At the age of twelve, artist Franck de las Mercedes and his family fled their home in Nicaragua. The country had just emerged from a civil war and was in the midst of the rising Contra conflict of the early 1980s. Forced to leave relatives behind, they relocated to the Washington Heights neighborhood in upper Manhattan to start a new life.
Now, some two decades later, de las Mercedes is having to start over once again.
On February 18, a five-alarm fire ripped through the building where the artist lived and worked. “I’m also very lucky to be alive,” de las Mercedes told The Daily Beast. “I was going to ignore the fire.” As his wife, Nicola, was leaving for work, the couple heard a smoke alarm going off. “Go, it’s probably someone cooking,” the 41-year-old artist told his wife. As soon as she exited the building, flames began billowing out of a ground floor apartment where a space heater had been left on.
Thanks to Nicola’s swift action, de las Mercedes and all of his neighbors escaped moments before the entire building was engulfed. All of his belongings were destroyed, along with his entire collection of unsold works except for one—a Fabergé egg.
Two weeks before the December deadline, de las Mercedes stumbled upon the open call for artist submissions to the New York City Fabergé Big Egg Hunt. For the month-long event that began on April 1, 260 artists, designers, and architects, including Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, Julian Schnabel, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and Enoc Perez, are chosen to design large eggs that best reflect their style and aesthetic. The eggs are disbursed throughout the five boroughs and a citywide scavenger hunt ensues. Each egg’s location is unknown until multiple people check in via the custom phone app, when it then goes public.
De las Mercedes decided to submit a proposal. “My concept was ‘Post No Bills’ and growing up in New York City,” de las Mercedes said. “I thought it would be great to do a tribute to the ‘post no bills’ construction sites and how street art and advertisements mesh together. I think it represents New York City so well.” The committee accepted his design, and he shipped the finished egg just days before the fire.
De las Mercedes began to pursue art as his full-time career in 2002 after a series of events left him unemployed. He spent the next four years using materials from the immense resources at the New York City Public Library to teach himself all he needed to know about the art world. Pouring over books on the history, techniques, marketing, and branding of the industry, he particularly focused his study on his personal heroes: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Jackson Pollock.
In order to generate a source of income, de las Mercedes began selling Pop Art-style portraits of celebrities and icons on the popular auction website, eBay. He was surprised when they really took off. From Gary Cooper to Joan Crawford—who was a big hit “no matter how you painted her”—he sold enough works to continue funding his artistic pursuits.
While creating each piece, de las Mercedes would clean his brushes on the white boxes that he used to ship the final works. Splattered with paint, the blank slates were turned into their own—albeit unintentional—abstract art, full of color and insight into the rudimentary chaos involved in his painting process. During a routine trip to the post office, a postal worker asked the artist if it ever occurred to him that the boxes were like works of art, too. And so, his Priority Box project was born.
The artist began to intentionally apply the same process to smaller boxes. Leaving them empty, de las Mercedes labels them “FRAGILE” with a warning that they contain either peace, love, or hope and ships them anywhere in the world free of charge per request through his website. The self-funded Priority Boxes project “seeks to initiate dialogue on peace, challenge people to reconsider their ability to influence change and question the fragility, value and priority given to those concepts.” Since 2006, over 14,000 boxes have been sent around the globe. This project has garnered the artist a bevy of recognition from media outlets such as ABC News, CNN, Art Business News, and Art Daily.
Originally deemed a Realist painter, de las Mercedes found that whenever he set out to create a new work, it would always turn out abstract. After seeing Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he lost all fear of turning completely abstract and threw himself into the style.
At the same time that he was embarking on the Priority Box project, de las Mercedes was also devoting time to creating more serious original works to be presented to galleries and sold. The works, ranging from pure abstract expression to nudes and portraits, all drew on the styles of the artists he admires and studied at the library—Pollock’s free expression, Haans Hoffman’s use of color to represent depth, and Basquiat’s depiction of objects.
But then, the fire started and destroyed the hundreds of artworks he had produced. Aside from the Pop Art-paintings he had sold early in his career and the Priority Box pieces that had shipped, the only work that survived the inferno was the Fabergé egg that he had shipped out days before.
The egg that De las Mercedes designed stands at roughly two-and-a-half feet tall. Its blue base color becomes recognizable at the top, where the familiar “POST NO BILLS” phrase is stenciled. The statement is written on many facades throughout the city as a way of deterring “bills,” or advertisements, from being plastered to their surfaces. In addition to his own original drawings and etchings, de las Mercedes plays with the idea by painting on layers and layers of graffiti and flyers typical of many streets in NYC. The individual components merge with each other, creating news forms and images.
From April 18-25 all of the eggs will go on display at Rockefeller Center before a select group hits the auction block. The proceeds will benefit Elephant Family and Studio in a School, a program that brings visual arts to public schools in New York City.
Ultimately, Franck de las Mercedes has come full circle. Years after leaving his childhood stomping grounds, he has finally returned to Washington Heights to rebuild his life. Having found a new apartment and studio, de las Mercedes has begun to put his artistic life back in order.
He is resuming the Priority Box project and he has started working on a new large-scale work of art based on his experience losing everything. The work, which features phrases and printouts from newspaper articles, images of the artist rising from the flames of the building, and even how-to-assemble instruction manuals, is helping the artist process the tragedy that happened a mere two months ago.
“I think the part I am having a really rough time with is I don’t think that I have felt the full impact of the fire yet,” de las Mercedes said. “It’s definitely something I have never felt before and I want to explore it so I don’t keep it inside.”
Franck de las Mercedes’ ‘Post No Bills’ egg can be seen inside Chelsea Market at 75 Ninth Avenue, New York City, New York.