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Yonkers Arts: “A Conduit for Local Artists”

Yonkers Arts Executive Director Ray Wilcox in front of the Yonkers Arts mural painted by Tats Cru (photo courtesy of Yonkers Arts)

The transformation of Yonkers into a haven for artists was validated in 2015 when 1.5 million square feet of the former Alexander Smith Carpet Mills, once one of the largest carpet manufacturers in the country, was designated by the city as the Carpet Mills Arts District.

Among those celebrating this event alongside the city’s burgeoning artist community was the non-profit organization Yonkers Arts, which was founded in 2007 to develop a strong, effective and cooperative network of artists, cultural organizations and community members in Yonkers with a goal of promoting and encouraging the arts.

The group’s original home was the studio of artist Adam Shultz, who also served as a founding member of its board. In 2018, Yonkers Arts got the keys to its current 4,000-square-foot space in the Arts District and spent a year renovating what Executive Director Ray Wilcox calls “all types of weird” into a performance stage and art gallery.

The backdrop to the stage was created by Tats Cru, a group of Bronx-based graffiti artists turned professional muralists. “We wanted that old-school graffiti look,” Wilcox says.

Yonkers Arts has hosted both in-person and virtual events in its new home, including concerts, poetry slams and art exhibitions. Most of the recent in-person events have been small or streamed due to COVID-19, but Wilcox hopes to populate the calendar again once the pandemic has slowed down. 

Another issue remained—the cost of renting a studio in the Arts District is financially out of reach for many local artists. But now, thanks to an artists-in-residence program, a partnership between Yonkers Arts and the Municipal Housing Authority for the City of Yonkers (MHACY), one local artist has access to a free studio in the YOHO Studios building, the beating heart of the Capital Mills Arts District, for one year. 

YOHO Studios is a converted warehouse brimming with creators and purveyors of all types—artists, musical instrument makers and restorers, antique dealers, set designers, movie studios, staging companies, furniture refinishers and more. (YOHO stands for “Yonkers Over Houston,” a wink to the artsy Manhattan neighborhoods of SoHo and NoHo.)

“We are trying to be a conduit for the local artists,” Wilcox says. “I love working with our neighbors in the community.”

Artist Shanequa Benitez is the program’s first beneficiary of the residency program, and Wilcox hopes that three to five YOHO studios will be made available to other local artists in the future.

Benitez, who divides her time between Yonkers and Harlem, was born and raised in the Locust Hill section of Yonkers. “I wear that with pride,” she says. 

She has been using her new studio to continue a series of paintings about redlining—an illegal practice in which certain neighborhoods are denied mortgage loans or insurance services because of the racial makeup of the population. It’s a topic she’s been exploring for several years.

A young visitor observes artwork at the Yonkers Arts gallery space (photo courtesy of Yonkers Arts)

It was Benitez’s redlining project that initially caught the attention of Wilson Kimball, President and CEO of MHACY. Benitez explains: “Wilson Kimball had an idea that I could create work for the Housing Authority.” When Benitez told her she didn’t have a place to work, Kimball and Wilcox got together and the artists-in-residence program was born.

Wilcox’s hopes for the future include expanding Yonkers Arts’ footprint, both literally and figuratively. “I want to be in a position to have more than one gallery space, and I want to offer more opportunities for local artists,” he says. “We’re also big on the beautification of Yonkers, so anything we can do to foster that is great.”

Benitez calls it “amazing” to be the first artist in residence. She hopes to have a show of her redlining project at Yonkers Arts later this year.

“There’s a little pressure,” she says, “but I’m ready to work.”

A version of this article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNews is distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.​​​​

About Michelle Falkenstein

Michelle Falkenstein writes about culture, food and travel. Publications include The New York Times, Journal News, Albany Times Union, ARTnews Magazine and (201) Magazine

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