‘Mosaic Man’ is getting back into pole position

Jim Power fixing up the grout on one of his seven mosaic-tile lampposts that will be returned to the Astor Place / Cooper Square area as sculptural pieces. None of them will have lights. Photos by Tequila Minsky

BY MICHAEL OSSORGUINE | Thanks to a concerted community effort, local artist Jim Power a.k.a. the “Mosaic Man” is restoring his Mosaic Trail installation at Astor Place and Cooper Square to its former glory — yet not without reservations due to what he feels is unfair pay.

Since their initial construction, which began in 1985, the colorful light poles have taken a beating from the weather, with many tiles falling off at the base and near the top. The advocacy groups the Village Alliance business improvement district, City Lore and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation successfully lobbied to have the sculptures’ restoration added to the agenda for the city Department of Design and Construction’s $16 million reconstruction plan for Astor Place and Cooper Square. The overall project includes new pedestrian plazas, the closing of a block of Astor Place and the return of the renovated iconic “Alamo” sculpture — more familiarly known as “The Cube.”

Power is now refurbishing his poles — which will be unpowered, without lights — in donated space at the Sixth St. Community Center, at 638 E. Sixth St., and aspires to complete the project by September, albeit reluctantly.

“We’re working without a payroll. I can’t do it anymore,” said Power, 68. “Nine thousand dollars for four month’s work between two people? I don’t know if that’s $5 an hour.” (It would, in fact, come out to about $8 an hour, if they work on the project full time five days per week.)

Jim Power, with Julie Powell, one of his collaborators, says putting the required steel caps on top of the poles is one of the hardest parts of the job. The caps are needed to keep rainwater and anything else from building up inside the poles.

Julie Powell, one of Power’s collaborators on the project, noted that it is “the hardest work she has ever done,” taking up hours of time in the hot outdoor space next to the Community Center. However, both artists predict that they will be able to complete the seven poles by the deadline.

One complication that is prolonging the process is the steel caps that the poles are getting, designed to protect them from rain. The yellow crown-like pieces are welded to the tops of the poles and also bolted in. Power said that this process is much harder than it looks, and time-intensive due to the lack of equipment and space to allow for greater mobility and flexibility for the poles. He often finds himself needing multiple assistants, but has insufficient funds to pay them.

Power is being paid the aforementioned sum by the Village Alliance for his work, but says he needs something closer to $40,000. Power believes that if the Village Alliance called the City Council about it, the city would be amenable to his request for more funding. At the very minimum, he wants $30 per hour for three people. (For its part, the Village Alliance says it is paying Power on a pole-by-pole basis, as he completes them.)

The famed street artist needs assistant workers with him, since he has been putting off hip-replacement surgery for years. He says his hips hurt him every day, and that it sometimes prevents him from lifting the heavy metal poles. In addition, the sheer amount of work, coupled with time constraints make some extra hands necessary.

Power and Powell will be meeting with G.V.S.H.P., City Lore and the BID to address these issues and discuss creating a $3,600 payroll for the remainder of the project. The organizers hope to persuade local businesses that have been around for more than 30 years into donating. A few mentioned prospects are Astor Wines or the Kiehl’s skincare and cosmetics store.

In addition, Power is creating intricate belt buckles that he plans to sell for $100 apiece online to fund the project.

“Mosaic Man” fans can help Power better finance his light-pole project by purchasing one of his hand-decorated custom belt buckles online. Only $100!

The Village Alliance is also launching a crowdfunding campaign on the platform generosity.com by Indiegogo to supplement Power’s pay and cover miscellaneous expenses, like bonding agents, transportation and tiles. William Kelley, director of the Village Alliance, and Powell provided the URL to this Web site, which is now live.

“There are a lot of people who love the poles, love the project, and want to help out in every way they can,” Kelley said.

The poles were being stored in a city Department of Transportation lot in Sunnyside, Queens. Recognizing that Power would be unable to travel there every day, Harry Bubbins from G.V.S.H.P. and Kelley put out the word in the East Village and Greenwich Village that a space was needed. Thankfully, the Sixth Street Community Center opened its doors, and the BID brought over the poles on flatbed carts, using rented vans and and “boom trucks” — trucks with a pneumatic crane on them.

