NEW YORK CITY - Danny Cortes was a different man just three years ago.
"I got into some trouble with things that I shouldn't be doing," he recalled.
It was the height of the pandemic. He was on probation for selling drugs, going through a divorce, and working maintenance at a homeless shelter – and he was depressed.
There was, seemingly, just one bright spot: the time he spent working in his office – an out-of-order bathroom at the homeless shelter – with some rudimentary art supplies.
As he describes it, one day he was "bored out of his mind."
"I had a shoebox," he said, "[I thought] ‘Let me just chop that up with X-Acto blades.’"
With the help of some acrylic paint, he made a fixture that New Yorkers know well: A bodega ice box—in miniature form.
"I just made an ice box," he said.
His fascination with miniatures goes back to his time spent watching Saturday morning cartoons. He remembers the commercials for his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures. But it wasn’t Leonardo or Donatello he wanted most— it was the backgrounds displayed in the commercial, the brick facades of a pseudo New York City skyline.
"I always told my mom, ‘I want that background.’ She’s like, ‘Danny, they don't sell that. That's just to sell you the product.’"
Cortes didn’t stop at the icebox. He’s crafted bodega storefronts, New York restaurants, street poles, and dumpsters. All of them with a weathered, aged look—usually complete with graffiti and stickers. Basically, if it had "grit," he was into it.
"It's just that, you know, people pass by those things and take advantage of the beauty that's around us," he said. "Sometimes you just have to stop, breathe and look around you. There's beauty in everything. There's so much beauty out there."
He began posting his work to social media. A video he made of the street pole at the corner of Knickerbocker and DeKalb avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, was the first to gain real traction.
He was getting offers for commissioned pieces, and then Sotheby’s called. Cortes says that, with no formal art training, he "didn’t know" what Sotheby’s was.
But he would soon learn. One of his ice box’s sold for $1,800. Now, a handmade ice box goes for $2,500.
"I just want to inspire," Cortes says from his apartment studio in Bushwick.
He believes becoming an artist later in life was his destiny.
"I had to go through the pain, embrace the pain so that I could be living today… I'm successful today because of my past. I didn't give up," he said.
He credits art for turning around his life.
"Art definitely saved me because I don't know what I would have been doing," he said. "Just because you got locked up, and you made mistakes in your past doesn't mean that is what identifies you… It's never over."
His advice for anyone else with a passion they’d like to explore: "Just work from the heart."