B. Conte Boutique

Hats by Julia Knox Revisted displayed in B. Conte Boutique.

Bernadette Conte, owner of B.Conte boutique (at left). Photos by Ben Rosenzweig

By Francesca Moisin

The one constant at B. Conte boutique in Williamsburg is that things are always changing. Friendly-priced merchandise flies off shelves, to be swapped with new pieces from famous labels and up-and-coming designers. Regular trunk shows introduce cocktail-sipping customers to an influx of fresh accessories, both antique and au courant. Even the 750-square-foot retail space pulls double duty as a gallery, with the work of local artists rotating on the walls. “What I like best about my store is how it’s in steady flux,” says owner Bernadette Conte.

Such modifications mimic the neighborhood itself, which Conte feels has evolved dramatically since she opened shop four years ago. The economy had tanked, dragging her eponymous clothing line down with it. Potential garment patrons weren’t spending, and the 50-year-old entrepreneur struggled to concoct a new business plan. That’s when husband James Sheppard, a furniture maker and longtime Brooklyn resident, stumbled upon the empty North 9th Street room—and Conte couldn’t resist. “I suddenly remembered this tucked-away dream of owning a boutique,” recalls the Yonkers native. Now the place is packed with urban bohemians and quirky young professionals, all with at least one quality in common: their fetish for eclectic fashion. “I go to trade shows, paw through Garment District showrooms, and scour vintage warehouses, because I’m always searching for unique items,” says Conte. “If you can find it easily elsewhere, I’m not so interested.”

Hats by Julia Knox Revisted displayed in B. Conte Boutique.

Less subtle is the Eve Gravel “April” pencil dress ($220), a chocolate Mad Men-esque Lycra and cotton confection boasting bold mustard accents, like epaulettes. Can’t find the perfect frock? Conte, an FIT grad, also breathes new life into outdated duds by adding modern tweaks while preserving their vintage vibe.

Near the entrance, a glass case displays copper cuffs from the 1950s, all varnished with a special lacquer that ensures they’ll never tarnish. A gold ‘70s mock-Egyptian necklace screams for attention next to its shy sister, a Victorian strand. There are Damascene brooches, pewter Selen Design pieces, and striking adornments by Sky Phaebl. “We’re known for our extensive jewelry collection,” says Conte. “These treasures are like my babies—I feel a pang when each is sold, but I want them all to end up in happy homes.”

And, most blissfully, there are hats: petite cloches, cheeky cadet caps, velvet turbans, pillboxes with veils, and froufrou fascinators worn by Brits at weddings. The pomegranate “Head Lipstick” fedora ($225) from English milliner Julia Knox is made of fur felt, each feather hand-adhered to the brim with care.

“When would I put it on?” asks a dazzled browser. “You’d become the girl with the red hat, so you’d want to wear it everywhere!” says Knox.

Ditto for everything in this world of whimsy.

167 North 9th
Williamsburg, Brooklyn 11211
718-200-0690

Williamsburg’s New Cinema District

Williamsburg now has its own movie theatre row (sort of) .  Photos by Victoria Stillwell

Williamsburg now has its own movie theatre row (sort of) . Photos by Victoria Stillwell

By Eric Kohn

When Harvey Elgart first started looking around the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area for places to open a movie theater, he saw a wide open opportunity in a neighborhood devoid of commercial movie options. “It was under-screened,” recalls Elgart, who at the time already operated the Cobble Hill and Kew Gardens Cinemas. “Few theaters could have found the proper zoning rights and price.”

That was five years ago. By the time Elgart managed to open the Williamsburg Cinema on Grand Street and Driggs Avenue in early January, the neighborhood had extended its repertoire to include a wide variety of theaters. In June 2011, the Nitehawk Cinema brought a three-screen arthouse experience to the area, with the added bonus of food and drink services during screenings (the theater also overturned a long-problematic law outlawing alcohol in screening rooms).

Over the following two years, a series of microcinemas set up shop in the vicinity: IndieScreen, a smaller but fashionable bar-movie experience, mainly programs sleeper hits from the film festival circuit; The Spectacle shows rare cinephile-friendly gems; and Videology, once merely a video store, now screens a combination of first-run features and wackier one-off selections.

But none of these theaters harbor the financial aspirations or mainstream slant of Elgart’s Williamsburg Cinema, a 1,000-seat, seven-screen, stadium-style venue exclusively focused on showing new releases to the broadest possible audience.

While the other theaters appear to reflect the artsier sensibilities of many people living in the area, Elgart views his endeavor on a much larger scale. “We are a true movie theater,” he says. “Those other venues have become restaurants that show movies. That’s not what we aim to do.”

