No matter how many different conversations we have with local artists and gallery managers (and even one winemaker), one name eventually comes up: Deborah Brown. A deeply experienced painter, public installation artist, and co-founder of Bushwick's STOREFRONT gallery, Deborah has been working in New York since the early 90s, and is well known for her tireless efforts to foster and support emerging local talent.
We recently caught up with the artist in her studio to discuss her love of Bushwick, the challenges of making art for subway stations, and the new artists she feels are making a difference.
SCOUT: You're known as a keystone figure in the Bushwick art community. What drew you to the neighborhood?
DEBORAH: I came to Bushwick one summer evening by accident in 2006. My niece, who was living with us in Manhattan after graduating from college, decided to sublet a place in Bushwick. My husband and I drove her and her belongings to 14 Irving Avenue and took her to dinner at the Northeast Kingdom. I thought the neighborhood was scary, but I was also gripped by it. While we were having dinner, I suddenly had the idea to buy a garage in the neighborhood to use as my studio. A month later I was the owner of a vacant factory building where I now work.
From that evening when I first set foot in Bushwick, I was sure that it was going to be a fantastic place for artists. This feeling was based purely on intuition because I knew nothing about Bushwick except for its infamous history. It seemed to be a place where you could do anythingan open playing field without established art elites and hierarchies. I came here with a desire to reinvent myself, to meet everyone I could, and to help build the art community. I wanted to meet the artists who were moving into Bushwick but also my neighbors who had lived in the community for decades. I enrolled in Spanish classes so I could talk with long-time residents. I joined the Community Board, got involved with my neighbors' kids, and opened a gallery, STOREFRONT, with Jason Andrew.
SCOUT: Who are the other artists working in the community who you respect and admire?
DEBORAH: Naming the artists whose work I like is hard because there are so many good ones! Top of the list is Jules de Balincourt. I am also a fan of the work of Rico Gatson, Erik Benson, Letha Wilson, Bjoern Meyer-Ebrecht, Matthew Miller, Mary Judge, dNASAb, Meg Hitchcock, Andrew Ohanesian, Joy Curtis, Olivie Ponce, and the many artists we have shown at STOREFRONT.
SCOUT: In addition to your studio work, you've also done a number of major public installations. What draws you to public art?
DEBORAH: Public art is a tricky thing. On the one hand, it is undeniably seductive. The opportunity to see your work translated into a permanent material with a substantial fabrication budget, installed in a high-visibility location, is intoxicating. For this reason, artists are drawn to do at least one public art project if given the chance. Once they have gone through the process, however, many do not seek to do it again. Not everyone is cut out for it either artistically or temperamentally. Many aspects of the process try your patience. The projects can take forever. You spend a lot of time on things that have nothing to do with art, such as design issues, community issues, fabrication issues, and budget issues. I have done 6 or 7 public art projects around the country, and, after each one is finished, I think, that's it, I am throwing in the towel. Still, it is alluring. Last month, I completed a public art project for a new Animal Shelter for the City of Memphis. It took 7 years from start to finishan eternity. Who knows, maybe I will do another one if something interesting comes along.
SCOUT: What was your first project?
DEBORAH: My first public art project was in 1993 for the Houston Street subway station in Manhattan on the #1 line. When MTA Arts for Transit approached me to submit a proposal for permanent artwork for this station in a limited competition, I had never thought of myself as a candidate for this type of project. I was a painter who had painted paintings and shown in galleries. But the opportunity to have my work translated into mosaic and displayed forever in a Manhattan subway station was something I couldn't turn down. The audience is huge and crosses all possible boundaries. When we were installing the work, people waiting on the train platforms were fascinated by the process, watching the mosaic images as they were uncovered. It was an incredible high!
SCOUT: What stops would you recommend we make if we want to take in some of your favorite public art works in the city?
DEBORAH: I like Nancy Spero's mosaics at the 66th Street stop on the #1 train, the glazed terra-cotta "Marine Grill" murals at the Fulton Street-Broadway-Nassau station in lower Manhattan, and Robert Kushner's mural for the 77th Street subway station on the #6, but there are many excellent ones.
SCOUT: What's coming up next for you?
DEBORAH: I continue to work on my own paintings and to show my work at Lesley Heller Workspace, the gallery that represents my work in New York. I had a solo show at the gallery earlier this year. I am doing a new series of paintings called "Shadows," based on the landscape imagery I see while I jog around Linden Hill Cemetery with my dogs, Trout and Zeus. I am painting the interplay of shadows of trees, wrought-iron fencing, barbed wire, and telephone wires, with a distorted, vertiginous perspective.
At STOREFRONT, we have programmed exciting shows through the end of the year, including guest-curated shows by Jules De Balincourt, Sara Reisman, and James Panero; a solo show of digitally manipulated images by a young Bushwick artist, Cooper Holoweski; and collages from the 90s by Kevin Regan, an important Bushwick arts leader who started Famous Accountants Gallery with fellow artist Ellen Letcher.