kristin reed – interview with a community artist

I met Kristin in 1985 when we were working on a documentary film about Nicaraguan poetry (Azul) directed by another friend and neighborhood resident Roland Legiardi-Laura. Shortly thereafter I began to see Kristin in the neighborhood splattered with paint, hanging out on scaffolding with her murals blooming in the devasted landscape that was Loisaida at the time.

What inspired you to create large-scale paintings on walls?

I graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with an MFA in painting and had a studio in my loft. Although I was involved in several artist activist groups, I started feeling isolated. I had a friend from Paraguay who was very politically active with Latin American causes and our anti-intervention politics of the US in Central America coincided. One day I was griping to him about the lonely existence of the artist when he pointed out to me that only Americans and Europeans viewed the life of the artist this way. He opened me up to making art for and with the community in Latin America. So I started looking around for arts groups in NYC who were doing community work. I was reading a copy of a Spanish community magazine called “Ajá” and saw an open call for muralists. My friend, Robin Michals and I decided to contact the group “Artmakers” who was organizing the project and write up a proposal for “La Lucha Continua in Latin America, South Africa and The Lower East Side”. Artmakers is an artist-run, politically oriented community mural organization established in 1983.

Site of the La Lucha Continua Mural

Site of the La Lucha Continua Mural

What inspired you to make community art and what drew you to Loisaida?

The “La Lucha” project was to put multiple individual murals on this theme and one large group-produced mural in a large area where buildings had tumbled or been demolished between East 8th and East 9th Streets and between Avenue B and Avenue C. A park had been constructed by community residents there but it was a mess—full of weeds, used hypodermic needles and garbage. It was hard to keep the junkies out. Artmakers accepted our proposal and we collaborated with the group of involved artists to clean out the garbage and weeds, prime the walls of the canyon of surrounding buildings and get to work creating a riot of color on the walls. The bleak lot was transformed into a playground, outdoor performance space and a clean, safe place for the community to hang.

La Lucha Continua Mural

La Lucha Continua Mural

I spent the summer of 1985 making a public work which involved community members and was very popular in the neighborhood. Our wall was called “The Last Judgement” and depicted a jury of twelve overlooking a scene of grizzly looking white businessmen with missile toys at their feet in an abstract color field. For the jury we selected six leaders from Central America and South Africa: Daniel Ortega, Ruth First, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchú, Archbishop Oscar Romero and Winnie Mandela. And six community members who were recommended by the people who lived in the area. They ranged from the street mechanic who worked right next to the wall, a homeless man who inhabited the block, an elderly woman who had single-handedly started a thriving community garden around the corner and three other colorful and well-liked neighborhood people.
Our mural generated much publicity and interest. Our piece was written about in “In These Times” by art critic Lucy Lippard and I was interviewed by Jimmy Breslin for the New York Post. The highlight was when Rigoberta Menchú from Guatemala came to New York to give a speech at the United Nations. One day there she was smiling in front of our mural. Word had gotten to her somehow and she came down to see it and meet us in full Quiché dress.

The Last Judgement Mural

The Last Judgement Mural

The following summer Robin and I raised the funds for another much larger mural on East 4th Street and Avenue D. We used the same concept to get the community involved and chose a site where a lot between two buildings had been made into a park by the priest from the church next door. He created a brightly colored gazebo, brick pathways, put in a swing set and planted a garden for children from the community to play in. Unfortunately the drug trade had reclaimed the lot and not many children played there. We invited people to recommend neighborhood children to portray and then selected eleven kids. We spent the summer of 1986 practically living on a scaffold on East 4th Street. At first there was suspicion that two white girls were cleaning up the neighborhood to make it nice for a gentrification that would push them out. But our friends and allies from 8th Street let everyone know that we were cool. The drug dealers caused a dilemma when one of them insisted that his son and his toy gun be painted on the wall. After meeting with community members we decided to comply in order to keep us and others safe during the project. Then one day our friends told us not to come around for a few days. The word was that several busts had occurred in the yard and the “big” off-site drug guy was sure we were narcs planted there and that there would be a reprisal. So we laid low until we got the word to come back. There had been a negotiation on our behalf by community members to clear the way. Another day when we rode our bikes to the site and locked them on a parking sign, turning our backs on them as we frequently did while working—they disappeared. But the word went out among our friends and the bikes mysteriously returned the next day. We had the feeling that a force field of community support surrounded us.