But even if several of the theaters in the vicinity rely on food and drink perks to lure people through the door, the recent history of movie theaters in Williamsburg-Greenpoint has much to do with local demand for a product previously unavailable in North Brooklyn.

For Nitehawk, the venue’s commercial appeal first solidified not when it managed to start serving booze during movies, but rather when it booked one movie that fit the interests of the local clientele.

That would be “Drive,” Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s bloody, expressionistic Ryan Gosling vehicle, which appealed to fans of both the star and the genre. But it almost didn’t happen.

For theaters to book new movies, they first must appeal to distributors hoping to place their titles where audiences will turn up. Nitehawk, which had no track record, proved something of a gamble. But the theater lucked out: Bob and Jeanne Berney, who at the time ran the operations of “Drive” distributor FilmDistrict, visited the area frequently, since their son Sean lives here. “Just looking at the streets of Williamsburg, it seemed like there was a younger audience that was going to respond to this arty exploitation film,” recalls Bob Berney, who now runs the newly relaunched Picturehouse.

The gamble paid off: “Drive” played for 10 weeks at Nitehawk, filling each of its screening rooms and frequently selling out, firmly putting the theater on the map. “The grosses at the Nitehawk were comparable to these huge multiplex shows,” Berney says. “I think it really established the theater.”

Still, Berney admitted he was hesitant about booking first-run features at an unconventional theater, echoing Elgart’s characterization of such venues. “This was the attitude of distributors at first as well,” he says. “But it gives you a real community to hang out and talk about the films—unlike some other theaters, where you just leave.”

Nitehawk founder Matthew Viragh acknowledges that the bar is an intrinsic part of his business model. “I joke a lot about opening a laundromat with a bar,” he says, but adds that the central demand behind his operation was the movies themselves. “There are a lot of artists in the neighborhood,” he explains. “The music scene exploded first. Now the film scene has exploded. It’s been a long time coming.”

Viragh says he first started spending time in the neighborhood around 2000, when the only real theater available was The Commodore, on Broadway. “It wasn’t a very nice theater,” he says. “It was run down. For a long while, I knew Northern Brooklyn was hurting for screens.” He attributes the delay in the marketplace to other forces that took priority as the Williamsburg-Greenpoint neighborhood developed. “People wanted a grocery store above all else,” he says. “But now it’s just such a heavily populated area.”

Elgart also sees the influx of residents as part of its market potential, but not because of Williamsburg’s reputation for being dominated by hip adults. “You wouldn’t think people in their thirties and forties would be part of the demographic, but there are older adults and families here now,” he says. “There are enough people in the immediate area.”

In his first month with the theater open, Elgart says he has noticed that more people attend late screenings, so shows at the Williamsburg Cinema can run as late as 11 p.m.— a stark contrast to Elgart’s Cobble Hill Cinema, where the last screening usually starts no later than 9 p.m. That may point to the nightlife sensibilities of the neighborhood, but Elgart still hopes to draw more families. He recently booked the theater’s first animated feature, “Escape

From Planet Earth,” set to open February 14. He has also added the incentive of special pricing by knocking down ticket prices to $8 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Our expectation is to run the theater to the maximum,” he explains.

However, while the Williamsburg Cinema may draw commercially-oriented viewers less inclined to check out the more outr. options nearby, as a traditional multiplex Elgart’s theater faces a typical modern-day challenge: How do you lure people to see a movie when they can save money and time by watching stuff at home?

Elgart is unfazed. “Those are people who really don’t go to the movies,” he says. “But the moviegoing experience is special. It will never change.”

Farewell to a Community Leader and Friend

Teri Muroff Meyer, former Community Board #1 member and Public Safety chairperson. Photo courtesy Robert Meyer

Teri Muroff Meyer, former Community Board #1 member and Public Safety chairperson. Photo courtesy Robert Meyer

On January 23, former Community Board member and Public Safety chairperson, Teri Muroff Meyer, 44, passed away after a long battle with cancer. This community is a better place thanks to her. I admired how Teri could dispute with people over issues in her leadership role as Public Safety chair, being firm and tough; then I would see her outside with the same people she was just in conflict with, having a laugh. I learned from her how to fight over an issue but to always be respectful of others.

She was a person I became friends with, and I am blessed for the wonderful times I had with her. This was sent to me by friend and colleague Heather Roslund, who also had the opportunity to work closely with Teri:

“She was one of us. That’s the hard part. She was an artist, an activist, but most of all a doer. She got out there and got involved and made a difference. She was one of those rare people that inspire you to be better.

