Basel's Odysseus

Overnight with an artist through the hurly-burly of the very rich.

It's 9:15 p.m. Friday at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery in Wynwood when Oscar Hernandez, a well-heeled middle-age accountant from Hialeah, approaches a young woman sitting on the sidewalk and invites her out to eat the next day in Miami Beach. Before walking away, he slips her his business card.

The encounter seems odd. The woman smells bad, is wearing tattered jeans and a soiled green tank top under a torn flannel shirt, and appears to be homeless. She is sitting with a 90-pound Doberman that's ripping a plush dog to shreds. The woman balances a cardboard sign on her knees that announces, "Will trade art for beer."

Behind her, the gallery is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a pig roast in a fenced-off lot. The Ache Caribe band entertains a crowd of several hundred revelers during a raucous guaguanco as several women wildly sway their hips and rip into the grass with spike heels.

Jacquelyn Jackson Johnston: Ivy League smarty-pants or homeless person?
Teri Mujica
Jacquelyn Jackson Johnston: Ivy League smarty-pants or homeless person?

The dog nervously eyes a scruffy group of artists jostling for cocktails at an open bar. "Mostly people have been avoiding making eye contact with me and just walking by," says Jacquelyn Jackson Johnston, the 25-year-old artist perched on a pile of cardboard and rags. She's filling plastic Baggies with postage-size pieces of art, which she plans to swap for drinks, spare change, and food. She beds down Phluffy Danger, her pooch, covering her with a dingy flower-pattern knit shawl.

It's all part of a project for Art Basel. The Barnard-educated artist pushed a shopping cart from Wynwood to the Miami Beach Convention Center to raise funds for Faktura Projekts, her nonprofit operation that "helps homeless people care for their dogs," she says.

At Snitzer's, the pickings are slim. After a half-hour of panhandling, Johnston has collected only 36 cents from Estefan Vidal, who waves his "dope art" like a trophy and says, "I think she's just a street person and this is a scam, but at these events, you never know."

Johnston laughs. She says she's accustomed to ambivalence to her work — but she's trying to make a point: "Basel has just become this huge flaunt-fest where these dealers and collectors are flying into Miami to make money or show how much money they have. For the most part, I feel Basel is displacing local artists and the little local culture we have."

Johnston was born in rural Tennessee and later moved with her family to Chile, where she attended elementary and middle school. Her family relocated to South Korea, where Johnston attended high school for a year before going to boarding school outside Boston. After graduating from Barnard in 2004, she headed south. "I got a call from some Chilean friends living in Miami and decided to move here." Soon she snagged a job at Objex ArtSpace in Wynwood, where she worked briefly before the owner ended up in rehab and the place crashed and burned.

She opened her own place, Little Haiti's edgy 1,500-square-foot Faktura Gallery, in April 2005. Crackheads broke in four times over the next two years. "What sucks is that it was the same people I was trying to help," she says. "The last straw was when I arrived at the gallery one morning and found a burglar's torso near my front stoop."

The man had broken into a neighboring warehouse and accidentally tripped the On/Off switch while making his escape through an industrial fan. His severed remains lay next to a handful of used clothes.

Faktura closed this past May. "After the break-ins, I was depressed and moved my dog training center to Broward to regroup financially. I'm hesitant to open another art space here soon," Johnston relates. "I wanted to continue doing community-based projects while commenting on this huge commodity-driven event now where everyone seems to be cashing in on a quick buck."

At 10:20 p.m., Johnston fishes a large Ziploc bag from a cloth sack and offers it to local blogger Amilcar Barca, who curiously inspects its contents.

"Those are rat turds," Johnston explains. "The rats got into my expensive oil paints at my gallery and began eating them."

Barca lets out a meek "wow" and holds the bag up under a street light to reveal yellow, blue, pink, green, red, and orange pellets that look like sprinkles on a cupcake.

Twenty-five minutes later, a rowdy congregation of Brooklyn's Black Label Bike Gang rolls down the street toward Johnston and begins chaining custom wheels to a light post.

Doyle Shuge, an artist who wears a Frankenstein T-shirt and a chapeau trailing a pheasant feather, walks over, pets Phluffy, and then serves Johnston a beer in exchange for a bag of art.

