world, and loss of inspiration. This can be a painful process lasting for years but can also be a time for transformation, moving an artist a hundred steps from a plateau. Jon describes a moment when he felt lost due to tragedy and how he was able to lift himself out of it. “I just stopped everything creative that I was doing right around the time of 9/11. Some friends had passed away and I didn’t understand the role of an artist in this sort of society at that point. I just wasn’t sure what was going on with me and what my role was.”
Jon worked several different jobs including restaurant work and many years in construction. Construction became an avenue where he learned carpentry skills and other abilities that would later pour into the projects of his store but also became an important motivator that pushed him to get back into the arts. “I’d always wanted to focus more on the arts and focus more on what I was able to offer to the world. At one point, I was chopping down a 400 pound air conditioning unit from a ceiling and there’s sparks flying in my face. This 400 pound unit swings in my direction, almost knocks me off the ladder that I was on and I’m there told to do this by my employer with no sort of help, nobody around but myself. I was like, this just seems silly. I feel like I have a lot more to do and I have a lot of other skill sets so how do I make this life work?”
After five years of no artistic endeavors, Jon moved to San Francisco and was reawakened to photography when he was given a digital camera. He began utilizing his design skills honed in New York to set up his photography booths. “…It wasn’t until people started to really appreciate my photography and encourage me to open up a gallery that I thought about the idea of combining an art gallery and home décor store with a retail store and that’s kind of the genesis of it. It took a couple years.”
Sometimes it is imperative for an artist to step away from an environment in order to find their muse again. Places and people can anchor us to our foundation but can also confine artists in ways that keep them from evolving. But the spirit of place can never be forgotten because it exists solely within us and artists can use all their experiences to inform their sense of expression.

