Daniel de Jesús: Making music, art that makes a difference


“We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?”

—Marianne Williamson

Well, this week’s portrait certainly hits all of those marks.

Daniel de Jesús is a multitalented musician and multimedia artist, among other things. He holds a bachelor’s degree in illustration from the University of the Arts and has been in several solo and group exhibitions, including the annual Dialogo 365 survey show in Philadelphia.

De Jesús is also an accomplished cellist, with eight studio recordings of his own music, and performs with orchestras, chamber ensembles, rock bands and Latin ensembles in the region and around the world. His collaborators have included painter and performance artist David Antonio Cruz, singer-songwriter Courtlyn Carr and Rasputina.

De Jesús has released several albums and EPs of his original work, some under the moniker TivaTiva. Contextually, his music translates ideas of mysticism, spirituality and mythic fantasy with influences of pop, classical and rock sensibilities. His work has often been compared to the music of Jeff Buckley, David Bowie, Bjork and Tori Amos.

I went to visit De Jesús at his day job with the Latino cultural-arts group Taller Puertorriqueño in its beautiful new headquarters.

PGN: Tell me about your dad. I understand he was the one who enrolled you in art school.

DDJ: My dad? Well, he’s a very traditional person, on the conservative side. He’s a furniture maker and upholsterer by trade. He was the person who always supported my creative side. He was very big on education and wanted to provide for his family the things that he didn’t have an opportunity to pursue. He’d tried to get a college education but was only able to complete one year. But considering he didn’t speak English, the fact that he got a football scholarship and was able to do even one year was pretty impressive. He’d been in a trade program in high school, so when it came time to start a family he took the knowledge he learned in shop class and built a career from it. After a while, he said it really transformed him and he now works in the prison system teaching upholstery to inmates.

PGN: Wow, an interesting guy.

DDJ: Really interesting. He always has a super-positive attitude and he’s the best example of selflessness I know. I try to emulate that as much as possible.

PGN: Are you an only child?

DDJ: No, I’m the eldest of three. One brother lives in Chicago and my sister and other brother live with me here.

PGN: What is your mother like?

DDJ: She does insurance brokerage for a living, but she always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. She’s very maternal and nurturing. She’s the type that would grab your face and kiss you when you least expected it, or give you a big bear hug. And she’s the one who worries if you don’t call. I remember I went abroad for the first time when I was 15 and I was having such a good time I forgot to call! [Laughs] She was not happy when she finally got a hold of me. But she loves being a mom, even when we drive her crazy.

PGN: Tell me about yourself.

DDJ: I grew up in the Olney section of Philadelphia. I was always a very creative kid. I just loved making art for as long as I can remember.

PGN: What was the art project that you were most proud to give your mom as a kid?

DDJ: One year for Mother’s Day I painted this large watercolor of a big flower. I was really into Georgia O’Keefe at the time. I had a lot of women art teachers and so I learned a lot about different female artists. I didn’t even realize that the art world was male-dominated; I just assumed most art was done by women because they were the ones I learned about. So I painted this large flower for my mother and she loved it. She hung onto it for a very long time. [Laughs] She might still have it. It’s funny, my siblings and I sort of compete each year to give her the best gifts. A few years ago, I let my siblings give their gifts — lovely jewelry or something — and then I revealed a portrait of the family dog I’d painted. By the way my mom was squealing, everyone knew I’d won hands-down.

PGN: Winning! When did you get involved in music?

DDJ: I had begged my parents for music lessons since the fourth grade. I went to a school not far from here but the music class was pretty much just general ed. They didn’t have a choir or an orchestra, they just didn’t have the resources for it. I really wanted to play the flute or clarinet, but we just didn’t have the money for lessons. Then one year, one of the teachers offered to teach string instruments. For some reason in my sixth-grade mind, I thought that a cello was the instrument that boys played because it was more manly than a violin. There was a place called Zapf’s Music Store and they had cheap rentals, which my parents said were within the budget. I started taking lessons and I’ve never looked back. Later I really got inspired by a film I saw about Jacqueline DuPré, which just blew my mind. I was like, Wait, you can do all that with a cello?

PGN: And art?

DDJ: Kind of the same thing. The art program at my school wasn’t very good either. It was a sort of missionary school and the art teacher was the pastor’s wife. So my father got me into an art school called The Painters Nest, a program that allowed me to learn.

PGN: Do you think of yourself as more of a fine artist or musician?

DDJ: Music and arts always just lived together in my world. Recently I’ve been doing animation, which really combines the two, playing live with images of my artwork projected behind me. I just performed at a gala at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City and that’s what I presented. It actually goes even further when I add in the costuming and drag make-up, which makes it almost performance art. I try to think of each performance as a fine art, which is why I tend to perform more in museums and galleries than in concert halls. In fact, I have a performance coming up at Moore College of Art.

PGN: How is your music classified?

