"Everybody goes home feeling closer." This is the ethos of La Casita and of its painter, Manny Vega. La Casita, which is an affectionate Spanish diminutive for "the house," is a concept as much as a physical space: it refers both to an annual celebration of poetry, music, and spoken word that gives voice to LGBTQ, women's, civil, immigrant, and human rights—taking place this weekend as part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors—as well as to the vibrant, multilayered mural that shapes its stage, on and around which these powerful performances take place. It is, in short, a home for and built by artists.
We recently visited Manny in his studio, which is tucked inside an unmarked building on 103rd Street in East Harlem. Wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans, he stood precariously on a plastic chair pulled up to the wall where a half-painted panel was stretched taut. "I'll be honest with you, I'm very impulsive," he said as he added color to the sketched outline of a woman's face. It is a portrait of his late wife Ana, who received a diagnosis of brain cancer in the summer of 2000. "I purposely allow myself liberty," he explained. "This year I did not make up a sketch because I wanted the option of changing my mind, you know? And allowing spontaneous thinking to suggest what the next image was going to be. But I knew I wanted to paint Ana, because what we want is to retell the full story."
Ana passed away in 2001, when Manny was painting the first La Casita mural. In the years since, he told us, "I would restore the old Casita every two years, usually on the grounds of Lincoln Center. But this year they wanted a new Casita. And so, as I'm painting, I had moments where I was flashing back on what it took to paint the old one. That was tough, but at the same time bittersweet, because it's a precious memory."
The mural is a labor of love, imbued with memories both intimate and communal. "This side panel is one of my favorites, because it has a pigeon coop," he said. "It's very New York, right? I wanted to get in a dose of as much New York as possible, where these casitas actually exist, always surrounded by tenement buildings and whatnot. I like the notion of this neighborhood, including the pigeon coop, in the middle of the Lincoln Center grounds."
On the day we visited, panels were scattered throughout the studio. Manny brought some in from a side room, and uncovered others layered underneath fresh ones. Together they'll form the stage for this year's Out of Doors event on August 5 at Lincoln Center's Hearst Plaza and the following day, August 6, at Teatro Pregones in the Bronx.
The parts of the stage are mobile, but their significance is immutable. One panel includes a portrait of a brown dog. "There's Basha, my art critic," Manny explained. "Basha was a chocolate lab that I had from the year 2001 until last year, 2016. And everybody was used to Basha coming to La Casita. The performers, the stagehands—everyone knew that I was going to bring her, not only to help me paint, but because she was like my third leg. I had to put her down last year though. She was 16."
After another flurry of moving panels, Manny called us over: "I wanted the back to be just as rich, so we added this flamenco dancer. And I have a commission with the City of New York to create a statue of the Mambo King, Tito Puente, whose instrument of choice was the timbales—so I added timbales," he continued. There's also the mythical Saint George on his dragon, and a boldly placed number twenty-one, in honor of the Puerto Rican troupe Los Pleneros de la 21, founded in 1983 in the heart of Spanish Harlem. "And, then, because my realm as an artist is mosaics, I wanted to incorporate that mosaic feel," he added.
Every part of the whole has meaning, and is inspired by the immediate community, where Manny has left his mark in the form of mosaic projects throughout the city—in 1997, he designed four panels for the subway station at 110th Street and Lexington Avenue, and his tribute to the Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos decorates a nearby corner at 106th Street.
"We want to tell the story, not only of how La Casita has evolved, but who performs in it, and how not only the performers but the audience is important as well, you know? Everybody goes home from La Casita closer to each other. It's a very unifying experience. It’s like going to somebody's house for dinner and you sit down at a table and you eat together and you share something and you leave closer."
Gemma Juan-Simó is Manager of Communications at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.