One Night Standard

One Night in Little Havana with Artist Jim Drain

Calle Ocho, the main thoroughfare in Little Havana, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood just few miles west of Miami’s bustling downtown, has it’s own “Walk of Fame.” It’s a Latin American riff on the Hollywood version, celebrating icons such as Gloria Estefan, Celia Cruz, and even Pitbull.

It was here, on a recent evening in February that The Standard met up with multidisciplinary artist Jim Drain. Drain spent the better part of a decade living in Miami before moving to a farm in Rhode Island last year. He still visits regularly though and we caught him as he was escaping the hellacious Northeast winter.

While Miami underwent a major transformation during Drain’s time here, Little Havana has maintained its historical charm. More upscale establishments have made their way into the neighborhood, but it’s still very much a place where the city shows its true colors: men playing dominos in the park during the day, couples dancing the night away at the Latin dance clubs, and foodies eating at all hours of the day.

We decide stroll down Calle Ocho and grab a bite to eat. Born in Cleveland to working class parents, Drain has the looks and demeanor of a Midwestern blue collar worker. He is a gringo in the truest sense and it’s impossible for him not to stick out in this Cuban community where Spanish is the preferred (and often times only) language. Drain is reluctantly cosmopolitan, a prolific artist who has lived on both coasts (and a few places in-between) and has shown at prestigious museums like the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney.

We stop at Yambo, a 24-hour Nicaraguan eatery just off of Calle Ocho. Yambo attracts a colorful cast of characters, and within minutes of our arrival, a street hustler enters and tries to sell Drain a bottle of knockoff cologne, which he politely declines. Moments later, a large group of mariachi players dressed in black suits sits next to our table and talk amongst themselves in Spanish about the places they played that evening.

Tchotchkes adorn every surface of the interior, a perfect backdrop for conversation with an artist whose work takes many unconventional forms. Drain takes in the unusual decorations and furnishings of the restaurant, which include an elephant wrapped in dollar bills and carved wooden stools in the form of a horse’s ass. Soon we’re eating carne asada, taquitos, and yuca while guzzling down beers and talking about Drain’s path as an artist.

Of all the cities where Drain has lived, perhaps Providence, RI is the one that had the strongest impact on his present-day vocation. It was there that Drain honed his craft, studying painting and sculpture at RISD, and later expanding into nearly every medium imaginable. His work is often colorful and cheeky while embracing the physicality of the materials. He’s created everything from colorblock bollards at Port Miami to sweaters for Opening Ceremony and he’s one of those artists whose practice seems boundless.

After graduating from RISD, Drain moved to Los Angeles, where he practiced for a few years before realizing it wasn’t for him. The city has long attracted major talents like Ed Ruscha and David Hockney, but had yet to establish itself as a major arts presence.

“It [LA] is so saturated with galleries and museum stuff now, but back then it was really just getting to that point...much like Miami now.”

Drain came to Miami in 2005 to be with his then-girlfriend Naomi Fisher, an acclaimed local artist and founder of the alternative art space Bas Fisher Invitational. He quickly became entrenched in the local arts community and moved his studio into the Design District where developer Craig Robins was lending out empty spaces to the city’s rising young talents.

At the time, Miami’s arts scene was beginning to thrive and Art Basel was bringing the city to global attention. But it was still very much in a growth phase with many now-established neighborhoods still being developed and much of Miami’s now-iconic skyline under construction.

“Living here in 2005, it was both this international global destination and also a really small town.”

That small-town sensibility was especially true in the arts community and it allowed Drain’s career to thrive. He found supporters through prominent collectors such Robins and the de la Cruzes, received major public art commissions, and showed prominently at respected institutions like Locust Projects.

Wrapping up dinner, we head to Ball & Chain, a historic speakeasy that hosted performances by the likes of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong back in the day, for mojitos (Drain’s drink of choice). Ironically, it’s karaoke night and amateur crooners take their turns on the stage of the bar’s outdoor bandshell where the aforementioned legends once played. We didn’t hear any future stars on the stage, but we did encounter a very drunken rendition of “I Want It That Way” sung in a thick Miami accent.

Drain reflected on his time in the city.

“I feel at this point that I really relate to Latin culture. It sounds weird to say but I feel like I understand the world a little differently after living here.”

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