Alpha Workshops: An Outlet for Expression
Art is endowed with healing elements. Something about the artistic process can help heal the wounded soul. When I opened the door to Alpha Studios, I was greeted by the smell of paint and curative vibes.
I was there on the invitation of Jeff Beler, who was teaching a pilot class for Alpha Workshops. Alpha Workshops is a non-profit initiative that provides an education in decorative arts, and established in 1995 as a refuge for people with disabilities and other vulnerabilities. Jeff, a graduate of the school, was hired teach a summer youth class for LGBTQ+ students.
Jeff’s a friend of mine. We met after I first made the pilgrimage to the iconic Underhill Walls, which he co-curated with Frankie Velez [ArtFace7]. We share a mindset for creative endeavors, and a similar taste in art. So, I was curious to discover how he had constructed the class. Bringing with him his street art sensibilities, Jeff took on the challenge of creating a curriculum from scratch.
My goal in visiting Alpha was to learn; about the students, the staff, and the art. A fellow member of the Sold Mag family, Kristy, was kind enough to assist me as photographer. And so, we met outside the studio on a July afternoon.
In the window-front, Jeff had established a small display, as tribute to the power of the spray-can. The set-up was eye-catching, and my first observation was that quite a few passerbys were giving it a look. Our interest piqued, Kristy and I went inside to investigate.
Two murals faced each other in the narrow room, one nearly complete and one barely started. The class projects. The former is a compilation of Keith Haring illustrations, the latter designated to be an as-yet decided original. Jeff explained to me his rationale; the Keith Haring piece was designed to help the students hone their technique, while the original was to be an opportunity for creativity. A clever balance, I thought.
The class consisted of Jeff as head instructor, Joe as his teaching assistant, and 5 students, all of whom came from different backgrounds and experience with art. What struck me first about the learning environment was how relaxed everyone seemed; mostly because they were having fun. Jeff joked about being a lenient teacher, but despite the easy atmosphere, everyone was serious about the artwork. While Jeff taught, I went around the class to speak with the students individually and collectively, to learn their stories.
Of the 5, Mx.Enigma was by far the most talkative, (something Jeff and the other students playfully called him out on). A proud member of the LGBTQ community, Mx prefers the pronouns they/them. For Mx, their place within the queer community is an integral part of identity. It was by looking for place of inclusion that Mx to came Alpha, rather than strictly art.
Despite not having a deep art background, Mx.Enigma explained to me how inspired they were by Keith Haring’s work. They were attracted by the subversive ways in which Haring incorporated homoeroticism into his art, helping to bring the gay community into the mainstream. For the original mural, the class had chosen an ‘Urban Jungle’ theme, as a metaphor of the pressures of being queer in 2017. While art is not Mx’s forte, they are happy to “make a safe space more colorful and creative.”
Ny chatted with Jeff, while he offered some constructive suggestions to Ny’s panel. She listened thoughtfully, as she sketched an outline. Ny was friendly to chat, as she painted in hoop earrings and a smock, her blue mohawk as colorful as the mural.
Ny explained to me the technical methods the class has learned from Jeff in the project together. Small images of Haring paintings were blown up, and then traced onto grid paper. The grid system helped ensure accuracy as the picture was copied freehand onto the canvas and painted. Ny appreciated what she had been learning.
Unlike Mx, Ny is more familiar with the arts, and has already published two books of poetry. In terms of painting, she cited Frida Kahlo as a major influence on her work. Ny is also an admirer of New York’s own Danielle Mastrion, one of the street artists Jeff brought in for a guest lecture.
Scoping out the Haring mural, one panel caught my attention. One that Ny had made. The image is a family portrait, where the heads are televisions. Ny had added a clever touch; the parents were shaded in primary colors and the kids in secondary. I asked Ny why she picked it.
“We chose which images were most important [to us] … or the easiest to draw.” The class chuckled.
