In the 15 years that followed the first iteration of Bushwick Open Studios in 2006, a lot has changed. Rents have gone up — the median rent increased from $1,060 in 2006 to $1,740 in 2019. And, while some well-established artists departed slowly for the galleries of Manhattan, some Manhattan galleries began popping up in Bushwick.
But there were still former warehouses and factories, and some of those were still filled with small studio spaces, all occupied with the loud and busy work of making colorful things. In entering, we are meant almost to catch the artist off-guard, paint still dripping off the unfinished canvas, the work itself an open conversation. Over a hundred such studios will open again to passersby this month, Sept. 17 through 19.
The event’s history weighs heavy on the mind of its central organizer, who took over the loosely volunteer-led organization around 2018. Jazo Brooklyn was invited to partner with the Open Studios earlier in the decade in order to give it more of a presence among young adults. Brooklyn (the organizer) operated a nonprofit called Educated Little Monsters, an idea she says began in 2013 as her and a group of kids practicing various art forms wherever they could find a spot. Within a few years of her involvement, almost everyone who ran Arts in Bushwick — the group that operated the open studios concept — would be gone and Brooklyn, the organizer, would remain.
“They didn’t have anybody on their team who had any type of roots in the community,” she says now. According to Brooklyn, the initial partnership between Educated Little Monsters and Arts in Bushwick ended up getting “really messy and really crazy,” and numerous “microaggressions” were clocked.
The organization was run by the volunteers who showed up each year, and Brooklyn had decided to start showing up and make her presence known among them. There was language in the mission statement she wanted changed. “I fought to the very end and people started to quit,” she says.
Bushwick Daily was unable to contact others formerly involved in Arts in Bushwick.
While Brooklyn runs Arts in Bushwick and Educated Little Monsters separately — she made the former an LLC while her original group remains a nonprofit — she says her plans involve expanding Arts in Bushwick into more of a full-time arts organization: one that doesn’t merely exist for a single weekend of the year.
When new management ran the festival for the first time in 2019, it included a ticketed opening gallery show called “Seeking Spaces,” with the idea of showing the work of artists who hadn’t made the financial leap of renting out a gallery space. The show will be returning this year to a sponsoring co-working space at 49 Wyckoff Ave. on Sept. 17.
This year also marks the first time, Brooklyn says, that Open Studios will try out a mini film festival, which is billed as: “an evening of Black and Brown independent filmmakers.” This takes place on the last day of the festival at the aforementioned co-working space.
Brooklyn says that she sees her takeover of the open studios idea as politically resonant. “Instead of wanting to make the platform more inclusive and give more power to people like us, people rather left it, and they took their resources. We lost a lot, but we inherited the name.”
The artists who have stayed and weathered the pandemic are excited to open their doors again, no matter what is programed.
Ashley Zelinskie, a sculptor who works in 3D prints, moved to the neighborhood immediately after collecting an art degree at The Rhode Island School of Design.
“It was the mass migration from art school: I just followed everybody else,” she said.
Her biggest project is probably the one she’s been working on since 2010: a former feather factory at 566 Johnson Ave. that she helped turn into the Active Space, a collection of over 40 galleries with a waiting list she says is “a mile long.” She also says she spent the pandemic renovating one of the next door buildings to serve as a small gallery space where she plans to put on “a salon-style show” featuring work from the building’s over 40 artists, in addition to swinging open the building’s doors.
Zelinskie says she was unsurprised that the people behind the original incarnation of Bushwick Open Studios “got burnt out” and moved on “to greener pastures.” She sees the new version as a return to the idea of the studio walk that she remembers.
There has been the hope, of course, that collectors would come and use the spirit of the occasion to drop more of their disposable incomes, but Zelinskie insists that the annual weekends are about more than that. According to her, the event has always carried with it a sense of mystery: “You never know who’s going to open that door,” she encouragingly tells the artists who work there.
Amanda Maldonado-Perez only started hawking her own jewelry at the start of the pandemic, and she was surprised to see online orders start coming in even as the world of galleries had begun to shutter.
In late June, she and her partner — an architect-turned-sculptor named Paul Mok — decided to start renting out an empty basement studio at 56 Bogart, also a former factory and one that the city’s tourist department claims is the neighborhood’s “first major art center.” Jenny Holzer once had a studio there.
56 Bogart, already by then a longtime mainstay in the festival’s history, came on Mok’s radar after he visited an earlier open studios event, which alerted him to the available space downstairs. Both Mok and Maldonado-Perez say they had only previously worked in the cramped corners of their own apartments. Visiting events like this one was how she says she “got the inspiration for the possibility of having [her] own studio one day.”
Her own work — a brand she calls Worm (“when I decided I wanted to make a brand that would be repurposing stuff, I was thinking about nature, about soil, think about what worms do”) — focuses on repurposing items that have been donated to her and which she largely turns into earrings and necklaces. A collection of pastel-colored rocks that glitter like the bottom of a coral reef, Maldonado-Perez’s work has a kind of esoteric particularity. One of them was made from recovered sea glass and another was made from broken “alebrije”, damaged beyond repair mid-shipment and donated to her.
Mok’s work is more spacious: at the center of his workspace is a sculpted archipelago of clay figures that haunt the grey concrete they are on like a forest of barren, miniature trees. Behind them is a wall of serious, grey ink abstractions that Mok says he began making when he experienced a creative spurt during quarantine. Some of those, he says, will also be on display at Art on Paper at Pier 36 later this week. But they can be seen by anyone who steps in later this month.
And the event will be a welcome change for artists eager to open their doors again.
“Being an artist can be pretty lonely and secluded at times. You’re just locked behind your door,” Zelinskie said. More energetically: “I’m ready to pop off and put on a good art show.”
Bushwick Open Studios takes place between Sept. 17 and 19. For more details, visit their website.
Top image by Andrew Karpan.
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