As part of our on-going Virtual Street Art Tour, Janye West brings us the backstory on Gaia and his two large-scale murals in Jersey City. The two murals below were painted in the last few years by an artist known as Gaia.
When the above mural went up on Christopher Columbus Drive, the community had lots of interpretations of it based on the images depicted. As Gaia was painting the mural in October of 2015, I had a chance to meet his father, Michael Pisacane, who I interviewed for this blog. In my mind, there’s no one better to sing your praises than your family.
First, let’s get acquainted with the two large-scale murals that grace our Jersey City walls. One of them, entitled Pronkstilleven (the lower image) is well-hidden. To me, it feels like a secret mural inside a secret garden. It’s a six-story depiction of Henry Hudson (historically appropriate for the region) surrounded by a bountiful array of Dutch Baroque-style flowers. It stands tall at the southernmost end of Ogden Avenue, and can really only be seen if you’re in Ogden’s End Community Garden. This mural was commissioned by a group known as Savage Habbit, who are not affiliated with our city’s mural program.
The second, also large-scale mural (cover photo, also at top), went up in late 2015 and drew a lot of media attention as it was painted over what was once the “largest mural in the country.” The original mural (see below – it’s the final photo in blog) was conceived and painted in the mid-1990s by a team of artists under the direction of Franc Palaia. It took years to get the project off the ground, and I’m told came in under its $250,000 budget. But by 2015 the massive mural was was peeling and faded, certainly in need of a restoration — or a total makeover.
That’s when the city got involved as part of the Jersey City Mural Arts Program (JCMAP) and commissioned Gaia to repaint this particular section.
Many observers were unsure who the White male figure was, guessing anyone really but “Frederick Henry, the Prince of Orange.” He was a colonist who gets part of the credit for establishing New Amsterdam, which includes parts of New Jersey. Next to Henry is a Lenape native, which any school kid knows are the tribe that inhabited much of the historical territory that became present day New Jersey. The rest of the flowers pay a loving homage to Willem Heda, a Dutch artist from Haarlem. Also, you will notice a historic brownstone and a contemporary glass high-rise building as well.
Gaia’s father Michael walked me through his son’s fast and furious rise to fame — a brief history which is not typically the street artist’s story. Gaia (his street name, derived from the Greek “earth goddess”) grew up in New York City, with two not-exactly artistic “but creative” parents. When they recognized his natural ability, they set about fostering it with the right schools, programs, and exposure. (All the things that parents raising kids in Manhattan hope they’ll be able to take advantage of.) By the time he was in high school, he had an internship with Judith Supine (a very well-known street artist who is in fact a man using his mother’s name as a pseudonym.)
When Ad Hoc Art, the Bushwick pioneers of street art, featured Gaia in a pop-up show, they literally launched his budding career. He was then recruited by MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) the oldest art school in the country and received scholarships to all the noteworthy art schools like Pratt, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD, Shepard Fairey’s alma mater) and SUNY Purchase.
At MICA, Gaia starting doing murals and quickly became “the most famous street artist in Baltimore” before he even graduated from college. Lest I believed this to be fatherly pride, his dad pointed out that arts and entertainment newspaper City Paper (similar to New York City’s Village Voice) named him “Best Street Artist” for so many consecutive years that they finally changed the title to “Best Street Artist Other Than Gaia” award.
Eventually all this recognition and attention brought Gaia to the attention of O+ Festival founder Joe Concra. O+ is a chance for care providers, like doctors and dentists, to contribute and support underinsured artists and musicians. The efforts are made year-round, but the culmination is the weekend-long celebration that takes place in Hudson Valley. In 2013, Gaia was asked not only to paint a mural, but to curate the visual art portion of the festival. That year he painted an 80 foot mural entitled Artemis Emerging from the Quarry in an historic part of Kingston, NY on the back of the Walter Reade Theater.
It was at that festival in 2015 that Franc Palaia, one of the original artists for Jersey City’s “Largest Mural” struck up a conversation with Gaia’s father, Michael. Before long, they realized that Gaia was tasked with painted over that famous mural the upcoming weeks, as part of a Jersey City Mural Arts Program revitalization.
The strange synchronicity of these two artists meeting could have been cause for some tension, but Franc had a more positive perspective, “The wall has seen its day. It’s time to pass the torch to a new group of artists and get some fresh paint up there. Just like downtown Jersey City is changing every day – it was time this wall caught up with the present.” Franc adds a universal view regarding street art in contemporary culture, “Murals are a catalyst that ignites the public to notice their surroundings. People start talking about them and eventually this leads to more community engagement – sometimes even to art events, tourism and musical concerts – all the elements of a good quality of life.”
At this point there doesn’t seem to be any slowing down Gaia. His father says he’s been everywhere from Newark to Rome – the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Italy and Paraguay. He was even hired for a project where the US State Department sent him to Vladivostok and New Delhi. While in New Delhi, Gaia picked up a commission for a Bollywood movie mural. This kind of success and world travel is a dream for any street artist. That Gaia’s reach and influence is worldwide and in such demand makes his murals for Jersey City all the more compelling and impressive. He is definitely one to watch as he heads into his ripe old thirties.
Special thanks to Michael Pisacane and Franc Palaia for sharing their mutual stories.
Read more Virtual Street Art Tour coverage here.