Alumni Michael Aghahowa and Nygel Jones Highlighted in WBUR’s “The Makers”

September 23, 2022


Michael Aghahowa working in his studio in Lynn. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Makers is WBUR’s annual profile of 15 different artists of color making an impact across Massachusetts. Over 140 artists were nominated, the fifteen ultimately selected were chosen because they “have reached a point in their practice where they’re not only making waves, they’re elevating all of those around them.”

Among those 15 are two Montserrat alumni, Michael Aghahowa (‘16) and Nygel Jones (‘15). WBUR’s interviews with each alumnus is excerpted below. The whole list of amazing artists can be found on WBUR’s website. A celebration honoring all 15 of the Makers will be held this Thursday, September 22nd, at WBUR CitySpace in Boston. More details can be found here.

Michael Aghahowa

Michael Aghahowa’s art can be seen across Lynn — the community he loves — on walls and album covers, in bold colors that move and make a statement.

Outside Ernie’s Harvest Time last summer, he created a scene of abundance, outstretched hands that pass fruit like mangos and pineapples to other open palms. As he painted, families dipped their own fingers in paint, covering a nearby wall with hundreds of multicolored handprints.

“You could see in my old work, I was afraid of painting hands, like getting into the details,” he says. “It was a challenge… I told myself if I could do that, then I could paint anything.”

Aghahowa’s love of art started young. He remembers diligently trying to craft a lemon tree out of construction paper in kindergarten. Every time he had an art project at school, his mom helped. His skills grew, moving into illustration and then painting, eventually attending Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, where he graduated with his BFA as a first-generation college student. For his mother’s 50th birthday, Aghahowa presented her with a portrait of herself aglow in yellow. It made her cry happy tears.

“She was like, ‘when did you get that good?’ She’s seen the whole process,” he says.

When he started painting, he responded to the way it required him to use his whole body to make one mark. This is one of Aghahowa’s favorite aspects of painting. The ability to make a mistake and find beauty in the flaw.

“You can make a mark and then completely cover it up or wipe it away,” he says. “And then sometimes even that wiping away of the mark… does something beautiful and something that you wouldn’t expect.”

The 28-year-old now experiments with the form, recently using a mirror to refract sunlight off his subjects in a series called “Parts to a Whole.” He adds dimension with charcoal, scrap paper and molding paste. It’s hard to tell where his subject ends and the light begins. It’s meant as a reminder: no people are a monolith.

In his painting called “The Numbers Game,” he portrays a group of almost god-like beings placing bets at a table in what resembles an ocean while sharks swim around them.

“The poker chip is symbolic, not gambling to make a profit, but gambling on each other,” he says. “Like starting a business and hiring each other and uplifting each other out of these situations.”

On a recent afternoon inside his Lynn studio, he mixes paint to finish a scene of a funeral procession. Purple and blue hues capture those in mourning, the pallbearers’ skin the color of dusk. There’s been a lot of loss over the last few years.

“My family’s always been like a big inspiration in paintings, but I think lately the death aspect has been on my mind a lot,” he says. “There’s something really beautiful about seeing my whole family come together in a time of pain… even after the funeral, there’s gathering. Someone might throw a cookout, and then people will show up, and it’s just a good time to share memories.”

One of Aghahowa’s first paintings was inspired by a moment in time when he was 4 years old. His family pulls him along in a wagon as they march through the street following the death of his cousin in police custody.

“You guys know the triceratops, right?… I remember being excited about learning that they protect their young by forming a circle around them,” he says. “The kids are in the middle. So I really want it to sort of have that same thing here. Like we’re protected here.”

A soon-to-be father, Aghahowa can’t wait to bring his little one to the studio, to sit together and mix paint and introduce her to a paintbrush.

Nygel Jones

Artist Nygel Jones pins a frame together in his workshop. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Nygel Jones admits he was a little directionless after graduating from Montserrat College of Art. He got a job at a custom sign and logo company in Boston’s Seaport, and worked on paintings at home. But he remained uninspired. Then one day he watched one of his coworkers use a tool called a T bevel, which carpenters use to lay out angles. It’s a simple device, but “the lightbulb clicked,” says Jones. He realized it was possible to build an object that is typically rectangular – like, for example, a picture frame – with sharp, unexpected corners.

So Jones began to build decidedly non-rectangular canvases out of scrap wood in his basement workshop in Roxbury. On them, he painted otherworldly landscapes, sci-fi vistas in orange and pink. And for each painting, he hand-crafted a picture frame that perfectly fit each zig-zagging contour of the image inside. The effect of these early works is like glimpsing an alternate dimension through a jagged rip in the space-time continuum.

Over time, the shapes of Jones’ paintings became more and more complex. Then, one day, he had an epiphany. “Instead of making a shape for a painting, make the shape the painting itself,” Jones says.

Now the 29-year-old’s paintings — which sell for thousands of dollars — are more like sculptures, three-dimensional shapes that happen to hang inside picture frames. They are abstract, but familiar — like one shape with spikes that drip like icicles, painted in white and cool blue. It’s wintry, and slightly malevolent, inspired partly by the cold, futuristic look of the sets on “The Empire Strikes Back.” Other shapes are reminiscent of the looping, dynamic forms of graffiti, or the spiky speech bubbles found in comic books.

Making shapes brings Jones back to his boyhood, building with legos and, when he was older, learning to use his father’s power tools. His father worked in construction, so carpentry is “so close and personal,” Jones says. “I feel at home.”

There’s something so satisfying about seeing his oddball shapes finished with such intricate precision, he adds. “To see the end result, looking the way they do, yeah, it never gets old. It’s like ‘Alright, make another one and another one and another one.’”

This year has been a busy one for Jones, who showed his work in multiple exhibitions. He’s brimming with new ideas for his upcoming trip to Miami Art Week in late fall. There is no end, he says, to the shapes he can invent in his mind.