She was a good friend, always there with an ear or a shoulder, and always with a smile. She was a joy to be with. But not in a sappy way. She was tough and sassy and fierce. And she was so brave. She faced her illness with dignity.

All this was evidenced this past weekend by the hundreds of people who came to pay their respects and say goodbye. It was a truly humbling experience, and I am honored that she considered me her friend.”

— Phil

Join WG News + Arts for Boogie & Booze / Saturday, March 2nd @ Modca

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WG News + Arts and Henry Cross have teamed up to create "A Night of Boogie & Booze," ($15) hosted by Modca Café (North 3rd Street) on March 2, 8-11pm: A demo, instruction, and dancing. Modca will cater ($5 voucher for food included in cost--scroll down for menu). For tickets, call 917-304-6213 or email ggould@thewgnews.com. Space is limited. Call soon.

By Grace Glenn

There’s no ballroom dance craze in North Brooklyn to speak of—no clubs and a dearth of classes (even in the schools)—and Henry Cross noticed. For the 26-year-old instructor and former competitive ballroom dancer, purveyor of boogie, swing, and the two-step, he sees opportunity. And stepping up, he’s begun to introduce the traditional styles and forms to seniors, adults, and children.

Cross teaches ballroom privately and also to groups throughout the five boroughs, including (formerly) to seniors at the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Center. He is also a certified yoga instructor and the program director at Hosh Yoga, a yoga studio on Guernsey Street in Greenpoint. After volunteering there for about a year, the founder Hamid Elsevar Hamidzadeh and he discussed his involvement with new and expanded programming at the studio, and in October they launched a program called Hosh Kids, tailored for children 18-months to 8-years-old.

What makes this new venture something to boogie about is that he wants to make the classes affordable, so that families don’t have to sweat the cost. That’s why it’s called “Health Wellness and Movement for Kids as a Right of Life, Rather than a Luxury.” He calculates that the cost for each class averages about five dollars.

“As long as the instructors and the space are paid for, I’m happy,” says Cross, who reveals that his time with Hosh Yoga is a labor of love. And not just for Cross, all 20 instructors at Hosh (a sliding scale donation studio: $5-$15) are volunteers as well.

Bringing ballroom to untested waters is nothing new for Cross. His previous employment was as program development director for Fit for Life, a Bedford-Stuyvesant–based vendor for the city Department of Education, where he supervised dozens of teachers teaching hundreds of students.

Cross, originally from Miami, started dancing when he was 10 years old. His single-parent mom enrolled him in a ballroom dance class. He admits he was resistant at first, and felt weird about dancing with girls and being made to do certain moves. “Picture asking a 10-year-old boy to do hip breaks and cha-cha-cha, it looks absolutely silly—the arms, the style. But then you grow out of that.”

He stopped ballroom dance during his high school years, but when he attended college at Catholic University, where he was studying history and politics, he started dancing again at the encouragement of a friend. He competed and toured for several years around the country and a few times overseas.

He thought he was going into politics, before the dance took over, but his political skills serve him well now, as local ambassador of sorts of ballroom dance.

Teaching kids, he says, is where he derives the most joy. He likes inspiring kids’ imaginations. “When they see the dance, and realize they can do it, it helps them know that anything is possible for them,” he says. “It teaches lessons about life.” He describes one of his own experiences with a mentor: “I was always a very strong dancer, but tense, and one of my mentors told me to blow all the air out of my lungs, deflate the body, let it go. It’s no big deal, but in essence what he did was show me that I didn’t need more steps or technique, I just needed a state of mind.”

As far as his jiving with his newly adopted community of Williamsburg, where there’s a hopping nightlife, he says, “We know that people like to drink and dance here; well what about drink and boogie?”

In that spirit, WG News + Arts and Henry Cross have teamed up to sponsor an event (for adults) hosted by Modca Café (North 3rd Street, on March 2, 8-11pm): A Night of Boogie and Booze. It will include a short performance with Henry and partner, some instruction, and then lots of dancing. Modca will cater a special menu ($5 voucher for food included in cost of ticket). For your tickets, call 917-304-6213 or write to ggould@thewgnews.com.

Space is limited. Call soon. For more info about Hosh Kids, visit hoshkids.org, or email henry@hoshyoga.org.

