Fairhill: Art Sparks Cultural Connections

Artwork from Juan Sánchez's exhibit, "Unknown Boricuas + Prisoner: Abu Ghraib."
Artwork from Juan Sánchez's exhibit, "Unknown Boricuas + Prisoner: Abu Ghraib."


Taller Puertorriqueño operates out of a skinny building in the heart of Fairhill’s typically buzzing Fifth Street, surrounded by various food stops, barbershops, apartment buildings and laundromats standard in urban neighborhoods. But Taller looks different than the rest.

Positioned at the end of a line of brick buildings, Taller takes advantage of the exposed brick on its left side, where a giant mural in bright greens, reds, blues and yellows welcomes passersby. Below the mural is a fenced-in lot with short trees. Painted boards are attached to the fence, visually creating what could seem like an artists’ haven.

Former Curator Julia Lopez, pictured left, and Dr. Carmen Febo-San Miguel, executive director at Taller Puertorriqueño, pose inside Julia De Burgos Books and Crafts.

Julia De Burgos Books and Crafts occupies the bottom floor of the building. The walls are lined with shelves displaying an array of Latino literature. Small wooden stands display handmade jewelry, knick-knacks and artwork.

A narrow flight of stairs leads to the Lorenzo Homar Gallery, the only Latin American and Caribbean art gallery in the region. From mid-February through March (2010), the gallery features Juan Sánchez, who is presenting his most recent exhibit, “Unknown Boricuas + Prisoner: Abu Ghraib.” Sánchez’s first solo show with Taller was in 1991.

“Taller has always been a grassroots, cultural organization,” Sánchez said. “It is very dedicated to the history of the community, the diaspora of the community. That’s something I’ve identified with all my life.”

Taller Puertorriqueño began in 1974 as a graphic arts workshop and community center, founded by Latino activists and artists who thought art would be a good tool to develop leadership and cultural connections among neighborhood youth. It will celebrate its 35th anniversary in May.

“Taller Puertorriqueño started as an organization to provide the community with a space and a venue to celebrate its cultural art, its artists, the production of its artists and to maintain a presence of Puerto Rican and Latino culture in the community,” said Dr. Carmen Febo-San Miguel, executive director at Taller.

Along with the art gallery and bookstore, Taller offers educational programs for the community’s youth that operate year-round.

Programs include the Cultural Awareness Program (CAP), which submerges children in Latino arts and history with after-school activities, workshops and a summer arts camp.  The Youth Artist Program (YAP) sets up high school sophomores, juniors and seniors seriously interested in pursuing art with a mentor to assist in building the students’ portfolios for two years.

“I’ve grown up with Taller,” said Jennifer Lee, who has lived in Fairhill for over 20 years. “I went to their Cultural Awareness Program and their Youth Artist Program, and as a result, I went to the Moore College of Art and Design.”

Lee was in attendance at the opening of Juan Sánchez’s exhibit. She said the educational programs at Taller helped prepare her for college and that organizations like Taller help counteract problems in communities like drugs, violence and crime.

Patrons of Taller Puertorriqueño pose at the opening of Juan Sánchez's (second from right) exhibit.

“It’s all what a person makes of it and how they can impact others in bringing out the best in their community,” she said.

Lee grew up surrounded by art. Her mother, Marilyn Rodriguez-Behrle, is an artist and art teacher. Rodriguez-Behrle, who also attended Moore College, is pleased with Taller’s accomplishments yet wishes more children would take advantage of the programs. She said that sometimes the hardest part is just getting people to step inside the building.

“If you get them to come inside, they connect,” she said.

Lee’s son, 7-year-old Justin, is also involved in Taller’s programs. At the gallery opening, he ran around with a digital camera, enthusiastically snapping pictures from every corner.  For the Lee family, art has been a continuing theme.

“[Taller] benefits the community by offering a place for kids to come and express themselves through art,” said Michael Dox, who has volunteered at Taller for two years.  “It’s a positive place for kids to come. If you want to come here, you can – it’s open. It has never closed doors to anyone.”

Artwork from Juan Sánchez's exhibit, "Unknown Boricuas + Prisoner: Abu Ghraib."

Despite its wide-open doors, Taller still struggles to attract community members.

“Sometimes there is a sense of classism, where people view art as something that only belongs to the bourgeois,” said Daniel De Jesus, special events coordinator and visual arts program manager at the gallery. He said many individuals in the community do not understand that art is something they can be involved in, too.

“They’re our neighbors, but it’s very hard to get them in the door because they still don’t get it,” he said.

This is just one obstacle Taller struggles to overcome. Like many community-based organizations, Taller is in need of funding.

“Art is the first service cut in schools when the budget gets difficult,” said Febo-San Miguel. “I think that this society sees art and culture more as a commodity than as a need. We struggle with those financial realities.”

Taller accepted donations at the gallery, and encouraged attendees to spread the word about the organization.

Julia Lopez, who served as Taller’s curator for seven years, is enthusiastic about Taller’s role in the community despite present struggles.

“One thing I’ll always remember about my work here is when we make the connection with our community,” she said. “The art, for me, is what brings us all together.”

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