The process of building Viracocha is equivocally inspirational as the store that exists today celebrating its third year. I was cautious when asking Jon about personal matters regarding money but I want to paint both sides of a picture that doesn’t just include the highlights of inspiration and following your dreams, but also the stark aspects of business sense and financial means that allow an artist to be stable in their projects. Among many things I have learned from artists who are successful on many levels, a balance of business sense and creative abilities are paramount for their survival.
“There was an investment I made a long time ago. I worked in construction a long time when I was living in New York and I saved up there. When I quit the job, I waited awhile then took out my retirement fund which was more than I was expecting. I moved here to San Francisco and started pursuing photography, found some headway but it seemed to make sense to start something a little bit more large scale and pursue a very old dream that I had with the store,” says Siegel.
A huge part of being an artist is also being your own businessperson and/or surrounding yourself with people who are knowledgeable about business and marketing. In Jon’s case, hiring a real estate agent was the key to sealing the deal in obtaining the space for Viracocha after running into obstacles when trying to make proposals on his own. “…they didn’t want to rent out to any sort of brand new, upstart business because it didn’t pan out in the past. I just didn’t find that I was touching people at least in the real estate world with my vernacular of being a poet and a writer, maybe it sounded too flowy and creative so I hired a real estate agent on my behalf to act as a broker and that immediately sealed it. It made it much easier to get real estate people to talk to me. At that point, we just had to prove there was a certain amount of funds,” explains Siegel.
The professionalism of an artist is not just demeanor but also built up over a period of time through experience and people who are willing to take risks on trusting his/her ability. It’s important for an artist to know how to market and present themselves as a person who can commit and contribute in a positive way. “[Obtaining the space was] based on my proposal which was pretty much three different resumes. I had my resume as an actor, my resume as a writer, performer, and my resume for [other] work-related stuff…It impressed the landlord enough to say he has a track record of getting things done. He went on a gamble. A lot of people were offering twice the amount of money for the space but he knew that our proposal was a lot more in line with the community and he already found difficulty with renting out to larger, commercial companies because the community is very resistant towards that kind of thing.”
The reality is that creating art takes money whether you’re a painter or a writer, and this is especially the case if you’re running a space for artists. An art space such as Viracocha is meant for public use and thus is no longer purely an extension of Jon’s personal projects but participates in upholding an artistic community. On another level, the store has served as an example of how community can influence the flow of the marketplace not just the other way around.
Jon received the keys on October 16, 2009 and started construction in November. He gives much of the credit to the San Francisco poetry community for their donated physical labor involved in construction, carpentry, plumbing, electricity, and painting. “People got paid with pizza and cheesesteaks and beer but it was a lot more effort put out than we could recompense,” says Siegel. A production meeting was held in late October where Jon said about twenty-four people showed up. He presented the tasks that lay ahead, designated roles, and came up with a schedule. In the beginning, Jon says that there was a lot of steam behind the project and “seemed to all fit together” but no projects are absent of challenges especially when other people are involved. “At some point, you know, they’ve all got their own jobs, they’ve all got their own lives…at some point it started to peter off. I looked around and nobody was here for a good portion of time. So it was on my shoulders to say you know you can’t just sit and hope it all materializes.” Due to his resiliency, personal commitment to hard work, and a history of insomnia (he unabashedly admits it contributes to the reason he gets so much done), Jon continued much of the painting and wood work on his own. However, people in the community eventually came back to help when it became obvious that he wasn’t about to give in just yet. “Once it showed that I was still making headway despite there not being a lot of folks around, people came back, people got re-inspired…you have to be the hardest working person in the business. If you’re going to have any sort of people helping you out or any sort of staff, you have to inspire them by making them know that you’re putting your effort in as much as you possibly can. I’ve tried to stick to that as much as possible.”
Three years later, Viracocha has become a vibrant center for the arts and healthy consumerism that promotes the needs of the community. It is also a constantly shifting, evolving space that Jon and his closest friends have built together. Aside from being visually very beautiful and creatively constructed with its recycled redwood panels that cover all the walls of the store and unusual vintage items, Viracocha offers a variety of services that keeps getting bigger each year. “Each day and as each week goes by, a new role is added to the store or a new function is somehow applied and we just suddenly find ourselves ‘Oh well! I guess we do that too!’” says Siegel with fervor.
These services include interior design work, decorative building, and carpentry. They also build industrial style lamps and various chandeliers. Sourcing is also offered if a client is looking for a particular item, Viracocha can find it for them. It has also been used as a decorative space for photographers, movies, and music videos. There is a downstairs level used as a performance space and for private parties in conjunction with the retail section. I personally have enjoyed many poetry readings, live music, and a singing class downstairs. The space can also be rented out for private events such as weddings and birthday parties. Viracocha also has a small lending library in the back run by Kristina Kearns that offers a sliding scale membership and sourcing for hard to find books.
Through Viracocha, Jon has learned a lot about himself within the challenges that it has presented. Interacting with the public as a businessperson and an artist has been an obstacle that he has learned to adapt to. In addition to being shy, Jon also says he is more comfortable with expressing himself through writing and performing, rather than talking or representing a business. But he finds it necessary to learn how to reach out to others for the sake of being more approachable to the community and understanding his role within it. “I prefer not to be on stage as far as my name and my personal persona is concerned. I don’t mind acting with a blanket of it being acting or the blanket of it being a role. But to have my name and my face and my person attached to something that I’m doing on a consistent basis is a bit difficult for me. I’ve learned to be better at it, learned to talk. This has been a healthy experience for me.”

For Jon, every day seems to be a learning experience and he is secure in his capability to be open. He emphasizes the importance of change. “Nothing is without some sort of constant revision outside of our control so it’s just trying to adapt. To me, writing, performing are a way to adapt and learn from myself. I feel like I have to do this stuff because it’s just a way for me to try to understand and to bring people closer in my life.”
Anything can be subject to Jon’s fascination, citing nature as his “greatest teacher” and the contrasting “balance of calm and titillation.” He recognizes that solitude and hardship are a part of the identity of an artist. This is often the case because it is part of what it means to be human and artists seek to immerse themselves completely in the questions raised about humanity. Sometimes these questions raise fears in others that are often projected onto the artist, casting them as dangers to a seemingly impenetrable society of walls and expectations. But Jon is not bitter by any means and seems to accept life as it comes. “There are no rules, really. What we have to do is survive, that’s the only thing we were trusted with. Just to figure out how to make it through the day, fall asleep and do it again. The other things that have pressed upon us over time, I try not to pay attention to them…I planted this crazy seed which was everything that I had and it’s an experiment and it’s a dream but so far it seems to be growing.”

Further information on Viracocha can be accessed on http://www.viracochasf.com or through Facebook.

-Margaux Galli

Daniel Anderson: An Artist’s take on balance and survival.

