The peach-color, two-story house with a balcony overlooking Biscayne Boulevard appears more suited to a sleepy suburban street than a depressed urban throughway. But Uragami Fine Arts is not your average gallery and coffeehouse. Its inventor, 25-year-old Ignacio Velez, Jr., has constructed in his unlikely surroundings a whimsical setting in which imagination and dreams rule.
Outside, a petite dolphin is frozen mid-leap; two large tribal heads adorn the entrance; and just inside, a life-size suit-and-tie-wearing effigy of a rubber-faced Bill Clinton stands ready to pump hands. On one cavelike wall, eclectic figurines and other objects, including an old camera and a palm-frond rooster, perch in delicately lit crevices. Portions of the floor sport rich blue paint; matted dried sea-grape leaves cover other parts. Art is not the only stimulant here, though. Coffee, traditional Colombian food such as stuffed arepas, prepared by Velez's mother, and sugar-filled desserts are also available.
Named for the archangels Uriel, Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael, Uragami (an acronym Velez's mother coined) opened this past April. By exhibiting the disparate work of Velez and his father, Ignacio Velez, Sr., the generous space cleverly intersects art and nature, ancient crafts and contemporary materials, detailed realism and abstract forms. Velez Sr., a sculptor and leather crafter, constructed most of the gallery's three-dimensional pieces, including a sculpture with bare branches protruding from a book base and a ceiling-high indoor fountain ensconced in foliage. His son's oeuvre includes detailed nude drawings on dried sea-grape leaf canvases and masks made of leather, rubber, and other materials. A slight, neatly dressed young man, Velez Jr. says of his creation: "The whole thing is an art piece. Like one big painting."
Uragami's genesis was a fortunate accident. Velez arrived in Miami from New York three years ago to attend International Fine Arts College. Just prior to graduation, he dropped out. His father, mother, and brother moved down from New York to join him. When his mother's plans to open a natural food store in Uragami's location fell through, Velez began renovating the leased space himself.
With plenty of optimism and little cash, Velez transformed the vacant, rat- and flea-infested tenement into a warm, interactive, and sensual environment within a year, unleashing design skills that would floor Martha Stewart. Using the area's plentiful sea-grape leaves and some glue, he installed the textured floor of his autumn room. "Once I saw I could do this, I said, 'Oh, maybe I should create a gallery here,'" he explains. Tossing out a foil sandwich wrapper one day, he got the inspiration to wrap several walls and floor sections in aluminum. The money required to complete the gallery's interior, about $3000, came hand-to-mouth from Velez's jobs at a hotel and a graphics store. The most expensively decorated room is a tiny one he papered with imitation gold leaf; price: $180.
Visitors can linger over the visual daydreams of Velez's themed alcoves. The desert alcove contains a floor of sand, canvas material billowing from the ceiling, sand-filled bass drums for tables, and an oversize ceramic frog reminiscent of a refugee from the Mad Hatter's tea party. The sun area, with its gold-leaf walls, reflects uncomfortably bright lights and is festooned with red-leather sculptures that look like remains of people scorched from venturing too close to the flaming orb. Other nooks include autumn, the universe, the moon, and the forest.
Velez's sweat equity may pay off eventually, but for the moment he's not peddling the gallery's contents. "If I just sell these [sculptures] now for $100, it won't mean anything to you," he says. "Two years later it'll be like, 'I bought this in some gallery,' and that's it. But if you make a name for yourself, they're going to value it. It's not about money. It's about your accomplishment and hard work. And that's what they're buying. They're buying my dream."