A former street artist, José Parlá's works are anything but Off The Wall. In fact, they can now be seen in many a high-profile location, including one of the very highest of all. Rita Braver reports:
It is one of the most symbolic buildings in the nation: the new One World Trade Center, rising resolutely after the devastation of September 11, 2001.
And what was chosen to greet visitors as they enter? A mural -- not about the attacks, but about moving forward. It's a mural about resilience.
From the beginning, artist José Parlá says he knew it had to be a powerful piece: "It's a mural about strength and unity. And I see it more about people coming together, like the diversity in New York City. So it celebrates New York."
Called "One: Union of the Senses," Parlá painted it in a sustained burst of impassioned creativity:
"Over the weeks and weeks and weeks painting it, I started to melt into it," he told Braver. "I started to feel like I was one with the canvas. There was a lot of energy and action in this painting. I was almost tasting the paint with my eyes and I was touching the paint with my ears."
And the fact that Parlá was commissioned to paint this mural FOR a public building is slightly ironic, considering that his very first pieces were unauthorized works ON public spaces, in his hometown of Miami.
He was just 10 years old when Parlá became part of what's now known as the Graffiti movement. He went by the nickname EASE.
He even did a piece for his mom for Mother's Day.
"What did your mother think, you go out and make her a piece on the wall?" asked Braver.
"You know, it was mixed feelings of emotion, 'cause she was, like, happy that I did something for her, but then scared that I could have gone to jail for it. And so she was going, like, 'You're gonna get in such trouble!'"
Parlá did get in plenty of mischief, but -- child of the hip hop generation -- he also had plenty of fun.
It was a high school teacher who spotted his talent, and helped him get a scholarship to Georgia's Savannah College of Art and Design when he was just 16.
To Parlá, the son of Cuban immigrants, "It was like winning the lottery, 'cause I didn't want to be in school any more. I basically showed up to history and art class. The rest I would skip!"
It is at his Brooklyn studio where he creates his huge canvases, which he says are direct descendants of his earlier graffiti works.
"Every so often I'm inspired to write the story of my life, and what's happening as if it was a diary," he said.
"But I can't read any of the words in here," said Braver.
"Well, that's exactly like a diary -- you're not meant to read someone else's diary. You know, it has a little lock and key. And it's more about reading the gesture and the layers of memory that's encapsulated within each layer."
Today, Parlá's large works go for as much as a million dollars. But it wa sa long, hard road to success. He first moved to New York in the late '90s, living a struggling artist's life.
"I remember that time, even like not having a proper shower," he said. "I had a huge bucket, like I was in the third world, really, in Brooklyn. I went through pretty rough times, but happy because I was doing what I loved to do."
In fact, Parlá was invited to show his works in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris and London, all of it chronicled by his brother and best friend, Rey. But it wasn't until about ten years ago that New York dealers came calling.
His first big New York commission came from the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2012. A year later, Barclays Center, the huge sports and entertainment arena in Brooklyn, commissioned a piece. Parlá was selected, in part, because rap mogul Jay Z is a fan.
The High Museum of Art in Atlanta recently hosted Parla's first one-man museum show.
Curator Michael Rooks says he's understands why Parlá's work has started getting so much attention: "It's for me about this astonishing juxtaposition of color and line and form, and a painting that speaks to the past while also looking forward to the future."
Parlá just showed his work in Cuba, his old family homeland. And if New York was slow to accept him, he's got not one, but TWO important shows there this month.
And at age 42, with a growing list of high-profile pieces, Parlá believes he is creating work that will stand the test of time.
At the World Trace Center, Braver asked, "Does it hurt your feelings at all if people just walk in and they've oblivious, and they don't notice this beautiful thing you've made?"
No, said Parlá. "My feelings are beside the point," he laughed. "And you know what? If it doesn't get them coming it, it'll get them coming out!"
- GALLERY: The art of José Parlá
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