The movies rolled one to another, as the hushed audience of WILLiFest watched the short films. The last in the lineup was a 17 minute-documentary, Fumero-ism: The Grafstract. When the finale aired, the crowd erupted into applause.
Featuring one of New York’s most original and distinctive muralists, Fumero, the movie is an introspective account of the artist’s life. Directed by Keith Aronowitz, an independent filmmaker, the movie is a tightly choreographed work that explores the layers of art and artist.
After the showing, I caught up with the two creators to talk about their respective artistic journeys, the importance of family, and the mutual respect and friendship they forged while making the film.
Fumero – Artistic Origins
“I was an artist since I was kid.” Fumero recollected.
In a sense, Fumero’s entire life journey has been a culmination of different creative outlets. One of his first memories is putting together broken branches and clothespins to create puddle art.
As a kid, he was sketching, drawing, making bubble characters. In his teens, Fumero turned to graffiti, running about the night tagging the big city. In community college he studied graphic design, before graduating with a degree from the School of Visual Arts.
It was at SVA that Fumero’s iconic grafstract style began to take shape. During homework projects, he began to experiment with anatomical figures, in exaggerated and abstracted profiles.
He combined his knowledge of fine art with his experience painting on the streets, crafting characters with black contours and wild style fills. During these sessions his artistic philosophies were influenced by two dominant theories; color separation and less is more.
“I practice using shapes, cool colors, warm colors, to play off each other with optical weight. Lights and shades.”
Post-graduation, Fumero took his work to the galleries, but found few avenues to move forward. He was told that they already had artists, and weren’t looking for anyone new to represent. Rather than just drop his portfolio at more galleries on a stack of others, Fumero decided to take to the streets to hustle his art.
“They told me, just keep doing what you’re doing.” Fumero recalled. “So I was like, alright, I’ll keep doing what I do but on the street.”
In response to the galleries, Fumero created one of his most iconic images; the Table Series logo.
Around the same time, director Aronowitz was taking his next steps as a professional filmmaker. In 2006, after being inspired by a National Geographic article, Aronowitz flew to South America to produce his first independent documentary on the spiritualism of the ‘god-drug,’ ayahuasca.
“The thing with ayahuasca… You don’t really do it for fun. You do it for physical, spiritual, and psychologically healing.”
Aronowitz ended up living in South America, taking up a shamanic lifestyle and exploring the consciousness expanding effects of ayahuasca.
Like Fumero, Aronowitz knew his path from a young age. He grew up in Brooklyn and as a kid, he would eagerly watch ‘The 4:30 Movie’ on ABC. Each week, the network premiered a themed series which captivated the future auteur. One of the things that stuck with him most was the opening graphic for the program, which depicted a director on a camera crane.
His dad bought him a camera and Aronowitz made his first movie at age 12. During college, he studied communications and film, graduating with a degree in television broadcasting. Over the past 30 years, Aronowitz has made a career in the editing room, working his chops for several programs on the ABC News Network such as 20/20, Primetime Live, and Nightline; additionally, Aronowitz has directed music videos and freelance gigs on documentaries and commercial DVD work.
When the two artists, Fumero and Aronowitz, first met in a café in 2016 to talk about making a film, neither knew much about the other. However, one thing they recognized in each other was a seriousness for their respective crafts.
Aronowitz told Fumero, “Bring your A-Game.”
The artist responded, “I always bring my A-Game.”
Glartiator, Grafstract & The Contemporary Muralist
Though Fumero is sensitive about his privacy, the film proves to be revealing. Fumero is a taciturn talker, preferring to let his art speak for him. But when speaking on his art, his purpose, Fumero is loquacious.
“I could go on for hours, expounding on what I believe, and what my mission is.” He explained.
The movie opens with Fumero, popping and locking. Raised in Hip-Hop New York, the opening becomes a metaphor of how the artist transcends his roots. On a 2nd Ave gate, next to the AmArtStop wall, Fumero is dressed in his battle gear; pink respirator, a fisherman’s hat, a cut-off shirt, dual-wielding spray cans.