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When choosing my first artist to interview, Daniel Anderson was the obvious choice as an artist who has built a life out of his creative endeavors, a “successful” artist in my mind. I first met Daniel a couple years ago when we were both living in a warehouse in the SOMA district of San Francisco.  He was entrenched in painting his walls using garbage bags to create texture in the paint and building a bench out of an abandoned door.  Almost immediately, I found him to be innovative, practical, and a very kind person.  Over the years, I spent time with him in his studio and it was clear to me that he had put a great deal of effort into creating a space for art. I remember sitting on his cushions and noticing a basket filled with markers, which he graciously encouraged me to experiment with.  On any given day that I would visit him, he would usually be engaged with a new project or experiment of some kind.  Often he would be simply painting a symbol of interest in a small pad or giddily playing with new software, talking of his plans with every bit of practicality and the ability to take risks.  Something I wish to highlight with Daniel is his constant striving for balance, despite not always acquiring constant equilibrium he seems to always strive for it and make it the foundation of his artistic practice. “It comes down to discipline for me…Sometimes I burn myself out quickly because I’ll get so excited about a project that I won’t stop working on it.  That’s the opposite imbalance of procrastinating, but it’s still imbalance.” 

In several of our personal discussions on what it means to be an artist, the concept of having a healthy relationship with your art has come up often.  All artists have felt at one time the presumption of others or themselves that the artistic life is automatically synonymous with the impoverished and unhappy life. Daniel has often questioned and/or challenged the stereotype of the starving artist by rejecting that ultimate sense of victimhood that comes along with it.

“I feel I succeed as an artist when I do good work that I love and someone else loves it too.  But I’m also human and need to survive. Some artists, even when they’re successful as artists, don’t survive or choose not to survive. Why does our art sometimes make us self-destructive? I feel a successful artist somehow must also be a successful human.”  

Growing up in an artist family (his mother a silversmith and painter, his father a musician) and interacting with the world as a visualist, Daniel cites abstract expressionism as one of his first artistic loves as a teenager. His influences include Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning, and Diebenkorn. He later gained an interest in movement and performance by spending time with a pyrotechnic circus troupe called Flam Chen and was trained in silk aerial, a form of acrobatic movements performed on hanging fabric. “They introduced me to Butoh, stilting, and ritual as performance.  Most importantly, I learned that the body can be an instrument of expression.  I also learned this by studying Aikido, which turns the body into a tool for physical interaction.”

 Daniel’s interests in movement, performance, interaction, and visuals have been congruously carried through into his current projects.”Right now I’m using the Leap device, which is a spatial hand sensor.  I hope to create an interactive instrument that artists and performers can use to create visuals and sound or both.  A cross between a theremin and a DJ mixer…I’m also working with video mapping, so I’m starting to think about light as a way of [bringing] sculpture and architecture to life.  Right now I have a small tetrahedron that works well for rooms.  Eventually I hope to have a whole series of platonic-like solids that I can play like live light sculptures with a series of gestural hand routines.”  He recently has constructed a pyramid out of fabric and cardboard where he projects preconceived digital images on the surface and manipulates them using the Leap device.  He has already performed live VJ shows in local venues under the nickname Blondknaut and encourages spectators to join in.  Daniel’s hope is to encourage communal interaction for this project.

 Describing his artistic essence, Daniel notes language as his medium.  He seeks to use his ability to express as a mode to influence himself and others on a spiritual, psychological, and metaphysical level.  He believes in evolving out of a “current state of awareness” by using the symbolic power of art to evoke conscious changing metamorphosis. “I’m really interested in how symbols form reality.  Everything we do seems to be a reflection of our psychology, which seems to be informed by symbols.  Everything in the world is or can be a symbol, including art.  So When I create a new symbol and digest it, like I do a work of art, I can use it to modify my psychology.”

 All artists have their own set of behaviors, rituals, or philosophies that keep them focused and inspired to stay constructive with their projects.  Ultimately, creating art is often an individualistic and self-motivating process that is often lengthy and mentally taxing.  Thus, artists have to look within themselves for modes of energy. “I drink [a lot] of coffee.  I also listen to a lot of music; sometimes I imprint music with stories or images so I can “play back” ideas or scenes.  I also try to remind myself that someday I will die; that the planets spin around, seasons change, and everything changes.  I personally feel very driven to accomplish because of that.  I have a lot of ideas, but I don’t have infinite time.  Sometimes thinking about that pulls me through projects and also pick one over the other.”            

