On May 1, Isabel Alvarez and Julio Nazario are opening a storefront gallery at 29 West Strand dedicated to the work of emerging and mid-career artists of diverse backgrounds. The West Strand Gallery, as it is called, will be an important addition to Kingston’s cultural scene, a breath of fresh air introducing unfamiliar artists with a distinctive point of view that’s especially invigorating after months of isolation from the pandemic.
Isabel and Julio are themselves an inspiration: they both overcame extraordinary obstacles as first- and second-generation immigrants growing up poor in New York City who went on to achieve stellar, decades-long careers as university administrators and professors. As Latino artists—Isabel is a painter and Julio is a photographer and multimedia artist—the couple have an intimate understanding of the traditional barriers faced by people of color as well as the qualities and tools needed to break down those walls. Isabel recently retired as associate vice president for strategic initiatives in diversity and inclusion at Rutgers. She was the university’s first Latino associate vice president and also was the founding director of Rutgers’ Center for Latino Arts and Culture, in addition to directing a community engagement program. Julio was a faculty member of the Latino Caribbean Studies Department and served as assistant dean for Outreach, Special Initiatives and Assessment at Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program, retiring in 2019. The two have been married for over 50 years.
Given their own struggles with decent, affordable housing when they were growing up, Isabel and Julio worry about the shortage of affordable housing in their adapted city and hope their work in community arts can contribute to a solution. “We want to be advocates for promoting and supporting the artists who are here,” said Isabel. “We come out of communities where our families were displaced. Julio grew up in the projects, and we feel it’s really important not to segregate low-income people and instead include them in new developments.”
The couple moved to Kingston four years ago after searching for a space in which they could make art upon their retirement. They needed an alternative to the cramped quarters in the basement and attic of their home in central New Jersey. They were attracted to Kingston’s affordability and also liked the city because “the community was welcoming,” according to Isabel. “As Latinos and artists of color, we think about the community we anchor ourselves in.” They found a duplex in a converted synagogue in Rondout that met their needs. Isabel paints on the first floor, which is illuminated by two enormous arched windows, while Julio maintains his photography studio in the upstairs loft. It is located a short distance away from their gallery.
Both Isabel and Julio have had shows at the Arts Society of Kingston: Isabel showed her paintings in March 2020, while Julio’s collaged photographs of his medals from the Vietnam War are currently on view through April 27. Their gallery will open with an exhibition entitled “Collecting Memories” featuring works by 14 artists culled from their personal collection. Spanning four decades, the mixed media pieces, prints, and photographs by artists and photographers from New York City, Newark, Los Angeles, and the Caribbean were obtained through bartering, gifts, and fundraising. The show will be up through June 29. The couple plan to schedule six shows a year and will work with guest curators.
“Collected Memories” includes three striking etchings by Robert Birmelin, Julio’s professor, made in the late 1970s. One shows commuters in an elevator and the other two depict interiors. Julio traded his photographs for them.
Also in the exhibition are photographs of Martin Luther King, Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro by Benedict Fernandez, who photographed King for a year and catches him at two intimate moments; his portrayal of Castro uncharacteristically wearing a suit and standing at a podium surprisingly complements the image of the Pope.
Juan Sanchez’ large serigraph, in which a sweeping, garment-like black form frames a small photo lithograph of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group in East Harlem in the late 1960s, connects activism to island culture: the black inked form, which also suggests a map of a landform, is decorated with Tainos pictographs. Sanchez, a professor at Hunter College, is a community activist who has written about Puerto Rican identity. Hudson Valley artist Debra Priestly is represented by a delicate Chine Colle print in which a 19th-century portrait of a uniformed black man, presumably enslaved, is printed onto an image of verdant Southern vegetation cut into the shape of a jar, suggesting thwarted lives and dreams.
Finding their paths
Many of the themes expressed by these works resonate with Julio’s and Isabel’s own experience. Julio’s parents had immigrated from Puerto Rico and settled in East Harlem. He became interested in photography as a teenager, shooting scenes of the street with his mother’s Brownie camera. While cutting school he visited museums, exposing himself to art and also, according to Isabel, conveniently avoiding the truant officers who prowled the city streets. At age 19, he was drafted into the army. He served for four years, including a year in Vietnam, which netted him a Purple Heart. After being honorably discharged in 1972, he studied to be a commercial photographer and worked as an assistant photographer and darkroom technician at a lab in Long Island City, where he met Isabel.