Aelfie Collects and Sells Textiles that Tell a Story

A Kilim dealer Aelfie Oudghiri, sells vintage, and designs her own line of rugs. Photos by victoria stillwell B AELFIE, located in Bushwick recently opened for business (by appointment). Photos by victoria stillwell C Rugs from Tunisia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Morocco, are among the AELFIE vintage collection. Photos by victoria stillwell

Kilim dealer, Aelfie Oudghiri, sells vintage and her own line of rugs. Photo by Victoria Stillwell

By Francesca Moisin

When Aelfie Oudghiri was 17 years old, she sat in a Turkish rug shop and negotiated with the dealer for six hours. She bartered so long her brother fell asleep, and the store closed while they haggled. “It just felt really natural and fun,” recalls Oudghiri, who’s half Turkish on her mother’s side. Bargain concluded, she parted with two prizes: a flat-woven tribal rug, or kilim, that now decorates her Bushwick showroom, and an admirer. “The owner sent me Christmas cards for years!” she says. “I think we connected because I’ve always loved talking to people, be they Upper East Side doyennes or old Middle Eastern dudes.”

This gift for gab serves Oudghiri well, along with her innate ability to sort through heaps of tapestries from around the world and pick the distinctive pieces best suited for a New York market. “I buy partly what I like, but also think in terms of what will most match an American couch,” she says. In business for only two years, the Columbia University grad has already established her reputation as an accomplished kilim dealer. Stacks of folded carpets made in Tunisia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Morocco, Mexico, the former Yugoslavia, or the Caucasus fill her spacious 12,000-square-foot Varick Avenue studio. “Everything’s from everywhere, because every place has weaving,” she explains. Some were acquired through travel, others bought at estate sales or from associate vendors, and 20 percent of inventory arrived via Valerie Sherif Justin, a 90-year-old former textiles legend who launched Oudghiri into the industry and still serves as a mentor. Clients love the extensive selection—and the costs. “Bushwick rent is very fair, and I’m a one-woman business without too many crazy expenses,” explains Oudghiri. “That means I can charge wholesale prices sans markup.”

Rugs from Tunisia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Morocco, are among the AELFIE vintage collection. Photo by Victoria Stillwell

Turkish kilims start at $150, while a stunning 1970s prayer mat is available for $350. The most expensive items currently in stock are a $5,000 tent divider from Mali, and a huge $5,500 mid-century Yugoslavian covering crafted with a special “eccentric tapestry weave” technique.

Those unsure of their stylistic preferences needn’t worry. The 26-year-old dealer has an uncanny ability to match customers with their perfect rug-mate. Hobbies, careers, favorite boutiques, and iPod playlists are all revealing personality indicators. “If someone’s listening to Beach House or minimal electro music, I know they’ll want something muted, as opposed to a crazy sequined runner,” says Oudghiri. And because vintage isn’t universally admired, the Williamsburg resident has now come out with her own line of designs, called AELFIE. “The styles I’m creating have more general mass appeal, because I learned not everyone wants an antique carpet once used to cover camels.”

AELFIE, located in Bushwick recently opened for business (by appointment). Photo by Victoria Stillwell

Inspiration comes from references as obscure as Josef Albers’ painting Homage to the Square, which Oudghiri saw at MoMA and used as the muse for her own ochre-and-amber-toned floor throw. “If business continues to grow well, I hope to one day expand into pillows, then bedding and drapes, then desks, and eventually even furniture,” says Oudghiri. “Each rug tells its own complicated story, and I feel mine is just beginning.”

Aelfie.com
41 Varick Ave #401
631-603-5574 (By appointment only)

Public Schools: What’s Mayoral Control Got to Do with It?

At the public hearing to co-locate a charter elementary school in the only public middle school in Greenpoint, a parent stood up and asked, “If the NYC DOE [Department of Education] is doing such a poor job by parents, why don’t we open more charter schools?”

Those who think the solution to fixing the problems of urban education is to redirect taxpayer dollars to privatized charters don’t understand what parents want. We want an end to Bloomberg’s “my way or the highway” totalitarian mayoral control of our schools. Before hopping into another dysfunctional relationship with the next mayor, it’s worth discussing our painful love affair with public education, and an abusive city DOE, in order to find our way out of this mess.

In 2002, the mayor wrested control of our public schools from what for thirty years had been the decentralized power of local school boards. This much authority given to the mayor to appoint the New York City schools chancellor, set policy, and create budgets was radical and unprecedented. School boards were erased and the city Board of Education became the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP). A voting body might sound democratic, but the majority eight out of thirteen PEP members are appointed at the pleasure of the mayor. Imagine the public outcry if the U.S. President were able to assign members to the House and Senate as a rubber stamp for all of his policies. The PEP has never voted against Mayor Bloomberg, even as so many of his controversial policies don’t make any sense for public schools. The one time PEP members threatened to vote against Bloomberg with the use of high stakes tests to end social promotion for third graders, Bloomberg removed those appointees the night before the vote in what was dubbed the “Monday Night Massacre.”