Daniel garners strength from being versatile and creates from as many facets as possible.  However, he also knows the value of specializing. He describes his artistic background as a trained painter, but working professionally as a software developer. His main focus as of now is making art through technology but makes it clear that he’s not just an “artsy technologist.” “I have a job that marginally informs what I do artistically; I think of the job as resources I can siphon off into what I really want to do until siphoning it is no longer necessary, because the art got big enough.”

This speaks to an often shared experience among most artists.  As an artist, can I or do I want to make money off of what I do? Does my art support me or do I have to support it?  The answers to these questions are not always straight forward and can vary according to experience and lifestyle.  Many artists frown at the idea of “selling out”, as if wanting to make money off of your work or working for a corporation is a cardinal sin.  While there is a misconception that an artist can only be one if they make a profit, it seems imperative that a dedicated artist must find resources to support a lifestyle of art.  In Daniel’s case, art isn’t just something that he does; it is a part of his identity as well.  Understanding business and supporting a lifestyle in a way that works for them is imperative for professional artists.  While Daniel does gleam much of his artistic sense from the spiritual and metaphysical, he also in accordance to his strive for balance looks to the needs of survival.  He has a simple yet informative approach to how artists are “successful” and how they could make money off of what they do. “Start a business.  Learn how to work the system.  All systems are games anyway; instead of being its slave, make it your master.  Start early and do something natural to you, then keep doing it and never let up.  Eventually it’ll become a skill that follows you everywhere; you’ll become known for it, and you can start getting work from it…Be persistent, polite, and patient.”

The “failure” or “success” of an artist is subjective to the eyes of the beholder but as far as making a profit, the results can fluctuate from one to the other in very close succession. Owning art is often considered a luxury and not the first thing that most people think of buying especially in the wake of our recessive economy.  The art world is also very competitive with many artists and very few buyers. “It seems art can be a commodity or an experience: art-driven festivals versus art objects that can be purchased.” says Anderson.

Creativity, risk taking, and innovation are irrevocably important to the artist but when it comes to making a business out of it, like any other venture, it is important to weigh your options and create alternatives.”When you start getting success, don’t let up.  Because failure can come any day.  Be careful about making your passion your business. Try doing something you’re passionate enough about to make a business out of it, but won’t get hung up [over] if it goes dry.”

 Many artists have to consider the benefits of traditional training versus self-teaching.  Both perspectives have their own set of benefits both personally and professionally.  Artists tend to make choices based on the benefits of a degree, what financial resources are available, and lifestyle.   Daniel cites both as being important to his artistic education but tends to lean more towards the self-taught school of learning.  He spent two years at Maryland Institute College of Art but did not obtain his degree.

“I didn’t think the degree offered a gain worth the price tag…today it applies to me little professionally, but it applies everyday personally and artistically.  Most education I think is like this, especially when degrees and certificates cost more in loans than they’re worth in jobs.  It’s a bubble and it’ll burst under the pressure of technologies that distribute information everywhere.  But that’s for the majority of things.” He is concerned about the cutting and devaluing of arts and music in public education for the purpose of boosting science, math, and engineering.  In many societal spaces, the arts are not valued as a useful skill set because it is not an obvious ability that can be packaged and labeled, but Daniel is of the opinion that art programs should be an intricate part of community and the individual. “To me, that’s like cutting out the soul of a program.  Art can be a tool for healing at the individual and community level, but seems avoided because it’s considered edgy, dangerous, or simply too unpalatable to work with.”

 However, Daniel does not discourage or regret formal education and encourages artists to go if they feel it is right for them.  Institutional learning can create a community that allows an artist to grow personally. “Art school is useful and if you feel you should go you probably should…those two years broke me out of my mold and allowed me to explore…sometimes there’s no replacement for a life drawing class.” Considering himself a “self-taught artist with some training”, he believes that a dedicated artist reinvents themselves several times, thus self-teaching is inevitable and encourages others to gleam as much information as they can from whatever resources are available as long as they are supplementing one another. 

“Learn to draw and learn to code.  Train the eye and train the mind.  If you can do both, you can build what you can imagine.  I’m self-taught in most of what I do and believe that anyone with the will to do it can learn these things on their own.  Learn how to reinvent yourself and learn how you can learn.  Then never stop.”

