By Karen Zautyk
Last year, Bobby Travieso was doing some spring cleaning when, in the back of a closet, he found an old leather jacket he hadn’t worn in decades. Most people might think “thrift shop.” Travieso thought “art.”
“It was the last remnant of my high school days,” he said, explaining that his yearbook and 1980 class ring from Park West High School in Manhattan, where he grew up, had disappeared over the years. “It was the absolute final item I have from that era. I didn’t want to throw it out.”
He also couldn’t wear it. “It doesn’t fit me anymore. Somehow, my arms got longer,” he said with a laugh.
So the pop artist started taking photos of friends and family members wearing the jacket. Then, he branched out. “The project soon took a life of its own, and throughout the summer different people from different walks of life all shared the same theme,” he said. In the end, he had 50 portraits, each one with its own meaningful backstory for the photographer.
His “conceptual art” exhibit, “Black Jacket,” was featured at the Monroe Center for the Arts in Hoboken last November and at the Secaucus Library last month.
It’s now on view at the North Arlington Public Library, 210 Ridge Rd., through March 7, although due to space, only about half the photos are displayed. Still, it’s more than worth a visit. At 11 a.m. this Saturday, Feb. 21, the library will host a reception at which the public can meet the artist and hear some of his stories. There will be refreshments and a Q&A session.
Travieso and his wife, Fran, live in Secaucus, but he has a North Arlington connection. He’s a Fedex courier whose route covers the borough.
That’s his job, but his true calling is art. You can see examples of his work at his website, http://www.hairyhand. net
“People usually ask me when did I start painting and drawing,” he said.
“The answer is a bit sad, but the truth nevertheless. I lost my dad when I was 7 years old. He was killed in a holdup in the Bronx.
“Back then, there was no such thing as counseling — not for me anyway. It simply wasn’t available.
“After the funeral, life continued as if nothing had happened. So basically I started drawing to express my sadness and anger. Art became my therapy.
“It also became a source of communication . . . I was able to express emotions that I wasn’t able to verbally.”
After high school, Travieso spent a semester at Syracuse University; then he decided to return to the city and enrolled at Baruch College. But he still wasn’t thinking of art as a possible career choice. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have gone to an art school,” he said.
Photography is a new direction for Travieso. In the art world, he is known primarily for his conceptual “cereal boxes” and satirical “movie posters.”
“I started exhibiting my work to the public about 10 years ago,” he said, explaining, “Before that, I simply thought my work was not worthy of public display. It took a very long time for me to come to that point of confidence. And longer to actually part from (sell) one of my works.
“The very first time I exhibited in a professional manner was (in October 2004) at the Armory in Jersey City during their annual Artist Studio Tours. That was a turning point because I not only showed my work to the raw public, but I was amongst other artists from all walks of life!”
Although Travieso did not go to art school, he cites two factors in his life that have inspired him.
For about a decade, mid-’80s to mid-’90s, he lived in Greenwich Village, where he “caught the tail end of the art scene that had exploded down there.”
He went to shows and met artists like Peter Max and Keith Haring. “The freedom of expression there had an everlasting influence on me and my art,” he said.
The other inspiration has been his wife, Fran, who majored in art history at William Paterson University. “Her favorite place,” he noted, is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “She has fond memories of her dad taking her there when she was a child. Now, she takes me and becomes a tour guide teaching me about the masters!”
Returning to the “Black Jacket” exhibit, Travieso talked about one photo in particular that affected him. Back in June, in the early stages of the project, he brought his camera to a graduation party at a friend’s home in Secaucus. There, he was introduced to one of the guests, Scarlett Lewis, the graduate’s aunt, who was also an artist.
“She had such a positive spirit,” Travieso said. “During our conversation, I was shocked to learned that this woman — with a heart and soul as big as everyone there put together — was the mother of one of the kids that was gunned down in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut two years ago.
“I couldn’t describe how I felt,” he continued. “She was wearing a necklace with a picture of her son. I was in the presence of tragedy, but she had so much love and forgiveness. At that moment, I knew my summer fun project had taken a serious turn.
“She asked me if she could be a part of it. I was honored. Her only request was that she let her T-shirt show, because it shows the words that were scribbled by her son on the school blackboard shortly before the tragedy.”
You can see that photo at the library.
Lewis’ T-shirt reads, “Nurturing Healing Love.”
When Travieso told that story, we couldn’t help think about how he became involved in art in the first place, after his father was killed.
Art helped nurture and heal Bobby Travieso, who found in it a special kind of love.