‘I look around,” says Leticia “Letty” Acevedo, “and people always talk so much trash about Trenton. The first thing they want to do is shine a light on the bad things that happen and focus on the negative, and I don’t see that,” she says.
Acevdeo’s newly opened art gallery on the second floor of 439 South Broad Street seems to reflect her energy.
Here at Designs by Letty bright turquoise walls show off her many portraits and hand painted handbags, wine glasses, and coffee mugs, and even lamp shades all featuring brown-skinned women — goddesses oozing energy.
Acevedo says she creates art from her emotions and directed towards a particular theme: women of color. “I’m all about the woman. I’m all about empowering ‘us.’ It’s important,” she says.
Born and raised in South Trenton in the same house her parents still live in on South Broad Street, Acevedo began attending classes at Artworks as a kid. She even remembers waking her construction worker dad, Tony, on Saturday mornings to go to class. “I remember being in kindergarten and loving the paint between my fingers,” she says.
She says she and her three sisters grew up singing in the church choir, and her artistic background comes from her mother, a stay-at-home mom who earned her cash on the side by doing arts and crafts, centerpieces, and fancy wreaths for people’s doors. An older sister makes greeting cards. “She’s the ‘Martha Stewart’ of the family,” Acevedo says. Small entrepreneurship is a theme in the family.
Acevedo attended Robbins, and Junior Four (now Dunn Middle School), and when she was 14 then-Mayor Doug Palmer presented her with the Mayor’s Award For Art. After graduating from Trenton Central High School she studied art at Mercer County Community College and Ramapo State.
Art ended up on the back burner when she took a job with the State of New Jersey. But 13 years later, she found herself unhappy, exhausted, and on the verge of homelessness with two children still at home. But she was still willing to take huge risks to become a full-time artist.
“I was in a two-bedroom apartment where I gave my daughters the only bedrooms so they could still have their own space and my living room became my bedroom and my art studio,” she says. “And the kitchen was too! I would cook rice and beans for the kids with my Spanish music playing in the background, and I’d be painting at the same damned time. It shows you how strong you really are.”
Out of that time period came her showpiece, which she calls “The Freedom Piece,” a large portrait on the wall of her gallery that her sister won’t allow her to sell. It’s a powerful image of a curvy, caramel-colored woman on a bright blue backdrop with a large curly afro and three dimensional butterflies flying all around her. This represents Acevedo’s spirit and her unwillingness to ever give up.
“I always went back to the same thing: the woman, the woman, the woman, the woman of color. And guys get so mad at me like, ‘What’s up? Don’t you love the brothers?’ But we have to pay homage to the woman of color, especially single mothers. We go through a lot,” Acevedo says. “It’s important to put the queen on a pedestal, where she belongs. I feel that my calling is to show women where they belong, and I can interpret that into my art,” she says.
Acevedo has a son, Elijah, 22, a U.S. Marine stationed in Arizona. Her daughters Al’Nisa, 20, and Imani, 14, are also artists. “My two girls love to paint. I get canvas, they get canvas. I get paint, they get paint. Since they were little that was my way of being able to do my art, to sit them down on the floor to paint so I could do my own stuff and get it out there,” she says.
Her daughters are also her “staff,” “(They) help at the shop when they can, but for the most part it’s just myself.” She then adds more info about her operations: “Rent is $500, and supplies spent on a monthly basis would be roughly around $200 to 300, sometimes less. I try to be as frugal as possible.”
Part of getting herself and her work “out there” is to connect to the Trenton community, especially to children. Acevedo teaches at four schools: Center Street, the Rivera School, P.J. Hill, and Village Charter School.
And the first thing the school administrators warned her of was that the children were “difficult.” Acevedo wasn’t discouraged.
“Because (the children) are so used to people leaving and not giving a damn, with no consistency in their lives whether it’s at home or at school, I knew I had to prove myself to them,” she says. “I have to do this in Trenton. I have to do the gallery in Trenton. These kids need to see how great they can be because I came from Trenton. I tell them I’m not going anywhere; I’ll be here from now until June. And I love that the art here is exploding the way that it is. It’s beautiful to see it, to see other artists doing the same thing,” she says.
Artworks curator Addison Vincent knows and appreciates Acevedo’s work. “Her use of color is vibrant and reflects her personality,” he says. “She’s energetic. A very positive person. To build a community you need some type of outreach program. Letty teaches for us and as her career has grown, her involvement has grown at Artworks as well. We’re that home base. We have the outreach to other community organizations.”
“There’s nothing like it,” says Acevedo about her current growth and growing independence as an artist. “I’ve been through so, so much in my life,” she says. “Nothing has ever stopped me from pushing forward. You fall apart, so to speak. You have your moments where you cry. You fall, and then the next day you wake up. It’s either let it consume you or you fight. And I have fought for this for 20 years,” she says.
Looking back, Acevedo says, “We didn’t grow up with much but we were rich. Kids these days don’t know what it is to get chalk and go outside and use the street as your canvas. My parents put me in Artworks when I was young and now it’s so funny that I get to teach through them now and get to give back.”
There is an art boom in Trenton and though it may not be seismic, it’s bringing people together and out of the shadows into an arts community that’s small, but warm, welcoming, and supportive.
For Acevedo the Trenton arts movement can only grow and become more positive. Most of her work is listed at a reasonable cost. A large portrait painting sold for $300 at her gallery opening and her hand-painted handbags are less than $100.
Yet it isn’t just her. She has created space for other local vendors to share their wares, and the shelving unit in her gallery was built by a local craftswoman.
“I see big things,” says Acevedo. “I see big things for Trenton. We can do this together.”
Designs By Letty, LLC, 439 South Broad Street, Suite 210 in the Conduit Building. Saturdays and Sundays, 1 to 6 p.m. (weekdays by appointment). Private Sip & Pain Classes available. 609-414-8214 or DesignsByLetty609@gmail.com.