“The folks at the Sixth Street Community Center have been absolutely incredible,” Kelley said.

Getting there: In the pole renovation zone at the Sixth Street Community Center in the East Village.

At first, D.D.C. attempted to bypass Power altogether by repairing the mosaics independently of him, but Power would not let that happen.

“They tried to hire someone to patch my work,” Power fumed. “This is not tile work. It’s completely different.”

He noted that his work is far more complex, since the poles aren’t decorated with normal ceramic square tiling organized in neat rows and columns. Rather, he uses a wide variety of shapes, sizes and materials for his tiling, which can be organized in any pattern he sees fit. Power uses top-notch bonding agents, such as Rockite cement, to ensure the mosaics can endure the elements. He said that ensuring his grout does not turn to jelly outdoors is another time-consuming, multistep process.

The poles themselves are often a nod to impactful people, countries and other landmarks. One of them, for example, is dedicated to monumental leaders that have spoken at the Great Hall of The Cooper Union. The East Village pulpit for great thinkers of the ages has hosted Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Clinton, Obama and more. The hall has also been a gathering place for movements that shook American political discourse, such as women’s suffrage and civil rights. Power intended to demonstrate this historic legacy in his light pole mosaic that stood outside the hall, and which he is now restoring to return there.

Power was very proud to say that Obama has twice touched his mosaics while speaking at The Cooper Union.

Another pole is a directional piece that points tourists towards New York neighborhoods and landmarks, such as Chinatown, the High Line and the 9/11 Memorial. This pole, in fact, has already been reinstalled, but is wrapped up until further notice.

Steal your face! Some mosaic medallions that will go on the poles.

Often, there will be a small portion of a mosaic that is dedicated to a specific person of interest, such as Michael Malloy, the “Rasputin of the Bronx.” Malloy was a homeless Irishman who survived a multitude of attempts on his life by a group of five acquaintances who were plotting to commit life insurance fraud. Among the methods of murder were poisoned oysters, death by antifreeze substituted for alcohol and a hypothermic death caused by being dumped in the snow. Malloy was eventually killed, but lives on on a side of one of the poles’ bases.

According to Power, he started his Mosaic Trail in 1985, and at some point literally printed a fake permit to allow himself to continue constructing them. This is the first time that his mosaics have actually been acknowledged in a city construction project.

“When the cops would come around to check the poles for the Ninth Precinct, I would be working on the other side of the street, the Sixth Precinct,” Power remembered with a chuckle.

Power said that three of the poles “mysteriously disappeared,” and that 50 others have been torn down over the years. The actual number of poles that were on the original Mosaic Trail remains foggy in many people’s memories.

The plan is to put the poles back as near as possible to their former locations

Regardless of the actual number, Power said that those in charge of this project are understating the value and significance of his street art to Downtown Manhattan.

“Do you know how much business is going to come into New York City in the next 30 years because of my work?” he asked exasperatedly.

While the creator may be a bit unhappy with how this restoration is panning out, G.V.S.H.P. is delighted to see that the project is making some progress, and is happy that a crowdfunding project is on the way.

“To see the lasting legacy of Mr. Power still continuing to evolve is a sign that the cultural importance and gravity of the Village has not been subsumed by the out-of-scale and out-of-context cookie-cutter development that has been pervasive in a lot of the city,” Bubbins said.

However, despite support from activist groups, Power won’t take gratitude and praise as payment. He says he has sacrificed $2 million over the years to work on his poles.

“I could be in working in Vegas making five grand a day — now that hurts,” Power noted.

Jim Power is putting on a happy face here, but he indignantly says he needs more funding in order to do the light pole-restoration work the right way and on time.

For now, Power is devoting all of his time to this project, and says completing the project by September calls for nonstop labor. Despite his frustrations, he is determined that his historic creation can once again grace the streets around The Cooper Union for decades to come.

According to organizers, currently the best way for supporters of the project to donate money is through the 501(c)(3) nonprofit City Lore, which can be contacted at citylore@citylore.org. A PayPal account is also set up, according to Power, who can be reached at nycjimpower@aol.com.