In New York, the subway is the lifeline of the city and it’s what connects all of us. It’s also a place where we get to decompress and where people are at their most vulnerable. Here, you may just find artist, Devon Rodriguez, traversing the underground with his sketchbook and camera capturing the reality of this world we all encounter on a daily basis. It’s here that Devon studies facial expressions, mannerisms, and gestures. It’s also where he gets to delve into New Yorker’s psyches. His goal is to not replicate photography, but to express a sense of empathy in his hyper-realistic paintings. But like photography, Devon’s paintings are snapshots of frozen moments in time that convey the beauty and truth in people.
Photos courtesy of: Michael Robayo (@siteb_studios)
Devon Rodriguez was born in 1996, in the South Bronx. He was always artistic; known as the kid who would draw a lot. As early as first grade, he knew he wanted to be an artist. In middle school, he was only interested in graffiti and getting up his tag everywhere he could. For his freshman year, Devon went to Samuel Gompers High School, a somewhat troubled school with a low graduation rate. He decided to build up his portfolio and in his sophomore year, he was accepted to the High School of Art and Design where he got serious about art. When he saw his teacher, artist, James Harrington, painting a student from life, he was hooked. This is the moment that changed everything and when he really became interested in painting portraits. Around the same time, Devon studied figure drawing and painting at the Art Students League of New York after school and continued to constantly paint throughout the summer. At age 17, his work was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Through the High School of Art and Design, Devon got an internship at the BronxArtSpace, where he had the chance to have an opening and show his work with a few other friends. Linda Cunningham, co-founder and board member of The BronxArtSpace invited the whole mailing list which included, contemporary artist and sculptor, John Ahearn. He has a studio down the block and came to the portraits show. When John was at the opening he immediately noticed Devon’s painting which was prominently displayed. It was of subway riders and John thought it was a masterpiece. “It had a classical simplicity and rigor of tone, composition, and a sense of reality that was very real in a very simple, easy kind of way," John said. "It was a really beautiful painting.” He introduced himself and invited Devon to his studio. They quickly formed a bond and John Ahearn has become Devon’s mentor and friend.
"World Weary", Devon's painting that John Ahearn called a "masterpiece."
A series of four casts of Devon have been made by John where he captured his expressions, truth, and, innocence. John said one of his favorite paintings of all time is a Picasso self-portrait from 1906 featuring the artist with a very distinct, short, black haircut and wearing a v-neck shirt. They played off of that self-portrait. He usually does two casts, one is for the person being cast and one he keeps. “To do something for someone else inspires me and drives me...and gives me purpose.” John said.
Getting a cast done feels like meditation. "It's just you and your thoughts for 30 minutes...it feels great to just zone out," Devon said. "I feel like some people would be scared, because it’s on your face and you can only breath through these straws, and you have to stay like that for a half hour...and not psych yourself out, not be afraid and, just know that you’ll be fine. I knew that I was going to be fine."
"He is breathing through straws in his nose, which leaves your mouth free to present yourself for the cast,” John Ahearn said. "....Casting is an extremely difficult, threatening experience to go through and the number one thing when you're being cast is to survive it; to be able to do it...”
Two casts known as “The Rodriguez Twins” were on view at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. John Ahearn being a twin himself, (brother, Charlie Ahearn, is the Director of “Wildstyle”) decided to create a pair of portraits instead of just a solitary cast. “I saw an advertisement..in my email for a portrait competition for the National Portrait Gallery and immediately I thought of Devon. I thought you know that’s the kind of thing he would do, not me, he would do that, that’s his style, why don’t I put one of his casts in there, but...they had restrictions, which was, only one artwork per artist, these are little tiny busts, but I can put two of them and claim that they’re a set of twins,“ said John. “I have a theory that every time you cast someone, the difference between one cast and the other is similar to the difference between twins; one has some vibe that the other [doesn’t]."
Devon always wanted to go to that museum because that’s where all the best portraits are. John gave Devon his tickets and he said it was a super fancy opening and it was amazing. The director of the National Portrait Gallery was thrilled that John suggested Devon go to the opening. “Devon is the fish that they are trying to catch, not me.” John said. Devon got attention for being the subject and received praise for his own work as well and they promised to put him in the next competition. A New Yorker article came from it. "..I met the writer there. She came to meet me and she had a pre-interview and did an interview with John and I together,” Devon said. "I got so much from that, it was like a stamp of approval." John Ahearn said the most important thing was that Devon had a caricature of himself illustrated on the page by Tom Bachtell, along with the article. "That’s the real key...they’re as sought after as the interview." John said.
Since, four casts have been made of Devon, it's only fitting that Devon paint a portrait of John. I asked John, how he felt the first time he saw his portrait?
“I think Devon has so much talent and so much focus on his work...I’m just so impatient with him because I want him to grow up too fast...I’m always thinking that I want him to change rapidly, but it takes time...he’s going to see some creative possibilities in what he’s doing that’s going to be different than anybody’s done before. He has so much focus and perfect pitch in terms of his sense of reality, but it would be nice to see a little more artistic involvement on his part. I want him to evolve... I’m asking him to do something that took me until I was 30 and he’s only 21, so it takes time for these things to happen. First of all, he’s never a realist painter, he’s an artist, that’s what he is... I want him to consider the whole spectrum of contemporary art...to see himself as a part of this thing and [that] he has his own share...he needs to figure out how to make it work so that he can be part of the larger picture. It’s very important.” John Ahearn said.
