We were lucky enough to catch up with Aby and get his take on the value of mentorship and the ways public art can enhance a neighborhood space. Even better: we got to hear from a few of the young artists who painted their dreams across the brick canvas at 11 Howard.
Hey Aby. So, did the idea for the mural, or the idea for the hotel come first?
It’s a chicken and egg situation. We had a huge wall with an advertisement on it, so we thought ‘Ok wouldn’t it be nice to take this and do something positive with it rather than collecting a couple of dollars for an ad that had nothing to do with what either we or Soho stand for? This would be the perfect place to do an installation.’
Can you tell us a bit about the mural?
The mural is huge in size. It needs to engage you when you walk by, that’s the whole idea. A mural has to have volume and space, it has to have a story. If it tells a story too fast, it didn’t do the right job. When you put something in motion, it better be good. It better be classic, it better stick around and it shouldn’t be an eyesore.
Is the mural tied up with the history of Soho?
It has images of history, of Soho, of hope and workmanship and tragedy. Early settlers coming to the area had terrible during the industrial revolution and Soho has always been the breeding ground for artists art, grit, graffiti, high and low. It’s close to the Bowery, which was a traditionally a terrible place to be, but also very similar to the East Village in the sense that it’s a place where things brew.
Why did you call on Jeff Koons to help with the mural?
Jeff is an old friend and one of the most important artists alive. Jeff is a world class artist, but also because he’s a world class human being. Jeff is tenacious and he’s extremely likable.
In what capacity did he help out?
The mural itself is not a Jeff Koons mural. Let’s be very clear: this was Jeff mentoring and talking to the kids, telling his story and where he comes from, what he does, how he sees the energy. What that artistic energy heals and what it does to you. That’s what real mentoring is. It’s not: ‘Hey pick the brush up, move a pixel here and a little color there.’ It’s about respecting somebody. Kids need some sort of mentoring teacher, some sort of a role model that they maybe don’t have at home.
Why did you select Howard Street for you hotel, out of anywhere in Soho?
Howard street is the last of the Mohicans, it doesn’t look like the rest of Soho. It’s almost too good to believe how authentic and how retro it is. We used 11 Howard as our name because it’s beautiful, the address is so strong It’s very descriptive and shows exactly why we love the neighborhood.
Why was it important for the art to be infused with a neighborly sensibility?
It’s a New York hotel and we are telling a New York story. Every hotel needs to embrace the neighborhood. It’s important to go local rather than importing everything, even if that means we buy a just tissue box produced in the neighborhood.
How did the mural come about, in terms of financing and logistics?
Through Groundswell, a not-for-profit grant organization. What they do fits exactly into what I believe: you should put public art on display have kids and students who use the art to express their love frustration, desire, fears, and show it to the outside world.
How did you connect with Groundswell?
I knew of Groundswell a couple years ago. Granting is one way to facilitate the production of art, but to have the private sector really step in and do something is equally important. The private sector should help those not-for-profits to grow and express themselves. That’s why the wall is a fantastic place.
What draws you to art and artists?
Art is elevating for me. It occupies me. While it changes daily, art gives me a constant reflection of what’s really going on, culturally.
Are you an artist yourself? What are your favorite media?
I’m not a good artist. I tried a couple of paints and drawings, I’m into it but i’m not really good. I like sculpture, I like drawings, I like oil, I like new ideas, I like to look at stuff that I really understand. If someone has to explain art to me it’s too late. sometimes you meet an artist and he has to explain for a half an hour why and where and how this has to work and has to function. that doesn’t work for me. Art needs to grab you right away.
Thanks for your time Aby. Now, onto the artists. Misha Tatzunik, Pulio Antigua, Nathaniel James, Gabriella Balderas, and Darrel Baxter formed the international group of up-and-coming artists that collaborated on the project In the spirit of the project, we assembled the various artists’ words into an a collective ‘as told by’ explaining their vision for the mural at 11 Howard.
When we think of Soho, we think of a melting pot of fashion, food and culture. We wanted this mural to be a gateway into the neighborhood. It needed to be cohesive, but also show the different aspects of Soho’s spirit so we chose symbols that were very broad. You don’t have to be Italian in order to know that spaghetti has an Italian aspect to it. There’s a dragon to represent Eastern cultures, because even though you may not be very familiar with eastern culture, you still know dragon. We found out that Soho was the first free black community in the United States, around the year 1600. That’s why you see the ship with people congregating and the 1600. We wanted to incorporate the urban landscape, too. In the mural piece you see the Empire State Building, you see the buildings here in Chinatown and Lower Manhattan. Because of the fashion that’s around here, we outlined a figure of Carmen Sandiego, and put her with a hat and trench coat. We tried to pack the mural full of symbols so you can say ‘Oh this is my people, I see myself in this piece.’ But we also left it a little bit mysterious. You might look at this mural twice or three times and not see everything.