New York Cool
Interview
   Sylvestre Pierre
   Photographed 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 charming Haitian 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...

Title: Reflecting
Artist: Kob Thanapat
Medium: Charcoal

Title: Sensuous
Artist: Tuan Duangsa
Medium: Charcoal

Title: Entangled
Artist: Kob Thanapat
Medium: Charcoal
Title: Desert Madonna
Artist: Kob Thanapat
Medium: Charcoal

 

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 of jobs.

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 17.

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 rival it.

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 creativity?

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 come to?

SL: Yes, 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 to me?

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