The Enchanted Garden Mural

The Enchanted Garden Mural

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The Enchanted Garden Mural detail

The Enchanted Garden Mural detail

After the mural had been completed for a few months we received a call that someone had tagged the mural with spray paint. We spent a day researching how to remove Krylon from oil paint and hurried down to remedy the situation. A tag can be the kiss of death. It’s an invitation for others to do the same—one tag being the catalyst for a free-for-all. But when we arrived ready to remove it—it was gone. Someone from the neighborhood was faster then we were. By doing this kind of work, I made many friends in the community and with other artists that I cherish to this day.

What was the neighborhood like then?

When I arrived at the site for Artmakers La Lucha project it was the summer of 1985 and it was a blighted no-man’s-land. There were many abandoned buildings, empty lots where buildings had tumbled down. Drug selling frenzies were commonplace. Someone would walk out on the street with aluminum packages in his hands and the addicts would swarm with money held high in their fists. Cops just didn’t seem to care. There were blocks where the landscape was fallen brick, debris, graffiti and boarded-up buildings.
But it was an exciting time and many interesting community gardens and casitas were created. It was an invigorating nexus of politics, art and music.

What do murals do for a community?

The creation of a public work of art generates pride. Most people want to live in a nice place but can be overwhelmed by the degradation of things falling apart. When someone starts the ball rolling it is contagious. Colorful paintings that are relevant to the people who live there give a sense of hope and pride. But to make the magic happen it helps to involve the community, be open to their input and ask for and accept their help in the way they want to give it.

What inspired you to became an artist?

My father was an artist, as was his mother and he had me painting by the time I was four. At age six he enrolled me in art classes at the Museum of Modern Art. I thought I would be taught how to draw and paint the world around me. But it was the late 50s and Abstract Expressionism was in its heyday. The teacher had us make mini Jackson Pollacks by squirting paint from plastic ketchup bottles. I was thouroughly disappointed.

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What are you currently working on?

In 2005 I became certified as a Reiki Master/Teacher and began doing energy healing work (www.HealingReikiBrooklyn.com). After this, my work changed drastically and I began making abstract work with geometric shapes and lines. I have a studio at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park Brooklyn through chashama.org and am currently showing twelve new paintings in “The Gallery At First” which is in the First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street in the Village. The work will be there until the end of June and can be seen during the week and on Sundays at 12 West 12th Street.
I continue to work on projects with Artmakers. In 2005 I worked on “When Women Pursue Justice” with Artmakers in Bedstuy, Brooklyn. It’s a 3,300 sq. ft. mural that can be seen at 498 Greene Ave. at the corner of Nostrand directed by Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weisman. It depicts 90 women activists, both historical and contemporary. My contribution was a 6-ft. portrait of Fanny Lou Hamer.

In 2008 I ran into you on East 3rd Street while helping to restore an R.I.P. mural created in 2002 for Eva Cockcroft, founder of Artmakers. You and I had met originally while I was working on the Enchanted Garden mural on your block in 1986.

R.I.P. Eva Cockcroft Mural on the Lower Eastside People's Federal Credit Union

R.I.P. Eva Cockcroft Mural on the Lower Eastside People’s Federal Credit Union

In June I expect to be working on a mural with Artmakers led by Camille Perrotet at PS 94 in Sunset Park Brooklyn.

