Self-taught artist draws on life for his inspiration
April 23, 2013 1:16PM
Ismael Muhammad Nieves standing beside some of his art on the rooftop of his studio in Hammond. | Photo provided
To view some of Ismael Muhammad Nieves’ work, visit ishmuhammad.com.
Updated: May 25, 2013 6:08AM
“Call me Ishmael.”
— Herman Melville
Ismael Muhammad Nieves’ first name doesn’t have an “h” in it, but his friends do call him “Ish.”
Names like Ismael Muhammad Nieves delight me. I mean, where but in this great melting pot we call the United States can you flip through the phone book and spot a Luigi O’Hara, Yoko Goldstein or Francois Grabowski?
Nieves, 44, is an incredible artist and an electrical engineer who lives in the Woodmar neighborhood of Hammond with Stephanie, his wife of 20 years.
Nieves has a studio located above the Standard Furniture building just south of the Chicago Avenue on Calumet Avenue in Hammond.
“I was born in New York and was kinda doin’ the Puerto Rican-gypsy thing, bouncing around from city to city for a quite a while,” Nieves began. “I went to six different high schools.”
What part of New York City?
“Lower East Side, as a kid. We lived in Hoboken (New Jersey) for a while. Hoboken is to New York City what Whiting is to Chicago — right across the Hudson River.
“When I was in elementary school, we moved to Puerto Rico for a few years. We eventually moved to East Chicago. We had family here. Kinda like how everybody ends up in Northwest Indiana. The aspirations of landing a job at the mills.”
Memories of Puerto Rico?
“My father was what they called a ‘Jibaro,’ which is Spanish for Puerto Rican hillbilly. We lived just off of the mountains of the rain forest. That is where my father was born.
“We grew sugar cane, mangoes, coffee, avocados — everything. We’d come into town with 100-pound potato sacks filled with all these fruits and vegetables and distribute them among family members. That, and going to the beaches would be my fondest memories of Puerto Rico.”
Folks from Puerto Rico come in all shades and colors.
“I have family that are blonde-haired and blue-eyed and some that are purple-black. When I lived in Puerto Rico, everybody was simply Puerto Rican. I didn’t know what a white or black person was until I came to Northwest Indiana. Here, you have Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Polish, the Greek, the black... I was like, ‘Wow.’
“With that said, being a teenager in East Chicago, as far as cultural awareness, we were probably ahead of the overall curve. We had all these different ethnic groups, but for the most part, we got along.”
Your middle name?
“For about five or six years, I was real active in the nation of Islam under the minister Louis Farrakhan.
“I also was a part of the Million Man March. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Everybody was just enjoying each other’s company.”
Did you end up graduating from high school in Northwest Indiana?
“Yeah, I should have been the last class of (East Chicago) Roosevelt High School, but I flunked my senior year, so I was part of the first class of East Chicago Central.”
Are you left-handed?
“Yeah. We think differently and have to force ourselves to think right-handed. I think it makes us more creative. In the service, I shot my weapon right-handed. When I’m painting, I use my left eye.”
You were in the service?
“Four years in the Army. I was a paratrooper and I’m a Desert Storm veteran.”
“Then, I earned my bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering at Purdue (Calumet in Hammond). Purdue is a great school for engineering. For 2 1/2 years, I was president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. During that time, I really promoted professional development with the students. My professors can attest that everybody who was active in my student organization are now working at Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Ford. NIPSCO has a ton of us.”
How long have you lived in Hammond?
“I’ve been active in the arts since I was a child in New York. I have fond memories of riding in the car with my father through Soho; there was a lot of street art and graffiti.
“I’m still real active in the graffiti writing culture. It’s a movement. We don’t do it for nobody but ourselves. Commercially, it’s an accepted art form. All the major galleries and museums are showing graffiti art in one form or another.”
Did you attend art school?
“No, I’m self-taught. Desire feeds the will. I wanted to paint large so I taught myself how to stretch canvases.”
Do you wish you could survive solely as an artist?
“I have a friend who is an artist. He couldn’t understand why I was going to school for engineering. I would tell him, ‘To be a better artist.’”
“In the engineering field, I can make a livin’. I’m not so worried about selling my art so I can put food on my children’s plates.
“Unfortunately, here in Northwest Indiana, we’re not appreciated. When you appreciate something, you give it value. It’s criminal that we can’t make a livin’ off our artwork. Northwest Indiana has a big pool of very talented artists who unfortunately have to go to where the market is — Chicago and Indianapolis.”
That’s a shame.
“This large mural is an acrylic on canvas. I’m painting it for Wishard Hospital in Indianapolis. It could’ve easily went into a hospital here.”
South Shore Arts?
“I’ve shown my work at South Shore facilities six or eight times. I had the opportunity a couple years ago to thank John Cain. He did help me to develop as an artist.”
What else do you have going?
“I’m working with the Miller Beach Arts & Creative District on Lake Street. From June 14 through the 16th we’re doing a summer kickoff block party outdoor graffiti exhibition. We’re going to have 30 to 40 graffiti writers from Indiana and Chicago gather on Lake Street near the Miller Bakery-Cafe — that whole block.”
Any final thoughts?
“East Chicago is in the history books. It’s one of the founding cities of the graffiti writing movement. There’s a 400-page book called ‘The History of American Graffiti’ by Roger Gastman which has a section about East Chicago in it. I was interviewed for the book and gave them a little history.
“We had permission when we did our graffiti writing in East Chicago. If we didn’t have permission it was because they were what we considered public walls — abandoned buildings and eyesores. The urban decay was not caused by the graffiti writers. What we were bringing was bloom. We were adding color to these walls that were left to rot.”
A talented, colorful and passionate man, Ismael Muhammad Nieves.