Seeking Out Diversity at Greenpoint Open Studios

I went to Greenpoint Open Studios and I didn’t meet a single Black artist. 

This past weekend, painters, ceramicists, illustrators, photographers, and more welcomed us into their art lairs for Greenpoint Open Studios. As you’d expect from a borough-wide open studio, there was a broad spectrum of medium, skill, and expertise in the work. Overall, the artists were very craft-forward, making jewelry, pottery, and collage in addition to the expected paintings, illustrations, and sculptures. However, what overwhelmingly wasn’t diverse was the racial makeup of the 200 or so participating artists.

To be fair, I didn’t visit ALL 200 studios, but I did rounds on both Saturday and Sunday, and it doesn’t take a demographer to notice the lack of diversity. Greenpoint has long been the Polish immigrant community’s enclave, but the last few decades of gentrification have made it a magnet for the bougie brunching crowds and young professionals with boutique pups in hand. It’s hard not to notice that Greenpoint is overwhelmingly filled with White people: New York City’s is 37.5% White, compared to 56.7% in Greenpoint/Williamsburg. This disproportionate void of people of color is weird, dangerous, and can easily become a breeding ground for intolerance. We’ve seen this in incidents of hate speech, anti-Blackness, and even a neo-Nazi revival in Greenpoint in recent years. 

That said, it was the perfect sunny weekend to bounce around from studio to studio, skirting mimosa-filled patio tables and couples with $5,000 strollers. Unsurprisingly, the art I saw was mostly apolitical. Considering how many artists in New York City are currently mobilizing in protest against the ongoing genocide in Palestine, as seen in Friday’s action at the Brooklyn Museum, I thought I’d see Palestine or Gaza mentioned somewhere. But no, the topics were consistently prim and polite. I did, however, pay a visit to the HOMOCATS studio, run by artist J. Morrison, who had his “Kittens Against Trump” merchandise on display — zines, shirts, and totes with felines unafraid to express their political stances. 

At least one artist I encountered was thinking about gentrification: Steven Wasterval’s landscape paintings document the graffitied, lived-in corners and crannies of North Brooklyn, scenes that often become erased in order to feed the sanitized look that accompanies development pressures. 

The artist Steven Keister, who’s been in his Greenpoint studio for 20 years, witnessed the neighborhood’s changes. In the late ’70s, Keister worked at the New Museum, where beloved curator Marcia Tucker gave him his first big break. His work pulls quite heavily from Pre-Columbian fauna and motifs but was also inspired by the modular styrofoam and cardboard packaging from computers he’d find littering the streets in the 80s. We talked about Greenpoint’s historical environmental issues and classification as a superfund site. “You’re really worried about that, huh?” he asked me. He looked out his studio window and added, “There used to be two huge trees there right outside. It was so nice. They’re gone now.”

Another painter disturbed by Greenpoint’s eco-crisis was Hannah Antalek, who paints electric and voluminous blooming floral forms and mushroom-like bodies. Artist Lauren Murao Walkiewicz is also preoccupied with environmental apocalypse, as evinced by her sculptural wall works that use cut wood and polymer clay to depict flowers being consumed by flames. 

In terms of recurring themes in subject matter or mediums, abstract textural paintings and fruit imagery were quite popular! Don’t get me wrong, I love a well-done vanitas still life, but the amount of fruit-themed watercolors was exorbitant. One stand-out studio featured the visceral, sexy, carnal and even lusty photographs of Suzanne Saroff. Dribbles of spit adorn the taut surfaces of pink globular bubbles made with wads of chewing gum in an image by Saroff. Other photos include a towering glass of strawberry milk, an overflowing froth of bubbles oozing from the vessel’s crest. The photographer says her most recent series comes from an interest in destroying things with her mouth. 

Many artists with commercial day jobs also spoke of a struggle to maintain this connection to play and experimentality — a necessary element for creating work that is intriguing and weird. One of these multi-hyphenate artists was Irene Feleo, a designer, animator, and art director whose graphic paintings use yummy color palettes and blend flash tattoo imagery and symbols into abstracted grids and fluorescent fields. It was also nice to come across a non-commercial, experimental space for artist collaborations at an unlisted gallery named Pompei on the far eastern end of Greenpoint. In the same building, I met printmaker Layla Nami who told me their stunning prints with their arabesque, seductive quality are made contemplating the horror film genre. We exchanged B-horror recommendations. 

As I wrapped up my last visit on Saturday evening outside The Palace, an iconic Greenpoint bar bordering McGorlick park, I overheard a group of melanated individuals apparently visiting the area as they alluded to the overwhelming whiteness of the neighborhood: “This is Brooklyn???? Nahhhh … This is like Brooklyn with an ‘E.’” 

Hopefully in the coming years, Greenpoint Open Studios seeks out and welcomes more artists of color into their program. Also, next year, please make a paper map.

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