Poised on a ladder in a vacant Grand Avenue lot, visiting artist Jonathan Graham of Asheville, N.C., retouches a sun-blasted seascape on the west side of Bermuda Supermarket in Coconut Grove.
That was painted four years ago by Miamians Martin Weeks and Billy Gibson.
“Caring is contagious. So is neglect,” said Graham, expressing what brings him and a handful of renowned street artists here. With support from local residents and business owners, they restored and created murals in the historic West Grove neighborhood during Art Basel – and, says their organizer Keif Schleifer, beyond.
Introducing herself as “Keif the troublemaker,” Schleifer, an arts advocate and sculptor who now lives in Atlanta, Ga., came to Miami ahead of Art Basel with gloATL, a young dance company that made its debut at Art Basel’s Aqua Art Fair. But when Schleifer’s Basel host family showed her around Coconut Grove, her eye and heart were taken by the neighborhood between Douglas Road and MacDonald Street. “It’s quintessential Miami. In one mile, you can go from grand condos to an original Bahamian community. This neighborhood is as worthy of world-class art as Wynwood or any other,” she said.
Since November when she arrived, Schleifer has talked with city officials and building owners, identifying facades for the street artists’ work. “We have a moral compass. We get it. We don’t want to impose anything on the community. We want to participate,” she says. Rather than their own creations, the artists will first honor the murals of local painters by restoring them. Some like the Weeks-Gibson seascape cover whole sides of buildings, while others, like a placard-size scene outside Barberdoll’s Community Barbershop on the corner of Douglas and Grand, add decorative touches. From Bermuda Supermarket, Graham and his fellow painters moved on to the Pine Inn building, a former juke joint.
Fine art photographer Sheila Pree Bright is another Art Basel participant who came to the West Grove to enhance the streetscape. Bright’s portraits of young Americans posing with the American flag have been lauded and, in a couple of cases, censored, for expressing a wide emotional range of Generation Y feelings toward American citizenship. Mounted with wheat paste on Atlanta buildings, the portraits have received national attention.
Wearing hiking boots and paint-spattered khakis, Schleifer sits in a storefront sharing her vision with Grand Avenue business owners Glen Diston and Toya Johnson, who are eager to bring traffic to Grand Ave. “Bright colors are eye-catching. It will make the place pop,” says Diston, whose Go Green Document Solutions is helping the artists output the building-sized drawings they need to paint from.
Meanwhile, Graham, who has been painting non-stop at the market without even a break for lunch, gets a visit from one of the original painters Billy Gibson, who grew up nearby.
“It’s great. It’s a tribute when something you worked on goes up, and you want to see it continue,” he says.
For the artists’ part, Schleifer says a few of them are remaining after Art Basel to finish some fourteen murals, including one by the historic Ace Theater on Grand Avenue. “We’ve been humbled by this community and the kids who’ve been painting with us since the day we arrived. I see Art Basel as more than an event of the moment. It’s a meeting ground for people to come together and grow something bigger that continues."