Harlem Art

 

When New Yorker Laura Iorio was looking for gallery space, she turned north

By Kate Bolick '95
 

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Laura Iorio '95 in her Harlem gallery.
The morning before Laura Iorio '95's first art show as a gallery owner, six of her to-be-featured drawings were stolen. This was no small matter-they were part of Iorio's series of drawings called "Perfect 10," so it wasn't as if she could just hang the four remaining. Her artwork had been delivered by the framer to the stoop of her gallery space in Harlem, but according to bystanders, a "gentleman with a pram" (read "junk collector") got there before she did. With the fervor of a whodunit heroine, Iorio sprinted down the street before stopping short at the sight of . . . a man carrying two of the drawings. "Those are mine!" she cried. "No they're not-I just bought them!" he replied. "But I made them!" she said. Touché! Twenty dollars later the art once again belonged to the artist. The rest of the drawings, alas, were last seen somewhere around Central Park.

Like fellow Colby alum Wylie Dufresne '92, a chef who is responsible for turning a formerly drab street on the Lower East Side into a diner's destination, Iorio is among the vanguard of people-"North Stars," Time Out dubbed them in a recent issue-infusing her section of Harlem with new vibrance. "I really think art is important, and people being involved in art is important," Iorio said. "By being in Harlem I can fill a real need, rather than being just another gallery in Chelsea. It's a challenge. But every day is a new experience." Besides, she loves how friendly and green the neighborhood is. On this particular spring afternoon, the door wide open to the breeze, a gaggle of neighborhood schoolgirls saunter in, pepper Iorio with questions and leave with promises to return. Cadbury, her big, furry dog, snoozes nearby on the floor.

With savings and help from her parents, Iorio opened Storefront 1838-one of only a handful of galleries in the area-last October, under the auspices of a small collaborative of artists called "Valaura Tea-But-ton" ("Valaura is my business persona. I'm her, but I'm also myself," she explains). Together they turned what had been a vacant beauty parlor into an art space committed to fusing "art, music, community and organization to create an atmosphere that is interesting, challenging, comfortable and real." To this end, Iorio recently applied for and received a New York Foundation for the Arts grant devoted to bringing Harlem artists together. The result will be the spring 2005 "Harlem Open Exhibition," an exhibit open to any artist living or working in Harlem. "We hope it will be good for community building and for getting people involved who might feel a bit put off by all the activity that's going on," she said.

Valaura Tea-Button has played host to four shows at Storefront 1838, each attracting crowds of at least 200 to their openings. The first show, "Carefully Drawn," presented works by emerging artists who had helped develop the space; "Girls, Girls, Girls" showcased art by "seven tough and beautiful women"; "Red-White-Black-Yellow" addressed questions of color. The final show in this space, "Living Room," was subtitled "Issues of Taste and the Politics of Decoration" and featured installations and murals exclusively-a resourceful response to the massive water leaks that were threatening to destroy the gallery along with any framed artwork.

Iorio is a painter herself, which is half of the reason she established the gallery. After receiving her M.F.A. from Boston University last spring, she moved to New York to begin in earnest her life as an artist. These days, she's making large, almost white paintings with oil and spray paints and stencils, which she describes as resembling nets or screens. "I've been thinking a lot about Japanese gardens and the principles of different Yoga and Zen practices, and how to relate some of this to the ideas in traditional Chinese and Japanese art," she said. "Running this space is great. I really enjoy having friends enjoy the space and bringing in other artists. But developing my own self as an artist is the most important thing."

The other half of Iorio's impetus is grounded in what she considers her social service roots. At Colby she majored in government and minored in women's studies. After graduation and before going to art school she worked as a private-school fund raiser, as an arts and crafts teacher for City Year in Boston and then as an intern in the Public Defender's office in Washington, D.C. Now she's finally pulling art and social service together.

Due to Storefront 1838's water damage problems, Iorio will move to a new art space on Harlem's historic Striver's Row next spring. Called GO2, the new gallery, like the old one, will stress community involvement and nurture emergent talent. Visitors, she said, are warmly encouraged to stop by anytime.