When John Ahearn arrived from Binghamton, NY to New York City in 1974, he fell into the vibrant art scene of the downtown bohemians. He discovered a book on mold making for film and television in actress Patty Astor’s apartment that gave him the idea to try face casting, the process of pouring material onto the face to create a mold that can be carved and painted. John’s first face cast was of his friend, sculpture Tom Otterness, whom he fashioned like Frankenstein; a tribute to the popular art they saw adorning the rides at Coney Island, which they facetiously referred to as ‘real art.’ John was invited by fellow artist Robert Cooney to participate in a sort of performance piece, where he worked live in front of an audience; it was out of his comfort zone, but he liked it.
Ahearn began to cast more of his artist friends, and found himself heading uptown to cast Stefan Eins, who had recently moved his storefront gallery from 3 Mercer to 3rd Ave. near 147th St. in the South Bronx. Fashion Moda, a new hot spot for creativity, was really where things began to happen for John; he says, “The time spent at Fashion Moda in 1979 was a turning point in my life and I’ve never put it any other way.”
Façade of Fashion Moda in 1982 with mural by John (Crash) Matos Photo: ©Lisa Kahane
John recalls how he set Stefan up in the window to make the cast. Pedestrians walking the busy street would peer in to see what was going on. The odd plaster and gauze and the subject lying immobile made some think it was the scene of an accident. Many wanted to know how they could get one for themselves.
John Ahearn remembers these times fondly; a mix of artistic disciplines, classes and cultures, regular folks coming together to make art “live” in what co-director Joe Lewis called, “stressopolis New York” in his infamous manifesto, What is Fashion Moda?
l – Crowd outside Fashion Moda, 1979 Photo: Christof Kohlhofer r – Ahearn and Torres casting Carlos Photo: Christof Kohlhofer (John looks at this photo and recalls Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens (1503-1513), which depicts a number of Greek philosophers.)
Ahearn says “a series of many accidents” brought him to Fashion Moda, and there was no plan for him to work there beyond the Stefan Eins cast, but he kept going back day after day, until he had been working there regularly for a year. The result turned out to be what is perhaps his most critically acclaimed work, The South Bronx Hall of Fame, completed in collaboration with Rigoberto Torres in 1979.
Fashion Moda, Bronx: one year life-casting project, 1979 l-r David Ortiz laughing, Mario and Norma, JC, Johnny Photos: www.johnahearn.com
There were many recognizable names and great talents who came through the doors of Fashion Moda, but as far as John is concerned, his most important meeting was with an 18 year old from the neighborhood nearing graduation from Taft HS, Rigoberto Torres. Rigoberto’s cousin, David Ortiz, was cast by John, and told Rigoberto about the experience. Born in Puerto Rico and living in New York since age 11, Torres, an inquisitive teenager, went to check out Fashion Moda’s unofficial artist-in-residence. In an interview with curator Cecilia Alemani, John recalls, “Rigoberto Torres showed up one day and I did a cast of him. He wanted to learn how to do the casting, and I thought “This is perfect.” We started collaborating, and I could tell that he was everything that I would need in a friend and a partner.”
Rigoberto’s Uncle Raul owned a popular statuary factory in the Bronx at the time that made Botanica items and pieces you could find in local furniture stores, everything from Jesus to Elvis. The association with Uncle Raul served as a creative and practical stimulus for John and Rigoberto. Playing off each other’s strengths and weaknesses, John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres ultimately worked together for over 30 years.
Two of Ahearn and Torres’ most recognizable murals in the South Bronx are Banana Kelly Double Dutch, 1981-82 and We Are Family, 1981-82. For this public commission originally meant to be completed in the North Bronx, Ahearn convinced the grantors to allow them to create the project for a South Bronx wall, ultimately executed on two walls. The neighborhood was totally devastated at the time, but he felt tied to that community, and wanted to share the pieces with them.
