Emerging from subway tunnels and back alleys, traveling internationally on railways and through the Internet, street art has grown from being a pastime to a full-blown culture gaining respect from not only the underground that spawned it, but from scholars and those on the opposite spectrum, leaving society to think twice about what once was merely considered vandalism. Art, in any form, has always existed as a medium for self expression, and whether that expression is derived from an emotion or simply tells a story, it holds a voice. For many in the graffiti world that voice is unheard and left discarded on the side of abandoned buildings and often considered criminal—hardly art.
But, for at least one, the street widened and avenues opened, shedding light on a voice unlike any other.
Increase the Crease
Having travelled through what seems like two different worlds, one where deciphering an image as a gang warning or creative outlet is what determines whether you come home the way you left or not, and one filled with logos, commercialism and the glitz and glamour of the silver screen where blood pressures are lower, Je’Von Edwards, or J. Edwards, has found a voice among the confusion, controversy and mass of paint and stencils, a voice that is, after a long day of writing, as refreshing as a blank sheet of paper. Or in his case, a newly folded sheet of paper.
Over the past few years, Edwards has been presenting, updating and evolving his “urban origami” series, Paper Matez; a collection of hip-hop, street art-infused origami-based people, friends derived from his personal life, work and the culture that surrounds us all. Most notable is his origami version of Kanye West’s Graduation bear fully equipped with a Louis Vuitton backpack and scarf, West’s signature panel sunglasses and, of course, a pair of origami sneakers.
“The Paper Matez have far better shoes than I [do],” jokes Edwards. “I’m a shoe fanatic. I love sneakers. Kicks are my passion.”
“Paper is Safe”
With his artistic roots already sprouting on the streets, relocating from Compton to Rancho Cucamonga, Edwards began his journey from walls to paper.
“Graffiti art is where it started and it was a lot of trouble growing up,” he says. “My mom used to tell me, ‘Stop writing on walls, you gotta write on paper. Paper is safe—don’t let me catch you writing on nobody’s walls.’ I was at that impressionable age where I could have gone either way and she preferred for me to get a better education so she brought me out this way.
“Just that alone gave me an opportunity to meet other people and have other kinds of people influence me and cultivate what I already enjoyed doing. It was actually in high school where a teacher by the name of Brian Jeffrey saw something else.”
“I was always impressed with his ability to create urban art, what others would call ‘graffiti,’” says Jeffrey, who has maintained a relationship with Edwards for about 18 years. “I remember telling him that he needed to stop tagging walls and to channel his talent for something positive. So, I asked him to start creating fliers for my multicultural club, called STAND (Socially Together And Naturally Diverse). His artwork reflected what kids’ lives were like . . . ”
Daddy Don’t Play With Dolls
From spraying on the streets to painting banners and murals in high school, Edwards’ art evolved.
“I dabbled in origami in college but it was more of pop-up. I was doing large scale pop-ups. I’ve always had a fascination with paper, due to my mom,” says Edwards referring to the “safe” impression of paper his mother gave him as a child. “I had to get into paper because graf art has many people who do it and there are so many dope people at it. I was getting drowned out. No one was hearing my voice so I changed my voice and went to paper.”
And while his art has evolved in college it wasn’t until later that Paper Matez came to life. Still trying to capture the innocence of childhood, Edwards draws inspiration from his daughter.
“I think that Paper Matez taps into the child at heart,” he says. “The child in all of us remembers doing something like that: paper dolls, paper airplanes, folding money into hearts. I have a 6-year-old. When she was four, we were cutting out paper dolls, the traditional ones with the little tabs you pull over. And she was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make our own paper dolls?’ I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa—daddy don’t play with dolls, first and foremost. But yeah, that’s a cool idea.’ From there, I jumped on the computer with a few designs and we came up with our first character, which is really primitive compared to today’s designs of what the Paper Matez characters are. I think he was about maybe four inches tall, real boxy, real primitive . . . ”
Bigger is Better
At a recent exhibit at Eksobition Gallery in Pomona, Edwards’ Paper Matez met a life-size, five-foot mate.
“His skills have progressed a lot these past couple of years,” says DJ Erok, owner of Eksobition Gallery who has known Edwards for over 10 years. “I remember him just doing graphic designs and stencils. Now he’s doing stuff that’s totally blowin‘ people’s minds. He’s a very creative individual.”
But, the addition of a five-foot Paper Mate is just one step forward for Edwards as he continues to display his art in galleries and trade shows with the next stop at Riverside’s very own Division 9.
“I’m trying to go bigger with them and not just do the minis. I wanna go eight feet, six feet,” says Edwards. “[The five-footer] should be available again by the next show at Division 9, but an upgraded version, not the first draft.”
“I have always tried to feature artists who have something new and different to contribute to the art scene. J. Edwards fits that perfectly,” says Cosmé Cordova, director of Division 9. “The work and the music connected to it are nostalgic for people of my generation, reminding us of what we listened to and what we wore as we grew up in the early ’80s. He captures the essence of that era with his work, and yet it will also be interesting to people who did not grow up in that period—the art has universal appeal.”
Having drawn crowds from all walks of life—from toy-loving kids to graffiti and origami artists to teachers—Edwards has big plans for his Paper Matez.
“The opportunities are endless. Some people might look at them as toys, some look at them as crafts or sculptures, some people look at them as advertising and marketing. I want to branch out because street art is branched out way more than I expected when I started.”
This, it seems, is just the beginning.
“Je’Von is a visionary,” says Jeffrey, who now considers Edwards not only a former student but friend and brother as well. “[He is] someone who understands how to interpret the human condition in a fashion that reminds us that peace, love, and harmony can exist within us all, despite the racism, injustice and fear that tries to crush our collective humanity.”
And while some street art is still fighting the battle towards greater acceptance, Edwards will continue to push the envelope of art cutting, folding and gluing, making toys not war.
“Wherever they want to go, I’m going to let my Paper Matez friends run the gauntlet.”
Paper Matez exhibit at Division 9 Gallery South, 3850 Lemon St., Riverside, (951) 682-5990; www.division9gallery.com, www.myspace.com/papermatez. March 4-29.