Aya and Cindy worked side by side at the edge of the mural. At sixteen and seventeen, they were the two youngest students in the class. Cindy was applying some gentle blue shading to a dolphin diving over deep red water. She explained to me how she had been careful in adding colors that gave a vibrancy to the piece. We joked about how the ‘devil is in the details.’
Aya was a little shy at first, but opened up on the project. She had found Jeff’s class through an online opportunity on volunteer.org. Aya likes to experiment with makeup art, but she wanted a chance to try something new.
Cindy revealed to me her favorite type of art is watercolor, and she often searches Instagram for inspiration. When she was younger, she took art classes, but Alpha had reignited in her the desire to express herself. On practicing outside the classroom, she said “Painting for me [is] spontaneous… but when I do paint, I dive in for several hours.”
Miyagi sat quietly working. With a face of passionate determination, he added strokes of color to his current panel. Each student had been given a column to work on. Mirage finished his, and was now halfway through a second, ahead of the other students. The commitment he gave to his work led me to believe that Miyagi had been painting for many years. But I was surprised to learn he was still fresh in the traditional arts.
Miyagi described himself as somewhat of a loner. Rather than speak his feelings, Miyagi started at a young age expressing himself through poetry. Hip-hop has been a strong influence on Miyagi’s work, though he prefers the conscious lyricism of rappers like J.Cole and Logic to more mainstream rap. With time, his predilection for words turned to pictures. Miyagi found Jeff’s class through a flyer at the LGBTQ youth center, and decided to sign up.
From the other side of the classroom, Mx.Enigma joked, "Out of all of us, he’s going to be the most successful. He’s the star.” The class gave a knowing chuckle.
I observed the diligent of work this eclectic class of students. It speaks to Jeff’s ability as an educator and experience as a curator that he was able to create a space where everyone felt accepted; where students could learn and explore their self-expression without pressure.
After speaking with the class, Jeff led Sold Mag to the upper levels of Alpha Workshops, so we could learn more about the school, from the perspective of those who put the classrooms together.
A narrow corridor connected various rooms. Several contained design labs, where the school’s signature wallpapers are created. In addition to providing an education, Alpha also provides a platform for products from the school’s design workshops to be sold. Alpha’s interior design work has won wide recognition and praise, with a of list illustrious clients. Jeff took me to Doctor Leisa Herrera, the School’s Director, so that I could understand more about the workshop’s purpose.
As Director, Doctor Herrera oversees the administrative functions of the Alpha school. She has been in the position for over a year, using her experience to help broaden resources toward youth impact.
She educated me on the history and mission of Alpha Workshops. Founded in 1995 by Kenneth Wampler, the non-profit organization was a response to the AIDS epidemic, which had taken a heavy toll on the queer community.
As Doctor Herrera explained, the workshop was established "to be a place where people could take the focus off of their illness and how they felt, to create something beautiful.”
Since its inception, Alpha has grown by “leaps and bounds.” On average, the school serves 30-40 students per year. The classroom caters to a more mature crowd, with most students aged between the late twenties to late sixties.
As with Jeff’s class, students often arrive from mixed backgrounds and varying degrees of experience. The curriculum seeks to provide a comprehensive education on decorative art. While Jeff’s pilot program breaks the mold by offering mural lessons, the core of Alpha is home design. Lessons ranges from color theory to faux finishes, developing skills in both the philosophy of art and its practice. By the time students complete the program, most are prepared for a full career in the art world.
While she does not have an artistic background herself, Doctor Herrera spent years working with youth groups and nonprofits and recognizes the importance of creative outlets. As director, one of her goals is to expand classes for kids. With that in mind, she enlisted Jeff to create a class that would appeal to a younger crowd.
Doctor Herrera smiled at Jeff. Praising him as "one of our star graduates,” she commended Jeff for the passion he took to the opportunity. Thanks in large part to his enthusiasm, he street art pilot class had been a huge success. Before we left, the Doctor offered her thoughts going forward: “The school is looking to grow, and it’ll need the support of the community to continue offering resources for the kids.”
