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We first came upon Stephen Spagnoli’s mesmerizing aesthetic on the walls of the Living Museum, a treasure trove of art on the grounds of the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. During the Living Museum’s Open House several weeks ago, we were delighted to finally meet the artist behind the artworks that had so entranced us. We have since had the chance to interview him.

When did you first begin drawing? And what did you draw at the time?

I was five when I first started to draw.  It was mostly cars and motorcycles.

What inspired you to begin doing art?

From early on, creating art was therapeutic. My father was a psychiatrist. He was also an alcoholic. We were constantly traveling from one city to another as my father’s place of employment shifted. There was no stability in my life. When I was ten, my father committed suicide. Art and music have saved my life.

Had you any cultural influences?

Not in my art. But among my musical influences are 80’s New Wave and 70’s pop.

Any favorite artists? 

I do feel a kindred spirit to Frida Kahlo in that physical pain has colored my very existence for too long—as it did hers. But while her aesthetic was realistic, mine has been abstract. 

How has your family responded to your artistic bent?

My wife and kids are proud of me. They see me as an example of perseverance.

How much time do you generally spend on a piece?

Anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. I tend to work three hours at a time.

Are you generally satisfied with your final piece?

Yes. If not, I’ll keep working on it.

And your favorite media?

Acrylic. I also like working with oil.

What percentage of your time is devoted to art?

All of it! Even if I’m watching TV, there’s a guitar in my hand.

How has your aesthetic evolved within the past decade?

Early on, it was therapy. It was an expression of my chronic pain. It has since evolved into something more. It is more true to who I am. Now I am free to paint about everything.

Have you a favorite setting to work?

I love being here in the Living Museum with other artists. I feel that I’ve found my tribe here! I’ve been coming here since 2003, and this place still amazes me.

Many of your pieces were fashioned with blacks and whites and shades of grey. Have you Any favorite colors?

Teal blue—it’s warm and cool at the same time.

Have you ever studied art in a formal setting?

No. Sometimes I wish I was trained.  But I’m, also, glad I’m not!

Where are you headed?

I’d like more people to see my work. And I’m trying to refocus on my music.

Interview conducted and edited by Lois Stavsky; photos of Stephen’s artworks by Lois Stavsky

Note: Stephen Spagnoli is one of several Living Museum artists to be featured in Bonnie Astor‘s upcoming exhibition Journeys opening May 4, 7-10pm, at The Local NYC, 1302 44th Avenue in LIC.

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On view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans is “Vernacular Voices,” a group exhibition featuring an eclectic range of works in varied media by self-taught, outsider and visionary artists from the American South. The image pictured above, Elvis at 3, is the work of the late legendary visionary artist and Baptist minister, Howard Finster  Several more images I captured during my recent visit to the delightfully engaging exhibition follow:

The late Georgia-born, self-taught artist George Andrews, Scramble Art, Oil on canvas board

The late Florida-born Columbus “Dude” McGriff aka The Lost Wireman, Red Duck, Black Head, Wire

The late Louisiana-born folk artist Clementine Hunter, Chaleur: The Sun Gives Life to Everything, oil on canvas

The late Miami-based mixed media artist Purvis Young, whose works were recently exhibited in NYC

The late North Carolina-born visionary artist Minnie Evans, Untitled, Mixed media on paper

“Vernacular Voices” continues at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art through July 14. The museum is open daily. For hours and more information, check here.

Photos of artworks by Lois Stavsky

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We first came upon Queens-based Susan Spangenberg‘s infectiously intriguing aesthetic at Fountain House Gallery in Manhattan. Recently, we had the opportunity to spend some time with the lovely multi-talented artist, actor and writer:

When did you first begin doing art?

I was three years old when I started to draw. I hardly spoke. I expressed myself with crayons and pencils. I still remember drawing black circles and orange and yellow leaves. Art has always been my therapy — even back when I was three!

Had you any early inspirations?

Bugs Bunny! I’ve always loved rabbits, and, along with cats, they still play a prominent role in my artwork.

How has your family responded to your artistic bent?

My family was never supportive. No one encouraged me. My mother always belittled me. And no one exposed me to any art as I was growing up..

Have you any favorite artists?

Issa Ibrahim — whom I met when we were both patients at Creedmoor. I love everything he does, and he is a constant inspiration.

Have you any particular cultural influences?

I’m a mix of cultures with roots from the West Indies to India.

How much time do you generally spend on a piece?

I lose track of time when I’m working on a piece. The process of creating is far more important to me than the end result.

Have you any other passions – besides painting?

Acting, writing and feeding homeless cats!

We’ve seen your work  Fountain House Gallery and at Plaxall Gallery in Long Island City. You’ve exhibited in a range of other sites, as well. How important is the viewer’s response to your art?

It’s become important to me. I love it when somebody loves my work.

How has your aesthetic evolved within the past decade?

I have increasingly embraced my Indian roots and have even fashioned myself as an Indian goddess. As a child I was fearful of the goddess, as I saw my mom in her face.  But lately I feel a spiritual connection to her. My art has always been — and continues to be — intensely personal.

What percentage of your time is devoted to art?

I’m not sure. I find myself creating art mostly when I feel low. It’s a way of getting my feelings out. And it’s my way of coping. I have a painting in which I killed myself.  It was a safe way to end it all!

Are you generally satisfied with your final piece?

Not always! I’m very self-critical.

Have you a favorite setting to work?

Alone at home.

And your favorite media?

Pencils, crayons, pens and acrylics. Whatever’s available!

Where are you headed?

I’m currently working on finishing my memoir.

Good luck with that! We are certainly looking forward to it!

Interview conducted by City-As-School intern Alyssa Torres and condensed and edited by Lois Stavsky.

Featured images were photographed by Alyssa and Lois in the following locations: Fountain House Gallery  in Hells Kitchen; Fountain House Studio in Long Island City and Susan’s and Issa’s wondrous Jackson Heights-based Issues Gallery.

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Appy Lands, a tantalizing group exhibition featuring a range of sumptuous, dream-like images by female Aboriginal artists, remains on view at Olsen Gruin on Manhattan’s Lower East Side through April 14. Featured above is Tjala Tjukurpa – Honey Ant Story by the prolific Yaritji Young, who has been painting at the Aboriginal-owned and operated Tjala Arts since 2000. Several more images from Apy Lands follow:

Sylvia Ken, Seven Sisters, Acrylic on linen

Ken Sister’s CollaborativeSeven Sisters, Acrylic on linen, one of many works fashioned collaboratively

Mitakiki Women’s Collaborative, Seven Sisters, Acrylic on linen

Wawiriya BurtonNgayuku Ngura – My Country, Acrylic on linen

Yaritji Young, Tjala Tjukurpa – Honey Ant Story

Located at 30 Orchard Street, the gallery is open Tuesday – Saturday 11am – 6pm and Sunday 11am – 5pm.

Photos of images by Lois Stavsky

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We came upon self-taught artist Paula Brooks’s lyrical landscapes and inventive imagery during one of our early visits to the Living Museum. More recently, we’ve had the opportunity to speak to the distinctly talented and delightfully welcoming Queens-based artist.

When did you first start making art and what inspired you at the time?

I remember doing arts and crafts back in pre-school. But when I was about eight years old, I started to draw characters. I was inspired by the likes of Bambi and Winnie the Pooh. I loved Walt Disney’s characters.

Do any art-related childhood memories stand out?

Yes! I remember when I was in the fourth grade, I was asked to design the backdrop of a forest and trees for the school play. I also remember drawing a parakeet when I was 11 and painting a bird free-hand when I was 13. But I didn’t start to take art seriously until I was in my 20s — and since, it’s become a huge passion.

What happened in your 20s to change your relationship with art? 

When I was a patient at Creedmoor, I met Dr. Marton who invited me to the Living Museum. That’s where I met an entire community of artists. And as I continued to come here, I began to think of myself as an artist. Dr. Marton always encouraged me to express myself freely.

Have you any favorite artists who’ve influenced your aesthetic ?

I love the late American artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

What about cultural influences?

My Rastafarian background has played some  influence — in terms of my choice of colors and subject matter. My art feels like meditation. I get lost in it. It’s part of my healing process.

How long do you generally spend on a piece?

Anywhere from one day to one year —  with an average of two weeks to three months — working four days a week, five hours each day.

Are you generally satisfied with your finished piece?

Yes!

Have you a favorite?

I especially like “Bar Code.”

It’s quite different from most of your work that we’ve seen! How has your aesthetic evolved since you started coming to the Living Museum?

I’ve become more experimental. I use different techniques, and I’ve gotten better.

Have you ever exhibited your work? And how important is the viewer’s response to you?

Yes. Many times in many different settings, including the Queens Museum of Art. The viewer’s response is important to me. I want to feel that my art inspires others.

Have you a favorite setting to work?

I love my space at the Living Museum, and I also like working outdoors in the courtyard of my residence.

What is your favorite media?

Painting with acrylics.

Any favorite colors?

I love green, and I love turquoise. Green is my absolute favorite. It’s the color of my first pair of sneakers I bought at Payless when I was 11!

How has your family responded to your artwork?

My mother and sister love it.

What are some of your other interests?

I like going to recovery meetings, and I love shopping, especially for shoes!

What’s ahead?

I want to keep having fun doing art! And I’d love to travel.This past year, a few of us from the Living Museum traveled to visit Switzerland’s Living Museum. I’d love to see more of the world.

