Prisoners and Plants: Horticultural Society Raises Funds for Riker’s Program at Central Park Gala

Todd James, ‘Two to Tango,’ 2012. (Photo Rozalia Jovanovic)

“It’s Somali pirates,” artist Todd James told Gallerist about his piece, a brightly colored work of gouache and graphite on paper depicting two guys looking tough in headscarves as they smoked cigarettes. “I think they’re interesting. They’re kind of like David and Goliath. How do a few guys hold up a ship the size of a small town? It’s not cool to do, but it’s also impressive.”

Mr. James, a street artist known for being the co-creator of the “Street Market” exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2001, had donated work for the “Block Party 2012,” a benefit and silent auction thrown by the Horticultural Society of New York last night on the rooftop of the Central Park Arsenal. The event aimed to raise money for the GreenHouse project on Riker’s Island, which provides inmates with horticultural training. Along with Mr. James, there were a number of other street artists on the silent auction roster, including Steve Powers, KAWS, Os Gemeos, Barry McGee and Dearraindrop.

“I’m bidding on the KAWS canvas, with the Sponge-Bob,” said a young man in a plaid shirt named Kevin Leong, who is Russell Simmons’s creative director. It was warm and still sunny on the patio, and he was holding a pale drink with a lime wedge. “I haven’t bid on this yet, but I kind of like it—the Dondi.” He pointed to the Silent Auction Program where there was a small 1982 sketch by the legendary and late street artist Dondi White. “Every artist who is here now has respect for that guy.”

A small fluffy fox-like dog peaked out of a Louis Vuitton carrier and yapped.

“That’s ‘Change,’” said Mr. Leong about his dog. “She loves hip-hop and graffiti events in particular.”

The DJ was playing hip-hop and a breeze gently swayed our dress. Under the large white tent nearby, a tall man in a black jacket with an Eraserhead hairstyle walked by. It was Steve Powers, another artist who co-curated the “Street Market” show. In the distance, people mingled by the hedges overlooking the cityscape.

Gliding around the event in a silk dress and an orange wrap and neatly cropped red hair was Hilda Krus, the GreenHouse program’s director, who can be seen in photos from the project’s website tending to the overgrown garden on Riker’s Island along with inmates in red and white striped uniforms.

Craving numbers, we asked Ms. Krus, who’s German-born, at what rate prisoners from the program land in horticulture-related jobs after they leave. She said she would have to check on an exact number but that the purpose of the program was intended also to “add meaning to their lives” while they’re there. We asked what the gardens are like. “They’re beautiful,” she said of their two-acre property. “But their time is very limited. I only get two hours a day with them.”

Tom Murro, who runs the Celebrity Magnet blog and is a celebrity reporter for Fox, had already been in Central Park for quite a while. “I was at the Al Pacino event earlier, in the park,” he said, referring to the gala in honor of the 50th anniversary of Shakespeare in the Park. Mr. Murro had evenly tanned skin, perfect white teeth and neatly coiffed hair. He looked like a Ken doll. Later, the conversation turned to artwork. “I own five works by Alexandra Nechita,” he said of the young painter who got noticed when she was a child for her large abstract paintings. “She was a child prodigy, like 20 years ago. She’s a woman now, but she still paints the same. Picasso said it took him a lifetime to learn how to paint like a child. With her, it’s the reverse.” Mr. Murro also owns work by the late actor Tony Curtis.

“That dog bites,” said Mr. Murro when we bent down to pet Mr. Leong’s dog Change. The dog looked up with sweet eyes and tucked himself back into the Louis Vuitton bag. We asked about the dog’s name. “I wanted to prove to my girlfriend that I wanted to change,” said Mr. Leong about his ex-girlfriend. “But it didn’t work, and things changed, in itself. So I guess the meaning changed, to, the best way to determine success is how well you adapt to change. And that’s a reminder to myself.”