Planet Paul

Planet Teaneck in New JerseyHarlem-based artist Paul Deo will be at Harvard Oct. 25 in the first of a series of visits to develop a public mural about community life at Harvard, in Allston and in augmented reality. 

By Samantha Neville '19

One of my favorite things about Tucson, Arizona, where I grew up, is the murals. Some of the best ones sprung up as soon as I left for college. There’s a mural of a lady wearing a cactus like a crown. There’s a mural of Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo dancing. It’s one thing I miss around Harvard. Color besides brick red. So I was excited to learn about the mural Paul Deo will put up near the Harvard Ed Portal in collaboration with the Office for the Arts Learning from Performers program, the Ed Portal, Harvard students and community members in Cambridge and Allston.

On October 25, Deo will offer a public talk at the Leverett House Library Theater called: A conversation and visual journey with muralist Paul Deo. He will work with community members and students over Wintersession to develop the mural that will be

Paul Deo
Paul Deo
completed in April near the Ed Portal in Allston. He told me about all of this in the poetic rambling voice of a mystic. The collaboration, he said, is exciting.

“I really want to feel that out, a lot more, before coming up with a final design, to see what are some of the things that can take people here, you know, the energy here, to a higher level of belief,” Deo said. “A higher level where people can accelerate, believe in themselves and lessen the belief that they have to be normal.”

His most famous mural is Planet Harlem, a mixed media mural on 21-by-75-foot slab of concrete in Central Harlem. The work is populated with vibrant primary colors and the faces of black luminaries, such as Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali and Maya Angelou. Characters are flying and dancing and shooting into space and peering out of windows. This isn’t his only mural, though.  He has a mural in New Orleans called House of the Rising Sun made partly with fiberglass, another one called Seasonal Bliss commissioned by Walt Disney Company and, as part of his signature series, Planet Teaneck in New Jersey.

I stumbled across a video of a Harlem resident responding to Planet Harlem. She said that the mural would help people see what they had inside them, what their culture was made of and appreciate it. The mural, she suggested, might help future generations aspire to more.

Deo’s first art teacher was his aunt Auressa Moore. She was a hippie artist and a student at the School of Visual Arts. She was also schizophrenic and painted on walls. During the summer, Aunt Auressa would take Deo to the Apollo Theater, and he would stay all day, sometimes watching several shows in succession. Many famous artists came through the Apollo Theater, including James Brown, Aretha Franklin and The Jackson Five. Cher kissed Deo on the cheek when she came through. 

“Apollo was like my church, it was like heaven, it was like I’m going there, in my mind, I would forget about everything, all kinds of problems, and just get lost, in the high, high energy that was coming across from the music and the sounds, words, just the whole energy, the whole spirit of it,” Deo said.

The Apollo Theater was a large part of his inspiration. The murals near it on 125th street were ones that, as a kid, Deo interpreted as being part of the theater.

Paul Deo
A Paul Deo mural in NYC
“I was kind of embarrassed, growing up, because nobody else was living that way, but now I totally appreciate that I got that much content of pure beautiful soul and spirit, you know, from music and just high energy and a lot of cultural pride and imagination,” Deo said.

Deo won a city-wide New York City art competition at age 6. He also painted gang jackets and sneakers. But he stopped doing art in high school. In college he studied computer science. But this will also come into play in his mural project by the Ed Portal. He wants to enable people to interact with the mural through technology and augmented reality. He explained augmented reality sometimes is as simple as downloading an app and being able to share information through cellphones or goggles.

But he also has a larger mission.

“My big question is: Can art heal?” Deo said. “That’s something I really want to attack. ‘Cause it’s cool. OK, you press on your mobile device and all the crazy images come up and ­– ha ha – that’s really funny and cool. But I want to add more than that. I want to try to uplift people with certain words and imagery and colors and sound. That’s my goal. That’s my dream.”

There is a very strong presence of cosmology in his murals, of space and stars and magic. One of his signature phrases is “Trust your subconscious.”  In his artist statement on his website, he writes: “I create art that evokes the collective, drawing upon ancestral oral tradition as well as threads of modern mythology in order to establish a space for communal dialogue.”

I asked him what he was looking forward to on this project and he said “The chance to explore the furthest dimensions of my imagination.”

More officially, Deo has these credentials: Planet Harlem won first place in a mural design competition. His work has shown up in a PBS mini series and, in 2016, he was artist in residence at the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New Orleans, LA.

His advice to aspiring artists is to trust yourself.

“Love yourself,” Deo said. “Love your visions in your mind. The visions that you had as a little kid. Go after them. Don’t stop it or get embarrassed or anything. Just really go for those ideas, and I think the ancestors and the gods and whoever’s really God in your soul will always look out for you.”