Anyone familiar with abusers knows that the first step in developing compliance is to isolate your “partner.” This sheds light on some of Bloomberg’s restructuring initiatives under mayoral control. He abolished geographic district groupings of schools into “regions” (a larger geographic area of neighboring district schools), abandoning regions in favor of “networks,” a nonsensical, conceptual grouping of supposedly like-minded schools from across the city. This is what we’re stuck with today, where my daughter’s network is no longer located in the community where the school is housed, but shared with other isolated schools in Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. The system is bizarrely byzantine and utterly disempowering for parents and community members. Finally, the district superintendent, once charged with hiring and firing our district school principals, has been thoroughly neutered. Superintendents aren’t even allowed to visit their district schools without an invitation.

The great irony of Williamsburg complaining about mayoral control is that District 14, which includes Williamsburg and Greenpoint, was held up as a prime example of what wasn’t working with school boards, with over two thirds of our school board seats held by the Hasidic and Polish community even though their combined enrollment in our D14 public schools was less than 7%. Latinos, representing 80% of students enrolled in D14 public schools, were constantly outvoted on issues that were critical to their schools, not the least of which was choosing a superintendent to hire principals and develop curriculum.

The D14 school board, with the help of its 20-year superintendent, William “Wild Bill” Rogers, was shockingly littered with scandals and improprieties, from explicitly segregated buildings to 6 million dollars of public funds funneled into a girls’ yeshiva through payments to no-show staff for schools with phantom students. The absurd residual of this corrupt school board’s disregard for the Latino families they should have been serving is still seen in the oddly named PS380 John Wayne School, which is located in the Hasidic section, with majority Latino enrollment, and named after the Hollywood actor because Superintendent Rogers was a big fan. Students at PS380 sometimes refer to their school as “Juan Wayne.”

Ten years of the mayoral-control experiment hasn’t lessened corruption or cronyism; it’s just citywide now, rather than local. Emails released between former Chancellor Joel Klein and Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy Charter Network, revealed the special access Moskowitz had to the chancellor and the favoritism she received, all while co-location hearings showed overwhelming opposition to Success Academy schools by local communities. Who was the mayor serving? Even as I write this, a Daily News article discusses a recent PEP vote that approved renewing a 4.5 million dollar contract for Champion Learning Center LLC, in spite of Champion being found to have improperly billed the city for 6 million dollars in previous years.

The reaction from parents to the field of mayoral candidates has been lukewarm, since we know that after the election our only recourse will be Bloomberg’s snide suggestion to “Boo me at parades.” There are no authentic checks and balances against mayoral control. Each candidate simply asserts that she or he will make a better Ruler of All Schools.

Abuse of power is a plague, and accountability to the public is the only remedy. So what can we do?

As it turns out, a lot. And now is the time. Parents can take a lesson from advice given to victims of abuse: Change the narrative of power and rebuild the relationships your abuser severed. Don’t believe the mayor when he implies that public school teachers are your enemy. Don’t accept that parents should only be “involved” in their childrens’ schools. Parent involvement just means helping your kid get to school on time and reading to them. Parent engagement is what we’re after—where people with skin in the game get a meaningful say in policies that directly impact our children. In short, democracy.

We need to start taking advantage of some of the systems that are still in place (due to state laws that Bloomberg wasn’t able to change), including School Leadership Teams (SLTs), where an equal number of elected parents and teachers develop their school’s Comprehensive Educational Plan (CEP) and align the CEP with the school-based budget. SLTs are designed to be democratic institutions. We can form advocacy groups within each public school to keep our school communities informed about what’s happening on the local, state, and national level. We can end any false competition between neighborhood public schools through parents working together to ensure that all our neighborhood schools are great.

We can attend our district Community Education Councils (CECs) and run for CEC positions (applications available in February). The CECs are really only advisory, but they can be a powerful mechanism for gathering community input and setting an agenda for our district. If we want a local say in our local schools, we need to be ready for it.

We have to press every mayoral candidate to stand against mayoral control beyond lip service to parental involvement and input, and reform the structure of absolute power that has been absolutely corrosive to democracy. Remember, mayoral control has only been in place for ten years.

And the mayor isn’t the only elected official in town. State government is just as essential. Mayoral control is a New York State law, and sometimes it appears that there is gubernatorial control of the state Department of Education. Governor Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission came out with a list of statewide policy recommendations, but didn’t include a single public school parent on the panel. The list of recommendations reflects this absence. Skin in the game, people.

Fighting this fight may seem like a lot of work, but sometimes it’s just a matter of making a phone call or signing a petition. More than anything, we have to vote every time there’s an election—especially the local elections.

