Just to the north of the Bronx lies the city of Yonkers, a community rich with culture and history that has just recently begun to embrace street art. I spent some time with Chris St. Lawrence who is largely responsible for the new vision taking hold in Yonkers to get his perspective on street art and its future within the municipal government model.
I am a public servant offering creative vision within the government arena. I work for the City of Yonkers for Mayor Mike Spano, a progressive art advocate who is facilitating an arts renaissance in Yonkers, and utilize lifelong government experience and an inherent artistic inclination to develop an environment that elevates artists in the City. If there was a Venn diagram depicting the commonalities between rigid government suit and starving artist, I would be found where the two spheres connect.
I graduated from Villanova University's School of Liberal Arts with a degree in Criminal Justice, a Minor in General Business and on Friday May 18th from Marist College's Master of Public Administration Program. I am a member of Urban Studio Unbound ("USU"), an artist collective born out of the Fashion Institute of Technology's Fine Art Department, whose incredible contemporary gallery is located in the heart of the Downtown Yonkers Waterfront District.
What is your personal definition of an Artist?
Art is an expression of thought and artists are very thoughtful people. An artist is someone who shares with the world their ideas, experiences, and vantage point through an unlimited range of mediums. As with the advent of technology, art is always evolving so there will always be fluidity to the definition of an artist.
Street and mural art is relatively new to Yonkers, could you share a little bit of history and your involvement in bringing it to the streets:
We didn’t invent the wheel, but we made it sexier, more contemporary. Prior to the Spano Administration, the City’s mural foundation was built 20 years ago by world-renowned and resident artist Richard Haas’s gateway to the waterfront murals. Today, Yonkers has an energy, grittiness and vibrancy that needed to be reflected on our vast inventory of blank walls and industrial buildings seeking a new identity; thus life was breathed into the street art scene. Having spent time in Bushwick and Williamsburg circa 2005-6 there was always an excitement, an anticipation, that you felt before arrival; this was led by the street art, wheat paste-ups, the graffiti that blanketed the buildings, vacant lots, etc.- you never knew what was around the corner. That sense of discovery and excitement is alive in Yonkers and was one of the impetuses for introducing a new generation (GenY) of street art in Yonkers.
This was not without challenges provided that Yonkers' formerly industrial waterfront was “littered” with graffiti for decades and its remediation was both an expense for the taxpayers and synonymous with the debauchery and disinvestment that characterized the Downtown for decades. Back in September of 2014 we launched the street art program with British legend Nick Walker through a series of 7 vandals and the rest is history…
What do you look for in the artists you choose for your various mural projects?
We select artists with a style, vibrancy and experienced body of work that matches the energy, vibe and authenticity of the GenY Yonkers art renaissance. The street art is carefully curated to include artists whose work resonates with the resident population, and/or a site specific vision, as evidenced by Eelco van den Berg’s Wildlife mural in our Daylighting of the Saw Mill River at Mill St. Courtyard project or his recently completed Boyce Thompson Center mural that pays homage to the rich history of plant research in the quest to ameliorate world hunger.
The reaction from Yonkers' extremely diverse public has been unanimously positive. Diversity is our greatest asset in Yonkers- a third of our population is foreign-born and 46% of households speak a foreign language. Art is a universal language that unifies us all. Our street art communicates a positive message to the residents and creates a thought provoking experience for people when they see the murals. My favorite part of the process is the reaction of the public to works in progress and the interaction between the artists and the public. As a photographer I enjoy capturing this interaction.
videos by: Chris St. Lawrence
What do you see as the future of art in Yonkers?
The future of art is limitless in Yonkers. Some art developments on the horizon include an expansion of Yonkers Arts Weekend urban art festival, an expansion of the street art program, the continuation of artist relocation to Yonkers, and continued development of the Alexander Smith Carpet Mills as a mecca for New York Metropolitan area artists. The 2 million sq. ft. carpet mill complex was the largest carpet producer in the world in its heyday and was recently designated the Carpet Mills Arts District or “CMAD” by Mayor Spano and our elected officials. Today CMAD is home to a critical mass of creative industrials including the Yonkers YoHo artist studios, recording/musical venues, an enormous costume shop, antique warehouse and a cluster of piano makers. There is an enormous amount of potential at the mills.