17. ROBIN MICHALS & KRISTIN REED
The Last Judgement, 1985, 18’ x 20’
Robin and Kristin met through Ventana, a non-aligned organization that supported Nicaraguan culture and arranged artist/writer exchanges with the Nicaraguan Cultural Workers Union. In 1984 Kristin learned about the group from Eva after her Artists Talk on Art presentation about her mural work in Nicaragua. During her own visit to Nicaragua in the early 1970s, Kristin became “very intrigued with the Sandinistas and their struggle to free their people from the oppression of the U.S.-backed dictator Somoza.” When she saw an ad in the Latino magazine Ajá seeking artists for La Lucha, she contacted Robin and, together, they submitted a proposal.
ROBIN: Our politics were close, but our artistic styles were very different. Yet, we developed a design that allowed us to do what we were good at and, also, have the parts interact. The lower section presents, in Kristin’s graphic style, the repeated image of a businessman—i.e., arms dealer—against a field of color, his missiles and guns littered on the ground around him. Above, are two rows of jurors simply outlined, but with their faces painted realistically, a style I was exploring. The idea was to turn the tables and let famous activists and community members sit in judgement of the global war makers below. Today, those being judged might be the 1%.
KRISTIN: The top row of jurors consists of six leaders from Central America and South Africa: Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua; Ruth First and Nelson Mandela from the African National Congress (ANC); Rigoberta Menchú, the indigenous activist from Guatemala; Oscar Romero, the assassinated Archbishop of El Salvador; and Winnie Mandela (ANC). Below, are people from the neighborhood. We wanted the community to select six of their best to sit in judgement. By popular demand, residents and workers selected Carmen Pabón, the saintly matron of El Jardín Bello Amanecer Borinqueño (beautiful Puerto Rican dawn), the community garden a half block away on Avenue C; Junior, a Puerto Rican street mechanic; Mary, a well-liked woman, and Victor, her son; Augustine, a beloved senior citizen; and Ralph, a constant and seemingly homeless presence on the street.
KRISTIN: The process of selecting neighborhood residents was settled within two weeks and cemented our popularity with the community members who participated. They frequently dropped by to see how we were and how the likenesses of their friends progressed. The people portrayed became ‘celebrities’ if they were not already. Robin and I had a great summer ‘painting
as performance’ with our audience on East 8th Street who felt connected to the mural through this process. Or so we thought.
ROBIN: As newcomers, we didn’t always pick the participants correctly.
KRISTIN: When we finished Ralph’s portrait, the fun began. Arriving at the mural one day, we found that, during the night, someone had thrown paint bombs at his face. Robin had to repaint it and I had to clean the hot pink splashes off the bottom section. It turned out that not everyone was in favor of Ralph’s selection as a subject. We thought he was homeless because he was frequently seen sleeping on the street. Actually, Ralph was a landlord, owning several buildings on the Lower East Side. He was notoriously ruthless and made enemies of several of his tenants. Whoops.
KRISTIN: One day, a familiar face stood under our ladders. It was jury member Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous K’iché Maya woman who dedicated her life promoting indigenous rights, specifically those of Guatemala’s Maya peoples during and after the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–1996). She was in town to speak at the United Nations about the struggles of all indigenous peoples, not just her own. Only 26 years old, she was an effective and popular advocate, endangering her life and well-being in her native country. Robin and I had read her book I, Rigoberta Menchú (1983) and were thrilled to see her, smiling with a broad grin. She was humble and grateful to us, pleased we had chosen her for the wall. She invited us to meet her that night at a party. Of course we went and spent the evening chatting with her. (Rigoberta Menchú received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and a Prince of Asturias Award in 1998.)
ROBIN: We were extremely lucky to experience the daily street life on the Lower East Side in the mid-1980s, a unique time and place. I think La Lucha improved the neighborhood for its residents, without gentrifying it, before real estate development flattened out Loisaida’s individuality into yet another upscale Manhattan neighborhood.
KRISTIN: Our wall was closest to East 8th Street on a building that housed a plumbing supply store. The buildings across the street were abandoned, home to a small crew of squatters. A Hell’s Angels chapter was close by; we could hear the sound of motorcycle engines revving. The adjacent lot, where Junior repaired cars, was a lively place. Folks brought lawn chairs and hung out, chatting with Junior, eating Latin food and washing it down with beer, speaking Caribbean Spanish and laughing heartily. If at first they felt inconvenienced by our presence—two white girls with ladders and paint—and a bit suspicious of our intentions, they soon became our friends, protectors, and helpers. Anything we needed they would provide.
ROBIN: I lived only six blocks from La Plaza Cultural, but it wasn’t until I started spending days on the lot, sometimes working, sometimes just hanging out, that I started to get to know the Lower East Side. I learned from local drug dealers that if you kept your business small, no one would bother you. I learned the delights of bacalao [a stew made with dried and salted cod], thanks to a kind woman who shared her food with me. I learned about the passion to create from a homeless sculptor from Haiti. I learned a lot about the neighborhood, about the idea of neighborhood. I learned the pleasures of spending time out on the street, of being outside in all weather. I learned to be aware of the rhythms of local life.
Robin is a photographer whose work considers the built environment and the de-industrialized urban waterfront. Since 2010, she has developed Castles Made of Sand, a series about the low-lying areas around New York City, New Orleans, and the Pearl River Delta in China. She has taught photography at City Tech for 14 years. e-arcades.com
Kristin continued painting murals—collaborating in 1986 with Robin Michals and with Eva Cockcroft in 1990. In 1991 she painted a community mural commissioned by the Erie [PA] Art Museum. By 2005, Kristin’s art had shifted to a study in consciousness, becoming abstract and geometrical in form. She has a studio residency with chashama.org. She also practices and teaches Reiki, often volunteering in Central and South America. kristinreed.com