Interview of Paula Brooks conducted by Lois Stavsky with City-As-School intern, Alyssa Torres; photos of artworks by Lois Stavsky 

Note: Paula Brooks is one of several Living Museum artists to be featured in Bonnie Astor‘s upcoming exhibition Journeys opening May 4, 7-10pm, at The Local NYC, 1302 44th Avenue in LIC.

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Born in 1945 in Cuthbert, Georgia, Winfred Rembert spent his youth largely working in the cotton fields. While in prison — where he was sent for participating in a civil rights march — he learned how to fashion tooled-leather wallets and design on leather.

On exhibit through this week at Cavalier Galleries is All Me, a solo exhibition featuring Rembert’s artworks painted on leather sheets that he hand tools and then dyes. A fascinating foray into the life of an African American coming of age in the pre-civil rights South, All Me is an impressive, forceful record of American history.  Pictured above is Dinner Time in the Cotton Field, fashioned with dye on carved and tooled leather. Several more images from All Me follow:

Chain Gang, Dye on carved and tooled leather, 2010

Our TeacherDye on carved and tooled leather, 2014

Civil Rights — I Have a Dream, Dye on carved and tooled leather, 1999

Rocking in Church, Dye on carved and tooled leather, 2011

Saturday Shopping Day, Dye on carved and tooled leather, 2011

Jeff’s Pool RoomDye on carved and tooled leather, 2003

All Me can be seen at 3 West 57th Street through Saturday from 10am to 6pm.

Photos of artworks by Lois Stavsky

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While visiting the YOHO studio of the wondrously creative self-taught artist, Michael Cuomo, I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to him about his recent body of expressive abstracts.

This particular body of work — imbued with colorful, dreamlike imagery — is quite a departure from the amazing masks and figures you construct from found materials and, also, from your many black and white abstract illustrations. What spurred you in this direction?

I felt a need for change and for color. I’m also interested in working in different mediums.

How do you go about choosing your colors? 

I choose colors that I feel at the moment. They serve as a catalyst to the piece. My color palettes are constantly changing, and I find ways to use the colors with each other differently.

Do you work from a sketch?

No. I have no primary sketch or preconception. Everything is done spontaneously.

How do you know when a piece is completed?

When it has said enough.

What do you want your viewers to walk away with?

I want them to be open to alternative realities.

About how many of these expressive abstract artworks have you created?

About 20. I feel now that it’s time to move on.

And do you have any favorites?

My favorites change all the time.

What’s ahead?

I’m working on some new designs with oil paints instead of oil pastels. Each one from this series was fashioned with oil pastel and Indian ink.

Note: You can find out a bit about Michael here, and view some more of his abstract paintings on Bristol paper here. You can, also, follow him on Instagram here.

Interview conducted and edited by Lois Stavsky; photos of images by Lois Stavsky

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Working primarily with a huge range of discarded objects — from scraps of found wood to abandoned doors — the late self-taught Southern artist Purvis Young created an extraordinary body of work reflecting both the African-American experience and the universal one.

During a three-year stint in prison as a teen, Young discovered his passion for drawing. And soon after his release, he became consumed with finding cast-off materials on the streets and transforming them into art. Many of the artworks he fashioned and assembled made their way into a neighboring alley in his Overtown, Miami neighborhood — where they were often “adopted” by passersby, and eventually sought by art collectors.

Within the past year, Young’s work has been exhibited In several prestigious shows — including History Refused to Die at the Metropolitan Museum and Vernacular Voices at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.  Here in New York City, Purvis Young‘s art has been on view these past few weeks in solo exhibitions at both Salon 94 Freemans and James Fuentes. Pictured above is a work created by the artist in 1995 with paint on wood, as seen at James Fuentes. Several more images from the two concurrent exhibits follow:

Untitiled, c. 1990’s, paint on wood with artist’s frame

Untitled, c. late 70’s, Paint on fiberboard

Confusin’ City, 1990. Mixed media, assemblage, cardboard, paper envelope, paint and wood

Untitled, 1994, Paint on linen

The concurrent exhibits continue at James Fuentes Gallery, 55 Delancey Street, 10-6pm through Sunday, March 24 and at Salon 94,1 Freeman Alley, 11-6pm through Saturday. Featured, too, at Salon 94 are several art books assembled by Purvis Young from books discarded by the Miami Public Library. Featuring his distinctly alluring expressionist aesthetic, they are a treasure.

Photos by Lois Stavsky

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We first came upon Issa Ibrahim’s artwork — encompassing a range of styles, subject matter and mediums  — at the Living Museum on the grounds of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. We soon discovered that he is not only a wonderfully talented visual artist, but a gifted musician, eloquent writer and award-winning filmmaker, as well. We were delighted to finally meet him and have the opportunity to interview him.

When did you first begin to create art?

I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. My mom was a painter, and when she set up her easel, she would set me at her feet with watercolor paints and the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album. When my mother was painting portraits of the likes of Mao and Castro, I was doing my thing.

Who or what were some of your early inspirations?

I was inspired by Saturday morning cartoons. I’d be in front of the TV from 6am to noon!  I loved Superman, Batman, Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner…I’ve also been inspired by classical science fiction. Frankenstein was an early favorite.

How did your family respond to your artwork?

My parents felt that I had a gift, and they encouraged it.

Who are some of your favorite artists these days?

I love surrealism. Salvador Dali is my favorite. I also like Norman Rockwell. I like the way he expresses movement.

What about cultural influences? 

I’ve been influenced by the Bible, 20th century history, American history and art history. Quite a few of my paintings reference famous classics.

How has your work evolved through the years?

My work is largely narrative. Everything I do tells a story. And it evolves as I live.

Are you generally satisfied with your work?

I used to feel self-doubt. But these days I’m generally satisfied.

How long do you usually spend on a piece?

Anywhere from one day to several weeks.

What percentage of your time is devoted to art?

That’s difficult to answer. When I’m not creating art, I’m thinking. I think a lot.

What is your favorite media?

I like painting with acrylic because it dries faster.  But I also like the effect of oil and the way it blends. 

Have you a favorite color?

I like working with primary colors. I love shades of blue…periwinkle, purple…

What is your favorite setting to work?

A place that’s somewhat isolated. A space that I can call my own.

Have you a favorite piece?

The last one I’ve created.

Have you a formal art education?

I graduated from the High School of Art & Design. I then spent a year and a half at the School of Visual Arts majoring in Illustration. But I didn’t feel that the experience was fulfilling my soul, and so I began taking classes at the Art Students League.  I studied there for two years.

Was studying art in a formal setting a worthwhile experience?

Yes. It helped me improve my technique. 

Have you exhibited your work? And how important is the viewer’s response to you?

Yes, I’ve exhibited widely in a range of places — from alternative spaces to museums. The response has always been positive. The viewer’s response is not all that important to me, but I like the validation.

What are some of your other interests?

Music. My father was a musician…a bass player. And I remember sitting at his feet when he played. I also love writing and producing videos.

Yes. We love your award-winning musical documentary, PATIENT’S RITES and your memoir, The Hospital Always Wins. What is your main source of income?

Art. My girlfriend and I have set up an Etsy site and an online gallery, Issues Gallery.

You were hospitalized at Creedmoor for almost 20 years. What impact did that have on your art?

It gave me lots of time to think and to work on my skills. And the Living Museum provided me with a huge space to create art and to experiment.

Much of your art is politically and socially conscious, as you take on such themes as race, sex, religion and the imbalance of power. Are there any issues of special importance to you?

I’ve been intent on exposing  — particularly in my memoir and documentary — the injustices I’ve witnessed and experienced in the mental health system.  All that I create, though, is for my mother. She is my guiding force.

What’s next?

I’m currently exhibiting at the Fountain House Gallery in Manhattan and at The Plaxall Gallery in Long Island City. And I’m working on an installation for an upcoming show in Queens.

We’re looking forward to it all!

Interview conducted by City-As-School intern Alyssa Torres and edited by Lois Stavsky

Photo credits: 1-5 & 8 Lois Stavsky; 6 Alyssa Torres

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Showcasing an eclectic range of works reflecting the experiences and perspectives of living with mental illness, Inside/Outside remains on view at Plaxall Gallery in Long Island City through April 7. Curated by Nancy Bruno, the provocative, forceful exhibition was organized in partnership with Fountain House Gallery and the Flushing Interfaith Council. Featured above is Sisters, oil on linen, by the noted Brooklyn-based Italian artist Fulvia Zambon. Several more images from Inside/Outside follow:

Jackson Heights-based multidisciplinary artist Issa Ibrahim, Shazam…I’m Cured, Oil and glitter on canvas

LIC-Artists Sharon Taylor, Darker Days, Oil on board

NYC-based sculptor Jerry Atkins, Thumb Suckers, Cast bronze

Pennsylvania-based painterJames Kane, Water-bearer, oil on canvas

Fountain House Gallery artists Angela Rogers (L) Alien Wall of Sadness, Wax pastels and markers on pamphlets & Ella Veres R), Sunshine, Collagraph print; Windows to Light, Acrylic and Verdi Gris of Memory, Acrylic

Located at 5-25 46th Avenue in Long Island City, the gallery is open on Thursdays from, 6-10pm and on the weekends from 12-5pm.

Photos of images: Lois Stavsky

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