One of Kristin's painting from her current exhibiton at The Gallery at First

One of Kristin’s paintings from her current exhibiton at The Gallery at First

This is Kristin’s website: www.kristinreed.com

how to ride a bike in new york city: tips from a cowardly cyclist

I’m afraid of traffic. Because of fear, I didn’t learn to drive a car until I was forty. Whenever I have to drive to go upstate, I leave at five in the morning so I can avoid the traffic leaving the city. I white-knuckle it all the way up the FDR drive while listening to happy Motown music to soothe my nerves. So I decided that maybe riding a bike in the streets to work and back would dull some of that fear. A friend thought I was nuts, “Okay now, so because you’re afraid to drive, you are going to ride a bike in the streets of New York?”

The first time I rode a bike in NYC was during the blackout of August 2004 in search of food and adventure. The lights had gone out the afternoon before and that night the mood was festive in Loisaida. In Tompkins Square Park, people were dancing around bonfires. It was a balmy night, not too hot. In front of my building, a cluster of neighbors sat on beach chairs around a camping lantern and drank wine from Dixie cups. We swayed to the sound of the African drums coming from park.

By noon the next day, we were bored and hungry. I let Frank talk me into riding a bike over to the west side. I agreed because since the traffic lights weren’t working, the streets were devoid of cars. I hopped on one of my daughter’s bikes. It had a banana seat and high handlebars, just like the bike I had when I was a teenager. We rode all the way crosstown, from the East River to the Hudson. It was exhilarating to ride on the empty streets with my hair blowing in the breeze.

The bike lanes that started cropping up in the neighborhood got me to thinking I could do it again and now I ride my bike everywhere I can. I like knowing how long it will take me to get somewhere without being dependent on the arrival of trains or buses or fighting the crowds for a cab. I like the freedom of going here and there on my own. Bike commuting has saved me thousands of dollars. And it has helped lessen my fear of driving a car. Here are some things this cowardly cyclist has learned on these mean streets.

The #1 safety advice is: Be predictable and be visible.

Frank gave me the most logical and reassuring advice: “If you are in a spot where the traffic is aggressive, just get off the bike and walk it on the sidewalk till you get past the scary spot. Don’t soldier on.”

I wear a helmet – always. I do not want to end up a vegetable and burden my family with feeling like they have to visit me every weekend in a nursing home.

I use the bike lanes whenever possible. The more people use the bike lanes, the more bike lanes the city will create. Then more people will feel confident about cycling (like me). The more cyclists there are, the more drivers are forced to slow down, thus making the streets safer for everyone.

Don’t underestimate the determination and skill of bike thieves in New York City. It’s not for nothing that there is a bike lock named “fuggedaboutit”. Much as I might like that twee brass bike bell, it will call attention to my bike. I always lock it tight – both wheels and the frame. The seat is chained down and screwed into the frame. A thief will not risk spending time cutting your bike loose if it is not expensive and you’ve made it time consuming for them to try. They will bypass it in search of easier or more lucrative pickings.

As for drivers, I find cabbies to be the most careful – they know what to do. Be careful of drivers with Jersey plates out on a good weather Saturday, they don’t know how to drive with cyclists on the streets. Be wary around box trucks. Scariest of all are the death machines that are private garbage trucks – do not underestimate them.

When a pedestrian bumbles into the bike lane without looking (which happens a lot), the bike bell only works about 50% of the time in getting their attention. I find that shouting “Yo, heads up!” gets the best response. It’s a polite way of saying “Get the fuck out of the road”, but they think you are being helpful and usually move out of the way with a smile.

Don’t be an asshole and ride the wrong way on a one-way street and then make it worse by pushing the cyclist who is going the right way into car traffic.

Sometimes when you are bearing down on a pedestrian who is where they should not be, they get nervous and do a little backwards and forwards dance like a squirrel in the road so that you don’t know which way to aim your bike to avoid hitting them. I treat them like I would a dumb pigeon – I slow down and let them make their move.

my purple schwinn, purchased at Recycle-a-Bicycle on Loisaida Ave.

my purple Schwinn, purchased at Recycle-a-Bicycle on Loisaida Ave.

lampost art

The snow has finally melted away uncovering the sidewalks and revealing things. I’ve always found it curious that people like to use the bases of lamposts as a canvas. In our neighborhood, it is a common sight to see embellished lamposts.

