“I got two things in my life, man—I got my wood and stone, and I got Tish,” says the 22-year-old character Alonzo, played by Stephan James, who’s one half of the couple at the heart of the new film If Beale Street Could Talk. Alonzo is talking about his sculptures, which he lovingly crafts in his dingy West Village apartment, and his partner, Tish (played by KiKi Layne).
The film, based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, is first and foremost a story of love in the midst of racism, but it’s also about artistic drive and creativity. Alonzo, known to loved ones as Fonny, is struggling to sculpt himself into something more than a kid from the Harlem ghetto.
His assemblages, sourced from materials he finds in the streets of New York City along with carvings in wood and stone, are collectively one of the stars of the film. Many of the works that appear in Fonny’s studio were made by Peruvian-American sculptor Jorge Vascano, who was one of four real-life artists who contributed works attributed to Fonny in the film.
“I saw myself in Fonny, identified as a creative being,” Vascano told artnet News.
Stephan James trained with local artists to learn to sculpt convincingly for the camera, while the production designer looked for a selection of “open and expressive sculptures that often found Fonny hammering together and chiseling wood, trying to find life in the materials, or create life by juxtaposing them,” according to the Art Directors Guild.
The resulting artist portrait felt convincing to Vascano. “Your work is your safe place; your studio is a temple,” he said. “I think Mr. Jenkins and James Baldwin captured that.”
The film discovered Vascano through his alma mater, the New York Academy of Art, which recommended several artists for the production. The film used three of his existing works as props and also commissioned him to create six new works to populate Fonny’s studio and illustrate the various steps in his creative process.
“They gave me complete freedom to create pieces that looked like they were in the process of being made,” Vascano said. “They had a clear idea of the aesthetics they were looking for.”
Perhaps the work most prominently featured in the film is the sculpture that Fonny gives Tish’s mother, a blonde wood piece with organic-looking curves that straddles the line between abstraction and figuration. The gift is what makes Tish first realize that Fonny is in love with her.
In real life, the work is Vascano’s Blossoming and was similarly inspired by a relationship with a now ex-girlfriend. (Jenkins bought the sculpture after production wrapped.)
“The name was about being in love and opening up to the person. It was a feeling that I had, and I wanted to make it tangible,” Vascano said.
Vascano’s work is joined on screen by that of Fitzhugh Karol, Serban Ionescu, and Valerie Maynard, who was actually a friend of James Baldwin’s. The inspiration for writing Beale Street is said to have come in part by the wrongful imprisonment of Maynard’s brother, Tony Maynard, a young black man who was arrested in Greenwich Village.
Together, the different artists’ work convincingly passes for that of one man whose craft is growing and changing over time. “It was nice to see that collaboration with other artists,” said Vascano, likening the end result to a cohesive group exhibition.
The film, which has already won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for Tish’s mother (Regina King), has also been nominated for three Academy Awards.
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