A mosaic by Jim Power (detail)
Julia Knight, WM New York
The following interview took place in the interview truck as part of the Whitehot Magazine Festival, curated by Jan Van Woensel, East Villiage NYC Sept, 2007
I don’t know if you’ve heard of Jim Power, but chances are if you’ve walked the East Village streets you’ve seen his mosaics adorning lampposts, restaurant façades, and planters scattered throughout the neighborhood. And that’s sort of the problem. Jim is a permanent feature on St. Mark’s, and the mosaics themselves are photographed almost to death by tourists and residents alike, but Jim himself remains anonymous to the world at large. In the East Village he’s a legend. Dozens of people stop to talk to him every day at his base camp in Astor Place. He’s been featured in New York City newspapers for twenty years. He even appears in several films (as himself, of course), and most recently, Todd Woodard has taken on the task of playing Jim in a theater production at The Metropolitan Playhouse. So the next time you’re trying to find a Slayer belt buckle at Trash & Vaudeville, take a minute to seek out Jim Power. He’ll be the guy trying to move a hundred-pound planter across 3rd Avenue. Once you’re inside Jim Power’s world, you have access to some of the most interesting people on the Lower East Side. Follow the chain of introductions and you find yourself talking to reformed prostitutes, giddy video artists, and Latin rappers. One of the most interesting (and definitely the most loveable) artists I met through Jim is Clayton Patterson. With a gallery on Essex Street and a lifetime of photographs documenting the East Village and its neighborhood gangsters, Patterson has been a supporter of Jim’s work from the beginning. He kindly joined Jim and me in the Whitehot trucks for an interview.
Jim Power (Left) and Clayton Patterson (Right) hold court in the Whitehot Magazine interview truck, NYC 2007Whitehot Magazine: I want to know how you got your start here in New York City and what it’s been like to watch the East Village change over the past 20 years? What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the neighborhood?
When I ended up in the East Village it was a sort of unknown entity at the time. It wasn’t Greenwich Village and it wasn’t Midtown but it was a place where you could sit on a stoop and not get chased away or feel uncomfortable. Coming here from California in ‘81 I had the pleasure of living in a regular apartment—that’s very rare-- on second avenue and 6th Street. That’s where the old Fillmore East was. I used to travel on the bus down Park Avenue and I saw these really nice planters there. That’s where it began. I thought, “gee it would be nice to have some stonework on there. A little glass… Just to brighten things up a little bit.” And in the city, this led to the mosaics, which I started in1985. I did a lot of sculpture on the block. But when I left town for a few days, it got ripped up. I came back and all this major sculpture that had been cast into the ground, all ripped up. They had to use sledgehammers. People were yelling “stop!” etc… What I learned out of it was that people were ill. They couldn’t walk around the block anymore because the mosaics had risen to a level that had brought joy to these people and now there was this void. Unexplainable. I vowed to come up with some idea to still put the mosaics out there because I believed that they helped in a very dull environment. Maybe a very lonely environment. Clayton Patterson:
Those were the early days. Jim was a real terror in the neighborhood. He always had a couple of hammers out there [for protection] because in those days doing mosaics on the street was very dangerous. The Lower East Side at that time was definitely a drug neighborhood; all these corners had drug activities. So he just went there in the midst of all this chaos.JP:
I used to say to people, “have you ever heard of someone surviving a gun attack?” And they go, “yeah.” I say, “Ever hear of someone surviving a hammer attack?” No one has!WM: So then you started putting up the light posts, the Mosaic Trail, all throughout the East Village.JP:
The idea evolved form Mendocino, which is the furthest point on the United States above California. In the center of this town is an art college and I thought, “how nice.” All the municipal areas, the “downtown” so to speak, was on the outer side of town. I thought, “This is the way to go. This is the way I would do things if I had the choice.” Anyway, it caught my eye. So I came into the Village running my trail across Broadway to Avenue A. We started getting attention. We did an MTV bit [for Unfiltered News] and they played it for six years. It raises the issue that it’s a young neighborhood.
Jim Power, Eat Me,
MosiacWM: Let me ask you. I know that so many of your mosaics are dedicated to the community, to the fire department to the police department, to mayors… And it seems that you have such a love for the New York community especially the east village. But it’s like a one-way street. You’re getting no funding, nothing back. What keeps you going?
JP: Well reaching my 20th year has gotten me trying to do things rationally. I have a golden opportunity to teach teachers and parents not only the art [of making mosaics] but to bring them together with the hope of bringing some of the more dynamic entities of our city to the forefront. Get involved in your kids life and likewise the city should fund the projects to allow this to happen. Along with another idea: the government just has to sign a bill right now to put up 12 thousand dollars so artists can stay in their communities. I hope I make the list.WM: Do you think you’re on it?JP:
I’ll make my own if I have to. But the bottom line is it’s my decision where I stay. If I leave it’ll be because I’m heading for higher ground and I know exactly where I am. It’s unfortunate that’s it’s all coming to that. I don’t want to leave. I used to joke that Nostradamus never mentioned my fucking name. I’m pissed at him. But that’s beside the point. I’m bringing back happiness. So I’m claiming the right mother fuckers. You damn well listen to what I’m saying right now and let all these other assholes that came before me step aside, mother fuckers, you’re dead. So anyway. The goal next year is to unite this country through mosaics through the schools. If the parents don’t listen up I’ll get them through their kids.
WM: Have you ever gotten any funding, Jim?
Um. I just recently got a couple of checks from PS 40. You should get a better look at me. I don’t take care of my teeth, so my teeth are falling out. There’s a lot to be learned here, kids. I think I feel the same way as the people at Outlaw Art. If they were in a position to have funding they would accept it to continue their work. I need it to go on with my work. It’s a different thing if you’re the kind of artists painting cans of soup. You know I’m here on the street.
