STUDIO 07030The Gorgeous Hoarder

Issa Sow’s composed chaos

Don’t turn down an invitation to visit Issa Sow’s work space. You may think you’ve seen studios or galleries or artists’ lofts or museums, but you haven’t seen anything until you’ve experienced the Issyra gallery. And “experience” is the operative word. It’s not just a visual feast. It’s a mélange of tastes, scents, and sounds.
I visit on a hot August afternoon. When I approach the entrance on Observer Highway, a guy walking his dog asks me if I know anything about the gallery. “Not yet,” I say, “but I’m about to find out.”
The door is ajar and a calico cat greets me. I’m afraid she’ll escape into the dangerous rush-hour traffic, just yards away. But she stays in her dark, cool comfort zone. Issa materializes behind her, extending a hand. When I tell him about the dog walker, he rushes outside, but the man has gone. I would soon learn that an expansive, welcoming aura surrounds Issa, his gallery, and his work.
There’s a bus stop right outside the gallery. When it rains, he often invites folks who are waiting for the bus to take refuge in his gallery. “I like to make people happy,” he says.
Issa’s home country is Senegal, and he’s lived in the south of France. He speaks English with lovely French inflections. Tall and slender, he’s dressed entirely in black, a “cowboy hat” on his head and Keds on his feet. Bracelets jangle on one slender wrist. We try to figure out how tall he is, mangling English, French, meters, and feet, and wisely give up.
He offers me tea, coffee, or water. He looks so disappointed when I decline that I finally accept a glass of water, which he delivers in a Mason jar from a water cooler, nearly hidden amid the odds and ends. He makes an espresso for himself. Hold that thought. Coffee will make an important appearance later in the story.

Everywhere You Look

Where to begin? You pan the room but don’t know where to let your eyes rest. The space is filled with African statues, masks, and art, acrylic paintings on canvas and pen on paper, framed and unframed work, on the walls and looping from the ceiling. Antiques and art share space with hand weights and a bike, intriguingly carved furniture, clocks, musical instruments, and rugs atop a hand-painted floor.
At first it may seem like a jumble, but you suspect that an intelligent design is behind it all. Pods with coffee tables and cozy chairs and sofas are placed around the room for small groups to chat about the art, music, and poetry that regularly fill the space.
Issa hosts weekend events with bands, musicians, poetry readings, and art exhibits. He encourages every nationality to participate, ticking off French, African, African-American, and American. “A mélange,” he says. Guests may bring food, beer, and wine, but no hard liquor. It’s fine to get drunk on culture but not on booze. “My customers are friends now,” he says.
On this day a Senegalese musician named Youssou N’Dour is playing on a huge screen in the band area where bongo drums look like they’re just waiting to be played. A percussionist, songwriter, composer, actor, businessman, and politician, N’Dour was described by Rolling Stone as “perhaps the most famous singer alive in Senegal and much of Africa.”
That most Americans have never heard of him is important to Issa’s inclusive worldview. He wants his American friends to learn about Senegal and has planned to take a few of them on a tour of his home country. He also loves American country music and says, “When you grow up in Africa, you grow up with the world.”
Issa doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with English, though he speaks it very well. “I learned it from people here in four years,” he says.
He laces his speech with Issa-patented philosophies, such as “When you see a beautiful woman, you see only her; it’s the same thing with art.” He often ends such musings with the French, “alors.”

The Artist’s Art

Issa admits to never going to museums, but when a friend from Senegal visits, they plan to take in a few in New York. His own paintings feature fish, “the beginning of life,” he says, shards of glass or mirrors—and women. “Women,” he says, “should be part of any important decision in the hope that it will help us to achieve world peace.”
Issa doesn’t throw away anything. In fact, just the opposite. “I love to walk around Hoboken and find garbage,” he says. His “garbage” is often something beautiful like a telephone box, a lamp, or a clock. He saves plastic to use in his paintings. “It also saves the planet,” he says. I spotted a paint scraper and real dreadlocks incorporated in his work.
Scents play a part in the Issyra experience. The aroma of natural lavender incense fills the space. “I want to experiment with every oil in the world,” he says.
There is so much exquisite debris that you might miss something really interesting—like the Senegalese fishing boat, carved from a tree and hand painted. It’s now covered with stuff, but when Issa does some rearranging, he hopes to pull it out, cover it, and use it as a table. Or maybe hang it from the ceiling.

A Drawing to Go

I choose one of the comfy couches, so that we can sit down and chat. Issa is very intuitive. He can tell that I would prefer the quiet of the gallery to the rattling of the air conditioner and turns it off.
He also intuits that my question about price—larger paintings might cost $3,000—is a kind of wistful longing to own one.
“I will make you a drawing,” he says, reaching for pen and paper.
“Now?” I ask.
He makes a whimsical drawing. And here’s where that little cup of espresso comes in. He pours the dregs over the image to give it an “organic color.” He runs to the back to dry it in the sun and then frames it while I wait.
As Issa says, “I like to make people happy.”—07030


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