“Give me a can, give me a wall. Boom.”
The Glartiator – a portmanteau of gladiator and art. Fumero created the term to describe how he feels painting. Out there against the wall, under the penetrating rays of the sun, Fumero fights the world to paint.
“This is my arena. This is my coliseum. I’m battling the elements.”
Fumero is generally reserved, but a pugnacious brawler when it comes to his art. His battle cry is a call-back to the underground classic, The Warriors.
“Warriors, come out and spray!”
Fumero and I discussed the vagaries of labels. ‘Street-Art’ is a broad and all-encompassing designation that includes stickers, tags, wheatpastes, murals, graffiti, etc. Its breadth makes it an inadequate description of Fumero’s unique art form.
“I don’t do graffiti. To me, graffiti is lettering.”
Instead, Fumero paints Grafstract [another portmanteau, graffiti + abstract] bringing fine art sensibilities to the street. The distinction matters. Grafstract is the style and Fumero-ism is the brand, but the artist consider himself a contemporary muralist.
“Not that I don’t love canvas painting. But I love the murals.” Fumero explained, “Getting in a gallery, that comes and goes. But murals have been my bread and butter. Murals have taken me around the world.”
In his 12+ years as a professional artist, Fumero has traveled extensively in his mission to get-up. To list but a few of the walls and projects he’s conquered; Art Basel in Wynwood, Miami; murals in Brazil; A five-story DMV in Yonkers with one of his “The Grandpa” renditions; Fumero painted 5Pointz; Welling Court Mural Fest in Queens, JMZ Walls in Bushwick; in the Lower East Side, he’s painted the Orchid Hotel, a “Tru York” mural inside the Black Tap burger joint next to Katz’s Deli on Ludlow Street in the LES. Next summer, he’s flying out to paint a Black Tap in Kuwait and Dubai, and then heading to his 9th consecutive Art Basel Miami to paint a warehouse mural.
However, one of the projects he’s most proud of was with Dutch Masters cigars. Fumero was commissioned to design a limit edition box set, featuring a Fumero-ized version of their brand logo, labeled “The Fumeroism Edition Palma Cigar Box.”
The Dutch Masters logo is based off a Dutch old master in art; Rembrandt’s – Syndics of the Draper’s Guild. The original is an oil painting from 1662, and in 2017 Fumero recreated the classic in his Grafstract style. For Fumero, an artist who takes himself seriously and venerates the world’s great works of art, the opportunity gave him a strong sense of connection with art history.
“I want to commend Dutch Masters for commissioning an artist… Letting an artist do their own rendition. Big ups to them.”
There are now 55,000 collector’s edition Dutch Masters cigar boxes adorned with Fumero’s art.
The Family Name
In its exploration of the eponymous subject, Fumero-ism: The Grafstract, brings to light what motivates the artist. Unlike many in the street art game, Fumero doesn’t paint under an alias. Fumero is his true name, his family name. Yet, the artist has always been reluctant to reveal much about his identity.
On Instagram, he hides his face, preferring to let his art stand for itself. Two of his most iconic images are ‘The Grandpa,’ modeled off his own grandfather, and ‘The Family Table,’ inspired by his own eccentric clan. The film navigates the layers of meaning behind the pieces.
“Those paintings aren’t just about family. They’re about how tables bring families together. That’s how I grew up.”
Born and raised in New York, Fumero was the son of a “big ethnic Italian family” and prone to the regular big family dysfunctions; living in a lower-middle class world, an uncle in jail, family members battling drug addictions, girls getting pregnant at 17.
“We had our problems, but there was always a lot of love.” Fumero explained. “The family that breaks bread together, stays together.”
The mystique around Fumero convinced Aronowitz that the artist would be an interesting subject for a film. As the two began to collaborate on the project, Aronowitz learned that he and Fumero had a lot in common.
