If you’ve wandered into Lit Roastery and Bakeshop on Third Street during the past few weeks, then you were greeted by a display of bright, eye-catching collages and paintings. These pieces, with titles including “Twice Caught Like A Rabbit” and “Heavy Eyelids, Loose Jaw,” are evocative works that demand to be looked at; they do not just fade into the background on the coffeehouse walls. Jessica Echevarria is the Allentown-based artist behind this display and a co-founder of the Allentown Alternative Gallery. During a break in her busy schedule, Echevarria talked with Southsider Visual Arts Editor Lauren Fosbenner about her relationship to art, her contributions to the Lehigh Valley art community through the Alternative Gallery, and her current work.
Lauren Fosbenner: How did you come to art?
Jessica Echevarria: Creating has always come to me in a very natural way ever since I could remember. I was always drawing, or asking the nagging question, “give me something to draw” to those around me. Fast forward to adulthood (19 years), I found myself watching one of my close friends painting one day, picked up a paintbrush to try it myself, and haven’t put it down since.
LF: When did you decide to pursue art as a career?
The swift transition from feeling like I was just doing this for fun [to pursuing art as a career], quickly seized the moment I sold multiple pieces during a show, [which was] accompanied by other local artists that I had looked up to telling me that I “had it” or that I inspired them. These were sure signs that maybe this could be something I could actually do, something I needed to do. You’re told your whole life that most artists don’t “make it” or that it’s merely “a hobby.” I never really believed any of that rhetoric, and I have always had a hopeful heart. For me, making a living off of your art does not constitute a “successful artist,” but rather a successful businessman/woman. Simply creating the work and giving all you have with no fear of failure is what makes you a successful artist. Be prolific and don’t apologize for your work. Create without fear of judgment, create to keep yourself sane. All of the other stuff will fall in line as it is meant to. Oh, and try your best to socialize and make connections; I’d be lying if I said that part isn’t important.
LF: How has the arts community in the area impacted your work?
JE: Living in the Lehigh Valley and being an exhibiting artist here has been amazing. I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with both local gallery owners and art shakers not native to this area to gaining collectors from all over due to the connections made right here at home. There is an overall sense of artistic community within the LV. Although, I would say that Bethlehem, Allentown, and Easton all have their own thing going on. This is not a bad thing for artists because it allows us to dive into different scenes all while remaining inside of the LV. I feel as though all [of the] scenes support one another from afar while still doing their own thing. All in all, the art scene within the Lehigh Valley is built from some of the most genuine movers and shakers. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of, both as an artist and as a gallery co-founder.
LF: How did the idea for Allentown Alternative Gallery emerge? What programs does it have to engage with the community?
JE: The Alternative Gallery was originally created as a platform for artists to display their work in a way that is rarely, if ever, seen. We wanted to create a space for the artists themselves to display work, quickly cutting out the “middleman,” or in the art world, the curator. We felt there was no reason that we ourselves couldn’t be the curators. It is all too often that curators (who have no real investment in the art itself) will take up to 50% of the artists’ earnings from sold works. This simply did not settle well with me and my partners. To this day, we only accept 20% of any sold works, as that is the bare minimum we are willing to take in order to keep what we do alive while still giving the artist what they deserve. We aim to one day eliminate that 20%, giving the artist 100% of the earnings that they undoubtedly deserve. However, what started as a pop-up gallery inside of an abandoned hallway of a Holiday Inn very quickly grew into something much larger than we could have ever imagined.
We relocated to The Cigar Factory and over an extremely short period of time were given creative control over the building. Since our takeover, the building has sprouted a new, colorful and animated life in terms of artist studio rentals [approaching] max capacity, we have had new businesses open such as Coffee House Without Limits, and a monthly Open House that occurs every last Thursday of every month. Cigar Factory Artist Studios Open House includes a new featured exhibition in our main gallery, generally a musical performance somewhere in the building, as well as artist studios opened with the artists ready and eager to share what they’ve been working on. The Alternative Gallery offers an Alternative Children’s Art Program, which is offered at a pay-what-you-can basis. Donations are always appreciated but never required. We have also had plenty of other community engaging events, such as our community garden, community clean up around 10th Ward which is where our building is based in, block parties where we shut the block down and invite our surrounding neighbors to a free event, our yearly animation festival, Open World Animation Fest, and last but not least, our largest free community event, Allentown Artsfest.
LF: What does the Allentown Artsfest event look like? What aspects of it are unique?
JE: [As per the Artsfest website,] “Allentown Artsfest is a taste of everything we do at the Alternative Gallery every day, all year long, jam-packed into one FREE three-day festival at the beautiful Cedar Beach Park. With three stages of ongoing local music of all genres, tons of activities for the kids, a skate park, giant graffiti murals, comedy and improv sets, breakdancing competitions, dozens of artists with work on display and for sale, delicious local food, craft beer and wine, there truly is something for everyone to love about ArtsFest.”
LF: Could you tell us more about your current display in Lit? What was your inspiration for the pieces? Do you have a favorite piece?
JE: My current display at Lit is a reflection of the various styles that I have worked on simultaneously. There are moments where I enjoy working on small-scale pieces, [which] gives me more of a complex approach as they tend to be mixed media, including the use of collage as a medium, thus making the creation of the piece much more technically involved.
Then, you have a series entitled “The Wolfpack” which feature canvas pieces done with acrylic paint marker and have more of an “in the moment” fluidity to them. These pieces are meant to reflect human emotion, facial expression, and quite frankly, are simply fun to create. From start to finish, I am not sure where I am going; however, somewhere in between, the piece tells me the direction it’s going in. I never plan these pieces out. Lastly, you have a few sporadic larger scale pieces that, in the same vein as “The Wolfpack Series,” has more of an artistic fluidity to them. Where these larger scale pieces differ from my other works is the sense of physical freedom when creating the pieces. They tend to get reimagined over and over until I feel they are done. Lots of adding and taking away. I enjoy working on large-scale work because there is a freedom behind working that large. Knowing that the final product is coming and being able to step back and take it all in, that’s the best part. I can’t say that I have a favorite piece, but rather the act of creating them all, collectively, that is my favorite.