Meet the Dangling Goddess of Street Art at OZY Fest
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because all the world’s a canvas.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
Please join us on Saturday, July 23, in New York City’s Central Park to hear Alice Mizrachi — in person — along with other intellectuals, artists and “trend-makers” who love good conversation, a rich mix of food and great music. Welcome to OZY FUSION FEST.
With a harness and hydraulic lift, Alice Mizrachi scales a six-story building to set up her ambush. She signals to her ragtag team of high schoolers below to get in position. Off they go — armed with 20-foot paint rollers and spray-paint cans. Theirs isn’t the work of vandals; it’s fine art gone rogue.
Big, bold art is “incredibly sexy to me,” especially when it confronts you in places you least expect, says the 39-year-old Mizrachi, who honed her artistic chops at the Parsons School of Design. Today, she’s shimmying up blighted brick walls in the east side of Buffalo, N.Y., around the corner from abandoned homes and crumbling streets. The city has been in free fall since the ’60s, hemorrhaging more than half of its population thanks to a flagging economy. It’s not the first place you’d look for art, but Mizrachi’s massive mural of a mixed-race couple catches the eye of even a non-seeker, especially in today’s climate. Mizrachi wants her art to accost the public — hence her choice of exhibitionist city walls over dainty easels.
Mizrachi is the godmother of New York’s vivid street art scene. Artists view her as a “leading force” and a “bridge-builder” between old-school graffiti artists and younger experimental artists, says Diana McClure, an art critic and writer based in Brooklyn. Her art has graced walls in New York, Argentina and Munich, as well posh galleries and glossy magazines worldwide. That’s her legal work, anyway … she declined to comment on her “uncommissioned works” for, well, self-protective reasons. You can encounter her glowing feminist goddess with wispy wavelike locks in a Tel Aviv bus station or stumble upon an “All We Need Is Love” proclamation on a dilapidated box truck in New York. The upper crust meet her at Washington, D.C.’s Museum of Contemporary Art and The National Women’s Museum, as well as in New York magazine and The Huffington Post. In 2007, she co-founded YOUNITY Arts Collective, an all-female urban art collective in New York City. Street art is dominated by men, says Ohio-based street artist Stephanie Rond, but women such as Mizrachi are making headway: “It’s empowering to view murals [in which] women are active citizens, not as painted objects.”
Of late, it’s children telling Mizrachi what to paint, in a sort of wall art therapy session. This has her shepherding gaggles of kids from high school classrooms to after-school programs, using art as a tool for healing and collaborating with urban youth to tackle thorny issues such as inequality, migration and identity. Recent topics included Black Lives Matter and the persistence of poverty in Buffalo. “All too often, you walk into a classroom and no one discusses these uncomfortable situations,” she says, taking a breather after painting with 13 teenagers under the sweltering Buffalo sun.
Though the picture has the ring of a Lifetime movie portraying her do-gooding work, Mizrachi’s ambition faces the nasty Gordian knot of the education system as she calls for a revival in the way we teach art. Few are heeding her plea. Across the country, arts education is in shambles. According to a decades-long study from the Department of Education, fewer elementary schools offer visual arts, dance and drama classes compared to a decade ago, with nearly 4 million elementary school students receiving no visual arts instruction at all. Yet according to a 2012 study from the National Endowment for the Arts, low-income students who have arts-rich experiences in high school are 10 percent more likely to complete challenging material like a calculus course than students who have less exposure to the arts.
Mizrachi knows what it’s like to treat art as an escape from hard times, as it was for her growing up in Queens, New York. Her parents fled Tel Aviv and settled in the United States in the 1960s, around the time of the Six-Day War in which Israel fought Egypt, Syria and Jordan in a bloody battle to keep its independence. As a first-generation American, Mizrachi grew up among the swaying sounds of hip-hop, funk, soul and disco in the streets and, not to mention, Hebrew at home. She romantically describes her father, who fixed cars and patched roofs, as “a sculptor of sorts”; her mother baked and sewed, giving Mizrachi a “kind of creative, DIY household.” She never wanted to be anything other than an artist, and she has drawn inspiration from different patches in her life: ancient Judaic and Islamic patterns, African art, the urban graffiti she grew up with.
But as with any artist’s process, description is a mere sieve, and we won’t pretend to capture the essential center of Mizrachi’s work. Instead, we’ll let you see her toiling away for yourself.