"You can set your coat down there. It's probably the safest spot," said artist Juan Sanchez with a smile, then gently motioning me toward the optimum observation point in his Brooklyn studio, which is wall-to-wall in canvases.
The view is breathtaking: it's one painting after another by an award-winning artist whose work has been exhibited from around the world to just around the corner at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Bronx Museum, and currently, through Jan. 9, at El Museum del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Ave.
Yet Sanchez, an unassuming man, hands out no business card, no press announcement, no ready turn of phrase. It's perhaps the best explanation for the group of Queens teens gathered around the artist on a Saturday evening, as if there were no place they'd rather be. There isn't.
These teens are participants in "Out of Site" a program through P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center in which local students work with a local artist, such as Sanchez, to both curate an exhibition on site at the Long Island City museum and on-line through the World Wide Web. The Sanchez exhibtion, "Ricanstructions: Paintings of the 90s," will open Dec. 19 at noon and the accompanying Web page will be accessible through the P.S. 1 Web site: DOUBLECHECK
"There are people who subscribe to the theory that school isn't 'real life,' but you know what? It is. When it's working, the world of the classroom is a very real world," said P.S. 1 Education Curator Bill Beirne, who introduced the "Out of Site" program. "At least 150,000 people will be clicking onto the students' Website once it's up. People who only dream of visiting New York City will be able to see and respond to the exhibition."
Beirne, an educator at the Robert F. Wagner Jr. Secondary School for Arts and Technology in Long Island City, initiated the "Out of Site" program back in 1996 as a novel way to interweave themes explored in a given artist's work with issues of relevancy in the lives of his students. For this first exhibition, Japanese-American artist Lynne Yamamoto explored issues of both immigration and the working world of women. For their part, Beirne's students responded to Yamamoto's work by creating their own artistic expressions of her themes, with their work being incorporated into the P.S. 1 exhibition and its on-line complement.
In "Ricanconstructions," the Puerto Rican artist Sanchez explores issues of cultural identity and pride, issues surround biculturalism and bilingualism, as well as the ongoing fight of Puerto Ricans long desiring and demanding complete political freedom from the United States at any cost.
"There are many Americans who don't realize there are political prisonsers, even in the United States," said Sanchez, speaking in low tones and wearing, momentarily, a solemn expression. "I'm referring to all activitist jailed for fighting for their beliefs in this country."
Sanchez, who grew up in Brooklyn in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood, also remembers going to school and hearing nothing about Spanish-speaking citizens of historic importance, a problem that he said persists today, as witnessed through the eyes of his nine- year-old daughter.
"Still, today, more needs to be done," Sanchez said with a smile. "Children need to learn about people who share their heritage and have made important contributions to this country."
By college age, Sanchez himself was making his own contribution to the world as an artist. Enrolled as a student at Cooper Union in New York, he felt the early influence of groups such as Taller Boriqua, the renowned artists' collective, a still vital organization contributing to the community of New York's Spanish Harlem and beyond. And today, a trailblazing Sanchez sets his own example, the winner of several lifetime achievement awards and countless scholarships, his work the subject of academy study almost to the day he began his career. Today, Sanchez himself is a teacher, heading graduate art classes at CUNY. He is also an author, putting the finishes touches on a book that combines his artistry with that of contemporary Puerto Rican poets.
"He is definitely an inspiration to me," said Ismaris Molina, a senior student of Beirne's at the L.I.C. school who signed up for "Out-of-Site" at the very beginning, enjoying her opportunity to idenitify with both Yamamoto, as a woman artist and minority, and Sanchez, as a fellow American of Latino heritage.
"He has definitely inspired me to think about issues connected with being both an American and a Latina," said Molina, a Dominican resident of Hell's Kitchen, entertaining the possible pursuit of a degree in Hispanic studies. "There are a lot of Spanish- speaking students at my school and many of them don't have a clue about Latin American history.
In fact, Molina, in response to Sanchez' work, made her own contribution to the exhibit, making a statement about the dictatorship of Agustin Pinochet, adding with dismay that some of her classmates didn't know who Pinochet was.
"They were like, 'Pinochet? Who's that?,'" Molina added, shaking her head.
"This experience has made me more open-minded, definitely," said Delroy Binger, a fellow classmate and 'Out of Site' student. "Juan cares about family which, next to God, is of No. 1 importance to me. He's a fighter, too, and stands by what he believes in."
As an American of Jamaican birth, Binger, too, related to issues of heritage explored by Sanchez but said he was first and foremost taken by Sanchez as a person.
"He's been a real inspiration to me. He sat and talked with us personally," said Binger. "He helped me understand his work, discussing it with me, the things he cares about. This is definitely the sort of opportunity that should be available to everyone.
"At first, I just saw images when I saw his work. I didn't really understand what all of it meant," remarked Perrin Wright, another participant of Beirne's "Out of Site" program. "Now it makes sense to me and I talk with him about his paintings."
"His work is colorful and his pieces say what they mean. It's not hidden. It's out there for you to relate to," said Trisha McCall. "It's a great program. A great opportunity."
The on-line Web link for "Ricanstructions" will contain not just the responses of the 'Out of Sight' team but will also contain an essay about Sanchez' work by a contemporary artist and academic and will also contain a way for visitors to the site to add their comments.
The Dec. 19 premiere of "Ricanstructions" at P.S. 1 will be held noon to 6 p.m. and will feature a performance by a poet selected for the event by Sanchez himself.
Also through Dec. 19 at P.S. 1, at 3 p.m. from Wednesday-Sunday, you can attend daily improvisational dance performances by Japanese artist Min Tanaka. In "Min Tanaka - Subject: Heuristic Ecdysis," the artist creates a new dance for each day he performs at P.S. 1., each dance inspired separately and uniquely by the different rooms at P.S. 1 in which each dance will be set.
In addition, new artwork by three artists will be featured through the museum's ongoing "Special Projects" installation, also opening Dec. 19.
P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center is at 22-25 Jackson Ave., Long Island City, at 46th Avenue. For more information, call 784-2084.
For more information about Sanchez' work on view at El Museo del Barrio, you can contact that museum by calling (212) 831-,7272, ext. 113.
©1999 Community News Group
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