After Flood Damage, Gowanus Artists Carry On

Astrid Cravens knew she was one of the lucky ones.

When the remnants of Hurricane Ida deluged New York City two years ago and water entered her South Brooklyn studio building, she moved her paper works off her floor. Last month, a tropical cyclone caused seven inches of flash flooding in South Brooklyn that spewed into the ground floor and crept up to the entrance of her studio. Cravens’s watercolors remained intact, but stormwaters destroyed many of her neighbors’ artworks and materials.

Cravens’s studio is at 540 President Street, a former sweater factory home to scores of artist workspaces. It also serves as the hub of Gowanus Open Studios, a festival hosted by Arts Gowanus on October 21 and 22 that has happened nearly every year for the past 27 years (they skipped 2020 due to the pandemic).

“The people who run the building were here the next day and they took care of us incredibly fast,” Cravens said. “They were heroes, the way they got decontamination crews in here the next day. I can’t sing their praises enough.”

In the storm’s wake, festival organizers plowed ahead and chose to use the event to fundraise for artists whose work was damaged in the floods. As of Sunday, they had raised $16,000 in donations, silent auctions, and merch sales, according to the event organizers.

“It’s a really amazing community,” Pam Wong, special projects director of Arts Gowanus, told Hyperallergic in an interview. “It’s really about the support and friendships that people have made for many years.”

Nathan Ethier, “Full Time Wizard” (2020), acrylic on canvas, 42 x 40 inches (image courtesy Ortega y Gasset Projects)

Artist Keun Young Park, whose studio is at the entrance of 540 President, helped remove water and clean many studios of debris with her husband after the storm. She told Hyperallergic that she has had little time to rest this fall, having exhibited her intricate micro-collages at Art on Paper and Art Busan in Seoul. For each work, Park tore photographs of herself into tiny pieces that she glued onto paper, creating dreamlike images of her hands or figures with their heads vaporized. 

Even though she dealt with toxic floodwater, Park enjoyed the open studio event far more than the fall fairs.“It’s hard to have a conversation with people at art fairs,” she said. “I enjoy hearing feedback from the public and can talk with them.”

Down the hallway, Lauren Alyssa Bierly had also been working with photographs and cut-paper triangles. She had three inches of rain in her studio and lost some sheets of acetate, but it didn’t sidetrack her project of making pixel-like representations of the changing seasons within Prospect Park. 

“I have the colors set out for April and October,” she said. “I’m using shapes like triangles, circles, and lines because our memory remembers basic shapes and people perceive them quickly.”

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Visitors explore Norman Mooney’s sculpture studio at Powerhouse Arts

Water was top of mind for many Gowanus artists, even those who experienced little damage. On the fourth floor of 543 Union Street, Joseph Burchfield displayed an oil painting of arid topography at Black Mesa, a mountain in New Mexico that he visited a half-century ago. “It’s a memory painting,” he said. “It’s something I had not tried before. I wanted to see if I could reconstruct it from memory.”

Asked if he wished he were in the desert when Gowanus was nearly underwater, he replied: “You’re the third or fourth person to make that remark.”

Jessica Weiss wasn’t surprised that her basement on Bond Street flooded because it was about six inches below the water table. She had to replace two sub pumps afterward and sweep away standing water, but her mixed media collages of silkscreen, fabric, and wallpaper were safe. 

“During Hurricane Sandy, Bond Street was a river,” she recalled. “Sandy was a revelation. We didn’t know we had waterfront property. Water was gushing through the brick wall, it was terrifying.”

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Jon Bunge displayed his sculptures with foraged tree branches.
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Artist Heejung Cho in her studio at 540 President Street

Much of Red Hook is also in a flood zone, although the neighborhood’s warren of studios on the third floor of 183 Lorraine Street remained dry. 

Jon Bunge relies on temperate conditions to forage the best twigs and branches for his kinetic witch-like sculptures. His studio is filled with paper bags containing samples from more than a dozen species of trees and shrubs — including willow, black oak, hydrangea, honeysuckle, and forsythia — that he collects from multiple different sources.

“I’m inspired by nature,” he said. “Some come from my mother’s yard, some I order online, and one is a Christmas tree I got off the street.”

Shira Toren, who moved her studio to Red Hook after several years in East Williamsburg, found herself thinking about the tranquil scenes of bears noshing on fish when she made her painting “Little Salmon” this year. It will be part of an ongoing series.

“The salmon run upstream this time of year and I wanted an upbeat color after painting so many whites, blacks, and grays,” she said. “Now I feel like it’s time for a change.”

Did she identify with the salmon as an artist bent on sustaining one’s practice in New York in the midst of seemingly insurmountable challenges?

“I never thought about it, but probably,” she said. “You need a lot of courage to go up the river.”

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Miguel Reyes with his work “A Quiet Place” (2023), oil on canvas, 18 x 36 inches
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Heejung Cho, “Nuts4Nuts” (2023), oil on paper, 11 x 14 inches
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Karen Mainenti stands with her work at her Red Hook studio at 183 Lorraine Street.

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