When he was a kid, Manny Vega used to sneak into the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“At 11 years old I used to make the trek from Third Avenue and 97th St. to the Met,” Vega said. “I used to sneak in look at all the Greek statues. I would go regularly. The guards would see me and say, ‘This kid is here again?’
“I would get home and get a whipping from my father, and then the next day do it again.”
Manuel Vega Sr. probably thought he had reason to worry about his eccentric son, who picked up sewing by watching his mother Elena, a seamstress, make clothes on the machine next to his bed and was partial to playing Conga drums around the neighborhoods in the Bronx and East Harlem the family called home.
“I was always the artist in the group,” Vega said. “It came from watching my mother sew, watching my sister do bead work. It was just monkey see, monkey do.”
Papa need not have worried.
Manny Vega was gifted.
Better still, people recognized the kid’s gifts.
His High School for Art and Design teacher, Marshall Davis, tracked down Vega in the hallway, while the student was cutting his printmaking class, and dragged him back.
“He said, ‘Manny, there are a lot of artist who don’t have the spark that you have,’” Vega said. “‘You gotta know that you have it. Technique is technique, but the spark is what we live for. So please, don’t cut my class.’
“That was the first time I think in my life I felt an acknowledgment,” he said.
It happened again when Vega, living a “gypsy lifestyle” among the emerging East Harlem art and music scene in the mid 1970s, came across a white guy, Hank Prussing, standing high on a ladder on 104th St., creating his famous mural called “The Spirit of East Harlem.”
“I yelled up at him that he should let me help him with that,” Vega said. “He came down the ladder and asked me if I knew how to hold a paint brush. I said sure, and next thing I was up the ladder, too.”
Vega, 56, has since created dozens of murals and mosaic murals in public and private spaces throughout the city, most notably at the Pregones Theater in the Bronx, at the 110th St. subway station and on E. 106th St. between Lexington and Third Aves.
The community group originally asked him to paint the mural of Julia De Burgos, the famed Puerto Rican educator and activist, and budgeted about $1,000 for it, Vega said. He instead proposed the now-iconic mosaic mural, and suggested they solicit public donations toward a $20,000 budget.
“I said, ‘Let’s create a campaign and pass the hat around,’” he said. “We came up with the money like that, because the community wanted it.”
Last month an East Harlem group announced that Vega would create a memorial mural for the late Puerto Rican educator and ASPIRA founder Dr. Antonia Pantoja. The final location for Pantoja’s mural is still being determined, but Vega created a limited-edition engraving of Pantoja, which he will sell to raise money toward the estimated $100,000 project.
“What I love about Dr. Antonia was that she considered herself a Puerto Rican New Yorker, and that that configuration is a unique, special one which merits recognition,” Vega said. “This image of Antonia is going to influence a whole new generation of young folks in what it means to be a community activist, to be a person of service.
“That image has to be perpetuated, because it is also a legacy of our humanity.”
A sculptor, painter, illustrator, printmaker, costume and set designer, Vega is also a highly sought instructor who has taught at El Museo del Barrio, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the American Museum of Natural History and the Caribbean Cultural Center.
Influences on Vega’s work are myriad, but none more pronounced than Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion he has followed since a 1984 visit to a temple in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, and his late wife, Ana Araiz, a latin music promoter who died of brain cancer in 2001. Vega slips a crab, Araiz’s astrological sign, into much of his work in memorial to her.
He created a colorful mosaic mural of her, which keeps watch over his studio work space.
“I was born for this,” said Vega, noting that he doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon. “Hard work, for me, is what I pray for. Hard work is the biggest blessing in my life, because hard work has presented limits for me to shatter.
“Hard work has made it possible for me to recognize how I have been a contributor,” he added. “Not just be the person in the audience being entertained, but that I can take what comes to me and recycle it.
“It’s important to me that people recognize that. That they can contribute. I always say, did you ask yourself?
“Then how you gonna know?”