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Ridiculed by some as a popularity contest for artists, GO Brooklyn Art Festival‘s challenge for visitors to nominate an artist for a Brooklyn Museum exhibition gave artists in denser areas a clear advantage over those in more remote places. More artists equals more visitors equals more votes.
With over 200 artists participating in my neck of the woods of Greenpoint, I decided to beat the crowds and visit the farthest reaches of Brooklyn, choosing the last page in the festival brochure with the least amount of artists participating: Coney Island. There might not be many artists there, but I was sure find some real Brooklyn character.
There were four artists on the map in Coney Island proper, and finding them was the biggest challenge. Our first stop was on West 33rd Street in a NYCHA complex, which stands for New York City Housing Authority, which is commonly known as “the projects.” There were no festival posters, no tape arrows, and nothing obviously art related.
“You’re sure this is the right address?” I repeated to Jon, my boyfriend, navigator, and bodyguard. He nodded in hesitation; he was sure of the address but not sure why we were there.
As we made our way under the scaffolding into the lobby and up the old elevator that made a dinging sound on each floor, he asked, “How do I let you talk me into these things?”
The elevator stopped on the 10th floor and we found the apartment. We knocked. I had no idea what we were going to find. Then a seventy-year-old Russian woman opened the door. “We are here for the art festival!” we announced. I’ve never seen a more confused face on an old person. She waved her head and politely closed the door on us.
Next stop was an address on Neptune Ave on the same block as a radiator repair shop. I got excited as we approached a pastel green aluminum siding house only to find a bolted front gate. Strike two. I was ready for a hot dog.
Feeling defeated, we headed to West 25th Street. We pulled up to a one story apartment building and there he was, the only Coney Island artist we would meet that day, standing on his tiny lawn with open arms and a charming smile. His name was Daniel Blake, but he introduced himself as “Africasso.”
“You’re just in time, I’m going to my studio, can you follow me there?” he said.
Confused but game for adventure, we hopped in the car and followed Africasso on a frenzied ride down Surf Avenue, only to pull up to the Coney Island Museum, which houses the infamous Coney Island Freak Show.
Climbing up the dark and creepy stairs with the words “Police Line Do Not Cross” painted up the walls, we eventually reached a studio with an amazing view of the Atlantic Ocean, the Cyclone, and the Wonder Wheel. The studio is shared between Blake and artist Marie Roberts.
On display was a glass-enclosed, hand-carved wooden sculpture in the shape of a bicycle created by Blake with remnants of wood collected from Coney Island. The work was called “Dream Land in Motion.” He described the piece as “a monument to Coney Island” and a mash-up of finely detailed historical landmarks such as the Elephant Hotel, Bumper Cars, the Parachute Jump, and the Carousel.
Commanding the entire room at center stage stood a six-foot-three-inch-tall sculpture by Blake called “Jenny the Giraffe,” carved out of an American oak tree Blake rescued from the chipper after it fell in a local park, along with pieces of bark and a backbone made of “itchy balls.” Blake created Jenny to “tie the giraffe with women of today.” He put the animal in stilettos to represent women who “come with their A-Game to give them the height, but after a while they are painful as hell!”
After showing us his Coney Island-inspired artwork, Africasso shared some advice: “I’ve observed artists who are up and coming. It’s like an assembly line; they follow elders instead of using their own creativity, and when you go places you wind up seeing the same stuff. It’s nice stuff but what I always say is if you stick to what you know and develop that, don’t get caught up in the commercial society … Otherwise what you actually do is diminish a lot of what made you, you.”
At the end of our adventure we found art and we found Africasso, a true Brooklyn character born and raised in Coney Island, a neighborhood that he declares is, “The hottest place in the city.”
GO Brooklyn Open Studio Weekend was September 8 to 9, 2012.
Jennifer Galatioto also contributes to Greenpointers.com.