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I liked that the bike chain left on the post was covered in pink velvet

I liked that the bike chain left on the post was covered in pink velvet

Elaborate lampost art on the Mosaic Trail on the left. And a whimsical Harry Potter tag on the right

Elaborate lampost art on the Mosaic Trail on the left. And a whimsical Harry Potter tag on the right

The master of the adorned lampost is Jim Power, aka, the Mosaic Man. Jim is a neighborhood artist that has been working in the community for decades. You can learn about him and support his on-going project by going to The Mosaic Man – Jim Power and his Mosaic Trail.

I ran into Jim last summer while he was out working on the Mosaic Trail

I ran into Jim last summer while he was out working on the Mosaic Trail

loisaida in hipstamatic

I’m happy for photography apps and camera phones. Some people might say,  “oh, there is no skill in that, no art, its just point and shoot”. Who cares? What is art? I’m just having fun.

I took these photos with my Iphone and the Hipstamatic app. (this is not a sponsored post). I love Hipstamatic because it reminds me of film. I do know real film. I learned to edit movie film, with a splicer. I touched it. My best time was helping a friend organize the edit of his 16mm feature film. We worked in his studio in a loft in Tribeca back when artists could afford lofts in Tribeca. We worked till late in the night, listening to good music. There were many canvas bins on wheels with metal frames. On the frames were hooks where we hung the ribbons of film. Each ribbon was a numbered scene. Some were short strips, others so long they became coiled bundles in the canvas bins. We spliced the scene ribbons together by hand. You had to clean the film first and when you pulled the splicing tape over the film, you had to make sure the two cut pieces were straight and as close together as possible to avoid a cut that the viewer would notice. Once you’d laid the splicing tape down on the film, you rubbed your finger over it to smooth all the air bubbles out. It was like working with clay.

Hipstamatic lets you switch up their digital lenses and films. You choose the lens and you choose the film, and you take the shot. You wait “for the print to develop”. Then you get what you get, except faster than if you had film developed. I like the sometimes unexpected results when you see the “print”. The Hipstamatic Field Guide illustrates the different film and lenses available.

I took most of these photographs on East 7th Street between Ave C. (Loisaida Avenue) and Ave D. It is a block of stately homes from the 1800’s that is lined with very old street trees. I used the Hipstamatic Tinto 1884 Lens (befitting of my neighborhood) and both the C-Type Plate film, which has a color wash to it and the D-Type Plate film that is black & white. This lens and film combination was tricky with light. Too much sunlight and the contrast was extreme. Too little light and you got a blotchy photo. The best result was on a bright but overcast day.

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Tompkins Square Park

Tompkins Square Park

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Tompkins Square Park

Tompkins Square Park

mulchfest 2014

I almost didn’t want to take the Xmas tree down at all this year. It was the freshest and longest lasting one we’ve ever had. It still smelled piney everytime I walked into the house. This past weekend was Mulchfest, the annual treecycling effort in New York City and so, time to say goodbye to the tree. Chippers are set up in parks and people bring their Xmas trees to be turned into mulch for the city’s gardens and street trees.

This year, I made a couple of extra trips on my bike to Tompkins Square Park to get mulch for the street trees on my block. This is the second year that I’ve participated in Mulchfest and it feels like it will be an annual tradition that marks the end of the holiday season. Time to start looking at seed catalogs.

the chipper in Tompkins Square Park

the chipper in Tompkins Square Park

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bags of pine mulch for the taking

bags of pine mulch for the taking

city gardeners

city gardeners

my cargo bike

my cargo bike

this year I was careful to not put too much fresh mulch around the bark like my friend Virginia advised.

this year I was careful to not put too much fresh mulch around the bark like my friend Virginia advised.