Democracy is never a fait accompli, but involves ongoing participatory action. We’ve been conditioned to see mayoral control as in our best interest, lest “we, the people” misuse our power. Think about that for minute. Can you imagine our Founding Fathers putting a special clause in the Constitution calling for absolute power for those occasions when “we, the people” couldn’t handle the responsibilities of democracy? Any elected official, be they city, state, or federal, that believes “we, the people” are too inefficient or vested to decide, or too lazy or stupid for power, is un-American, and Americans should vote them out.

The great American philosopher John Dewey describes the charge of public education as creating democratic citizens who will design the pluralistic society we will live in together. How can we possibly teach our children to be democratic citizens, to have the personal, collaborative, and creative power to make their own worlds, if we have ceded our own?

There are groups working on policies in support of our public schools, including our very own WAGPOPS! (Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents: Our Public Schools!) To find out more about WAGPOPS!, including information on the next public meeting, LIKE us on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/WilliamsburgGreenpointParents.

What’s 3 Minutes of Your Time? Myk Henry Performance Art

Tram happenings: Geneva, October 1996. Shaving performance (Monday morning). Boarded the tram 12 at Carouge 11.00hr in the direction of Moinsullaz. Well dressed wearing a suit and tie, I carried with me a fold out stool, a metal basin, and a briefcase. The briefcase contained a thermos flask full of hot water, a mirror, a scissors, shaving foam, a coat hanger and a towel. I clipped off my beard shaved and left the tram ten minutes later. Public reaction: One woman immediately changes her seat when she sees me taking my tie off. Old man: “I hope you’re well shaved. I think you missed a spot” Whilst pouring the soapy water out the door and onto the street one woman obviously offended and in a hurry to get off the tram says: “I can’t believe it. First he shaves and now he’s blocking the doorway of the tram. Public transport worker comments aggressively: “Next they will be installing toilets on the tram.” Photo by Didier Beguelin (Geneva)

By David LaGaccia

Myk Henry, an Irishman from Dublin, had just come back to Brooklyn from an arts festival in South Korea. He walked around his apartment and into his kitchen making coffee, and placed the mugs on the dining room table. One month had passed since we had last spoken. Before his trip to Korea he said that he had been getting burned out on performance art. Although now, he felt reinvigorated. “You look down a side street and you see the neon signs blinking and the people rushing by and it’s like, woosh!” he said. And he is amazed at his own prolificacy. Realizing he’s participated in eleven performances in 2012 alone, it doesn’t seem like Myk Henry is slowing down.

An artist who works with video, installation, and performance art, Henry is tall, broad shouldered, and speaks in a colorful, descriptive way that brings up images of the many specific and odd experiences he’s lived through. He gives the impression that life could be, or is, at least for him, an art form. (He also shares an uncanny resemblance to actor Adrien Brody.) He works as an interior renovator by trade and lives as an established artist by discipline.

Henry lived through Williamsburg’s early “Warehouse” scene in the late 80s and early 90s, helping create art exhibitions in burned-out factories. Those events attracted creative minds who wanted to keep the bright lights shining at night, and police and fire marshals who wanted to shut the bright lights off before the events had even begun. He’s traveled throughout Europe, working with many art organizations and collectives, and has recently returned from several performance art festivals in South Korea.

Henry lives off the Nassau G train stop, where Greenpoint meets McCarren Park, acting as a buffer between the traditional Polish neighborhood and a now-upscale Bedford Avenue, which has changed dramatically since he moved there in 1986. Those were times when, by night, one could see the Manhattan skyscrapers above the old warehouses. McCarren Park would be empty, except for a few muggers, bums, and people in their mid-twenties to early thirties holding each other up by the shoulder, stepping out of bars with legs crossing each other, slumping in a tangle to the park benches by the baseball fields lit-up by the tall floodlights.

In the late 80s and the early 90s Williamsburg had two bars at opposite ends of the neighborhood: one in the north and the other in the south—the Right Bank, on Kent Avenue and Broadway and the Ship’s Mast on Berry between North 4th and north 5th streets; the first café was the L Café on North 7th and Bedford which opened in 1992. Williamsburg at this time was a neighborhood of abandoned factories, thieves, garbage, and drugs, where needles and crack vials could be found strewn down Kent Avenue, and industrial spaces, like the Old Mustard factory, were taken over by bohemian artists who promoted raucous art events by what is now called the “East River State Park.” Those warehouses have been torn down, but a few concrete slabs remain.