DDJ: [Laughs] I’ve been described as neoclassical goth, progressive pop; one site even described me as contemporary folk. I’d describe it as cello-driven pop. Thematically, I delve into mysticism and spirituality. Sonically, it can be ethereal, especially as I’m adding more of an electronic component, kind of in the realm of Kate Bush or Jeff Buckley, though I tend to borrow a lot from classical motifs. It’s centered around very cellistic ideas; you know, basso-continuo motifs as well as a lot of baroque sound, but then you add other elements and it erases the baroque feeling in the full piece. But if you were to pull it apart, you could say, “Oh, that sounds like a basso part from Vivaldi, or a Bach melody.”

PGN: I noticed that both in your artwork and in your stage persona, you really embrace the feminine side of things.

DDJ: I really feel in many ways that my work is an energy outside of myself and I’m very much like a vessel. It’s hard to explain but I think other artists get it. It’s like the ideas speak to you and I’ve always loved and been in touch with the feminine; I find it very powerful. The fact that strong women were always part of my education is a big influence. I also have always been attracted to Romanticism; for instance, the Pre-Raphaelites always had beautiful women as muses but of course behind the scenes the women weren’t treated well, same thing with the Surrealists. In my work, I’m a disciple of beauty, but not in the traditional plastic sense, more in the vein of finding beauty in the unusual and finding its potential and power. I’ve also always been drawn to androgyny and duality.

PGN: Since you went to a religious school, was there much homophobia and, if so, when you got inklings about yourself, how did you deal with them?

DDJ: I think, like a lot of other people who are brought up in religious households where you’re told that it’s a phase or just a lifestyle choice, I found that I had to protect myself. As I began to realize that I was gay, it was a nightmare come true because you’re sitting in a church pulpit listening to people demonize gay people and saying that it’s a lifestyle choice. Even now, I’ve had to do a lot of soul searching and research. I learned about the horrors of conversion therapy and had to say, ‘Fuck that!” But I was vulnerable because I knew if I’d told my parents in high school that I was gay, they would have sent me to conversion therapy. And they wouldn’t have done it out of malice; it would have been out of love, however displaced. Like a lot of gay men who are on the feminine side in that kind of environment, you do everything in your power to suppress it.

PGN: It’s interesting that they were so supportive of you in the arts since that’s usually considered unmanly territory for boys.

DDJ: I think they came from that school of thought that, as long as you’re not committing the sin, not engaging in the “lifestyle,” it’s OK. And that by supporting me and showing me love, they were helping keep me from entering that life, helping save me. It’s a misunderstood mentality, but they meant well. It’s a subject that’s surfaced in my more-recent work — the experience of repression and the windows it closes as well as the windows that later open, giving you the opportunity to see the world in a different way.

PGN: And now you’re giving opportunities to others. What are your responsibilities for your job?

DDJ: I am the Youth Artist Program manager and I also do outreach support, assisting with tours and developing and holding workshops. I also do a lot of in-house graphic design, catalogues, our postcards and brochures, etc.

PGN: Let’s do some random questions. Something people may find odd?

DDJ: I always name my instruments. My cellos are Jaqueline and Arthur, and my violin is Ana Sofia.

PGN: Who would you trust to cut your hair (not a barber)?

DDJ: Oh boy, that’s a delicate one! My sister, I’d trust her not to cut too much.

PGN: Best birthday?

DDJ: Last year. I turned 34 and I had my record-release party at Fleisher Art [Memorial]. I performed and then had a party afterwards. My mother came and brought a beautiful cake with musical notes on the side and a beautiful cello on the top. It was cool.

PGN: You have many skills. What’s something you don’t do well?

DDJ: Cooking, I’m terrible. I once set the kitchen on fire.

PGN: Any pets?

DDJ: Three dogs: Olivia, April and Nanette. They’re the family pets so I only get to see them when I go to my parents’ and then I get showered with doggie kisses.

PGN: Favorite LGBT movie?

DDJ: “Paris is Burning.” That movie changed my life. It was the first time I saw people of color like that. It wasn’t just about the ball scene, but also about being a POC and gay in America.

PGN: Last time we spoke, you were in Puerto Rico. Do you have family there and are they OK?

DDJ: Yes, we have been able to contact some folks, but I think they’ve been downplaying the situation because they don’t want us to worry. My cousins will just say that they’re doing fine, but I know the situation is not good. The family here is coordinating to send a care package directly to them and I’ve made donations. Puerto Rico was already a delicate and vulnerable place and to get hit by Maria was the straw to break the camel’s back. It’s taken a hurricane to get people to see the situation: Now hopefully this will have a bright side in helping rebuild the infrastructure, removing the Jones Act, etc. Puerto Rico is a place with a lot of pride, where neighbors help neighbors.

PGN: You can see that with Carmen Cruz, the mayor of San Juan.

DDJ: I love her so much! What a powerhouse! I want her to be the next governor. She’s in the mud and the trenches. That woman is a beast!

PGN: You should do a series of paintings on her!

For more information about Daniel de Jesús, visit http://www.celloeye.com.

To suggest a community member for Family Portrait, email [email protected].