Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
Jesus Guevara, left, and Jesse Galvez with some of Guevara’s creations in his basement studio below Galleria J. Antonio.
Artist and gallery owner find a happy medium, love
BY ALYSSA GIACHINO
A ceramic egg, laden with the symbolism of rebirth, sparked a partnership between a creative mind and an irrepressible heart that has been ongoing for four years.
Jesse Galvez, 60, has been a figure in the East Village art scene for decades. As a way to channel his love for creative people, in 1990 he opened the Galleria J. Antonio, which showcases the work of independent artists, primarily jewelry, glasswork and small-scale sculpture.
He dotes on his customers, flitting around sparkling display cases to find just the right piece for them. Wearing an orange dress shirt and blue-rimmed glasses, Galvez’s unlined face betrays none of the hardship he has lived.
His partnership with ceramic artist Jesus Guevara, 52, started in 2003, when Guevara walked into the gallery, on Avenue A between Third and Fourth Sts. He hoped to sell a few of his pieces. He had recently arrived in the United States from Venezuela with little more than the clothes on his back, fleeing persecution.
“I was escaping,” he said in Spanish. “In the past, I’d had many problems due to my situation as a homosexual in Venezuela.”
As a gay man, Guevara first experienced social rejection at age 16, when he was forced out of his home by what he called his “fanatic” evangelical Christian family. He spent many years living on the streets of Caracas, but eventually met a Spaniard who became his lover and encouraged him to go back to school.
“I had to do something with my life,” Guevara said. “I always had a talent for doing manual things, but I didn’t think I had artistic talent.”
He enrolled in an arts college and earned a degree in ceramics. From that point on he dedicated his life to creating both sculptural and utilitarian pieces. He made dinnerware and taught art classes for income, but saved enough energy to create more personal, imaginative pieces on the side.
In 1999, one of Guevara’s sculptures won a national competition, and the recognition helped further his career. But, after 22 years, his relationship with the Spaniard ended and the political situation in his country made it more difficult for him to be openly gay, so he came to the United States.
The sculpture he presented at Galvez’s gallery was a tiny man struggling to free himself from the shell of an egg, a metaphor for his own transformation of uprooting himself from his home and trying to mold a new life from scratch.
Galvez identified with the sculpture immediately.
“That’s me. I’m being reborn,” he remembers thinking.
Galvez had lived through transformations in his own life, the most pivotal being the loss of his partner of 25 years, Jose Antonio, to AIDS in 1985. Jose Antonio had been a fashion designer, selling women’s accessories under his J. Antonio label though a shop they co-operated, and eventually at Macy’s.
When Antonio got sick, he was diagnosed with Gay-Related Immunodeficiency, or GRID, before it was known as AIDS. Galvez cared for Antonio for five years, up until his death.
Though 18 years have passed, Antonio’s spirit lives on through the gallery’s name.
When Guevara walked into the gallery, he had no plans to stay in New York. He thought he’d like to go to Spain, where he wouldn’t struggle with the language.
But Galvez agreed to feature the egg series in his gallery, and it didn’t take long for them to form a partnership that transcended the business relationship and convinced Guevara to stay.
But as gay men, they couldn’t seal their partnership legally. Plus, Guevara’s status as an immigrant wouldn’t allow him to stay in the country for long.
Galvez was frustrated.
“I’m Native American and Mexican and I was born in this country and I cannot marry him and make him a citizen,” he said.
Guevara applied for political asylum. The process lasted four years and gobbled thousands of dollars in legal fees, which Galvez estimates will take another four years to pay off. But in February of this year, U.S. Immigration Judge Barbara Nelson granted his petition.
“For the rest of his life he’ll be safe here in the East Village,” Galvez said. “He’s here with me in my arms forever.”
It’s a surprising outcome, given that asylum cases are difficult to win; nationally, less than a quarter of petitions are approved. Judge Nelson only authorizes 11 percent of the cases that come before her, according to the Political Asylum Research and Documentation Service. It is particularly hard to prove persecution on the basis of sexual orientation, which has been considered acceptable legal grounds for U.S. asylum since 1994.
In the months since the decision, Galvez and Guevara have been inseparable.
“He and I work together, we live together, and our work is intertwined,” Galvez said. “It could have been a disaster. I can only describe it as, I don’t have enough time with him.”
They speak to each other almost entirely in Spanish. Guevara is learning to speak English, but says it is a struggle. Though he feels more comfortable using Spanish, he says he far prefers to express himself through art.
“I communicate through my work,” he said, fidgeting in a T-shirt and jeans. “I don’t talk much, I prefer that people see my work. If you look at my work and you can’t communicate with it, there’s nothing I can say.”
Galvez is more outgoing, and delights in the conversations with customers in his gallery. Guevara, on the other hand, is happy to spend his days in his basement studio engrossed in his work. He said that, like many artists, he spends time ruminating on his projects, and forgets art’s more practical side, the commercial aspect.
Galvez’s instincts for retail help form a symbiotic relationship between them.
“Every artist needs someone to remind him about paying rent,” Guevara said.
“Jesse is also an artist making sales is an art,” he added. “He can see the value of a piece, not just economically, but spiritually.”
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