Surviving a pandemic has been different for everyone. For many, it has been devastating, having lost a loved one, a job, or have close down a once-thriving business. For others, it has been an inconvenience, a readjustment, or in some cases, an opportunity.
In a paralyzed Art World, it pains me to see what is happening to all forms of art and the impact that this will have on young people. I often wonder how artists of color are surviving in what is an environment of steep privilege and limited opportunities. How do these tumultuous times impact their ability to create while paying bills and protecting themselves and their families? As minority artists, how are they dealing with the racial divide, COVID, and the declining economy, and how does this get interpreted in their creativeness?
For the remainder of this year, I committed to interviewing four emerging minority artists from urban centers in New Jersey in the hope of learning and sharing their stories on what surviving, or thriving is like for each of them and how these uncertain times have influenced their artistry.
Jo-El Lopez, Newark NJ
I begin this series with the selection of Latinx Jo-El Lopez, a Puerto Rican artist born on the island, who grew up in Paterson and now is a resident of Newark, NJ. I had seen Jo-El’s work and arranged to meet with him at the Aferro Studios, where several artists work and exhibit. I was struck by his genuine candor and perseverance. Like many People of Color, Jo-El shied away from going to Art school as it was viewed as not an option for a first-generation college student to make a decent living. Instead, Jo-El became a business major and held his own as a sales manager for many years, making a decent living yet unfulfilled as an artist. Although he continued to paint one or two paintings a year, he was unhappy. He felt pulled toward the Arts and resented the lack of guidance, support, and encouragement from his teachers and counselors on pursuing a career in the Arts. It took the 2008 recession, the loss of his job, and the foreclosure of his home to redirect his life and pursue his passion. Using his two-year severance pay, Obama’s extended unemployment benefits, and an ardent determination to live within his limits, he committed to becoming a full-time artist. There will be no more second-guessing, no more unhappiness, just a fever pitch to create and let his imagination shape a new world for him.
Jo-El’s art is grounded in his indigenous root as a Latinx and a formerly committed Evangelical Christian for 20 years. He is no longer a believer but rather critical of the role of organized religion in colonizing the poor that is reflected in many of his works. His unique storytelling demonstrates a combination of his Taino roots with today’s urban reality using satire to reveal the daily injustices and religious hypocrisy that People of Color experience.
His works echo religious images and symbols with a bit of irony. These include two beautifully male angels kissing (The Origin of Love, 2018) and two brown skin women sitting in a church pew kissing (The Kiss, 2015). Both offer a provocative jab at the role and relationship of religion and homosexuality. His message being simply…. love is love. I was pleased that the Newark Museum of Art purchased as part of its permanent collection The Kiss along with another piece presently being display at the Newark Museum of Art entitled The Millennial Guardian Angel, 2016, which pokes fun of the angel’s excessive use of his mobile device instead of focusing on saving souls. I do love Jo-El fascination with angels as messengers of what is wrong with today’s society. His angels are indigenous, handsome, with magnificent prismatic wings reinterpreting our traditional perceptions of them as being pure and angelic.
A unique style consistent in Jo-el’s work that I find intriguing is his painting of stained glass windows as a background theme to many of his works. One can easily be inspired by the simplicity of the geometric designs he paints in his portraits and the use of pastel and neon colors to blend in with his message against injustices and the contradictions of religion. A more recent COVID inspired work entitled The Pestilence 2020 represents the artist’s unique interpretation of the traditional Jesus image familiar in most Christian homes wearing a purple mask with latex gloves to match. Many of his more recent works are noted in my photos.
Surviving and Thriving COVID
Using his business background, Jo-El has been able to combine the selling of his works with teaching and curating while accessing grants to maintain a simple and basic lifestyle. He is accustomed to receiving a fair share of rejections and proudly shows off on his bulletin board a rejection letter from the NY Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) as a badge of honor next to a picture of his parents. He sees himself as a social justice arts advocate, a supporter of fellow artists, and a mentor to young artists. His biggest challenges today are finding a gallery that will represent him and seeking opportunities to exhibit his works. Both challenges are severely hampered by COVID and could have a lasting effect on Jo-el and other artists’ ability to thrive instead of just survive.
This was my first time meeting Jo-El. He is like a teddy bear that, as you get to know him, you want to extend a hug. I walked away without a hug due to COVID but with a great deal of admiration for the way he loves life, lives his passion, and for his determination to persevere and make a difference. He is someone to watch!
If you are interested in any of Jo-El’s work or would like to connect with him, he can be reached at
I am happy to share the following photos of Jo-El and his works.
Click the center of the photo to see the full view
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