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Couple Finds The Ideal Balance In Love And Art
By NANCY CHAPMAN, CORRESPONDENT
2 October 2003
They share a studio, a last name, a career, and a lifetime. In many ways, Al and Isadora De La Vega have it all.
Married since 1965, this creative couple, originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., makes a living with their talents -- he pounds copper into whimsical figures and contemporary abstract sculptures, while she crafts copper and bronze into jewelry, sometimes doing a bit of pounding herself. They travel the Florida art show circuit together, where her talkative personality and his quick wit have contributed to their success.
It doesn't hurt that their work is quite good, and they have a wall full of ribbons to prove it.
Their work is shown in galleries in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and, soon, Massachusetts, along with the Lemon Tree Gallery on West Dearborn Street.
"We're married all this time -- and we work together, isn't that scary?" said Isadora.
It's a union that started in music class at Eastern District High School in Brooklyn.
"I was a junior and he was a senior. I was playing third clarinet; he was first clarinet. And he turned around and said I played very badly. He literally said that to me. That was pretty bold. But then he goes, 'but I'll teach you if you want.' That was his line."
The relationship developed quickly, to the point that her parents tried to break them up.
"My parents sent me away for a year to get me away from him. Typical Latin American parents. They sent me to Puerto Rico. And then he went after me. He went there twice while I was there."
When she returned they made plans to marry, and she prudently waited until she was 18 for the nuptials.
Though finding their life partners was relatively easy for them, the path to creative fulfillment was circuitous.
Al gave up being a musician to become a police officer in Brooklyn. Isadora was a full-time mother to their three children.
Part of Al's motivation was financial: Police work offered stable employment and benefits. But he had other reasons, inspired by the environment in which he grew up.
"There were a lot of gangs in the neighborhood," he said. "One gang would fight another gang. Then the police came, and they were the winners. They were sort of like a winning team. So I wanted to join on the winning team."
He also wanted to "fix the world," and his gung-ho spirit led to a distinguished career with the New York City police department, one that came to an abrupt halt after 15 years when he was shot in the line of duty in 1983.
"Believe it or not, I was glad," said Isadora, "because I knew it was over."
Al De La Vega received a Medal of Valor. "At the time, he was the highest decorated officer on the police force," said Isadora. His other medals included the Combat Cross, Medal of Merit, and Medal of Excellence.
The retired police officer opened a Mayflower Van lines franchise, a move that eventually led to their creative careers.
"I was working lots of hours," he said. "Isadora was always home waiting."
When their youngest child turned 6, a friend suggested that Isadora try something in the arts. She turned to jewelry making and exhibited her work at shows in New York City and Long Island. Naturally, she needed a mirror for people to use when trying out the jewelry.
"They kept breaking," he said, "so she brought them home and said, 'Can you make something that won't break?' I thought, 'Maybe if I make a mirror with a little edge around it, a little frame, it won't break.' So I made one out of copper."
After the next show, "she said it worked good, but she said she had one problem: 'I sold it.'"
He made two more -- and at the next show they sold as well.
"That was the birth of me also branching out into the art field," he said. "She sent me to school to learn metalsmithing."
Although they both have some training, much of their technique is self-taught.
"We learned to do jewelry in school. We never learned to do sculptures. We're self-taught in the patina area," she said, referring to the process of coloring the metal. "There's no form of training for that."
Although Al is still known for his mirrors, he's at home making light-hearted figures.
"He does whimsical characters," she said, "because he has a whimsical personality."
His whimsy extends to fanciful sea creatures.
Isadora also has repeating themes.
"The 'sombrero' is one of my signature pieces, which is always out there. I usually like doing that one because that was my first design that I came up with."
The sombrero design is a circular piece of metal with a bulge hammered in the middle. It's the foundation for many of her designs, but she also works with crystals,rocks, and stones.
"There's an earthiness and grounding that you get working with rocks and stone that you don't get with working with gold and silver," she said.
Assembling the pieces is intuitive.
"It's really by feel," she said. "I don't have a set pattern."
She feels that being self-taught has allowed her to create non- traditional jewelry.
"My work is varied and defies categorization," she said.
Although they do different things, sometimes they pair their objects.
"We incorporate a lot into each other's work," she said. Her jewelry adorns some of his figures -- paired permanently, as they are.
Years later, he has yet to fulfill that initial promise. "I'm still not able to play the clarinet," she said.