A Conversation with Lexi Bella and Danielle Mastrion on The Grit & The Glam, a Dual Art Exhibit at 3rd Ethos Gallery

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Lexi Bella and Danielle Mastrion are two of the most esteemed street artists in the New York scene. With degrees earned in Fine Arts and years of skill honing in the classical realm, they met during Femme Fatale, a women-only art battle, in 2008. This propelled them to Paris and London, where they took inspiration from the European street art and experienced a new freedom through the use of aerosol on walls, leading to the start of mural paintings in New York using traditional and modern techniques to create arts with a strong message for justice, and celebrate inspirational figures, women, and children. While one was raised in a conservative family and the other liberal, they both came to age surrounded by powerful and independent female figures, creating an innate sense of feminism, which translates into their genuine need to support emerging women artists and become agents of change for equality in the arts.

Lexi and Danielle re-explored paint on canvas through The Grit & The Glam, but this time, using street art techniques. The Grit & The Glam is a conversation on the duality of beauty, a showcase of their individual styles, a juxtaposition of urban and natural, decay and revival, abstraction and realism, grit and glamour. The exhibit, running until December 31st at 3rd Ethos Art Gallery, features new and original artworks. It is an exploration of the meaning of life with hidden words underneath Lexi Bella’s paint and a clash of subject matter throughout Danielle Mastrion’s.

Fatima: Tell us about your background, and how you got your start in the Arts?

Danielle: I'm from Brooklyn, New York. I have been painting and drawing my entire life, since I was a little girl. I would spend my weekends at museums with my mother, drawing the old master paintings. I went to a specialized art high school in Brooklyn, Edward R Murrow; then went to Parsons School of Design & studied illustration and painting.

Lexi: I first started painting when I was about 4 or 5 years old at my grandmother’s house — I was a rambunctious child and she was an art teacher who always had paints around she would teach me to use, and as I got older, my mother always encouraged my painting. I eventually went to college and graduate school with a Master’s in Fine Art on an art scholarship.  

Fatima: How do you describe your work?

Danielle: Bright, Bold, and Gritty.

Lexi: Impressionistic expression of realism in post graffiti aerosol.

Fatima: What is unique in your respective process, and how similar is it?

Danielle: I believe Lexi and I both paint in different painting styles and those styles are distinctive. We joke around that I’m a fauvist and she's an impressionist. I color block, and use big chunky areas of color to represent light and shadow. Lexi uses smooth blends and strong highlights and shadows. My work has more hard edges and her work is very smooth. Our process is similar in the colors we use; and also our subject matter. Both of us want to portray images of strong women, images of children, inspirational figures and educational figures.

Lexi: Danielle and I both come from art school backgrounds, so I think we both understand and use classical painting techniques we have learned, but applied them to aerosol which neither of us was formally taught. For this show, we also both used all our favorite paint mediums within our canvases, meaning we combined aerosol, oil, and acrylic paint in our paintings on canvas. However, a lot of this show was exploring how we differ — exploring textures and subject matters in our own way and what “Grit and Glam” means to each of us in our exploration of paint and subject matter.

Fatima: How did you two meet, and why did you choose to work together on The Grit & The Glam?

Danielle: Lexi and I met in 2008 at an Art Battle (a live painting event) called Femme Fatale which featured all women live painters. We both actually met a lot of our close friend to this day at that specific Art Battle. We began showing work together and continued to paint live together after that art battle around NYC which eventually led us to both go to Paris for an Art Battle in 2012. That trip not only made us closer but it also introduced us to how European artists use aerosol and murals as large outdoor canvases and I believe inspired both of us to pursue mural painting. We have been wanting to do a joint exhibition together for some time; to showcase our similarities but also our different styles, play off of those elements while making them come together in one body of work; and also challenge ourselves to put together a cohesive exhibition WITH our varying styles.

Lexi: We met painting live at an all women Art Battles in 2008. We have been friends since and became very close a few years ago after a trip with Art Battles to Paris and began doing a lot of street art murals together in NYC as well as Miami Art Basel 2012-2016 and the UK at Upfest. We have had this idea for probably 3 years and just found the right place to have the show at 3rd Ethos.

Fatima: What values do you share, and how are these translated into The Grit & The Glam?

Danielle: We both see beauty in things that people maybe wouldn't normally find beautiful; we also have different definitions of beauty and wanted to showcase those. I wanted to take objects that have been forgotten or discarded, things that aren't normally considered 'beautiful' and show the beauty that I see, that can be translated into objects OR people, but I chose to paint objects for this exhibition. We also take very gritty outdoor walls and turn them into beautiful paintings, so we wanted to take what we do on the walls into the gallery. At the core of it, we both want our work to inspire and educate. Lexi and I have both worked as educators, art teachers and mentors, and I think those core values of wanting to share, help, and teach run through our work as well.

Lexi: We both believe in being seen as artists, rather than “women artists.” And though this particular show isn’t about this per se, we both believe in supporting and being a voice for social justice across the board whether it’s for women, people of color, LGBTQ community, or even just the communities and culture that exists in places like NYC and Miami that’s being bulldozed to put up condos. 