loisaida lights

I just returned from a weekend in the Catskills and the holiday spirit was in full swing with the houses dripping in xmas lights. Front lawns were dressed with freshly fallen snow and Santa and candy cane sculptures. People drape their bushes in bush net lights, which I think is the coolest thing.  Urban holiday lighting is so small scale compared to what you see in the countryside and the suburbs. We have mini pockets of holiday decoration. A solitary window draped with twinkling lights , a fire escape bedecked with icicle lights, the kind that people with houses string along their gables. Snowflakes cut out of white paper with blunt scissors by little hands are taped to a window. I love the holiday lights in Loisaida. It’s the cheeriest thing when it gets dark so early.

I took these photos two years ago. Walking home from the dog park, I walked with the pups past the tall and skinny lighted tree in Tompkins Square Park and out the east exit at 7th St. Then I saw the windows of the bar 7B. They were so very christmasy on that icy cold night that I had to stop and take out my phone for pictures. It was a struggle because the dogs would not be still and it was hard to hold the phone steady with their leashes around my wrist. I said “damn you dogs!” threw their leashes on the sidewalk, held them under my boot and aimed the phone. A passerby paused and smiled at the dogs, smiled at the windows and then at me and said “Merry Xmas”.

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The bar 7B has been in lots of movies. I came across this video compilation: 7B: A History in Motion Pictures. Check it out.

loisaida dressed in fall colors

It feels like fall has been deliciously drawn out this year. The days are bright and warm and the trees and bushes are dressed in autumn colors. Fall comes late in New York City. They say that the thousands of black tar rooftops create extra heat in Manhattan. Maybe that is why fall is so much later here than just a few miles away.

fence at la plaza cultural de armando perez community garden

fence at la plaza cultural de armando perez community garden

Everywhere I look there are leaves on the sidewalks. Many colors of leaves, plain large brown leaves from oak trees, maple leaves tinged in red, many small wispy yellow leaves. It seems that the weeping willow trees are the last to turn – they are still green. So many yellow gingko trees. When I see the golden canopy of those trees, I know that I will forever be reminded of Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011 when idealism itself was a golden thing as we listened to mic check under the bright yellow ginkgo trees. There is nothing as energizing as being around people who think they can change the world.

el jardin del paraiso

el jardin del paraiso

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The turtle pond in El Jardin del Paraiso is still. The red-eared slider turtles, those abandoned Chinatown pets, released into the garden pond are already tucked in, burrowed deep into the mud for the winter, nowhere to be seen. The goldfish are moving slow, shining in the water like jewels. They will conquer the winter like they’ve done for years, sitting at the bottom of the pond in the mud till they wake and come alive again in spring.

turtle pond in el jardin del paraiso

turtle pond in el jardin del paraiso

hurricane sandy one year ago

One year ago today, we were holed up in our apartment listening to the screaming wind and watching the branches of the weeping willow in the garden crushing the fence and spilling onto the sidewalk. Here is my post from last year.

Today on this anniversary, I came across this haunting black and white video posted by Scream Machine showing the flooding of Loisaida Avenue. I’d not seen before how strong the storm surge was when it came up the avenue. About 3 minutes in, they’ve edited in still photographs of the aftermath.

loisaida tree beds

Street trees are tough cookies. They survive in bad soil and polluted air. They give us back oxgen, and in the summer they cool our walks with their shade.

I like how people tend the street trees and create small gardens around the their beds. Here is a round-up of some of the tree beds in Loisaida this autumn.

wooden bed with white fencing

wooden bed with white fencing

a suburban look with mums

a suburban look with mums

lush bed garden with a bamboo fence

lush bed garden with a bamboo fence

metal tree bed fences make for good bike parking

metal tree bed fences make for good bike parking

a minimalist tree bed on Loisaida Avenue

a minimalist tree bed on Loisaida Avenue

this gardent was created and is tended to by my friend Raquel

this gardent was created and is tended to by my friend Raquel

tree bed made from the pieces of demolished tenements

tree bed made from the pieces of demolished tenements