After meeting the doctor, I talked with Carol Cannon, who has “the illustrious title of lead instructor,” as she put it in a mock tone. A quiet, woman, Carol had a warm smile, and was happy to share anecdotes of wisdom. Come this October, it will be Carol’s 4th year teaching at Alpha. All though she was light-hearted about her role, Carol was very grateful for the title, and the raise it came with. Carol has spent much of her life in the arts, but has at times struggled with the financial aspect of a creative lifestyle.
Daughter to artists, Carol always knew she wanted to pursue something related to art. She went to college for illustration, only to “flounder about New York City.” She moved home to Connecticut, before moving back to the city to pursue a job in film. Though Carol enjoyed the film industry, she felt art was still her calling. She got another degree in Art Therapy, hoping that it would provide a way for to support herself. However, that didn’t work out as she hoped.
“My astrologer [predicted] I would be working with walls, and I was like what are you talking about? But sure enough,” she gestured to the decorated walls of Alpha. When she moved into a new apartment, she found a set of video tapes and brushes. By watching the lessons, she taught herself the techniques for decorative wall painting. At first this role was just a way to get by, but she was offered more and more jobs, and so she stuck with it. Carol went back and got a third degree, this time in art-business. She worked like a dog, until one day she got a call from Alpha, with an offer to teach.
At first she was hesitant to take the role, thinking it would limit her own creativity, but she came to love the position and the school. But she doesn’t regret her decision at all.
“Personally, my progression here at Alpha has been more on the spiritual plane.” Carol explained.
When she first arrived, Carol felt low and lacked a sense of self-confidence, feeling like she failed at creating her own career. But one day while teaching a class, a student shouted: “I don’t care what happens in the future, I’m happy right now!”
It made Carol realize the importance of accepting life in the moment. When you let go your pretenses, art can become your therapy. With each class, students expressed enjoyment; Carol had never thought that teaching could be her calling, but the gratitude of a student is its own reward.
Carol summarized her experience at Alpha as a restorative environment, where people are “being occupied in a creative engagement. Especially, in conjunction or companionship. [This is] when people seem to be in an optimum state of consciousness. They feel safe, they feel accepted, they feel creative.”
As we finished our tour of the upper offices, Jeff returned to teach the street art class, while I stepped aside to talk with Joe, Jeff’s teaching assistant. Jeff and Joe had met in an Alpha classroom, where they both completed the 26-week course. The two got on well, and Jeff invited Joe to show work at a show Jeff curated. Several pieces sold.
“[Jeff] has exposed me to a lot.” Joe told me, as he elaborated on the sense of accomplishment that comes with selling your work. For Joe, there is a validation in being sold; it makes you feel ‘like a real artist.’ There’s also a validation to working in an education environment.
Joe is HIV positive. The affliction long affected his own confidence, and his faith in his work. His time at Alpha and working alongside Jeff helped give him a sense of purpose. The creative atmosphere helped him keep a good mindset; "still healthy, still going.”
“I have a quote,” Joe said, as he articulated how Alpha had helped him find a purpose. “A must is a must, and there’s only one must. For you on to you, ever must be just. So must.” Joe smiled. “I’m not a poet, but it came to me.”
Jeff made it a point to give students exposure to art outside the confines of the classroom. Each week after class, Jeff has brought in different street artists to speak. Though the class ends at 4:30, the students stayed until 5 or 6, to hang around and meet the artists and learn from their experience. Through his connections in the community, Jeff brought in talented artists like AJ Lavilla, Albertus Joseph, Daniella Mastrion, and Jeff Henriquez. The day I visited, JT Liss was giving a lecture.
JT is a photographic artist. Providing examples for students to learn from, JT described his process of super-imposing different images, synthesizing styles to create something original. JT is self-taught, and learned through practicing photoshop in his spare time. The images he creates through contrast strike a powerful visual image.
