Farley Aguilar answers the door of a modest Edgewater duplex while clutching a frosty gin and tonic and sporting a teardrop-creased fedora that would have made Indiana Jones beam. Clad in a Night of the Vampires T-shirt, plaid socks, and sandals, he heads to the inner sanctum of his rumpled bedroom, where his art career began. Inside, graffiti fills the walls, rising toward the ceiling like gunmetal veins of cigarette smoke.
Surrounded by hearts, one of the phrases reads, "Farley loves Kizzy." Another declares, "Farley is blind." Scrawled with a pencil years ago, the words are an odd diary of his budding relationship with Kizzy Gonzalez, the woman Aguilar calls the love of his life and his muse. "There are also portraits of Kizzy and myself, just very spontaneous, drunk stuff. For some reason I never have wanted to paint over it," he says.
The self-taught artist points to one of his early paintings hanging on a wall near the foot of his unmade bed. The image depicts Aguilar and his longtime girlfriend decked out in circus garb and holding hands while standing near a dinosaur and a unicorn.
"I must have painted this around 2005. When I look at it now, it's a very odd image, so ridiculous, but I like it very much."
Back when he created it, Aguilar never dreamed that his budding creativity would hit full stride only a few short years later or that he would soon be selling out an entire collection of his works at a major art fair.
But that's what happened this past March at Volta NY during the prestigious Armory Fair when his dealer, Anthony Spinello, sold 25 of his paintings and drawings in the $1,000-to-$10,000 range to major U.S. and European collectors within an hour of the fair opening its doors. The weeks to follow would bring love from the New York Times and a sold-out show in Basel, Switzerland.
It's heady territory for a blue-collar kid from South Miami. The 35-year-old Aguilar was born in Nicaragua and moved with his family to South Florida to escape the political turmoil back home. His father, Bayardo, was an accountant, and his mother, Delia, a homemaker. The family struggled to make ends meet when they moved here in 1981.
"My mother worked as a hotel maid, and my father did bookkeeping," Aguilar says. "My brother, Bayardo Jr., is ten years older than me, so it was like having a third parent. He also had to find work to help support our family, so I was always left home alone."
Growing up in a working-class household left little time for art appreciation, though both of his grandparents on his father's side were talented artists. "My grandfather was a sculptor, and Grandma was a painter who painted pictures of the Virgin on banners for religious processions in Nicaragua," Aguilar says. "But all the things they created were lost during the earthquake that destroyed Managua back in 1972."
As a youngster, while his family was busy working long hours, Aguilar exercised his imagination by inventing games.
"I vividly remember entertaining myself for hours on end by creating my own baseball games when I was 9 or 10," he says. "I would enact the whole constitution of a game — all nine innings — playing pitcher, batter, and every player and kept running statistics since I was good with numbers."
Memories of those long hours spent alone dreaming still influence his art today. "[One] night I was alone when a thunderstorm knocked out the lights, and I was so scared that I frantically began playing tic-tac-toe to fight the dread," he recalls. "I distinctly remember the red bed sheets my parents used as curtains for my windows flapping wildly in the dark and scaring me to this day. It was a formative experience, and I often use X's and O's on subjects' faces in my paintings to convey anxiety."
Aguilar attended South Miami Middle School, where he played on the basketball team but still considered himself a loner. He didn't channel that inherent creativity in any organized way until going to Southwest Miami Senior High, where he took his only art class ever.
"I remember painting a soccer ball and Lolita, the Seaquarium's killer whale, with watercolors in an art class and my teacher complimenting them. But I never pursued learning art back then," Aguilar says. "I never quite fit in during high school."
A turning point came the summer before college, when the teenager read Dostoyevsky's existential novella Notes From Underground. "It was a work of art I could actually connect with," he says, which led him to spend most of his first year at Florida International University reading in the library instead of going to class.
"I flunked out after my second semester with straight F's and was still living at home with my folks thinking I would end up an accountant," he says. "But I returned and got straight A's to appease my parents."
In his early 20s, Aguilar moved alone into his Edgewater home, taught himself to play the guitar, and did odd bookkeeping jobs for his brother to pay bills. "When things got tough and I needed money, I would pawn my instruments to keep fed."
Everything changed when he met kindred spirit Kizzy Gonzalez at a local club in 2004 and soon asked her to move in with him. Shortly after, he re-read his favorite Dostoyevsky tome and began teaching himself to paint, working from models in Victoria's Secret catalogues and landscapes based on nearby parks.
"From the start I was realistic and always focused on improving. It's very important for young artists to understand what you are bad at and work at it," he says.
Inspired by literature, myth, and cinema, he began creating haunting images of mobs — forlorn characters, often in garish costumes, always painted in vibrantly toxic colors and freighted with darker narratives — in weirdly arresting scenes drenched in angst and a distinct existential vibe.
In 2008, Aguilar was invited to his first group show by the Carol Jazzar Gallery. His first solo exhibit took place at Hollywood's Art and Culture Center in 2010 not long after Anthony Spinello signed him to his stable.
Over the past year, Aguilar has traveled a universe away from his self-taught beginnings. Not only did he sell out a series of works titled The Veil to collectors at Volta, but he was also featured in a March New York Times article about how to shop for a masterpiece in the $5,000 range. In early June, a new collection, The Veil Reprised, was snagged by mega-collectors such as New York's Michael and Susan Hort at the Volta edition of Art Basel in Switzerland before the fair even opened. "It was sold out before we arrived," Spinello says.
Farley's next solo exhibition is slated for 2015 at Spinello Projects, and it's anyone's guess where his career will veer before then. But you can count on his inspirations remaining similar.
Even as his popularity grows, Aguilar eschews cell phones and Facebook, and his work returns to scenes where onlookers are confronted by ominous crowds.
"Social media is a scary thing, and I'm a half-generation too old to feel comfortable with it," he observes, sitting across from an oldfangled Snoopy telephone he says only his mother calls on occasion. "I can't imagine reading a book, watching a film, or listening to music and being interrupted."