And there is something about community like with Jim for example. He’s done the same thing with his mosaics so like 20 years ago there were kids out there that were four and five years old putting in mosaics on the lampposts and now here it is 20 years later and they’re coming back and it brings back a really a good sense of feeling of community and connection. Putting in that mosaic into that pole, that kid feels a deep connection to the neighborhood and whenever he walks by for the rest of his life, there’s that connection.WM: And it’s evident that everyone loves you. On the street in the neighborhood, everyone stops to talk to you.CP:
And you know Jim’s a Veteran; he’s got a very bad hip, he can hardly walk. He’s homeless. His teeth need repairing. And he’s really given his whole adult life to this Mosaic Trail and the Avenue of the Arts. With the real things, like my art gallery or Jim’s mosaics is that they have shared with the community for 20, 25 years. And it is sad that the city hasn’t recognized Jim because Jim’s probably the most photographed public art any where in the world. I mean people come by constantly. Maybe the Statue of Liberty gets photographed more because everyone who comes to New York goes there. But for all the people who come to the Lower East Side, and there’re millions of them, they document those mosaics. It really does represent New York City. And he’s done countless restaurants, the China Club, the bathrooms in Criff Dogs…WM: Awesome bathrooms. Voted the best bathrooms in New York City!
Exactly. And also the president of City Bank used to buy his pieces. So Jim’s had a lot of people collect his work but it’s never been put together as a formal thing. It’s like everybody loves it but nobody puts it together consciously as a large art project.WM: Well people always take public art for granted. You see it everywhere and it just becomes a fixture in your life that you don’t have to think about.CP:
But it’s dangerous because they’re trying to bring in these large black poles, these new lampposts in an attempt to make the neighborhood more uniform. And in doing that it would completely destroy and corrupt the whole neighborhood. It would take out the whole essence and vitality. And you know one thing about art and the mosaics is it brings a feeling of sole and art to the neighborhood and it’s art for the people and people sense that aesthetic. And most art is not for the people. But sometimes they take things from the street or from the people and it gets into high society. Like when the Guggenheim did the motorcycle show. That was like the most well attended show they ever had. In 1971 the Folk Art Museum, which didn’t want to do the tattoo show but did, found it was the most well attended event they ever had. And obviously it turns out like that. And I think it could be the same thing with the mosaics. If some museum like the Guggenheim came down and actually understood -- because it really takes somebody to stop and to think and to put together the problem. Everybody’s conscious of it but they don’t put it together as an issue. They really have to put it together as one guy’s 20 years worth of work. And then on the other hand you have the city trying to dig up all this money to fund these art projects, but they don’t see the real people like Jim who really has given and contributed. And being the pure artist, Jim isn’t into having a career and trying to get the right rep. His head doesn’t work that way. It’s like Vincent van Gogh. A guy just does his life and his love. You know van Gogh lost his ear and Jim lost his hip. And the hip is bigger than the ear it’s more precious to your body than half an ear.JP:
It’s true. I mean this is a frightening event for me.WM: Are you worried this means the end of your work?JP:
No because I’m going to get this fixed. WM: Clayton said something that you are a pure artist and you’re not in it for the money But if you could have your druthers would you want your situation in the art world to be different? Do you wish that you were in galleries and being exposed like that?JP:
I haven’t talked to any particular individual about representing me. But apparently there are people out there that are representing artists that I am aware of and I may ask somebody if I was able to build some art for next year.WM: So you would want that kind of representation if you could get it?
I only have to stop and make artwork but I have to get away from my public work first. My public work is what it is. I must have the opportunity to create brilliant artworks. CP:
The good thing with Jim is that he can teach these kids. The great thing about mosaics is that it’s not that complicated to do so you can have really young or troubled kids learn to do it. I mean it doesn’t have that pressure: can you draw, can you not draw. And so you can really have all these kids and people involved in something that’s really dynamic, connected to the city, important, spiritual. So you can have all of these kids each doing a pole and by the end of a year you could have the entire neighborhood completely mosaic-ed. We just have to follow Jim.WM: I mean that’s the epitome or the ideal of public art is to get the whole community in there to contribute.
Get the parents involved. It helps the family, the community, the schools, and sets a little bit of an example with a little bit of hope and some sort of format.
Gaudi was an architect not a mosaic artist.WM: What do you think of Gaudi? Do you like his work? Do you think you’re on par?
I have been likened to Gaudi, but Gaudi was an architect, not a mosaic artist. My work has sort of changed. It became more direct and more art forward. CP:
But Jim’s work can be seen on many different levels. You can step back and see it as a whole. But if you want to get into it, there’s a whole story. When you get close you can read the stories and tales. And even smaller. And you see a name like Bob Hope and then you’ll have like a Chinese landscape or boats crossing the water, and so you really get into it. Just like looking at a painting. And that’s what’s different from Gaudi and that’s really what’s unusual about Jim. People really need to think about and acknowledge Jim’s work. Even though people know you and understand you, people really don’t try to save you. People don’t come and think about it themselves. They only think about when is the show? So when it comes to Jim, people ask if he’s in a museum and it’s like, “no”, so then everybody blanks it out. We need to conceptually put it togetherWM: And something that I would say is that you do get so much press. I mean you’re in movies and articles but it doesn’t seem to change matters.
As soon as that newspaper is off the stands, it’s off your mind. People will walk by the mosaics and think they’re great but tomorrow, maybe they’ll be there maybe they wont’ Maybe he’ll be here maybe he won't and then it’ll be over.