words: brendan o’connor

art: john ahearn & rigoberto torres

John Ahearn’s second-floor studio is above a tire shop in the Bronx neighborhood of Mott Haven. Ahearn, bright-eyed and wide-jawed, is dressed in all white, down to his sneakers. “Come in, come in,” he says. “But watch out—people are losing their heads in here.” He picks up a plaster skull and waves it around, grinning.    

His studio is full of projects in various states of completion. Ahearn is both quiet and energetic, interrupting himself repeatedly to clarify and ask questions that he immediately answers. He envies the street-level porousness of the tire shop: people walking by can peek in and see what’s happening; those working inside can look out and watch the neighborhood go by.  

For more than three decades, Ahearn has been taking molds of people and casting them in plaster—often on the street right outside a studio or gallery. Although he now lives in Harlem, Ahearn, born and raised in Binghamton, New York, has been working in the Bronx since 1980. Then 27, he was pulled out of the East Village and Soho scene by the Fashion Moda Gallery in the South Bronx, an alternative art space where Jenny Holzer and Keith Haring drew inspiration from graffiti writers like John ‘Crash’ Matos and Chris ‘Daze’ Ellis. (Today, Crash and Daze have workspaces in the same building as Ahearn.) In June 1980, Ahearn planned and participated in the momentous Times Square Show, a partnership between Fashion Moda and the Soho-based artist group Collaborative Projects, Inc., which featured dozens of now-famous artists. A year later, influential collectors Mera and Don Rubell purchased Ahearn’s “Sneakertown, USA,” hanging it in their townhouse next to a Haring and a Basquiat.  

When Rigoberto Torres met Ahearn at Fashion Moda, he was only 18 years old, working odd jobs around the city (including casting and painting religious figures at his uncle’s statuary factory). Torres approached the older artist to ask him to be his teacher, but soon they were working as creative partners, and Torres convinced Ahearn to move to the South Bronx. Far removed from the downtown art scene, the South Bronx was part of the poorest congressional district in the country and had an exceedingly high murder rate. For the next 15 years or so, Ahearn and Torres cast anyone who was willing, working out of two ground-level rooms Ahearn rented in a building on Walton Avenue.  

Ahearn and Torres’ sculptures are, broadly speaking, lifelike, and are made to resemble the people who’ve been cast—but they are not strictly realistic. Part of that is a function of their artistic method, which is called “lifecasting”: a subject lies on the floor, and his or her face (or limbs, torso, shoulders) is covered with alginate, a gummy substance used in dentistry and also as an additive to thicken drinks. The subject breathes through a pair of straws in the nostrils while plaster bandages are applied. These harden into a mold that is filled sometimes with bronze or fiberglass but most often with plaster, which Ahearn and Torres then carve and paint, each in his own style.  

For their subjects, the process can be claustrophobic. “I don’t like to make people suffer, and I don’t like to create anxiety in them. I feel badly that the practice I have involves so much anxiety and sense of risk. But there is a positive side to it, which is that the people who get involved also demonstrate to themselves and others what they’re capable of—so they’re actually collaborating with me to create something,” he says. “In some ways, 90 percent of the thing was figured out automatically the first time I did it. So, one could say, ‘Why don’t you go on to do other things?’ But the repetition of this activity sustains me. It’s a kind of relationship, my doing this, with someone else being there.”  

That relationship works both ways. Homes throughout the South Bronx still contain plaster castings of family members done by Ahearn and Torres, and sculptural scenes of people from around the area endure on the sides of four buildings: “Double Dutch at Kelly Street,” “Life on Dawson Street,” “We Are a Family,” and “Back to School.” All were cast from people Ahearn and Torres knew from the neighborhood. Recently, a man named Quito, whom Ahearn had cast years ago, found Ahearn’s new studio and brought him his sculpture to be repaired. The nose had broken off.  

In 1991, after winning a major commission, Ahearn (working without Torres) installed three bronze sculptures on pedestals at the corner of Jerome Avenue and 169th Street, facing the 44th Police Precinct. They were made from molds of 33-year-old Raymond Garcia, 24-year-old Corey Mann, and 14-year-old Daleesha, all of who lived on the same street as Ahearn. Ahearn cast Garcia with his pit bull; Mann was depicted shirtless, with a boombox and basketball; and Daleesha sported a pair of white high-top roller skates. The installation provoked an outcry from a small group of city bureaucrats from outside the neighborhood, who accused Ahearn, who is white, of being racist, naive, or both. The sculptures were removed after five days.