On the therapeutic value of art, JT said, "It calms me, allows me to express myself visually and poetically.”
Jeff and JT have known one another for several years. They met at a group show curated by Badder Israel, and have worked on several projects since. In particular, JT has contributed to the infamous Underhill Walls.
JT dispensed some invaluable advice to the class on the business end of art. While some may think it crass to monetize beauty, the realities of our world require artists to understand financial matters. While certain to clarify that times can be tough, JT encouraged the students to know their value, and to always remember why it is that we love art.
When I asked about his thoughts of lecturing to the Alpha class, JT offered gratitude and praise; "It was an honor to speak to the LGBTQ youth at Alpha. They are an amazing group of talented young individuals who created two exceptional murals for the culmination of their experience with Jeff."
The other lecturers had similar positive reflections on the experience.
Like many who have passed through Alpha’s doors AJ Lavilla didn’t begin his career in the visual arts. AJ spent several years in the medical field, but felt unfulfilled. He painted as a hobby, but didn’t focus his energy toward it; given the long hours that life as a medical assistant demanded, he was too tired to commit to painting. Things changed when he got a call from a London Gallery.
"People appreciate the work and they pay for it. You like my art? Keep on that. [It helps me] do what I do best. That’s my healing. This is all I know how to do, positively.”
AJ met Jeff at the Underhill Walls, where AJ contributed his ‘Dream Big’ piece. When Jeff called, AJ was happy to come in and share his story with the students. He was impressed by their engagement.
“The kids were very responsive, they asked a lot of questions. I was surprised to encounter that, but it’s a great outlet.”
Jeff Henriquez has earned the respect of the street art community through since intricate renders of people, detailed so perfectly they have a photorealistic touch. It’s a talent he too has added to the Underhill Walls. Jeff met Jeff on the Love Heals Project, and the friendship and mutual respect they share has brought their stories intertwined. As he put it, “Jeff [Beler] is on the tip of what’s happening in street art… what [he’s] doing is dope.”
Jeff inherited his artistic talent from his father, but what has helped develop his career has been a keen understanding of the importance of business know-how. In his lecture, Jeff made sure the students understood that there is no short-cut to success. The importance of putting in the work, and being smart about financial decisions is crucial if you want to make art your life.
“Divorce yourself from your art work, so you can sell it.”
You can satisfy your artistic itch, but you also have to satisfy the landlord.
Albertus is a funny guy. One day when I was visiting Underhill, he threw me some shade for my shades. [The T.K. Mills trademark.] Jokes aside, Albertus is an incredibly talented artist, with bits of sagacious insight he likes to drop.
“I’ve been doing art so long; I don’t know anything else. It’s not something I turn to, it’s something I am.”
Albertus met Jeff through Frankie Velez, when they all worked on the Underhill predecessor, Love Heals. They came together on the Alison Gertz Project, a campaign dedicated to helping victims of AIDS. Since then, they’ve done numerous collaborations.
When Albertus gave his lecture, he made a point of asking thought-provoking questions back at the students, to generate their own thoughts. The subject ventured from nuances between street art and fine art, iconic approaches, and the importance of knowing the rules before you break them. Albertus appreciated the opportunity to steer the kids toward positive goals. As he explained to me, once you’ve done art long enough, the question isn’t what you’re going to paint, but rather: “What am I going to articulate today?”
Danielle and Jeff go back a few years. They met 3-4 years ago, by just bumping into one another at art shows. Danielle has painted for Underhill, as well as Jeff’s earlier curatorial debut; the Love Heals Zodiac Walls. I asked Danielle about the healing nature of art; "I see art as being therapeutic. Especially for young people to have a creative outlet.”
