Categorized | Bronx Beats, Culture

Living through art

Aponte leading a recycle to art workshop at Soundview Park

Aponte leading a recycle to art workshop at Soundview Park

Scattered around Lucy Aponte’s Soundview townhouse are paintings of children; little boys and girls with serious and sad expressions. Preserved on the walls in pastel, paint and pencil are not symbols of motherly and grandmotherly pride, but the children of her imagination.

Aponte always knew she wanted to be an artist, but life got in the way. “It was just what I always did,” she explained, describing how she taught herself to draw and write poetry as a child. Between a father who insisted she become a nurse and a school that insisted she learn to sew because she was Puerto Rican, Aponte was destined to make a living doing manual labor. There would never be time for art classes.

For many years art was just something she did in her spare time. She painted Mickey Mouse on her children’s walls and made drawing for friends. “I never called myself an artist, I thought of myself as someone with a hobby,” she said, sitting at the table in her sparse living room. After her children grew up she began to look around for others like her.

Three years ago, Aponte founded Living and Learning by the Arts, a community-focused non-profit arts organization that fulfills her vision. The project has received grants from the Bronx Council on the Arts to run art workshops for children and at-risk adults. “She’s a very pro-community type of artist, and very good with what she does,” said Americo Casiano, a grant administrator at the Council.

In particular, Casiano praised the work Aponte had done with homeless women. “She worked very strongly with the women, and tried to use the arts to empower them,” he said. “We need more artists to come into the community and bring their skills.”

Aponte said she decided on the name Living and Learning by the Arts because for her, art was a process of learning about herself. “One thing that I saw that was always there, with every single artist,” she said, “was that everything that they painted or drew had them in it.” She described one friend who made sculptures where every sculpture looked like him. Her own paintings and drawings of frightened children reflected her troubled and violent adolescence.

Art for her is like opening a door into herself, inch by inch, until she saw that what she was drawing was an expression of herself. “With my art, what was inside me was coming out in my work. But I didn’t know that,” she said. “It was a lot years before I began to draw children with smiles.”

Aponte’s family moved to the Bronx from Harlem when she was young, following the break up of her parent’s marriage. Her father, previously a gentle and loving man, began to beat her so badly she sometimes thought she would die, she said. At 18, fearing another beating, she left home. Her boyfriend’s sister took her in. By then she was already working as a nurse in a local hospital.

She described being beaten until she was unconscious and thinking next time she might die, concentrating very hard on her hands, laid out on the table in front of her. Then she laughed. “That’s why I became a foster mother, why I adopted children.”

Beginning in 1978, Aponte spent the next 17  years raising her own three daughters along with numerous foster care children. She has lost count of the number of children she fostered over that the time, she said. After she took a second foster child, the agency began calling her with desperate cases. “I became one of those who would take what they called special needs children,” she said.

One, aged 14, had been labeled homicidal by the foster agency, but she took him anyway. “I said ‘he’s not homicial, I’m going to straighten out this kid’. He got to the point where he got married,” she said proudly. Others had mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. She also took in neighborhood kids – friends of her daughters – when they needed a place to stay. Many of the young people are now tracking her down on Facebook, she said. “They were good kids, they were not bad kids.”

Aponte returned to nursing in 2006, helping homeless mothers and their babies at a shelter in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. But when the center lost funding earlier this year, she was laid off, she said. She still volunteers there from time to time and is looking for another nursing job, but she ultimately hopes to make it as an artist.

Over the summer she organized weekly art workshops in Soundview Park, and has taken a lead role in the recently formed Friends of Soundview Park group. Carlos Martinez, Soundview Park co-ordinator for Partnerships for Parks, said she has tried to connect different resources to encourage positive use of the area.  “She is really committed to arts and cultural programming in the park,” he said.

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