Jack-of-all-trades opens Longwood gallery

Teodora Altomare

Ray Serrano in his new gallery on Dawson Street.

Artist, housing advocate Ray Serrano follows his muse

For three years, Ray Serrano would walk past the empty storefront on a quiet stretch of Dawson Street just across from the baseball field in Rainey Park. Several times he asked the landlord to let him tour the space, which was just a block away from his apartment at the Stebbins-Hewitt Houses. Even though debris littered the floor, cracks ran along the walls, and parts of the ceiling had fallen to the floor, Serrano still saw his dream: a home for his first art gallery.

“If I can paint it, why can’t I build it?” he remembers telling himself.

Located two blocks from the Longwood Avenue stop on the 6 train, the storefront’s new name will soon be Serrano Galleries.  When it opens in the new year, the three-room gallery will offer Serrano’s own oil paintings, and showcase other artists’ work as well. In the meantime, the storefront houses his T-shirt painting company called Flares.

Serrano reveres artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci who weren’t just painters but also architects and engineers. Like those Renaissance men, Serrano also wears many hats. He’s been a manager at K-Mart, an art instructor for children, a public housing advocate and father to three sons, who are now 12, 14 and 16.

“But something always brings me back to my art,” he said.

Over the years, Serrano has tried to get his art into galleries in and around the city, but he was put on waitlist after waitlist. He didn’t want to give up on his art but he had a family to support.

So he began spray-painting T-shirts in his housing development on the side. Kids would ask him to paint their name or an animal. “I loved bringing to life their ideas,” he said. “I would charge them $5 or $10 – whatever they could afford.”

He began to realize that there was a demand for what he was doing. The president of the Auto Club circuit in the Bronx hired him to create T-shirts and decals for his automobile company. So in 2007, Serrano gave his design and print operation a name – Flares – and ran it out of his bedroom.

By August, he had made enough money from the business to set up his gallery. Now Flares sits in the front of the Dawson Ave. space, selling his wares to cover the rent. Serrano says around 25 people come in each day for T-shirts and other customized products.

Serrano hopes that one day the gallery will be successful enough for him to phase out the printing business so he can then turn full time to his real passion: oil painting. “For now, people are more likely to buy a $20 T-shirt than they are a $10,000 painting,” he laughed.

Serrano’s gallery definitely stands out on a street of bodegas, barbershops, fast-food restaurants and 99-cent stores.

“The gallery will bring joy and color to the area,” said Carey Clark, the visual arts director at The Point.  “He’ll just have to be very sensitive to his audience.” Clark said that if Serrano’s artwork is illustrative of the neighborhood, it will find buyers, in the way that Tats Cru, the now-famous local graffiti collective, had commercial success in the area.

“The gallery is very encouraging to the community,” said Josephine Infante, president of the Hunts Point Chamber of Commerce. “He should hold a lot of events and shows and invite bankers and people who could support him.” Serrano is already planning a Halloween party in the gallery and another black-and-white affair later this winter.

While painting and art are his pleasure, Serrano also wanted to open the gallery on principle, to show that a neighborhood can celebrate and support the culture within.

“Everyone thinks basketball and rap is going to make them famous,” said Serrano. “I wanted to show them another way to survive.”


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