Gowanus: Art in the Midst of Change

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How artists old and new are weathering new developments in the neighborhood.

Aerial View Gowanus

A view of Gowanus from the F train overpass. Amanda-Rae Prescott/The Brooklyn Ink

Formerly industrial neighborhoods attract artists in New York City, and Gowanus is a prime example of this trend. Empty warehouses and lofts in Gowanus are well suited as workspaces for a wide variety of artistic pursuits.

In 2009, the Department of City Planning mapped out a rezoning plan designed to promote future development in the neighborhood. Now, a few years later, new residents and businesses have moved in. Newer artists are working near established Gowanus artists.

On the same block as a new hotel and apartments sits a store with folk art furniture and African wooden drums, all lined up outside on the sidewalk. Ibrahima Didkhane makes, repairs, as well as teaches the drums at Keur Djembe. He is also a collector of African art which is displayed right alongside completed drums. Didkhane learned how to make and play the drums in Senegal many years ago. “Nobody was here when I first opened up the store,” Didkhane said. “Now the hotel and new buildings are here.” He started making drums out of his apartment above the store in 1986 and then opened the shop in 1998.

“My customers are not buying drums as much as they used to,” Didkhane said. “It’s hard to keep the store going.” Most customers are more interested in repairs and classes, he explains, but his business depends on people appreciating his skills as a builder and an artist.

african masks

A few African masks on display at Keur Djembe. Amanda-Rae Prescott/The Brooklyn Ink

Didkhane imports wood and goatskins for building and repairs from West Africa. Building a new drum can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on the size. He shapes the base, drum, and skin to the specifications for each type of drum. Some of the drums have carvings he made along the rim and base.

Drumming lessons are a large source of his income. Didkhane teaches children as well as adults rhythm and technique. “I put my love into it,” Didkhane said. His skills and passion keep Keur Djembe going. As long as people continue to bring their drums and ask for lessons, he said, he would be there to help them.

On the other side of the neighborhood from Keur Djembe, a large industrial complex has been repurposed. Underneath the F train overpass and next to the Gowanus Canal wouldn’t seem to be a likely location for any sort of business, but several artistic enterprises call the area home.

During the week, 55 Ninth St. is home to Serett Metalworks. Serett builds sculptures and other metal structures for corporate clients. At night and on weekends, a team of curators and artists converts the space into the Gowanus Ballroom. For the past four years, Gowanus Ballroom has leased the space from Serett and used it to showcase the work of up and coming modern artists.

The complex that houses Gowanus Ballroom is right next to the Gowanus Canal, a polluted eyesore for years. But millions of dollars in state and federal funds have been allocated to removing toxic waste from the canal. For several years the canal has been a part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program and the New York State Department of Planning and Development Brownfield Opportunity Areas Program—a joint effort is designed to rid the canal of pollution both underground and in the canal water, and to control sewage dumping. This work is not complete, but without them, the buildings that the artists occupy would be unsafe for working and living in.

“We’ve seen a more art-minded community develop in the past few years in Gowanus,” said Courtney Jordan, a curator at the Gowanus Ballroom.

A recent feature at Gowanus Ballroom is a collaborative installation. “Spectrum” is a light design piece by Colin Bowring, and “Serett Sessions 1-5” is an audio design piece by William Tucci. Visitors enter into a wide room with heavy machinery blocked off by wood fencing. The fencing keeps visitors from interfering with Serett’s equipment. Upstairs, visitors arrive at a wide-open space that houses the art exhibits. On one far corner of the room there are desks and a hallway leading to office space. Objects from Serett are pushed to the railings and along the wall leaving empty floor space for the artists to display their projects.

Bowring’s installation features several sculptures as well as objects fashioned for reflecting as well as generating light. A giant sun panel outside the entrance captures light for the exhibit. “My work combines science and art,” Bowring said. Some of the objects he uses were salvaged from the junkyard, while others were made from scratch. The most important part of the installation is a modified motor from an old cash register. Bowring added circular mirrors on the inside so the laser inside could project shapes on the wall. A theatrical smoke machine is used to distort light as well.

Green Laser

Foil and theatrical smoke distort laser generated light. Amanda-Rae Prescott/The Brooklyn Ink

While Bowring manipulates light, Tucci’s sound design plays from two speakers on opposite ends of the room.  He recorded the sounds of Serett workers grinding, shaping, and striking metal for several hours.

“Serett may not be making art, but it is helping artists out,” Tucci said. “They were willing to teach metal work.”

This installation is one example of the collaborative efforts to create art in Gowanus. Professional networking connects those who need assistance with those who can provide help. Artists in multiple mediums have shared resources and work collaboratively on larger projects.

Those who visit the exhibition are encouraged to interact with Bowring’s designs. Two or three people can fit inside the giant wind chute that is suspended from the ceiling. Guests can push the back of a plastic box to allow the theatrical smoke to bend the laser light. Bowring shows guests how his designs work to capture and distort light.

Will there be more of this in Gowanus? Exhibits such as this one may not be able to compete with demands for space for higher-cost retail and housing development. Artists in the area are worried that more development will make it harder for them to live and work in the area. “The creative community is middle America,” Jordan said.

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