 Daniel’s portfolio and blog can be seen at www.knaut.net

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A Slice of Italy in New York City

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cat and giooutside I am coffee

Every New Yorker will agree that coffee is a main staple of the hustle and bustle City life.  For a city on the move during the coldest months of the year, New Yorkers are thirsty for an artisanal delight among the parade of corporate, watered down versions of a good cup of coffee.  If you’re on the go but still crave a cup of something authentic and high-quality, no worries fellow city-dwellers, I present to you a little slice of Italy called I am Coffee on 9 Saint Marks Place run by Giovanni Finotto and Caterina Musajo.

 I Am Coffee is literally a little slice of Italy.  The store itself is 100 square feet and built only from materials from Italy including granite cobblestone for the floor used in Italian streets.  Co-owner, Giovanni Finotto, describes the unusual process of how the shop was built: “We went to an architect and he literally fell in love with the project.  We built a box in the country side of Italy- the same shape and the same size as the store.  And then we built the store in the box.  When it was done, we cut everything in pieces and shipped them over in two boxes.  In three days, we reassemble the store.  So every single thing comes from Italy, even the screws.”

Despite I Am Coffee’s diminutive size, the rich atmosphere and the shop’s preference for older ways of making Italian style coffee fills customers with an appreciation for tradition.  Giovanni and Caterina have an insatiable passion for their business and coffee.  Their affable social demeanor and knowledge is contagious and people can’t help but to be drawn in by it.  Every time I have swung by the shop, whether it be on a casual Tuesday or on a Saturday, I Am Coffee has quickly become a fan favorite of Saint Mark’s Place.  Despite the popularity that the store has managed to attract, both owners have managed to stay humble and are very personable with every customer.  They take pride in creating a social and interactive environment for customers by intimately discussing the process as they make the coffee.  “I want them to know the project, the idea of the project…to be able to check the difference.  This is why I have to talk and show them.” Says Finotto.

 I Am Coffee started as I Am Wine (www.iamwine.it/en), a family business through Giovanni’s brother- Nicola Finotto and Uncle- Michele Finotto, who own an online wine store in Italy that is also artisan-focused and preserves traditional techniques. “The artisan is the key of access to the identity of the product because they work with it and they have confidence with it.  They know the psychology of the products, you know?”

Giovanni speaks passionately about the 2 year journey he, Caterina, and his brothers embarked on all over Italy to learn the older techniques of coffee artisans.  The journey included familiar destinations such as Milan, Naples, Bologna, Torino, and Rome. His interest in preservation of the techniques of artisans is both inspirational and grassroots at the same time: “We stop by, we work with them, study with them and no one say no because we’re not a brand of coffee.  We are a project.  A platform where we put together the knowledge, the culture, the products, the techniques, the skills…all the things that come from the artisanal tradition.  It’s the only way to save it because if you write it down in the books, you just kill it.”

 Giovanni himself is only twenty-six but is already a confident business-person with a love for his own culture that hopes impart to others as they sample the beauty of what I Am Coffee has to offer New York City.  Born close to Bergamo and growing up in Crema, he is accustomed to small, old cities of about 40,000 people.   “[In Italy] Most of the time you’re in a small city, you know everyone.  We talk to each other.  It’s a way to socialize, share a space, feel [like] you’re part of a community.  It’s a real social moment.” When mentioned that perhaps it could be challenging to get some New Yorkers away from their laptops and phones, Giovanni agreed but felt it was all the more reason for him to be here.

 He reminisces fondly of Crema, a foreshadow of where his traditional values have probably stemmed from.  “It’s a very small place where social life is very slow but everyone dress up on Sunday, young people go to church and they hang out in the piazza.  They go to bars.  It’s a very old style city…and it’s still very pure.  A lot of traditions are preserved.”

 While New York is a large city that is far from slow and at the height of modernism, perhaps we can still learn from the traditions of the past.  Perhaps some of those ways were never flawed to begin with.  Every once in a while, New Yorkers could do well to slow down and chat with your local coffee store owner.  As far as a message and marketing strategy that I Am coffee wishes to project to the public, Giovanni prefers to take a more organic approach and allow the story behind the store front to speak for itself