Bushwick Open Studios Returns With Optimism

Bushwick Open Studios was once one of the city’s largest arts events that attracted thousands of revelers to the neighborhood’s converted industrial warehouses and merited critical coverage in the New York Times.

Those days are long gone. Organizers shifted the annual event from June to early fall in 2016, with an emphasis toward celebrating creatives born and raised in Bushwick until the pandemic forced its suspension. The event returned last September after a two-year hiatus, but few artists in the neighborhood knew about it and participation dwindled. 

Outreach to artists improved for this year’s edition this past weekend, from September 22 through September 24, with ore than 100 studios signing up with Arts in Bushwick, the volunteer group that runs it. Organizers included printed brochures and a dense online sitemap of studios across Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Ridgewood — but they didn’t plan on a tropical cyclone shellacking the city.

Artist Ad Deville sweeping water out of his backyard at Skewville (photo Aaron Short/Hyperallergic)

The best way to navigate Bushwick Open Studios is by foot. Those who ventured through torrential rain were treated to intimate conversations in cozy lofts and sometimes extraordinary work.

Its largest site, 17-17 Troutman Street, is actually in Queens, where artists have worked for more than 15 years despite two evictions. Heidi Elbers displayed a series of haunting paintings of a Cajun woman atop an alligator, ghost peacocks, and other creatures drawn from New Orleans folklore. She fondly recalled attending openings at Regina Rex Gallery in the building a decade ago, but noted that it now feels more grown up. 

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Heidi Elbers, “Folklore” (2022), oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches (image courtesy Heidi Elbers)

“A lot of artists have work tied up in solo shows so they’re not open,” she said. “It’s difficult to have the festival happen after a big fair week like Armory, but I’m definitely grateful they keep doing these experiences.” 

Newcomers were happy for the foot traffic. Jade X had only been in a studio she shares with sculptor Julia Sinelnikova for a few months. Her collages of magazine images of models standing near futuristic architecture scenes are heading to beauty salons in Williamsburg and Manhattan. “Things are going pretty fast for me,” she said. “I should be going to Art Basel this year.” 

Omar Abbas, who left Hoboken for Ridgewood in 2020, hung four paintings that portrayed rows of flowers on a sky-blue background with surprising depth thanks to his use of floodlights. A few doors down, Cassie Taylor showed a series of dreamlike nighttime portraits. One featured a woman on a beach blanket during a meteor shower with additional images of a wrought-iron fence and a plant’s window reflection.

“I like to have it resemble a feeling that’s a little bit nuanced,” she said. “Anyone can make what they want of it.” 

Down the street at 566 Johnson Avenue, Ashley Zelinskie was readjusting a plywood sign that had been blown down in the storm. Her building, The Active Space, has become an artist magnet with little turnover.

“We don’t raise the rent too drastically and we offer them to internal tenants first,” she said. “It kind of becomes a family, and then no one wants to leave.”

One of its newest members, Paris Souffrant, set up a large canvas outside her studio instructing visitors to take a paintbrush, dip it a gunk of acrylic, and trace a line of color on the canvas. “You can do more than one dip but not more than one line,” she instructed. “People don’t consider themselves artists, but we create every day. It’s challenging but it’s also a practice.”

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Paris Souffrant, “Untitled”

Down the hall, Joanne Ungar hung three dozen mixed media works made of encaustic over painted cardboard boxes. For a six-piece series called Airgami, she melted hot wax on a box that contained facemasks using wax nubs and a ventilation system in a corner of her studio. “The ancient art of painting with wax goes back to the Etruscans,” she said. “Some of the processes I use can be toxic, so I have to be careful.”

In other buildings, only a handful of studios were open. On the floor of her studio at 117 Grattan Street, Georgian artist Eteri Chkadua arranged 35 round oil-on-canvas paintings of unhoused people she encountered and photographed with their permission. “It’s not easy sleeping even one day here,” she said.

A few doors down, Sutton Murray affixed his studio wall with latex, nylon, and aluminum tube sculptures that resembled unlit neon works and a few dozen abstract sculptures of the same material. Murray said the abstract pieces were fragments of intersections of the larger portraits.

“I’m not a very good painter, but over a couple of years I found a palette of material I really liked,” he said. “I like playing with the idea of forced perspectives and flatness.”

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Jackie Slanley, “Rosaceae 3 (in half loops and ivory flames)” (2023), 38 x 13 x 15 inches, plexiglass and stainless steel (image courtesy Jackie Slanley)

Few studios at 56 Bogart Street, typically a major hub, were open late Saturday, but Texas-born artists Marie Helene Boone and Jackie Slanley cheerfully welcomed stragglers. Slanley displayed several intricate plexiglass sculptures of roses that she illustrated with a laser cutter in her bedroom at home. 

“It smells like burning rubber. I get to enjoy it all by myself,” she said.

On her side of the studio, Boone hung several sculptures of flowers and swords made from scrap metal she lugged from Houston. She’s started collecting industrial waste from businesses in the neighborhood.

“It’s usually pretty rusted, so I get my grinder and do a thick grit to get the majority of the bulk off, then I wire brush and polish it down,” she said. “It takes forever.”

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Leslie Tucker, “Retribution” (image courtesy Leslie Tucker)

Meanwhile, at Brooklyn Fire Proof on 119 Ingraham Street, photographers reigned. Paul Vinet taped up a series of dazzling self-portraits with blurred faces he created through the brutish effect of breaking his camera lens. 

One floor below, Leslie Tucker papered her two-room studio with multiple photo collages of jarring maritime scenes forecasting what the world will look like when sea levels rise and swallow civilizations. “I’m exploring climate change from the ocean’s point of view,” she said. 

Burr Dodd, the building’s owner and an artist himself, held court with half a dozen guests across the hall. Unlike other artists interviewed, he welcomed the festival’s September dates. “I think it’s going great,” he said. “Maybe now is the time to heal and bring it back. The neighborhood is still vibrant and full of creative energy. The energy is in the air.”

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Sophia Sobers, “In the Circle of the Sun” (2023), durational visual and audio components: mixed live video projections and looped synthesizers, stained glass, fabric; installation, dimensions variable (image courtesy Sophia Sobers)
Three-person exhibition featuring work by artists Justin Orvis Steimer, Sei Smith, and Trey Schibli (photo by and courtesy Claire Foussard)
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Will Ptacek, “Benediction” (2023), acrylic gouache and gesso on canvas, 30 x 23 inches (image courtesy Will Ptacek)

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