By Evan Sung
Arts Vs. Commerce
By Mikal Saint George
I have always been fascinated with the idea of
putting a message in a bottle and throwing it into
the ocean. The more personal the message the better.
There is something mysterious and romantic about
shedding intimate light on yourself without ever
knowing who, if anyone, will ever be enlightened
with your naked honesty. Maybe some little nugget
of wisdom you share will wash ashore 300 years later
and forever change civilization. Maybe it will float
into a canal in Amsterdam and wind up serving as
nothing more then a curious object on some Dutch
mantle. Part of the fun is not knowing how, when
or if you may affect another life or lives.
On a recent Sunday the spirits
brought me to a little oasis on 12 street, the
World Universe Gallery. This sanctuary is not the
usual SoHo matte,
eggshell, box highlighted by halogen pin spots
and mediocre chardonnay. Not by a long shot. The
World Universe was like walking through Alice's
looking glass. A kaleidoscope of color that dazzled
the senses. Its two floors representing not just
art but culture, humanity, exuberance. The place
was practically breathing, I expected the walls
to let out a huge gregarious laugh as I explored
the space. It was like getting a hug from a long
lost childhood best friend.
Every time I thought I had seen
everything, I realized that I had only seen one
of many layers.
It seemed impossible to leave, every newly found
object demanding that I do another tour of this
incredible space. Furniture carved from trees and
giant roots implored me to sit on it - amazing
me with the fact that it seemed to be carved specifically
for my own body. Photographs that drew me in to
their magic only to reveal that they were actually
charcoal drawings of painstakingly accurate precision.
A life sized, hand carved wooden motorcycle that
took an artist in Asia a full year to complete.
|Life-Sized Teak Mototcycle
I practically bounced on gallery
owner Sylvestre Pierre and his partner Nyrvah Richard
asking for an interview for New York Cool. This
with the Barry White baritone immediately agreed.
He also told me that due to legal issues involving
an atrocious lease and a less than scrupulous landlord,
he would probably have to vacate the space in about
a week. Could this be possible? Could this gallery,
this candy colored, great lady be sighing her last
breath? We will do the story, get to everyone,
anyone and save the space. Local news will help.
The New York Council on the Arts surely will step
in. Oprah loves this kind of thing.
Sylvester's story is one of nearly Dickensian
proportions. Fleeing Haiti at the height of its
political and socio-economic upheaval he has endured
poverty, blinding lack of hope and indentured servitude
- a practice I thought disappeared with witch burning.
He has been homeless, he has been scared, and he
has been broke. I learned however he has never
been poor. His spirit, his belief in his cause,
his love of people has made him the wealthiest
person I will ever know.
Time was not on our side. By the time we sat down
for the interview, the gallery had been practically
emptied, it's priceless contents moved into storage.
The spirit of the space and that of Sylvester are
bigger and stronger than ever. He is back to square
one but more determined than ever to re-build and
continue to bring beauty to the lives of his world.
So this is my message in a bottle and I am throwing
it into the vast ocean of the internet. I hope
you will read it and pass it along to as many people
as you can. Someone out there has a building for
sale, a space to rent, money to invest. I am not
the greatest writer ever, or even that great of
a humanitarian but if I can some how get this man's
story out there, and get this gallery up and running
again, then I will have done something right. So,
I give you my interview with Sylvester Leon, artist,
visionary, purveyor of hope...
MSG: I want to talk about your
beginning, I know you are from Haiti. What was
life like in Haiti?
SL: Growing up in Haiti, I was
one of the lucky ones. I have a great family. Being
an artist though, it was like a curse because they
don’t really like that. Mostly in my family
they are doctors, engineers.
MSG: So the traditional kind
SL: Yes, to them that is the
way to go. So I felt like I was given something
by the universe that I couldn't understand myself.
Even going to school - I never liked school - they
used to beat me because of my drawing, that was
all I liked to do. I realize now it was because
I was different. Being an artist it is not something
like you grow up and say "Well, I am going
to be an artist." You basically are chosen
to be an artist.
MSG: It chooses you.
SL: Yes! After many years of
struggling, I came here in the '80s when I was
MSG: I remember New York in the
'80s, it was the most incredible art scene on the
planet at the time - nothing in the world could
SL: Yeah, one of my heroes actually
was Jean Michel Basquiat. I said to myself if
he can make it then I can too! I had my own struggle
with being homeless, like he was also. Finally
going full circle, my family accepted me and finally
just said "Hey, that's his life." Four
or five years ago they really began supporting
me, especially one of my sisters.
MSG: Was there someone in your
family that you looked up to as an artist? Was
there anyone who painted or explored their own
SL: Well, no one in my family
painted but I remember my brother, who is an engineer,
he used to draw and I used to say, "Wow, this
is amazing!" But lucky enough, my mentor was
across the street from me. He was an artist. I
couldn't understand why but I would go to this
guy and sketch and paint and that was the only
place I wanted to be. From then on I started learning
from him. I realize now, more and more, that it
was some kind of therapy for me. There was a lot
of things going on for me at the time. It was tough
because I was not expected to be an artist. But
there was nothing I could have done about it and
I am very proud to be where I am today.
MSG: Well, you should be!!!!
So you get to New York, I know you were homeless
for a while. Did you have a place in New York to
my father and stepmother sent for me. My father
never, well...in his own
words, he always said "That is not my son." So,
basically he didn't care about me. They sent for
me, then after about a month of living here, going
to school, they sent me back. Coming to New York
was a dream, it's a dream for everybody. I mean
going to New York is like going to heaven! I couldn’t
wait. The day I came to New York, I remember it
quite well, I was at the airport waiting for somebody
to pick me up and my father was late! I was standing
there waiting and thinking, is this what New York
is? I finally get here and my first day, no one
shows to pick me up! The struggle started then
but I was very happy.
A few weeks after that it all
just went down the drain. I didn't know my father.
I knew who he was, but we didn't have anything
in common really. I didn't know him, I didn't know
my stepmother very well. What you may not know
is when you are sent for from Haiti, the people
who are sending for you have a purpose in mind.
The purpose is for you to come over and be a servant
in their home. I said no, I didn't come here for
that! That is what started the whole thing. They
sent me back. I thought it was my last chance.
I was basically kidnapped by
my stepmother and four other guys. I was going
to school and they offered to give me a ride. So
I get in the car and then I realized we passed
my school. She said they were sending me back to
Haiti because there were complaints from my school
that I had a fight-which I did not. I couldn't
believe it. For a second I thought maybe it did
happen. Did I have a fight? So I get out at the
airport and I said I'm not going back because I
know how hard it is back there. In a sense I wanted
to go back to see my family and friends, but at
the same time there is no hope back there. So she
actually called the cops and (falsely) said I was
selling drugs. I couldn't speak English very well
so I couldn't really do anything. She had a brother
who worked at the airport so when I got there they
had my passport and everything. I tried to explain
the situation but they said it was too late.
I had only ten dollars in my
pocket. That ten dollars was because I made a sketch
for a student in my high school. And I said, you
know what I am going to make it. That ten dollars
was the first money I made for doing a sketch and
I was going back to Haiti with that ten dollars
- ten dollars that came from a student - and nothing
else. Going back, I knew I was going to make it.
Because that was a sign. I made that sketch for
ten Dollars and was going back to Haiti, but I
was going back an artist - I was an artist now
and I would come back to New York as an artist.
|Sylvestre Pierre with his mother
Photographed By Evan Sung
When I came back I was homeless.
It was very tough. During that time my mother had
passed away. I asked why is all this happening
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