Tram happenings: Geneva, October 1996. Shaving performance (Monday morning). Boarded the tram 12 at Carouge 11.00hr in the direction of Moinsullaz. Well dressed wearing a suit and tie, I carried with me a fold out stool, a metal basin, and a briefcase. The briefcase contained a thermos flask full of hot water, a mirror, a scissors, shaving foam, a coat hanger and a towel. I clipped off my beard shaved and left the tram ten minutes later. Public reaction: One woman immediately changes her seat when she sees me taking my tie off. Old man: “I hope you’re well shaved. I think you missed a spot” Whilst pouring the soapy water out the door and onto the street one woman obviously offended and in a hurry to get off the tram says: “I can’t believe it. First he shaves and now he’s blocking the doorway of the tram. Public transport worker comments aggressively: “Next they will be installing toilets on the tram.” Photo by Didier Beguelin (Geneva)

Henry moved to New York from Dublin, Ireland, after his father, a department store owner, refused to consider handing the family business over to him, saying: “Go to university young man and get a degree in business and we can revisit this subject when you have achieved that goal.” Wanting to travel to the States with a childhood friend, the plan was to go to California, after first stopping in New York. “Originally I was preparing to come over with my best friend. As teenagers we spent every day together, but he let me down at the last minute. I ended up posting a notice on the YMCA bulletin board in Dublin, and some guy responded. We traveled together to New York and were picked up at JFK by some friend of his who took us to his house in Morristown, New Jersey. He threw both of us out after 10 days, and I only had $1,000 on me. Within two weeks I was down to $500. I was really in a tight spot.”

Needing a job and a place to stay, he went to the 42nd street YMCA in New York City, and was told to try to contact Father Pat Moloney at the Community Center on the Lower East Side on East 9th Street. As recently as April 13, 2012, the New York Times ran a character study on Father Pat, mentioning a British intelligence officer who called him the “underground general,” of the Irish Republican Army. Hearing Henry’s story, Father Pat took him in and let him stay in the apartment of his brother John, who was being held on gun running charges in Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. Long Kesh housed paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles from mid-1971 to the mid-2000s.

Looking for a job, Henry used a contact that his neighbor in Dublin had given him. A building contractor named Kieran McGrath, who was originally from Tyrone, told Henry that if he was ever in need, he should talk to his brother Tom. Finding Tom, he approached him, mentioning the brother’s name.

“Tom, I am your brother Kieran’s neighbor from Ireland. Do you have a job? And he said, ‘Yeah, I manage this underground casino, would you be interested in dealing cards? If you want to learn how to deal blackjack, Vinny our teacher will show you how.’ These clubs were run by the Irish Mafia, The Westies. I was in with The Westies at 19 years of age. My code name was Blaze, and they’d say ‘Yo Blaze go to 64th street.’ It was a lot of fun. They gave me a shift at the big club on 18th Street and 1st Avenue. On a busy night there would be like three hundred people in the club. At 8:30 a.m. there would be a queue outside the bathroom and inside you would see people shaving and putting on ties getting ready for work. We had this giant bouncer named Tiny. When he walked passed you, the floorboards would kind of sink. He had a frontal lobotomy and a metal plate in his forehead so he was kind of slow. Overall, I had no idea who I was rubbing shoulders with. When the cops busted the club it would usually be on a Thursday evening from 8 to 9. As soon as the cops would clear off a van would be waiting outside with tables and chips to replace those the police had just confiscated. You’re back up and running again pronto. If the owner Johnnie Mac was arrested we knew that he would be released quickly, since he knew the local precinct sergeant. And there were a lot of Irish cops on the force back then. But then they changed the busting laws, so I wanted to get out because I was afraid of being deported. It was like something out of the movies and I was the bad guy! That was my first job. It’s a social thing to deal cards, and to deal cards under those circumstances was like you were brewin’ in the prohibition days.”

Cut off my clothes and hair. Galapagos Art Space, Brooklyn, New York. October 1996

Moving to Williamsburg in 1987, Henry became part of the bohemian art scene in Brooklyn that was being decimated by the AIDS epidemic, and at the same time growing with an influx of like-minded artists who were part of a scene that would come to be known as Immersionism. Living in an apartment at Havemeyer and Roebling streets with his then girlfriend Anna Hurwitz, it was she who first got Henry interested in art. “Anna introduced me to culture. It had a nice feel about it; it felt like we were renegades, pioneers. There was lots of empty space. My roommate Martin Eastwood, who was from Northern Ireland, told me about the Lizards Tail. We used to work together as dealers in the club, and he was interested in music. When I went there for the first time I really loved the cozy, underground vibe and decided not to tell my girlfriend about it for a few months. I wanted to keep it as my own little hang out. Eventually, I told her and she also became friends with everybody and an integral part of the warehouse core group.”