For her lecture, Danielle ended up staying for almost three hours talking to the students without realizing the time passed. She covered everything, from how she got her start, to ho to do self-promotion, to what it’s like being a female artist in a male dominated subculture. In particular, Ny was very engaged by what Danielle had to say. After the class they kept touch, and Danielle offered Ny the opportunity to assist on her next big project. As the summer comes to a close, Danielle is wrapping up a series of private commissions; as we spoke, she was on her way to paint the Coney Island Aquarium. The thing Danielle wanted to impart most on the students is a piece of wisdom she picked up, a mantra she tells herself when times get tough: “Just keep painting.”
Since I first met Jeff, I have been continuously amazed at his ability to bring people together. This is as true on the street, bringing together artists for Underhill, as it is in the classroom, bringing together students, to work as a family.
After the day was done, I had a moment to catch up with the man who helped put it all together. Though Jeff and I have known each for some time, it was the first time we talked as interviewer and artist. In asking questions, I learned things about my friend I had never known.
At 53, Jeff still has a healthy, vitalic glow about him. Until he told me, I had assumed he was at least a decade younger, given his eager charm and good looks. Jeff has a natural energy, that envelops everyone around him in a supportive glow. Given his cheerful outlook, I was surprised to learn, Jeff is HIV positive.
“I’m a 31-year survivor.” He told me.
It was Jeff’s HIV status that initially led him to Alpha Workshops. Looking for an outlet for his own creative energy, Jeff enrolled Alpha’s Decorative Arts degree. There he met Joe, and his relationship with Alpha began. In 2015, Jeff completed the 10-week course in introduction to decorative arts. After, he took some time to work on curating his ‘Love Heals’ Zodiac Murals (Jeff joked about the precursor to Underhill, and how it would come to reshape his career). After the success of Love Heals, Jeff returned to Alpha once more to complete his education with the 26-week course. There he learned a range of techniques and styles, which he fused with street art aesthetic.
The course of Jeff’s life has been shaped by the unexpected turns, but his persistent attitude is what brought him his success. Before beginning the street art class, Jeff didn’t have much experience as a teacher. Rather, he improvised, tying together his web of knowledge and connections to create a compelling classroom environment. Jeff was incredibly grateful to the artists who took the time to guest lecture.
“I’m blessed with having great street art friends,” he said humbly.
Even more, Jeff was incredibly thankful to the students. Cliché as it might be, he learned from too. Mx educated Jeff on many of the contemporary issues of the LGBTQ community. For Jeff, this was informative, as society’s attitude toward being queer when Jeff was coming off age in the 80s and 90s was much different. He reflected on the fact that he didn’t have the same opportunities, which was all the more reason why he felt so fulfilled in teaching the mural class.
Several weeks after my visit to Alpha, I returned for the closing ceremony. The class finished on a high note. The climax came with the big unveiling of the now completed Urban Jungle mural, to great applause. Each of the students displayed their contribution, and explained the meaning behind it. Doctor Herrera provided certificates of completion to Mx, Ny, Cindy, Aya, and Miyagi, as everyone posed for pictures. Kenneth Wampler, the executive director of the institute even joined to support the class. Joe gave an emotional speech on how proud he was of all the students, and encouraged them all to pursue their dreams while their young. It brought more than a few teary eyes to the crowd. I can’t say I know the struggles of what it is to grow up as an LGBTQ youth, or what it means to face the dangers of HIV and AIDS. But I know this: In life nothing is promised, and take nothing for granted.
It’s been a pleasure to see Jeff thrive, as his street art career continues to move forward. Jeff has grown a lot from his time at Alpha, both as an artist and as HIV positive man. He’s learned success strikes at different times for everyone, and that persistence is key. Near the end of our interview, I asked Jeff if he’d like to give some closing thoughts; he had just a few.
“Stay positive. Encourage the youth. That’s our future.”
Written by T.K. Mills
Photos provided by Kristy Calabro & T.K. Mills
For more by the author, visit tkmills.com
Index of Instagrams: