He wasn’t part of it, New York, New York

Last Friday night, I was taking the Metro home when I saw a man very deliberately pulling up three pencils from his backpack on the floor. He inspected each pencil for at least 30 seconds, feeling the weight of each, rolling them in his hand. Then he pulled a pencil sharpener from his bag and pushed one of the pencils – heavier and more solid than a #2 – into the sharpener and turned it once. A scrap of pencil fell to the floor and from his lap he pulled out a notepad, held it at an angle away from his seatmate’s eyes and began sketching.

The movement was so deliberate, so considered that I couldn’t help put notice, but until I could see the notepad I could only guess that’s what he was doing. As memory usually works, I felt like I was back on a New York City subway car with Gerardo Yepiz, the artist who generously let me follow him around the city for a morning during a period of upheaval in his life for a profile. I initially planned to pitch it elsewhere, but it fell by the wayside while launching my Patch site last summer. But I still wanted to share his story. I’ve emailed him for an update to see where Acamonchi’s been since early 2010 {see update below}

He Wasn’t Really Part of It, New York, New York
Union Square bustles on a Greenmarket day, but Gerardo Yepiz’s gazes in a different direction. “I’m looking at the mural on the top of the building,” he points out. “See the Babies R’ Us’? Look all the way up. There’s a wall with a mural.”

Indeed, there’s a splash of bright reds, yellows and greens between two concrete buildings. Yepiz has spotted it from the third floor of Barnes and Noble, where he’s drinking an espresso and waiting for the cafe to fill up, so he can start sketching. His straight black hair is pulled back into a ponytail and he’s finishing off an espresso.

Yepiz’s has filled eight sketch books with the faces of New York City, covered in scarves, lost in coats. Most of the figures are hunched over, trying to survive the season’s cold and the city’s busy pace.

Survival’s been on Gerardo Yepiz’s mind lately.

“New York’s a great place, but I feel like I got the bad end of it,” he says.

Just seven months after moving to New York City, he’s leaving again. Yepiz, 39, lived in San Diego for 12 years, and while he had just shown a new piece – an old pedicab spray-painted in pastels colors and stencilled with bicycle images – Yepiz had noticed the art scene slowing considerably, likely because of the economy. His girlfriend, a teacher, had lost her job and couldn’t find another, but when she started looking in New York City, she got hired on the first call. So Yepiz left his studio, an art piece itself, with stickered, spray-painted, stenciled walls, in the care of two tenants and moved to Washington Heights.

Yepiz felt out of place and isolated in the neighborhood. Meanwhile he was quickly running through his list of art contacts in the city; trying to find new ones through a printmaking class. He found students and housewives, instead. The vibe, not to mention the weather, was far different than what he’d left in San Diego. He missed being warm and riding his bicycle at night without fear. And he couldn’t find a steady source of income.

Then a few weeks ago, Yepiz and his girlfriend broke up. He bought a ticket back to San Diego, and in the meantime, has been living in a friend’s studio space in Brooklyn, biding his time until his March 5th flight.

Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z are not singing his song.

“They’re serious about what they do,” Yepiz says about New Yorkers. “I like that, they are all about what they do. But they are cold: ‘Get out of my face’. Nobody has any time for you.”

The project Yepiz has thrown himself into since he arrived, though not a paid gig, was intended to at least get him more acclimated in New York, studio space for painting was too expensive, so Yepiz hatched a plan to make the whole city his workspace.

Skinny and wearing multiple light layers, Yepiz sketches in Sharpie, making broad lines and cross-hatching to represent the ways light hits his subjects. On the R train from 14th Street, he chooses a woman with a floppy hat sitting in the next section of the car and sketches her head and shoulders, the hat, and the angle at which she reads her book – all in less than a minute – then closes the heavy black sketchbook. He tucks the book away in his giant bright orange messenger bag.

“I like Sharpies, because of the flow,” Yepiz said.”I like the bumping of the train – I have to be precise, have to be quick.”

