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'Spirit of Community' Highlights Period of El Barrio Art

By Jeff Mays | April 18, 2013 8:22am

HARLEM — In many ways, Manny Vega sees himself as among the last of a dying breed of visual artists to come out of East Harlem.

"I call it the East Harlem or El Barrio school," said Vega, who is well known for his public murals and mosaics.

"From the late 1960s through the early 1970s there was this traffic of visual artists. I was young then, fresh out of high school, and developed my chops working with community based organizations.

"It's very unlikely that that would occur again in this time period," he said.

Also recognizing the significance of that period is Community Works, which has organized a show featuring Vega and several of his contemporaries — John Ahearn, Diógenes Ballester, Rodriguez Calero, Marcos Dimas, Lina Puerta, Fernando Salicrup and Nitza Tufiño — from that era.

Spirit of Community: Artists of El Barrio & Beyond focuses on the works of these artists and the role they played in making El Barrio the center of the formation of Puerto Rican identity while at the same time transcending those boundaries.

"It's a remarkably eclectic mix of art that has grown out of this community," said Barbara Horowitz, founder and president of Community Works. "Sometimes you are close to greatness in your own backyard and you don't realize it.

"The community knows it but needs to be reminded of it," she added.

They can be reminded of the works of many of the artists just by walking down the street. Many of those included in the show have made their marks through public art.

"These artists tell their stories in multiple ways and very public ways," Horowitz said.

In the 1970s, Vega helped Hank Prussin paint the giant "Spirit of East Harlem" mural located at East 104th Street and Lexington Avenue. He was called in decades later to help restore it after it was defaced by graffiti.

Vega's mosaics can also be spotted around East Harlem, including one of Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. Sculptor John Ahearn’s lifecasts can be seen throughout the neighborhood and Tufiño and Puerta are also no strangers to public art.

But the great things about the artists in the exhibit is that they can't be constrained to small categories and have refused to be "compartmentalized as Latino artists or community artists," Vega said.

Dimas, Tufiño and Salicrup often used their art as a form of political protest. Many of the artists, including  Ballester, have been exhibited in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia, Horowitz said.

The exhibit explores all of their work in multiple contexts.

"As I'm getting older I'm feeling more global. The more I travel the closer I come to home," Vega said. "And that's what I want to share with young people, that it's important to go out into the world to get a perspective of community so you can come back and build on it."

An opening reception for Spirit of Community: Artists of El Barrio & Beyond will be held Thursday, April 18 from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at The Interchurch Center, 475 Riverside Dr. RSVP to (212) 459-1854 or e-mail qc@communityworksnyc.org. The exhibit will remain open through May 5.