A riddle: how do you get all the artists in Bushwick in the same place at the same time? Tell them that everyone is going to be there.
In anticipation of the Bushwick Open Studios, the neighborhood arts festival happening this year in October, photographer Meryl Meisler is trying to get a group photo of every artist who calls the artistically vibrant Brooklyn neighborhood home. To do so, Meisler and writer James Panero, who is curating the project, have put out a call for any artist who is planning on being involved in BOS this October to meet tomorrow at 11 a.m. outside Stout Projects on Meadow Street.
Once completed, the photo project will be go display as a part of Bushwick Open Studios at Stout Projects, where it will remain throughout the month of October. It will also be included in a book featuring work from the BOS class of 2016 that’s currently in the works. The plan is to feature the main group photo—both in black-and-white film and digital color—as well as several photographs of other, smaller groups of Bushwick-based artists. If you’re an artist in Brooklyn who hasn’t participated in BOS or isn’t planning to, don’t worry, Meisler said, “You don’t have to show your credentials.”
In other words, it’s kind of like the IRL equivalent of getting verified on Twitter. As long as you think you deserve it—as long as you self-identify as an artist in Bushwick—go for it.
“Maybe you’re not doing a studio [at BOS], but performing on the street or hanging your art on a wall somewhere,” Meisler said. “Anyone—bloggers writers, poets, dancers, muralists, DIY gallerists, journalists—anyone is invited to be a part of it.”
The goal, she added, is to be as inclusive as possible and simply to record “a slice of time,” in an artistically vibrant neighborhood.
In posts on their Facebook event page and a press release they sent out inviting media, Meisler and Panero compare the project to Nina Leen’s “The Irascibles,” the portrait of the 18 Abstract Expressionists who protested the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Art Kane’s “Harlem 1958,” which features 57 jazz icons from that NYC neighborhood’s artistic community in the 1950s. Those photographs are now recognized as historically significant documents of influential artistic movements and communities. Bushwick, for all its output, has yet to reach the same near-legendary status as either of those groups. Meisler, however, said it is only a matter of time—which is bold claim, but one she bases on personal experience.
Meisler, who lives in an affordable housing community in Chelsea, worked in Bushwick in the ’80s and ’90s as a public school art teacher. While there, she took photographs of the neighborhood—not as an artist, per say, mostly just as a shutterbug. Then, in 2007, after she’d retired from her 31 years as a teacher, she was contacted by Adam Schwartz, another public school teacher who was working in Bushwick. Schwartz was putting together a proposal for an exhibition on the history of the neighborhood between the 1977 Blackout and 2007 for the Brooklyn Historical Society, but was coming up short when he went looking for photographs from many of those intervening years. That’s when an old colleague of Meisler’s, John Napolillo, put the two teachers in touch.
As it turns out, Meisler’s boxes and boxes of personal photos of the neighborhood were some of the only photographs of Bushwick from that era that weren’t newspaper photos taken of the looting during and after the ‘77 blackout. After meeting with Schwartz, she quickly agreed to be a part of his exhibition “Up From Flames,” which went on display later that year. Following the success of that project, Meisler went on to get her own shows that showcased her work in galleries in Soho and, of course, back in Bushwick. She started working with other artists in the neighborhood, putting up shows at the Living Gallery and Bizarre and even released two books of her photos. Through this experience, Meisler realized that the photos she’d casually taken decades prior were now historically significant. That, she says, is why she wants to document the Bushwick art scene now—not because it is famous or influential, but because someday it might be.
“Like James [Panero] said, ‘You create your own art history,’” Meisler said. “All my photos were historic, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I was just taking snapshots.”
Sure, it may be counting your chickens a little while before they hatch—but, she figures, there will probably be at least some chickens at the end of the day. If nothing else, Meisler said, she hoped the project would bring people from what she says is a warm and welcoming community a little closer together.
“I’m hoping this encourages more people to meet someone else or make a friend and take a moment and rejoice in what seems to be very magical things about New York and Bushwick right now,” Meisler said.
Other, more exclusionary attempts to document the Bushwick arts community have been met with no small amount of pushback. When Bushwick-based photographer Rafael Fuchs announced he was making a “Bushwick 200” list of the most influential community members, including several members of Arts in Bushwick—the group that organizes Bushwick Open Studios—denounced his project as one that highlighted and emboldened the beneficiaries of gentrification.
Meisler recognized that members of the Bushwick arts community did not respond positively to that project, but said, “I happen to think Rafael’s heart was in a good place.” She added, however, that they were cautious to make this project different.
“It was a concern and so that’s why we would like to say it’s an open call,” Meisler said. “You, whoever you are, are invited to be a part of this portrait. We’re not saying it’s just these 25 people.”
Arts in Bushwick, for their part, seem to support the project. They promoted it on their Facebook page, encouraging BOS participants to attend the photo session. I asked one of the Bushwick group’s members over email, “what specific elements of this project differentiate it enough from [Fusch’s project] that AiB is willing to support it and include it in this year’s Bushwick Open Studios.”
AiB organizer Sherilyn Neidhardt responded via email to this and one other question about the competing Bushwick Arts Festival happening this weekend by saying only, “AiB is excited to celebrate our multicultural community rain or shine this Sunday for our annual Community Day event in Irving Square Park.”
Meisler says the response she’s gotten so far has been positive. The posts on the event’s Facebook page seem to bear this claim out. Her chief concern now, she jokes, is that no one’s face is obscured in the photo tomorrow.
So, Bushwick, if you can manage to get up and out to Stout Projects by 11 a.m., well, who knows? You might be able to point to yourself in a photo 40 years from now, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the next Sonny Rollins. Unless, of course, you are the next Sonny Rollins.
Correction, June 6: The original version of this post was revised to correct the name of Art Kane’s photo and to credit it properly.