A Mexican immigrant and maintenance worker, Jose Angel taught himself how to carve wood 20 years ago on the streets of Aguascalientes. He honed his technique, however, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Degraw.
When the weather is nice, Angel, 49, is a fixture in Park Slope along Fifth Avenue, drawing intrigued looks from passersby as he chips away at chunks of dried wood he collects in Prospect Park.
When on break from his job at , Angel perches on a stool on the corner and creates intricate pieces of art based on religious icons and mythological creatures out of spare wood, aluminum, stone and clay. One of his most impressive and most recent pieces is of a woman in a backbend shooting a bow and arrow with her feet.
Angel, who dropped out of school in Mexico in the sixth grade, taught himself how to carve from books and then by trial and error. He first started experimenting with art almost two decades ago. Carving was a first step toward creating a more positive life for himself after battling for years with drugs and alcohol. Art became a happy distraction for Angel, and these days, he takes solace in transforming ordinary objects into art.
"When I was living in Mexico I was an alcoholic and at that time I didn't have anything to do except drinking and smoking," said Angel.
Then, one day he picked up a spare door hinge lying around his uncle's aluminum and glass shop and started to shape it into the profile of Jesus Christ. He branched out into wood and stone from there.
"At first I didn't do anything great," Angel said. "In my carvings, one ear was bigger than the other, a nose was twisted."
But he kept at it, and improved. Recent works parallel art seen at any Manhattan or Brooklyn gallery. Over the years, Angel has created more than 50 original pieces that now fill his Sunset Park apartment.
Each piece takes a few months to a few years to complete. One intricate carving features a Siren hanging onto a dolphin's tail; in another, an angel rescues a drug addict. Angel reinterprets the Statute of Liberty in another piece: Angel's Lady Liberty holds a shovel and a hammer and has no mouth. Angel said the piece is a nod to undocumented immigrants, who are often "enslaved and have no voice."
"I don't make plans to see what I'm going to do," Angel said. "I see a piece of wood and it talks to me, then I pick it up and start carving. I like to do things differently, things that aren't copies of other sculptures, pieces that are my own art."
In addition to his unofficial post outside Arecibo, Angel also sets up shop on a bench near Garfield Street and Prospect Park when it's nice outside.
"It's very interesting because I've been sitting on the same bench for the last five years," he said. "People ask me what I'm doing, why I'm carving that. The answer is, nobody taught me how to carve; it's just my talent."
Since he's moved to Brooklyn, Angel has had one of his carvings in an art show at , a small artist-run collective on Sixth Avenue and 10th Street. He's thinking about trying to get his work into more shows and even to sell his art, though showing and selling was not his original intent.
"I just feel glad that I found my talent," said Angel.