By James Maher
Name: Nicolina JohnsonJames Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.
Occupation: Street Artist
Location: Portal Zero (Outside the Bean), 3rd Street and 2nd Avenue
Time: 6 p.m. on Monday, April 15
I grew up in Seattle. When I was young I drew all over my parents’ house and all over the walls. I would take a permanent market down the hallway and onto their lampshades and into the bottom of their shoes. They finally were like, “You cannot do this anymore. Please don’t draw anywhere in the house. You can have your room to draw in.” And so I covered every square inch with detailed drawings and poems and secret codes. Even when I was like seven years old I made a little symbol and I put it all around the neighborhood. It was a weird beginning to street art.
I moved to New York in 2002 and to the East Village in 2003. I wanted to see the whole world but didn’t have a lot of money. I just had enough to go to one place and New York was the one place you could go where the whole world was. I wanted culture.
I was a waitress for many years working at the Kitchen Club in SoHo and at a sushi restaurant. I worked a lot of really bad jobs and I eventually got fired from the Kitchen Club. I was devastated and didn’t know what I was going to do with my life until I came to the realization that if I didn’t try art at that point, then there was nothing I could do. I said I would do whatever it took just to make my living painting or making art somehow.
So I started doing face painting in Central Park for kids and six months after that I painted my first window — at Umberto's Clam House in Little Italy. That was the beginning of Paint The Town. It started spreading down the block and so I put a portfolio together. Now we have over 40 clients all over the City.
Art spreads like a happy virus. If you paint one guy’s shop, then the guy across the street wants it. We just did a project last year in Rio de Janeiro where we painted one boat in a harbor of 60 and then the guy next to us was like, “Hey can you paint my boat?” We ended up painting 58 fishing boats and working with 45 different artists. It was a floating gallery.
I do a project called the Hearts of the World for the Lower Eastside Girls Club. They were the first ones to give me a chance and now it’s been all over the world. It’s a collaborative project with kids from around the world, basically asking them to paint what’s in their hearts inside the panel of the stylized anatomical heart. I silkscreen the outline for them and then they can paint in whatever they want.
Recently I did it at an orphanage for blind people in Beijing. I had no idea what to expect and so I outlined the hearts with yarn so they could feel the edges. And one of the children, who was around 7, painted the whole heart blue and I asked him what he was painting and he said he was painting the sky. And then he painted a yellow sun and a green forrest and white clouds. And then he painted over everything in black. And I said, “What are you Painting?” and he looked up at me with these cloudy eyes and a big smile on his face and he said, “I paint the darkness.” I asked him why he painted the darkness and he said, “The darkness is very beautiful. There are many color lights in the darkness.” He painted all of the things he couldn’t see and then he covered it up in the darkness.
I’ve painted on boats, on pedicabs in Central Park, a Tap Tap in Haiti, which are these big, brightly colored taxi-buses, I painted a tour boat in Chile, an Ascensor, which is like a cable car, a few trucks, a piano in Tompkins Square, a canoe. I love to paint moving objects because it will travel to different places and lots of people will see it. It also brings in another level of life and action. I’ve always wanted to paint an airplane. So if anyone has one...
Portal Zero is an introduction to a new project that I’m doing in the East Village with Perola Bonfanti. It was a test to see how many people would use the QR code and to see people’s perception of it. Way more people than we thought used it. Within just a couple of months we had a few hundred people scan it. The official opening is in July. You have to start at Portal Zero outside of the Bean [on East Third Street and Second Avenue]. You scan the QR code and then either answer a question or complete a task and then you can pass through the Portal to the next one.