When planning a major anniversary, an organization might introduce a new logo or invite guests to a gala event. The JCC in Manhattan, now marking its 10th year, chose to hire a street artist to paint a community portrait.
The result is a six-part mural-like installation completely filling the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery’s 100 feet of exhibition space in the center’s lobby. This unique commemoration samples the various people who have found a home at the JCC.
For Gabriel “Specter” Reese, whose work is typically found outdoors, scouting and collecting information are vital parts of the process. He spent two months observing the JCC in action, taking classes, speaking with members and staff, and shooting thousands of photographs before compiling his portrait.
Next, Specter sketched the portraits in pencil and painted them on “parachute cloth,” a fine fabric, with charcoal, pencil, latex and acrylic before cutting them out. After preparing the gallery walls by applying paint with rollers and sprayers, he pasted up the cloth portraits. Throughout, gallery staff uploaded progress photos on Facebook. The work will be exhibited through March 1, and then, like street art, it will be peeled off and painted over, leaving blank walls for the next exhibit.
Specter, 33, is Canadian-American, and is currently based in Brooklyn. His “work is as much about the piece as it is about where it is placed,” according to his artist statement. He began as a graffiti artist and has worked in London, Paris and St. Petersburg.
“The project is the culmination of the many hours Gabriel spent within the JCC talking to members and staff and taking classes and programs,” said Megan Whitman, the gallery’s director. “All the stories he heard and people he met are a part of the project because they created the emotional backdrop that informed Gabriel’s time at the JCC and helped him understand and reflect the JCC’s vibrancy.”
Specter chose to render a cross-section of JCC members in action: middle-aged men in a Tai Chi for Parkinson’s class; children with their arms outstretched, ready for play at the Afterschool Clubhouse; a mother, caregiver, and children; a disabled woman and her guide-dog; a boy with special needs and his painting instructor; and a man deep in meditation kneeling on a mat, with a golden-orange burst painted halo-like behind him. While most of the scenes could represent almost any community center, this yarmulke-clad figure is the only overt indication of the Jewish nature of the space.
Where there was once a gas station on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 76th Street, the JCC inhabits a tall, modern building. Offering about 1,200 programs per year, it has consistently used the arts as a vehicle to engage. “The arts are an incredibly powerful way of opening up conversations,” according to Dava Schub, associate executive director for programming.
The JCC began celebrating its 10th year last September and will end with a 10-day family trip to Israel in August. Anniversary events have included the Stroll & Roll, a charitable walk in Riverside Park; Big Night Out, a sleepover event for kids; the Center for Special Needs Creativity Convention; and the JCC Through Your Lens Photo Contest. The JCC is also undertaking a capital campaign.
This week, there was an opening event for Specter’s work, including a lecture on street art by the Wooster Collective. Next month the film “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” about the British graffiti artist Banksy, will be screened, and there will be a free Saturday afternoon of programming related to the street life of New York.
Last weekend the ground floor was bustling with activity. Specter’s installation, with its larger-than-life depictions of the JCC community, surrounded the actual community — parents and kids scuttling to activities, older folks resting with a cup of tea and some pretzels, gym-goers on their way to a workout. Young children sidled up to the artwork and touched its surface, attracted by its size, its colors and its presence in their space of recreation. The Specter portrait is successful because it is exactly what the JCC aims to be: it is accessible.