Artists of The South Bronx

Artists of The South Bronx

While Manhattan maintains its status as a global leader of the art world, the South Bronx is quietly and quickly becoming the dynamic home-of-choice for a new young community of Black and Latinx visual artists. Occupying raw, barren warehouses transformed into multi-unit studio spaces is a generation of creatives who find comfort in the ability to work inexpensively, within close proximity of their peers.

Chef collective Ghetto Gastro, textile artist Eric Mack, and the iconic photographer Renee Cox all maintain studio spaces in the South Bronx within a five-mile radius of each other. One building in particular holds four young artists who together have established a small, welcoming space for engagement, ideation, feedback, and commonality. The group is diverse and dynamic in practice and heritage: Dario Calmese, a photographer and academic hailing from St. Louis; Lucia Hierro, a conceptual artist native to New York whose family immigrated from the Dominican Republic; Nate Lewis, a photo works sculptor from Washington DC; and Tariku Shiferaw, an abstract artist from Los Angeles by way of Ethiopia.  

The borough saw a similar flock of artists in the mid-nineties. This time, however, the presence of so many artists of various ethnicities creates opportunities for the community, says Bronx-born and raised Jon Gray, CEO of Ghetto Gastro. “I think it’s great because it’s artists of color. Hopefully we can all jam together and do things that resonate in the community, not just the art world. It’s [also] important that people of color see other people of color doing things that aren’t necessarily the conventional things to do. Just existing is activism in its own way.”

We spoke to Nate, Dario, Lucia and Tariku to further understand the appeal of the South Bronx and its influence over their creative processes.

Jon Gray at Ghetto Gastro in The Bronx

The choice of the South Bronx for studio space directly correlates to the vibrant community of artists living in Harlem. A quick 15 minutes by train, bus, or bike, the South Bronx quickly beats out Brooklyn, where the promise of both gentrification and long commutes await. “My previous studio was in Williamsburg, and they kicked everyone out and made it into condos,” details Dario of his stumbling on the South Bronx. “The next space in New York that was affordable and had artist studios was Red Hook, and I just knew that if I had a studio in Red Hook I would never be [there]. Luckily my patience paid off. I’ve been here 5 years in November.”

Nate, whose New York career started with a coveted residency at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, faced a similar reality. “I was living in Harlem. [The commute] was ridiculous but I just moved here, and it was Pioneer Works. I was just glad I had an opportunity to be there. Now you could give me another really good residency anywhere in Brooklyn and I will say no. I don’t want to commute an hour to get anywhere.” Tariku found the neighborhood itself encouraging: “The best part of working in the Bronx is having a Black community of artists, which I’ve never had working in Bushwick. It’s a vibe.”

The South Bronx also offers Bronx-born creatives a way to reinvest in the communities that raised them. For Lucia, there is familiarity after years of being away from the city while pursuing her bachelor’s degree upstate and MFA from Yale University. “My ties to the Bronx were very loose at best. My family lived in Mount Hope when I was a baby. The Bronx was sort of the landing point from Dominican Republic going to Washington Heights. So something about that was something I needed for the work.” But it wasn’t just a personal narrative that brought her to the borough; the Bronx itself is storied for its creative energy. “As soon as I got here there was sense that I was stepping into something that had such a long history,” Lucia remembers. “Not just art wise but industry wise. Not coming in here like, ‘This is brand new — Ah! Plant an art flag!’ Coming in you see Tats Cru graffiti murals and you’re just like these people are legendary…I understand this.”

The Bronx is the birthplace of hip-hop, a byproduct of years of innovation from resilient communities. This vibrant history underlies and binds these young artists with a sense of mutual responsibility and keen awareness. Free from the destabilizing effects of gentrification, the warehouse, waterfront area offers both an escape and mediation. “You realize this academic high brow art world doesn’t intermingle – still, to this day – with people that are showing what’s called ‘street art’ or stuff like that. There are these separate worlds,” muses Lucia on the old and new art scenes now existing in parallels within this one space — and her role in bridging them. “I was curious to be here and figure out those worlds and they do relate to each other and there are incredible artists here already.”  For Dario, the tight-knit, no frills district provides a safe haven that seems, in a way, to underlie the interrelationships of the young artists. “There are so many existing businesses here it’s hard for someone to break in and for it to be gentrified,” he observes, discussing why the area has remained undeveloped. “For me it also saved my life. I would not have been in New York if I didn’t have a studio. In the studio, because it’s so quiet and so far removed but yet close, I can be anywhere in the world here. It’s literally an oasis. The only thing I hear is glass being recycled across the street. But I don’t have to deal with any New York shit here. No sirens, no hustle and bustle. No one here is trying to do too much; no one’s trying to be too much. No one has anything to prove.”

And herein lies what binds the group. Undisturbed, like the area, by the high-stakes selling art world, the group freely engages in open dialogues and discussion. Dario finds it critical to an innovative process, similarly to Picasso and Braque’s close relationship and co-development of Analytical Cubism: “As an artist your creative process can be one about solitude but having fellow artists to help you procrastinate or take a quick break or rethink your work is super important to the creative process.”  This conversation, Lucia reveals, makes the foursome face tough questions that advance their underlying theories. “We ask each other those really hard questions that we’ve probably been asking ourselves for weeks or months in the studio. We dig deeper into each other’s practice.” And at its core, what a shared space allows for is a space of loving validation. “It’s just easy talking to people that I don’t have to explain what the daily Black experience is like. I can just say, ‘This happened,’ and they get it,” muses Tariku on the power of the group dynamic. “Realizing the feelings that you’re experiencing they’re all experiencing too; being able to have that parallel and realize that you are all in this and these are normal feelings. It’s crazy,” Nate states, smiling as he elaborates.  “If you’re working on something new and you’re feeling funny, they come over and can validate for you. Because we’re always doubting when we’re embarking on new things.”

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