At the time, Ahearn said that the statues were a challenge to the police to accept the humanity of those they were charged to serve; critics said the statues affirmed negative stereotypes. But Ahearn’s pieces were all lifecasts of real people, Jane Kramer pointed out in a lengthy New Yorker piece published a little over a year later. “Those people are not models for other characters, the way Caravaggio’s neighbors were models for Mary Magdalene or St. Paul. They carry their own history and their own names,” she wrote. “The fact is that any society in which no one has the right to speak for others, or represent others—in a congress, in a piece of sculpture, in a poem—is not just a reduction but a reductio ad absurdum. The categories of representation become monstrously small.”  

Ahearn and Torres eventually left the Walton Avenue studio, but the pair continued to collaborate on projects, much of it public art, around the world—including one in Torres’ birthplace of Puerto Rico, in a town called Caguas.

In 2002, the governor of Puerto Rico announced the Puerto Rico Public Art Project, an allocation of $15 million to commission over 100 works of public art around the island. One commission was for something that came to be called “The Basketball Project.” It was stalled when none of the submitted ideas were found to be satisfactory—until Ahearn and Torres were invited to submit a proposal. “The idea was that we were gonna combine professional basketball players in Puerto Rico with kids… It was very vague.”  

That uncertainty is part of Ahearn’s process. “Often that first, initial month, when you land and you just begin, is the time of crucial discovery, when you find out what is it you are really doing,” he says. “I hate to imagine things in advance and make something up. Like, to dream of something—it’s not the kind of art that I do.” Ahearn’s art is reactive, growing out of and into a specific place, in collaboration with and inspired by the people he is casting.  

As it turned out, the initial site that had been identified for the Basketball Project was a public housing development that, after Ahearn and Torres’ first visit, ended up being slated for demolition. This led the pair to a sports facility in Caguas, the Complejo Deportivo, which was interested in commissioning a piece. Once they arrived, however, the artists realized that while the complex would provide inspiration and subjects for the project, it was not the best place for a mural. “One of my favorite things in Puerto Rico is that each city and town has a beautiful plaza that was built when the town was originally built,” Ahearn says. “There is a beautiful mall, the original mall of Caguas, that I thought was dying for attention. It was in great shape, and I saw a wall there. We asked, right in the first visit, ‘Please, let us put the art in the plaza, not in the sports center.’” Approval was granted, and the project moved forward.  

The Basketball Project, as the name would imply, was at first intended to be solely about basketball. The completed wall, however, includes 16 different athletes performing four different sports across five panels: three swimmers, diving off their blocks; Peter John Ramos, the 18-year old, 7’4” star of the under-25s semi-professional basketball team Los Criollos, throwing up a hookshot; a little boy dribbling through four others with, one imagines, more intent than skill; two boxers, the great Juan Felix ‘Tito’ Trinidad Garcia and the then-up-and-coming Juan Manuel ‘Juanma’ Lopez Rivera, plus two kids sparring; and three young women practicing volleyball.

At one point, Ahearn leans in close. “You know,” he says, “Some people insist that the American system has a kind of stranglehold on Puerto Rico.” He describes a conversation with his wife, Juanita, who is Puerto Rican: “She always uses the word ‘colonial.’ And I’m like, ‘Come on Juanita, it’s not a colony.’ She goes….” Ahearn stops, raises an eyebrow dramatically, and laughs. In the context of postcolonial anxiety, the Basketball Project is a piece of public art that Ahearn hopes might offer some relief. “These are activities that have absolutely nothing to do with tourism, nothing to do with selling the idea of a Puerto Rican or Latino person in the greater, outside world. This is something that refers to their value system: what they believe in, in their lives,” he says. It is the product of working with real people—some known to the world, some known only to their immediate community. They are not models for other characters but simply themselves, doing what they do.

Ahearn and Torres’ work—especially their public work—is very much about the relationships it facilitates in its production and consumption. Ahearn, a practicing Catholic, grew up attending a tiny church. “It was loaded with statuary all over the place,” Ahearn says. “I’m sure I got some ideas from that—ideas about bad art, how to love things that aren’t very well done, that aren’t the masterworks. There’s something else to art besides reaching that pinnacle.” The point of religious statuary, whether it’s in a church or someone’s living room, isn’t whether it’s fine sculpture or not, Ahearn says. “It’s a transcendental presence in people’s lives.”

At 64, Ahearn is again a part of a massive group show, MoMA PS1’s Greater New York. He also mounted a joint show with photographer Martha Cooper at Dorian Grey Gallery in the East Village. But despite the challenges he’s faced, both in New York and Puerto Rico—the building on which the Sports Wall was installed was later renovated, altering the mural without his permission—Ahearn has kept his faith in the power of public art.

“Making public work is the best relationship with the people that you’re working with, because you’re doing something which is going to be shared by a larger community,” Ahearn says. “It’s for Caguas, or for anyone that passes through to see it. In that sense, it gives a lot more vitality to the activity of the making of the thing, because you know you’ve got a shared purpose—you’re doing this together, so that together you can have it in the future.”