Fatima: How is feminism a part of your artistic ventures?

Danielle: I want to be treated as an equal to my male colleagues. I want my talent to speak for itself, not my gender. I try to work as hard as I can to have the focus be on the pure work and pure talent not on the fact that I am a woman. I want to be an artist first and foremost. With that being said, I also think it’s important to keep women at the forefront of what I do. I do look to empower young women and take on projects that work with women, work with children, empower them, educate them through public art.

Lexi: I personally feel it’s important to address women’s issues whether international injustices or inspiring through stories (like my Zulaikha Patel mural) or personal explorations of my own journey as a woman, which was what I explored in this show. 

Fatima: If you could recreate the world and change how artists and their work are perceived, what are some of the things do be done to enable you to financially support yourselves?

Danielle: On a very basic level is changing the perception and importance of art in society. Here I feel like any 'creative' venture — music, art, etc.— is treated as a hobby rather than a profession that takes time, money, years of training, and skills to master. It is not respected as much as other professions that may be seen as more 'practical'. I’ve fought very hard to have what I do as a career and be seen as a profession rather than a dalliance. I’ve been to other countries where artists are so highly respected and VALUED as an integral part of society. They are given studio space, given stipends to be able to do what they do, especially for public art, which has a complete social impact on communities. I believe art is an integral part of building up communities, which is why I do it. So on a very basic level having the craft and the work itself viewed as a viable profession that you can make a living from, and on a very practical level being able to provide affordable housing for artists in major cities — studio space for artists to work — having many more grants available and accessible, and having more free public walls accessible for younger artists to hone their craft and practice without fear of arrest or harassment.

Lexi: In a world that valued artists, I would be able to actually support myself and not just survive but thrive. I think perhaps there would be more readily available programs to support artists rather than exploit them. I also know women artists get paid .41 cents to a man’s 1$, so obviously equal pay for women in the arts (and everything else!)

Fatima: Have you experienced any discrimination or violence based on your gender? If so, how did you change your own narrative?

Danielle: I have experienced discrimination based on my gender. There have been times where I was overlooked for a show, because the curator wanted to work with the "girl who was hotter." This would never happen if I were a man with the same portfolio, the curator would have wanted me in the show because of my WORK, not of how I looked. Almost every time I paint a mural, I get an onslaught of comments along the lines of "who did this?" — even if I am standing on a ladder with my respirator on and a can of paint in my hands. I am not even given the credit for the work I am doing while I am doing it. If any guy is standing near me, people will say "hey man, nice work." and completely ignore the fact that I’m the one covered in paint. They just automatically get the credit, because there is a guy standing in front of the wall. It’s infuriating. I’ve had people accuse me of only getting work or getting put in a show, because of how I look and completely disregarding my years of hard work. I could go on and on about discrimination in the art world and in the mural painting world.

I have changed my own narrative by speaking up about these issues when they happen, confronting the people making the comments. I also have learned to be very, very careful about what I post on social media; I always have to focus my 'brand' on the work. Maybe I want to post a cute friend photo; maybe every now and then it's okay. But I’ve even started taking down selfies, pictures of myself, limiting those pictures to only ones that are travel related — which is also a huge part of what I do. I’ve had to really be careful of my image in the wake of wanting to get respect for my work and only for my work based on the discrimination I’ve endured as a woman in a male dominated field.

Fatima: What are your beliefs on the current socio-political and cultural climate pertaining to women?

Danielle: I do believe the cultural climate as far as women on walls and in the art world is concerned is shifting. I have seen and witnessed in the last few years way more ladies out there painting than even when I first started. I think — and I hope — the idea of a woman mural painter is becoming more normalized. I always believe the more women painting, the better. One woman painting will hopefully inspire 3 or 4 more young girls to pick up a can or a brush, and not be afraid to do it. That’s why I always try to collaborate with women, push younger women, help or assist then in hopefully getting their own walls. I want as many women out there to be painting just SO the cultural climate does shift to normalizing it. I hope one day to get to the point where we aren't "women artists' and we are just "artists." You don't have people saying "he's the top male street artist in NYC!" or "All male exhibition!" it’s just… an exhibition. I hope enough women will be out there working that it is also seen as just the norm.

Lexi: Our current presidential administration is disgusting and shameful, and I think it’s showing the dark corners of our grander belief system that needs to be changed. But the recent election indicates young women are stepping up and running for office, so I hope to help change things with my artistic voice and inspire continual change in a fair and respectful society.

Fatima: What has been the best part of your artistic journey? Perhaps you can share an anecdote.

Danielle: The best part of my artistic journey has been being able to travel and learn about other cultures, paint with people from other cities, countries, walks of life, and learn that at the core of public art, maybe we all don't speak the same language, but we don't have to. When you see a piece of art on a wall, there is no language. It is a feeling, it is emotion, how it makes you feel is what counts and that is human and universal.

Lexi: The best part of my journey has been raising my daughter as I became a street artist. Knowing she sees me as an independent woman making a living off my art, and therefore, knows she can follow her dreams.

Author Fatima Bocoum. Photo courtesy of Lexi Bella, Danielle Mastrion, and 3rd Ethos Gallery