For Aronowitz too, family is an important part of life. While working on his ayahuasca documentary in Peru, he met his future wife, Pilar. The two found each other in Iquitos, a city in the Amazon, reachable only by boat or plane. Pilar had grown up in a small village of 200 people, and moved to the city for an education.
She was part of the reason Aronowitz decided to live in South America. After the birth of their son Sean, Aronowitz continued to live in Peru with Pilar for five years before the family moved back to America.
For Aronowitz, having them nearby is a daily inspiration to work his hardest.
“Just having that love and support from your family, is one of the most important things. It really grounds me. It gives me reason to get up in the morning.”
As Fumero and Aronowitz began putting in the long hours of shooting, interviewing, painting, and collaborating, their mutual love of family helped solidify their bond. At the showing, both Fumero’s and Aronowitz’s families were there, cheering on as enthusiastic supporters of the film.
Film Fests & the Future
WILLiFest is just the first of seven festivals that Fumero-Ism: The Grafstract has been selected for. Among the circuit that the short has been selected for includes: Reading Film Fest, the New York Short Film Festival, Greenwich Film Festival, Oregon Documentary Film Fest, among others. With the strong reception the short has gotten so far, Aronowitz is eager to show the movie around.
The festival Aronowitz is most excited for is the YoFi Fest in Yonkers, considered to be one of the top 100 film festivals in the world.
Fumero described seeing himself on the big-screen as a cool, surreal feeling. I asked him what was the hardest part of making the movie.
“Hands down, the hardest part was showing my face. I felt uncomfortable with it. But I trusted Keith.”
In the film, Fumero publicly reveals his identity for the first time.
Aronowitz explained the decision: “In order to better connect with the audience, I felt like it was important for people to see his face. I know for him it was taking a leap.”
Fumero nodded. “It came out well. I agreed with [Aronowitz]. Because this is his art. He’s choreographing a film, making it the best he can. For Keith, the way he sees the composition of scenes is like what I do with my art.”
Aronowitz chuckled. “We had our creative differences, but we put our best foot forward. It was in the service of making the best film we could.”
During the process, Fumero rubbed off on Aronowitz in more ways than one. Hanging with Fumero and AmArtStop [who has a cameo in the movie and whose home helps provide background to an interview] Aronowitz’s interest in street art grew, and he’s since taken to making his own wheatpastes.
The two joked around in the interview as they spoke about the importance of committing to your work.
Fumero said, “A lot of projects fail, if you’re not serious. That’s why I like to work with older people. It’s not two guys just bullshitting. You don’t just talk about it, you do it. You need to hit a mature level, for the talk not to be cheap.”
The passion of both the artist and the director can be seen on the screen – the film is a labor of love. Aronowitz recalled the long days spent filming and editing, traveling and working late to ensure the short film was the best it could be. Fumero-Ism: The Grafstract was 100% self-funded, with the independent filmmaker paying out of pocket to make sure the movie came together.
In the future, the two creators have plans to take the project further. Aronowitz floated around the idea of a full-length feature or possibly a short-series. They hope that following a successful run at the festival circuit, they can find a sponsor to help fund future projects, exploring today’s golden age of street art and muralism.
As we wrapped up our interview, Aronowitz and Fumero discussed the mutual artistic respect they had for another, and the friendship they formed along the way. Aronowitz was full of gratitude for the opportunity to document the artist and his work;
“I’m really thankful to Fumero. It was great to work with him and see his process.”
I asked Fumero what he hoped audiences would take away after watching Fumero-Ism: The Grafstract.
“That my art is different, that my art is an evolution. Not that I was the best or the greatest. Because that’s all subjective…. I just want my legacy to be that I was here.”
Written by T.K. Mills
Photos provided by Keith Aronowitz and T.K. Mills
For more by the author, check out his website tkmills.com
To learn more about Keith Aronowitz’s Film, check out his website: Baston Films
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