Artists in Harlem Use Art to Create Community

In East Harlem, artists painted a boarded-up chain link fence and slowly transformed it into an ocean.

A giant sea turtle at least five feet tall spanned the wooden fence. Orange spray paint fizzed from a metal canister into the lines that created the contour of its shell.

“I want to paint a clownfish,” said Adrian Hernandez, 7, who was passing by with his mother and sister on May 28. He grabbed a paintbrush and drew a small orange circle under the turtle. Through delicate circular strokes, he brought his clownfish to life.

“This time we’re doing an ocean scene that turns into a jungle,” said Kristy McCarthy, 33, founder of the Harlem Art Collective. “A lot of people feel like there’s a lack of nature in the neighborhood, so we’re doing this mural.”

The Harlem Art Collective says it works to create art that reflects the interests of the community. Mr. Tezoco, left, and Kristy McCarthy discuss the mural they are painting on East 116th Street. James Tensuan/NYT Institute
Diego Tezoco, center, and Naomi Lawrence, right, wrap a crocheted piece around a tree as part of their ocean-themed mural. James Tensuan/NYT Institute


Every three months members the Harlem Art Collective, a group of Harlem-based artists who do projects in the neighborhood, paint an abandoned construction fence in front of an empty lot on West 116th Street between Second and Third Avenues.

“This was just a piece of drywall before,” said Osheena Smith, 33, a member of the collective. “When we’re out here, and we’re painting, and we’re doing art, it just lets the community know that Harlem is not all bad.”

There are 10 active members in the collective and about 30 who help throughout the year. The Guerrilla Gallery, as they call the fence art, is their main project.

Ms. McCarthy said she got the idea to start a collective after she realized a lot of her Harlem-based friends were doing art not in Harlem but in places like Brooklyn. She also wanted to start an art group that reflected the interests of the community.

“There’s a lot of artists that come to paint murals, but the murals have nothing to do with the community,” Ms. McCarthy said. “It might be beautiful and super well done, but it doesn’t speak to anything about the community. Then, the people who live in the community, who have actual ownership of the wall, they don’t really have a voice in their own neighborhood.”

As the artists paint, people walk by, smile, stare, take pictures and remark on their progress.

“It’s awesome,” a young woman says.

From the cab of a passing fire truck, a fireman screams: “Make a giraffe! I want to see a giraffe!”

Harlem residents are encouraged to participate; they can hang up their own art, draw and put suggestions for next month’s theme inside a suggestion box next to the fence. Last month 15 people put responses in the box, including one asking for more scenes from the writer’s home country. Since the writer didn’t specify a country, the artists decided to paint the ocean scene.

Harlem residents are encouraged to participate in the mural painting around the neighborhood. Rahsaan Basek adds a layer of blue for the background of this one's ocean theme. James Tensuan/NYT Institute

Ms. Smith described the Guerrilla Gallery as a “conversational” space, where the community can use art to talk about the issues that matter to them.

In previous installations of the gallery, someone hung a portrait of a white woman and someone covered the portrait with newspaper clippings about police brutality After someone took the newspaper clippings off the portrait, someone painted over the painting and covered it with an article about a young man in Mississippi who was lynched, all of which was done anonymously.

“We don’t know who any of the actors were in this, it was just something that was playing out every time everyone walked by,” Ms. McCarthy said. The Guerrilla Gallery “starts a lot of conversations that I think need to be had. It’s art. Art is a powerful tool, and I think it’s something that resonates with a lot of people.”

Ms. Smith said that the Guerrilla Gallery can bring together Harlem residents who are being displaced because of gentrification.

“I think it’s more important now than ever to bring the community together because people are literally fighting for their communities,” Ms. Smith said.