His sketches portray people, in profile or rear view, very few from the front; his subjects have bundled up, and are looking down or half-closing their eyes.

“You can tell what they’re going through,” he muses.”I can see they have tough jobs.”

He prefers to go unnoticed while sketching, because people act more naturally when they’re not aware – though when people do realize they are impromptu models, he has found it’s easier to diffuse a bad reaction than with a camera.

“If they’re really mad, you just rip the page out.” Sometimes he gets thumbs ups or smiles when people realize he’s chosen them as a subject.

A couple of weeks into sketching, Yepiz thought he’d had found a way to get paid for the project. He started a page on Kickstarter.com, a online site that combines small donations to fund creative endeavors. On the video accompanying his project description – his was one of hundreds of projects on the site – he pitches the project as “daily Polaroids drawn by hand”, to show the city as it emerges from its winter shell. He eventually hoped to turn the best sketches into a coffee table book.

He asked for $5000 for sharpies, a digital camera, laptop, and triple espresso shots. A week before the March 1st deadline, however, the project had drawn $1400 in pledges, from 26 funders. If Yepiz didn’t reach $5000 by the deadline, he’ll get none of money already pledged.

Katie Williams, one of Yepiz’s Kickstarter funders felt a connection with the project, even though she’s never met the artist. Williams travelled through Europe in 2008, and to combat loneliness, she sketched in each city she visited

“It wasn’t much of a jump for me to want to help fund his project.” she says “I could support an artist, help him spread his work, and feel nostalgic about my previous adventures, all at once. An easy decision.”

Giovanny Blanco, also using Kickstarter to fund his band’s newest album (just 85% to go) also pledged for Yepiz’s project.

“It was forwarded to me by a friend on Facebook and Gerardo’s story stuck with me,” Blanco says. “I lived in NYC years ago and went through a similar situation where I underestimated the cost of living and the work environment.”

But amassing nearly 5000 Facebook fans and a healthy presence on other social media sites hasn’t added up to $5000. Yepiz partly blames the fact that Kickstarter works only with Google Payments, not Paypal, a service many of his fans in Mexico use. He also thinks he asked for too much money and didn’t give himself enough time. It doesn’t matter much anyway; he’s leaving.

Stacks of short-sleeved shirts are piled on a table in the studio loft where Yepiz has been staying for the past few weeks. Underneath a nearby table is the artwork he will ship back to San Diego. Tomorrow, when he leaves from JFK, he’ll be carrying one set of clothing and all his important documents, the things he can’t lose. He’ll ship everything else, and he’s got clothes at his studio in California.

Sean Kelley, who organized the San Diego show with Yepiz’s pedicab, says he’ll be happy to see him back.

“But it feels kind of selfish to feel that way.” Kelley says. “I can understand the weather would be an obstruction, it being so gnarly outside.”

Living in Brooklyn has given Yepiz second thoughts about leaving New York. His new neighborhood is full with artists, and even better, the converted studio rent is much cheaper

“It’s the kind of neighborhood I belong to, the kind of neighborhood I could contribute to,” he says.

Yepiz and Diego, another graphic artist staying at the studio, have spent the morning producing an Internet radio show that runs off a server in Tijuana.

In the past few days, Yepiz has decided to get to work organizing all his contacts, preparing himself to return to San Diego.

The Kickstarter project ended with $1410 total at the beginning of the week, but he’s already thinking about next time. “If people are going to fund a project,” he says, “You’ve got to convince them, enough to get their credit card out, in one or two minutes.”

For now, Yepiz is looking forward to getting home, where his favorite restaurant will bring his usual order to the baggage claim at San Diego International Airport.

“That’s how you know you belong in a place.”


Yepiz is back in San Diego and has had several exhibitions in 2010 and 2011. His facebook page is here.

  1. Ryan Sartor says:

    Great piece, Taylor! I love the layout of your website, in general.

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