Isabel was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and immigrated to New York City with her mother and siblings when she was in fourth grade. Her mother worked in a factory, and the family lived in a basement apartment in the South Bronx. “It was like a dungeon,” Isabel recalled. “It had rats. I was a farm girl, and I’d asked my mother, where are the coquis [tiny Puerto Rican singing frogs]?” When she was 15, her mother died of a brain tumor. She dropped out of school and worked a night job at a factory in order to take care of her three younger siblings. Fortunately, two of her junior-high-school teachers recognized her artistic talent and raised funds so that she could study at the Arts Students League. “They would take turns picking me up at home to take me to the school,” Isabel recalled. They helped her put together a portfolio to apply to the High School of Music and Art, where she was accepted. She attended the school for a year before she got pregnant and had to drop out. At age 17, she had a son, who was cared for by his paternal grandmother. Isabel tried to return to school, but the administration wouldn’t take her back.
She found a job at the same photo lab where Julio worked. “When I met him, he had severe PTSD,” she recalled. Ever since he had applied for a job at the Museum of Modern Art to photograph art objects and was told he needed a B.A. to qualify, Julio had wanted to go to college. So the couple, who had dated and quickly gotten serious, decided to obtain their GEDs. They earned their diplomas within a couple of months after enrolling, as opposed to the usual two years, thanks to the instructor’s encouragement. They attended Manhattan Community College, then transferred to Queens College through City of New York University’s Open Door program, in which 372 students of color were accepted at Queens as a way to integrate the all-white school. Isabel and Julio lived in a project in Flushing, worked part-time, and struggled; only 72 of the initial 372 students graduated, a statistic Isabel blamed on economic factors as well as other obstacles: “it was clear the faculty didn’t want us there,” she recalled. But there were a few exceptions: Besides a supportive dean, “an assistant professor, who was Julio’s mentor, would buy us books as gifts.” Julio, who majored in philosophy and minored in art, graduated in 1974 and Isabel followed in 1975. They were meanwhile raising Isabel’s son and had had a child of their own.
Julio attended the graduate center at CUNY on a research fellowship and then was hired by LaGuardia Community College as an adjunct professor. He launched the school’s first commercial photography department and exhibited his photographs, many of which depicted scenes of alienation, such as people scurrying through the low-ceilinged corridors of the subway, at Queens College, El Museo del Barrio and other venues. In 1990 he began teaching photography at the International Center of Photography, and after earning an M.F.A. at Mason Gross School of Arts at Rutgers in 1998, was hired as assistant dean at Rutgers—a position that enabled him to stop making the long commute from central New Jersey to Manhattan.
Meanwhile, Isabel got her master’s degree in fine art at Queens College. She taught fine art and Caribbean art history at the college. She volunteered at the college’s museum and a year later started a community gallery as a way of showcasing local artists of color who were otherwise excluded. The gallery ultimately obtained funding from the New York State Council of the Arts, and the director of NYSCA’s Museum Program, Ward Mintz, later hired Isabel as an associate analyst in the program. (Mintz became a lifelong friend, and his residency in Kingston was a factor in the couple’s relocation.)
After seven years at NYSCA, Isabel was hired by Rutgers to launch the university’s first Center of Latino Arts and Culture. The center became a model for how the university as a whole could work with the community and was so successful that 12 years later she was hired as associate vice president. She also administered and co-chaired the Committee to Advance Our Common Purposes, a university-wide faculty and staff committee established in 1987 that oversaw the Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities and Images/Imagenes, an Emmy Award-winning education, cultural, and health media program featuring Latino community narratives, which aired on public television.
As someone who launched, directed, and oversaw community arts and cultural centers at a major university, what advice does she have for people and organizations here in Kingston seeking to better integrate the community into the arts? “You need to have the voice of the community,” she said. “We had these ideas of what the community needed, but often there was a big discrepancy between what people wanted and needed and what we thought they wanted and needed. They had a better perspective.” Once, when she was at the Queens Museum, she went to the park to distribute brochures about the museum to the senior citizens sitting on the benches and “a lady looked at me and said, ‘you’re the first person to invite me.’”
“Community Engagement 101 is bringing the community to the table in whatever planning you are involved in,” added Julio. “We can have the best intentions, but if we don’t engage in a dialog, then those intentions won’t have any impact. There’s a lot of talent in Kingston and a number of areas where people can work together and find ways to contribute to the education of students, to developing entrepreneurship programs. How can the resources be shared with the community? How can we develop bridges from the community college to the community? Every educational institution should be part of the process of improving the quality of life of all of the citizens.”