Over the last two weekends, SOLD magazine has been covering the twenty-third cycle of the Centre-fuge Trailer in the East Village of Manhattan. The city recently informed the organizers that they would be moving the structure because their construction work is finally coming to an end. Because no one is sure where it might be relocating, the project is in limbo, making this possibly the last ever painting cycle.
On a quiet tree-lined street, in the shadow of Basquiat’s ghost [he once lived in an apartment on the block], sits what was at one time a neighborhood eyesore. Centre-fuge co-founder Jonathan Neville remembers when it first appeared.
Back in the fall of 2011, Neville and fellow artist Pebbles Russell shared an apartment on 1st Street. One day they woke to a construction trailer, what he calls a “45 foot behemoth,” taking up three parking places and blocking the view to the children’s park across the street. It wasn’t long until the structure started attracting the wrong kind of attention to the previously tranquil spot. It was accumulating trash and needles, people were stashing knives, and it was becoming a playground for drunks and all their drunken activities. “It was encouraging drunks to fight, piss, shit…everything you can image drunk people want to do and right next to a kids' park, it was just inappropriate.” Neville says. And possibly the worst outcome? Older people who lived in walk-up apartments were not able to see into the children’s park anymore. As a consequence they were no longer leaving their homes because they didn’t want to use the effort to walk downstairs without knowing if their friends and family were in the park. So Neville and Russell created a proposal, went to the block association and to the community board with a plan to transform the trailer into a rotating outdoor mural gallery. “We wanted to give everyone on the block something to be proud of, instead of angry about.”
And just where did they come up with the name “Centre-fuge”?. Neville explains, "We decided on the name Centre-fuge for a few reasons. A centrifuge separates its contents into layers such as liquids with different densities, but we spell it c-e-n-t-r-e "Centre" because our first location is on 1st Street and 1st Avenue in New York City, the Nexus of the Universe where Kramer famously got lost. We chose "Centre-fuge because this city is a chaotic swirl of bold imagery that can be overwhelming and the Centre-fuge Project strives to bring to the populous' attention great and authentic artwork.”
We asked Neville about favorite cycles and artists "That is a hard question,” he responds. He is proud of the fact that over 140 artists have contributed to the project with no injuries and no real arguments. “Everyone comes out here happy to paint so that is why it is such a hard question to answer.”
He was happy however to talk about some of his favorite moments over the years. Having grown up in NYC, those included having childhood heroes like Cost and Korn add their mark. Other highlights that stick out in his memory are working with artists who hadn’t had the opportunity to be on the street like Nicole Salgar. "Watching her go from not being able to get a mural in NYC, emailing every single project and then in a last ditch effort emailing centre-fuge, and we were 'of course you can do a mural, your artwork is amazing.' Now seeing her five years later, she travels the world to paint murals and that gives me the chills. It makes me feel really good about Centre-fuge and the focus that all of us have put into the project.” He continues, "Other artists have been great, they have all been amazing, but artists like Nicole, Lexi, Danielle and BK” he stops and smiles. “Ha, I just named all females, maybe it's because they have less opportunities to paint walls. To watch them and their careers grow and flourish has been amazing and very satisfying and even though I just gave them an opportunity to paint something and I have no hand in their skill, it is just nice to see that they have taken their art form seriously and have not been discouraged by anything. They have remained focused and that is what being an artist is about."
While there hasn’t been any real controversy involving the artists and art, there have been certain pieces that have attracted the attention of area residents and those passing by. He talks of one artist who was very into graphic novels and zombies so he decided to paint a zombie family and call it "The Nuclear Family." A couple of residents on the block asked if maybe it might be too scary for small children. Neville’s response was most children stories are horrifying, they are not happy stories and they are pretty creepy with scary drawings, fairy tales for instance are spooky. "So once we had those conversations they realized... oh yeah you are right, that wasn’t so much a controversy as a conversation about why we choose that piece,” he explains. Another time he tells us an artist who generally paints her female warrior characters nude elected to clothe them in bathing suits [because of proximity to the playground]. A passerby with a child asked if there was anything in the mural she would have to explain to her children. Neville laughs as he relates that the woman probably thought he had painted the scantily clad women with lions' and wolves' heads. “'I said, well really if you feel the need to explain something to your children about this art that is up to you. I am not the artist, but I don’t think this artist was trying to portray anything sexual here. I think this is more about being a powerful woman. If you find this sexual, that's cool too though,' that is basically how we left it. Maybe she had a conversation with the artist, maybe not.” He continues, "the controversy is always in the eyes of the beholder and what they see in it. You can paint something that you think is seemingly very friendly and somebody is not going to like it. Someone is going to have a question about it. But we have never had a controversy to the point where we have had to paint over something. We have never had an argument with an artist over a piece, or with a block resident, or a parent in the park. Just a conversation about where we were coming from and where the artist is coming from,” he states with pride.
It’s been bittersweet over the years painting over each cycle, but the project is definitely a labor of love for Neville and the others involved. And while the Centre-fuge Public Arts Project will continue in many forms he knows he will miss the hours spent at the trailer with the artists and the area inhabitants. He tells us the project has always been about the neighborhood. He will miss talking to the people walking by, asking about their favorites, and hearing their opinions on the current cycle. He will miss giving artists their first opportunity to paint in such a historically significant location.
And does he have any advice for our readers? Definitely...don't stop visiting the neighborhood once the trailer is gone. Especially 1st street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. "It is one of the greatest cultural hubs in NYC," he tells us. "You have so many different communities you have so many different people from the homeless shelter to the most expensive buildings in NYC, they are all on this block. There are kids, and a park, and everybody lives in harmony, the most amazing story... this block is where you come to learn about NYC." As a tour guide I totally agree with his advice. "Spend two hours talking to people, say hello, buy someone a coffee." This is the Centre-fuge story.
Enjoy this gallery of images taken throughout the years: