La Casita Welcomes a Community to Embrace Art, Culture

Mar 26, 2014

They filtered into the tidy gallery inside the pretty, refurbished 100-year-old former warehouse  on Syracuse's west side Friday night, stopping to look long, hard, and with much appreciation at the new exhibit set up on two walls.

La Casita exterior
La Casita exterior

La Casita opened its doors to welcome the community to explore the art of Abisay Puentes.

Singly and in groups, they stopped to admire the native of Cuba's work as violinist Sara Silva, a member of the Syracuse Symphoria and the driving force behind La Casita's music program, performed.

Sara Silva performs
Sara Silva performs
Credit Mark Bialczak

Puentes had carefully chosen the spots on the wall he liked best to hang his paintings. Then he worked his art onto the white walls around those hanging pieces, to create an exhibit that's truly one of kind. He didn't finish his work until the day before the opening. Titled "Mist," the collection will be on display at La Casita until May 5.

"I saw groups of 20 or 30 people with their backs to the wall, looking at the artwork in silence," says Tere Paniagua, the executive director for La Casita and its sister center for cultural engagement for the Hispanic community, Point of Contact.

Puentes engages visitors
Puentes engages visitors
Credit Mark Bialczak

On the opening night, Puentes, his wife and three children were in the cultural center to celebrate in their now-hometown of Syracuse, where they've lived since 2010, when he came to the United States as a political refugee.

"This city needs more art," Puentes says during Friday night's reception. "I come from Havana. It's a poor country, but we have a lot of art. Here, this city needs more art."

Puentes art and mural
Puentes art and mural
Credit Mark Bialczak

That's something that Paniagua, her staff, and the board of directors of La Casita are trying to change.

The center at 109 Otisco Street is under the umbrella of Syracuse University, and it lists many  significant Syracuse cultural organizations as partners, including the Spanish Action League, P.E.A.C.E. Inc., and the Near West Side Initiative.

"La Casita is community driven," Paniagua says Monday during an interview in the space's cafeteria.

She says the mission is to demonstrate the richness of Latin American art, and  "to create a new understanding about the very diverse cultures from various Latin American countries."

The space at La Casita includes a library, books ready to reinforce the wonders of art and culture.

The center is open weekdays from noon to 6 p.m.

"Or by appointment for group visits, with tours available in both English and Spanish," Paniagua says, adding that interested parties can call 443-2151 or email lacasita@syr.edu to set up special visiting hours.

Puentes' son captures images of the art at La Casita
Puentes' son captures images of the art at La Casita
Credit Mark Bialczak

Paniagua calls the El Punto Arts Education program one of the center's most important. In collaboration with the Spanish Action League, the Near West Side Initiative and Point of Contact, La Casita welcomes 55 students between the ages of 7 and 17 for a six-week program to explore artistic experiences. Most of the students come from the west side neighborhood surrounding La Casita.

"They work with local artists that design and facilitate the workshops," Paniagua says, "and we have an army of volunteers from Syracuse University students."

Some of the college volunteers this year come from SU's Latino Fraternity, Phi Iota Alpha, Kappa chapter. 

One, Yovanny Duran, showed up for the start of the program last Saturday and donated the violin he had used to learn playing at the age of 12, Paniagua says proudly and admiringly.

That program will culminate with an open house at 3 p.m. May 3 to show off the students' artistic projects at the Point of Contact gallery, in SU's Warehouse in Armory Square. 

Another community favorite has been Balcon Criolla, which opened in La Casita's spaces last September through December to display items of cultural significance brought in by members of the community.

"Family photos, memorabilia, things that represent their culture in their homes," Paniagua says. "Cooking utensils. Spiritual things treasured by families, sometimes for generations. It was tremendously successful, the one activity that brought the largest amount of visitors to the center."

Balcon Criolla will open again on Sept. 19.

Paniagua sees increasing interest in programs offered to students through Syracuse city schools, and  from parents and adults in the community, too.

"Not just on the West Side, but all of Syracuse, and outside the city, too," Paniagua says. "Liverpool, Oswego, Ithaca, Rochester, Buffalo. They're getting to know that performing arts have the top billing here."

Scheduled events next month include "Milonga," at 9 p.m. April 5, featuring tango dancer Richard Council, and a lecture by banker and artist Peggy Martinez on April 7. Martinez will create a painting at La Casita on April 6, and it will be auctioned during her talk on April 7, with proceeds going to the Galisano Children's Hospital.

Have you experienced the art and culture in La Casita or Point of Contact? What type of art would be your favorite to experience in a cultural center such as these?