Homage to the People of the Bronx: Double Dutch at Kelly Street I (Frieda, Javette, Towana and Stancey) (1981–82) Intervale Ave at Kelly St Photo: Pinterest
As John proudly explained to participants at A Blade of Grass’ Socially Engaged Artist Fellowship Workshop in 2013, the four girls depicted in the Double Dutch piece actually lived in that building. Of the other piece he went on to say, “This one is after the Sister Sledge song called “We Are Family” and sincerely, that’s the way I felt. I was somehow being permitted to share family life. I was a bachelor, I had no children, and yet the neighborhood was sharing their children with me so I could enjoy this community feeling, and be relieved of the anxiety and alienation that I felt downtown, because for some reason I felt like I could relax.”
We Are Family, (Layman, Victor and Ernest, Kate, Towana and Staice, Felix and Iris, and Smokey), 1981-82 cast fiberglass sculptures Photo by cberengu1 on Flickr
John and Rigoberto continued to work from 1996-2006 on projects in a new studio on E100 St. Making many outstanding works, and completing residencies and projects nationally and internationally, collaborating and working solo.
l – Rigoberto Torres with Dona Lara and her portrait, Brazil, 2006 r – Life cast of Ai Wei Wei in front of Ahearn Torres Studio (1993) Photos: www.johnahearn.com
l – John Ahearn, John 100th St Photo: www.johnahearn.com r – John Ahearn, Mr. Seth Brown, 100th St Photo: www.johnahearn.com
In 2012, the duo participated in Frieze Projects at Frieze New York, where they reconstructed the Fashion Moda South Bronx Hall of Fame exhibit, installing the majority of the original casts. Also billed as a “Tribute to alternative spaces and galleries that were once vital for the artistic community and have now closed,” Ahearn and Torres did live casting in the space for the duration of the fair.
Frieze Art Fair, New York: New installation of original ‘South Bronx Hall of Fame (1979)’ with life-casting workshop, 2012 Photo: www.johnahearn.com
Of the casting process John explains in an interview with Paul Tschinkel, “I like having an immediate physical relationship with the people that I work with, and I like having an activity that involves their direct participation in the making of the artwork … I think that it reflects a need I have to be around people to make work.”
Elaborating, he admits to us, “You’re subjecting people to a lot of stress and lot of physical discomfort, and possibly scaring them, and then you go on to start involving children, it gets very complicated.”
Now back in the South Bronx, in a building that also has the studios of fellow Bronx art icons John “Crash” Matos and Chris “Daze” Ellis, as well as John’s wife, Juanita Lanzo, the artist continues to engage his community.
John Ahearn Studio, Mott Haven, BX 2016 l-r Juanita Lanzo, young Bronx artist Devon Rodriquez, studio wall with Bio of Tats Cru, Bronx Graffiti Art icons
Last summer while visiting The Point Community Development Corporation in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, Ahearn promised to return and cast some of their people. The transformation in Hunts Point over the past two decades, can be credited in part to the Development Corporation, and their motto “Where Community and Creativity Connect,” explains why John Ahearn feels at home there. “John is great to work with, and it’s an honor to have him engage our community once again,” says Danny R. Peralta, the Point’s Executive Managing Director.
During the initial meeting to discuss the project with long-time member of the Point’s art faculty, artist and activist Alejandra Delfin, John rattled off the list of people he wanted to cast when she interrupted with, “What about the women?,” to which he replied, “You’ll be the first one.”
“I think it was my idea to go and work at The Point, because I had been meaning to do something there, and they have this great program, and I despise this studio, being stuck here; even though it’s so easy and so efficient to work here compared with over there. But there, there’s the possibility of some contact with somebody, I’m over there for contact.”
In a time of great changes in the Bronx and all over the city, when artists are referred to as “shock troops” for gentrification, and some artists are questioning the validity of having to provide “socially engaged” art to communities to be considered for public grants, John Ahearn’s career serves as a model of how art and community can co-exist and each be elevated. – Laura James
l-Round 2 of casting Bio with John Ahearn and Kevin at The Point Photo: @biotatscru
r- John Ahern talking about his process of bringing the Bio casting to life, at The Point Photo: Danny R Peralta
John Ahearn, Alejandra Delphin finished cast, The Point Photo: @alejandradefin
Frieze Projects, “John Ahearn and Cecelia Alemani in Conversation” John Ahearn, South Bronx Hall of Fame- 2012
FIND MORE ABOUT JOHN AT HIS WEBSITE
Hear John speak and see him at work at the links below: