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MSG: What was the answer?

SL: There was always something inside, so powerful, to let me know it was going to okay. Because basically, when you think about it I didn't know anything else, I had no education, I dropped out of school in tenth grade when they sent me back to Haiti. When I came back to New York I was too old to go to high school. So I would just go buy books and paint and learn. I am blessed, even with everything that is going on right now, I am really blessed.

The more and more I learn and see the life of a true artist, you know you must go through these things in order to create. With what I am going through right now, at first I was pissed, I was very, very angry especially with the landlord. But now, I see it as a blessing. I see it now as a motivation to get to the next level.

Title: Dantor & Freda
Artist: Sylvestre Leon
Medium: Acrylic

Title: Erzuli
Artist: Saran Pranboonmee
Medium: Charcoal

Title: Back To My Roots
Artist: Sylvestre Leon
Medium: Mixed Media

MSG: It definitely is a test but I have no doubts that you are going to pass this test. I do want to talk about the vision of this space. I know this used to be a parking garage. I want to know when you had it in your mind that you wanted your own gallery and why did this parking garage talk to you?

SL: Well, I should mention that this is my second gallery, my partner and I had another one in the Poconos. It was always a dream. It was like Basquiat when he used to look in the window at gallery exhibits and think "that should be me!" When I first came here, in my heart I thought I was ready but I was not ready in all the other ways you have to be. It was very hard, my surroundings were very negative from my family. I used feel like "why should I be an artist?" I felt sometimes like it was something bad, that no one could understand me. You don't make money. You don't belong. So I said okay, so now what do I do. So I went to galleries. Knocked on doors only to have them slammed in my face. I remember I used to come to Manhattan with one token, I didn't even know how I was going to go back. I wouldn't even buy a bottle of water.

Before we decided to go to the Poconos we had a small studio space and we really couldn't pay the rent. We would go out and get food but we had no electricity so we would have to keep the food outside. Then we got a message from the universe to go to the Poconos.

MSG: And there is a viable arts community in the Poconos.

SL: Oh yeah, a lot! I'm telling you that is the best thing that happened to me. We opened a gallery in the back of someone's store and the next thing we know we opened our own and we knew it was time to come to New York last year. I said I have no doubt in my mind, I said I am ready for New York.

I went to Brooklyn first, to Park Slope but it was very expensive. I got myself an agent. The agent actually found out about this place and he said well, it is a parking garage but from what you told me of your history you can do it! So when I got here I said "this guy must be crazy!" I said "are you kidding me?!" And he said "well, you know, you can fix it up, it's not going to be too expensive." I said let me keep looking and I will get back in touch. So we started negotiating back and forth and then I found a space in SoHo. The day that I was going to sign the lease for that space the agent called me, I hadn't heard from him in two weeks. He said he had negotiated a deal and wanted me to come and meet the landlord. I walked in with $10,000 in my pocket and we negotiated a deal.

MSG: Where does $10,000 come from? Was that from the blood and sweat in the Poconos?

SL: Actually that money came from somebody, just like you guys, who came walking into the gallery. She said, "Wow - look at this place!" We have been very close ever since. I was telling her about my dream. It was never about the money.

Title: Refreshment
Artist: Kob Thanapat
Medium: Charcoal

MSG: It's about the passion.

SL: Yes, it's about the passion and helping other artists, that's what we are doing. So, I got the money - it was what we made in the Poconos, that friend and my sister. So we negotiated, he told me what he would do and I believed him. I said I must really be crazy! But, everything I do I always pray about it. I let the universe decide. I say I'm not doing this, it's not my choice. You decide where ever you want me to be that is where I am going to go.

MSG: Well, there is definitely a reason you came here. There is a definite reason for your being in this space. You are not staying here, but there was a reason you were brought here.

SL: I believe so.

MSG: Knowing some of the legal issues that came up with the lease and the landlord - without turning this into a legal story - do you feel that you have learned from it so that you are safeguarded that that will NEVER happen to you again?

SL: Oh you can bet on that! When you think about it, one of the lessons that I have learned is that I am not going to rent another place - I am going to buy. If you ask me "do you have the money?' I will tell you "No, I don't have the money."

MSG: That's not the issue.

SL: No, the same way that I got here is the same way I am going to get the building because I truly believe that when you look at the place - the work that was done in the place is incredible. Forget about the money because nobody can pay for something like this. I learned you should have your own After all this experience I know that last year was the time for me rent my space and open my gallery and this year is the time to have my own building. To open a cultural center for everybody - whatever your background.

MSG: I want to hit on that for a moment. When we first walked in here you referred to this place as a cultural center, more than just an art gallery. What does that mean to you?

SL: One of the greatest things that happened since I was born and everything that I went through is knowing more and more "Why." I think the universe was teaching me about life, how you should always be giving even when you don't have. That's the only way you are going to make it. Making it for me, I don't just see money. Making it for me is you coming back into my gallery. I am sitting here talking with you right now, basically strangers...but we are not really strangers. You come in, I don't see you as white and I am black. As an artist, the beauty of a true artist, is to accept whatever the universe sends to you. Other galleries, I remember when I was trying to get a break, they would look at me and say you are black, you have an accent, you don't belong.

MSG: So even within the art community you experienced that kind of discrimination?

SL: Yes, of course, "You don't belong." Even when people walk through that door into my gallery and they see a black man they think "Oh, everything must come from Africa." So, the cultural part of this gallery is that I am Haitian, I have all kinds of friends, I have a home in Asia - so that brings the whole world together. So when people assume this all comes from Africa, I laugh because my job is to trick their mind. To say "Okay, you think this comes from Africa. Why do you think that? Because I am black?" We have many Asian artists who happen to do this kind of work. This gallery is not just about painting. It is about music, films, spoken word - is about the arts in general.

MSG: I know downstairs you do readings...

SL: Poetry readings, drum sessions, dancing, everything. If you come to me and say you have something you really want to do, I will be more than happy! Because I will be the only gallery in Manhattan that is truly multicultural and multi media. When you go to most galleries they are very traditional. White walls, stark light, they are not particularly welcoming. When people come here I want them to feel like they can't get enough! There is so much from all over the world.

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