On Saturday, February 9th, Javier Hernandez-Miyares entered his masterpiece.
17 Frost Theater of the Arts (17 Frost Street), which he has helped steer as Creative Director since its opening in 2008, was hosting a joint-exhibit by two Cuban photographers. Though it was far from the art space’s inaugural show, the 53-year-old musician, writer and cultural impresario was as jittery as a first-time curator. “Gee,” he confided, his eyes dancing behind thick, black-framed glasses. “I really hope we have a good turn out.”
They did. Despite last Friday’s blizzard, the 2500 sq ft 17 Frost Theater was filled with visitors, warming up in its large, yet intimate art gallery, and later gathering in its theater area for an acoustic performance by Cuban singer-songwriter Roberto Poveda. Glancing at the surroundings, it’s hard to believe that six years ago Frost was a rat-infested garage with crumbling brick walls and a massive hole in the ceiling that would flood the facility whenever it rained. Since then, a team of talented volunteers has transformed the urban swamp into a haven for independent art and music. Leading them has been Hernandez-Miyares, whose lifelong devotion to fellow creatives has earned him virtual sainthood in the New York art world and beyond.
Hernandez-Miyares was born in Havana in 1960, the second of four brothers. His family was one of Cuba’s most prestigious. One ancestor, Pancho Marti, built the first opera house in Havana (today it is the Frederico Garcia Lorca Theater). A great-grandfather, Enrique Miyares, was a well-known poet and editor of La Habana Elegante, which published early modernist writing. Shortly after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Hernandez-Miyares’ father, Julio, a lawyer and a counter-revolutionary, moved the family to New York. Julio intended his son to follow him in his profession, but by 1964, it was too late. The Beatles had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and Hernandez-Miyares was as enthralled by the excitement as he was by the music.
Growing up in New Hyde Park, then a mecca for garage bands, Hernandez-Miyares became obsessed with Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull. He bought his first guitar at age 15, and learned every chord he could from his neighbors. “I remember meeting a local legend, Gary Pierce, on the bus,” Hernandez-Miyares laughed. “I imagined he’d be this arrogant guitar god, and he was just the sweetest guy. And I thought, this is the kind of person I want to be.”
Although his father wasn’t happy about his son’s career choice, he relented on one condition: Javier had to earn a degree in music. After starting at Kingsboro Community College, he went on to study under John Corigliano at Lehman College and graduated with a Master’s in Music Education. While teaching throughout the city, Hernandez-Miyares formed a band with Donald Johnson named Fee Fi Fo Fum, one of the first rock groups to write explicitly about AIDS and the Intifada. In 1986, Hernandez-Miyares got married and took the band on the road, moving to LA where they released an album. A daughter, Matilda, was born in 1989.
Two years later, things had fallen apart. Fee Fi Fo Fum went on permanent hiatus, and Hernandez-Miyares had a difficult divorce. He became “a wanderer” and traversed the country. By 1994, however, his life had stabilized. He began to work at the New York Public Library and was revitalized by recording some new songs on an Apple computer. He also became passionately interested in event producing, seeking a “bigger canvass” for ideas. After a botched attempt to set up an art gallery/recording studio in DUMBO, he searched for another space with a new partner, and found 17 Frost Street, a former elevator-repair company, in Williamsburg.
The first few years were “raw, but exciting” as Hernandez-Miyares recalled. After nailing aluminum siding in to keep the rats out, he moved in his Pro Tools console and started recording his new band, Sineparade. Hearing the music next door, neighbor David Scarborough paid a visit and quickly became a convert to Hernandez-Miyares’ dream of an artistic sanctuary. Luckily enough, Scarborough happened to be a miraculous factotum, equally adept at building management, music production and event promotion. Together they painted the floor, built colossal white walls and designed a theater surrounded by three 9-foot screens. Behind the main screen they assembled a recording studio.
More importantly, Hernandez-Miyares has used the space to promote dozens of ambitious talents, ranging from street artists and indie rock bands to film workshops. Among those who have exhibited or performed at the space include New York artist Aakash Nihalani, cut-up virtuoso Poster Boy, multi-media whirlpool Alex Itin, local photographer Vito Badamo, cave music trio Moon Hooch, Das Racist, Bowery Poetry Club founder Bob Holman, the Sparrowtree Theatre Company, Cuban painter Rafael Lopez-Ramos, the Dissident Arts Festival, and many more. In 2011, 17 Frost attained 501c3 nonprofit status and continues to operate with neither a paid staff nor a commercial litmus test for their artists. The vast majority of those who have worked with Hernandez-Miyares have testified to his tireless work on their behalf as well as his generosity and humility.
He has also developed a reputation for spotting and nurturing fresh talent. After noticing Nihalani’s street tape installations on Flickr, Hernandez-Miyares invited the Indian-American artist to have his first solo show at 17 Frost’s opening in 2008. Since then, Nihalani has exhibited throughout the world and was awarded a residency at the Willem de Kooning studio last year. “He’s one of the biggest supporters of art I’ve ever met,” said Nihalani, who attended Saturday’s show. “Meeting Javier started everything for me. I love the guy. He really helps others expand their ideas, and still finds time to focus on his own art.” Much of Hernandez-Miyares’ music can be found on YouTube (including the hypnotically cute “Palimpstar”) and on his website, javierhernandezmiyares.com. In addition to countless side projects, he plans to release three EPs of solo material this year.
Photographers Frank Guiller and Juan-Si Gonzalez, whose exhibit, “Realities in Transit,” opened that Saturday at 17 Frost, were also pleased to benefit from Hernandez-Miyares’ dedication. “He’s a very special guy in a human way,” said Gonzalez. “Sometimes in the art community, you work with people who aren’t nice. But Javier is a great spirit, and he protects you.”
Surrounded by erupting condos in an increasingly gentrified Williamsburg, Hernandez-Miyares also takes a broad look at Frost’s place in the neighborhood’s future. “If people of means live nearby, they can buy a work of art,” he smiled. “There’s still a lot of youthful energy here.”
His next goal for 17 Frost Theater of the Arts is to emphasize its educational component. “My vision is to bring in more local kids and the elderly,” he explained. “The teacher is the ultimate artist, and I want everyone to be taught that painting, writing, or performing is just a process. Everyone can be an artist.”
17 Frost Theater of the Arts
17 Frost Street