Just completed portrait of John Ahearn.
Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches.
by: Devon Rodriguez, 2017
After high school, Devon went to F.I.T. for one year. Around the same time, he started selling paintings through a gallery in Colorado and he couldn't paint fast enough to keep up with the demand. He left F.I.T. after a few semesters. If the real goal was to get his art in galleries, he was already succeeding and he felt getting that degree was secondary to what was already happening. But, if you ask his mentor, John Ahearn, he probably would have said Devon should stay in school because the art world is so unpredictable. You could be hot one minute and forgotten by next week. Sometimes, when you have big dreams, you have to take big risks. Devon’s big risk seems to be paying off; he is always being asked to do commissions and is constantly painting.
Photo by: Kristy Calabro
With a documentary in the works he seems to be on a steady path to a long and successful art career. Devon says that the documentary is going really well and the filmmaker, Michael Robayo (@siteb_studios) has some similar sensibilities to him and that they work really well together. "Michael always captures profound meaning within his work," Devon said. "Oh, and he's from the Bronx!"
At 21, not many people can say that a documentary is currently being filmed about their life or that they were interviewed by both The New Yorker and The New York Times, but Devon can. He was quoted in The New York Times as saying, his art is "portraiture with an edge." and "This is the new punk." Devon said, "I always thought of Punk as underground, non-mainstream; so I feel like now what’s popular is conceptual art and abstraction...this is the new underground; no one's doing this."
John Ahearn seemed very proud to show me his copy of The New York Times and pointed out what a big deal it was that Devon was on the front page and featured prominently in the article titled, “The Rebranding of the Bronx.” That particular article led to the topic of gentrification in the Bronx. John feels there’s a lot of concern about the real estate changing and neighborhoods being priced out of reach. Also, the communities that have survived and flourished won't be able to afford to stay in the neighborhood and he thinks that is a real concern, but some of it is a positive change. He thinks that it’s good for the Bronx to develop some other sides to itself. "The thing about real estate is, it’s a vicious double edge sword that could be positive and...exciting for the Bronx." John said.
Devon feels the Bronx has always been overlooked and is glad that it's finally getting that edgy reputation, rather than an impoverished one. He hopes things get better like: lower crime rates, cleaner, safer streets, and better schools. Devon didn't receive any of those thing while growing up here, which also hindered a lot of Bronxites. He hopes that the Bronx can still maintain some of the gritty character, ethnic diversity, and eclectic spirit. "I always enjoyed a polished look, generally, but with some grit and ugliness, as with my paintings." Devon said.
“..A lot of the greatest things about Devon, you might not see on the surface...some of the greatest things are the things that he’s not...he doesn’t seem to have any self-destructive drives which is something that almost all of us have an overabundance of.” - John Ahearn.
Photo by: Kristy Calabro
Art partnerships and collaboration have been a huge part of John Ahearn's career. He spoke of his longtime collaborator, Rigoberto "Robert" Torres whom he met at Fashion Moda, a conceptual art space in the Bronx. Rigoberto was already familiar with making plaster statues thanks to working in his uncle's statuary factory. “The idea of feeling that I was in a partnership gave me a great deal of confidence about what I was doing and it made me feel that I was on the right path as far as being an artist," John said. "I felt very excited to set up permanently in the Bronx and begin doing work that we were starting at Fashion Moda." It's an important part of his creative energy, it may be related to growing up as an identical twin...having an artist close by that he’s learning from, that’s very important to him.
"When it comes to his relationship with Devon, John said, "I insist that...I have walked away with five times as much material information that I got from Devon, then he did from me." Devon has helped bring John up to speed with today's technology and social media, especially Instagram. John's been on Instagram for only one year and he says he's learned a lot from it. He loves the fact that you get this window onto all different people at once. But, he also feels you can get burned out going through 1,000's of images. When he sees people post pictures of his work, it means so much to him.
For now, Devon’s goals are to support himself doing honest works that he enjoys creating. Oh, and inspiring John Ahearn to paint after 40 years! That may be the greatest collaboration of all, when the “student” and “teacher” work together to create and inspire each other. But, the question is, who is the student and who is the teacher? Certain people come into our lives for a reason. We are all here to learn and grow from each other.
“I always try and learn from people that I’m close to. I’m learning from Devon a lot and he has a great way of relating to other people, so I learn from how he does that…he’s insecure about being around sophisticated artists, but he’ll get over that…some of these things take time. He can be with rich people, poor people…and it doesn’t seem to bother him and it’s a very good talent that he has,” John said. “I’m the one who’s constantly learning. Devon teaches me all the time.”
Photos by: Kristy Calabro
“Art did kind of save me, gave me something to focus on,” Devon said. “Where would I be if I didn’t have art? I got lucky.”
Photo courtesy of: Michael Robayo (@siteb_studios)