Moss Nowheir of the Black Label crew removes a four-foot carved-foam penis, which he calls "The Squizzer," from a bundle attached to his bike. Using the cotton guts from Phluffy's mangled plush toy, he starts stuffing the phallus's end.

Nowheir uses a bicycle pump to fill his bizarre pink contraption with air before launching the contents over the partygoers at Snitzer's affair. A gallery attendant emerges and asks the bikers to zip it up.

"We just got shut down because we didn't ask first," Shuge laughs before lighting a joint and passing it around.

A few minutes later, at NW Second Avenue and 28th Street, around the corner from Fountain Art Fair, Johnston comes upon five stray dogs she calls "Puerto Rican pot lickers." They're eating scraps tossed to them by the clients at La Boricua Café. Inside, a dozen men swig Budweiser beer and nurse greasy plates of chicharrones while taking turns dancing with a blonde in a green lamé dress.

Johnston stakes out a spot under a graffiti mural outside Fountain's entrance, where 19-year-old Ray Infante sidles up and tells her he's a street kid who was homeless for two years. While they are speaking, an elderly homeless man wearing pumpkin-orange pants and a scummy white T-shirt stumbles out of the riotous Fountain shindig clutching a shot of Pernod and OJ in his hand. "¡Wasanga! ¡Basel moronga!" he yells again and again before keeling over and smacking the concrete face-first.

Someone helps him to his feet, collects the old dude's dentures from the ground, and hands them over. He slips the teeth into his pants pocket and heads back to the open bar for another drink.

At midnight, a dozen artists wearing medical scrubs and pedaling mobile "Red Cross Installations," pull up. It's time to go. Johnston, Phluffy, and Pat Cox, who does body piercings at Babylon Tattoos in Broward and is joining Johnston for her trek to the Beach, head to the Shops at Midtown Miami to find a shopping cart.

They load their cardboard scraps, water bottles, and blankets into a cart, pee behind a Dumpster, and begin walking across the Julia Tuttle Causeway at 1:10 a.m.

It takes them nearly three hours to reach Miami Beach. They collect a broken umbrella, more cardboard for signs, and two more blankets on the causeway along their way.

They head toward the Holocaust Memorial at Dade Boulevard and Meridian Avenue, where they cover the cold ground next to the canal behind the memorial with cardboard and blankets to get some sleep. It's 6 a.m.

An hour later, Phluffy's barking startles them awake when a homeless woman appears, claiming they are squatting on her spot.

"The lady jumped out and said other people were sleeping there and started to get too close," Johnston says later. "Phluffy, who hadn't slept at all, lunged and snapped at her, and she left. We later saw her on her knees like she was praying or something."

After wandering Lincoln Road Mall, Johnston arrives at the Miami Beach Convention Center about 9 a.m. and parks her shopping cart near the Hall C entrance to the Art Basel Miami Beach fair. A Nicaraguan valet parker named Bosco asks why she would degrade herself by living on the street.

Johnston keeps quiet. A few minutes later, she makes two new signs for her cart. One asks, "What if art was worth as much as sex? Will trade art for change." The other announces, "Art not pretty. Will trade art for food."

As the moneyed collectors begin to arrive, Angel Vasquez, a Miami Beach Police major, approaches. "Okay, you guys have been here two hours and have to go now." It's 11:05.

When Johnston tries to explain she is an artist, he responds, "That's not art. That's a bunch of shit in a shopping cart, and you have to move."

Everyone is not so nasty. Passersby at the convention center give her eight dollars and a Tupperware container full of fruit.

Around noon, Johnston, Cox, and the dog limp to Pizza Rustica for some chow. By sunset Saturday, she has walked the length of South Beach and back. She has gathered $33, a loaf of bread, and a bag of oranges for her trouble. As she prepares to return home, two kids on bikes ride by and yell, "Look, it's a hobo!"

They circle around and read the signs on the shopping cart. One tells the other: "She's not a hobo; she's an artist."

By nightfall, Johnston's feet are covered in blisters and Phluffy's paws are raw. The vagabond masochist looks like shit and smells like roadkill but remains unfazed. "I have strong convictions. In the middle of all this ostentatious display, I found some meaning by actually putting myself in a situation to be laughed at," she murmurs.

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