The Lizard’s Tail was a cabaret on South 6th Street under the Williamsburg Bridge started by Terry Dineen and the late Jean-Francois Pottiez, and was part immersionist culture, or what Suzan Wines in Domus Magazine called “immersive culture.” “It [immersionism] blew out of a collective desire to work in a warehouse, to find a place in Williamsburg so we could showcase a lot of the performance and arts, to make it a sort of living experience, so we knew we wanted to make something community-based,” said Terry Dineen. “There are no words, it was the Cat’s Head—that was the spirit—an incredible spirit—a very international spirit. Korean Jean-Francois really spearheaded that. There was no question if it wasn’t going to be done; there was a driving force in our belief in each other and what we were doing. We were pioneers of the area—pioneers of the warehouse scene. People were coming across the east river from Manhattan in canoes.”

“Immersionism” was the art scene that took place in Williamsburg during the late 80’s and early 90’s, showing performances and multi-media works in abandoned warehouses and factories, including two that were called the Cat’s Head and the Flytrap, both of which stood on what is now the East River State Park.

Henry took out several old photos and placed them on the table, wiping them off, making sure there weren’t any coffee rings on the edges. They were taken in his old Havemeyer apartment; he had red hair and was dressed in a patchwork coat.

“1989 through 1992 was a pivotal time in the art scene in Williamsburg. From the windows of the Cat’s Head you could see the glow of the art installations inside and thousands of people waited outside anxious and full of anticipation about what was in store inside. We were inviting young artists to showcase non-precious artwork in large, raw spaces. We wanted to encourage the artists to come out of their studios and make work that the audience could dive into, to interact with each other and explore their own creativity. We were weaving in and out of dumpsters making art out of trash. You’d see really exciting trends—you really felt you were on the cutting edge. Now if you tried to do the same thing today you’d get shut down in a second. I really appreciate being able to experience New York in the 80’s, but I left at the right time. In 1994, Henry left Brooklyn and moved to Switzerland, where he continued his involvement with the arts, and spent 10 years immersed in another bohemian art scene.

See description at end of article.

Henry was recently invited to perform at the Korean Experimental Art Festival in Seoul. After getting off the 21-hour flight, he met other artists from around the world at the airport waiting to board a bus provided by the festival organizers. For the opening night of the ceremony artists meet other artists, celebrate and drink, and find out when they’re set to perform. “You know how wild and crazy it’s going to get based on the lineup,” said Henry. During the festival, the organizers assign each artist an assistant, usually an art student, who helps gather materials for that artist’s performance: a pig’s stomach, a dress, anything needed from any of the nuanced shops in South Korea. Afterwards took park in the Jeju art festival, which he called, “the South Korean version of Burning Man but not quite as funky,” taking place on Jeju Island, off the coast of Korea, centered by Halla-san volcano, and known for its high winds. In the two and a half weeks he stayed in Korea, he performed a total of four times and built an 80-foot wind installation out of white fabric wrapped around poles.

Last year, Henry also directed the first performance art biennial ever held in Houston, Texas, called “Lone Star Performance Explosion.” It was the first time he had spearheaded a festival on this scale.

“To create a new awareness, to jolt people out of their routine—that’s the power of all art. I think the medium of performance is a potent one. The human body is the most influential material you can use. A lot of people are just stuck in their ways. I’m pretty good at creating a situation that stops peoples’ normal flow. I sometimes question if it’s a complete waste of my time, but then I see art that resonates with me and I say ‘Yeah this really can make a difference.’ You don’t have to touch every single person in a space. If you can touch just one single person, then the performance is a success.”

Henry’s performance work is often political and social, dealing with issues of sexuality, gender, how we use or value our time, and what happens when our lives are pushed from the norm with these themes. One performance, called “Time Out,” where he stops a moving trolley during a busy commuting afternoon, was developed in Prague, and in Basel and Geneva, from 2000 through 2001.Specifically timed for three minutes, one purpose of the performance is to see how valuable such a short amount of time is to another person. Dressed in a nice business suit and carrying a bag a groceries, Henry walks out in front of an oncoming tram. The paper bag rips on cue, the tram stops precisely where he wants it to stop blocking all traffic. He searches slowly—and stalling for time—gathers the carrots, the spaghetti, the lettuce, and the tomatoes, to the annoyance of the conductor and all of the passengers on board. Next, when a policeman intervenes, or when pedestrians or even the conductor start helping him, Henry looks to see if he reaches his target time and boards the trolley and hands everyone a business card that reads: “A performance by Myk Henry. What is 3 minutes of your time? Send your answer to my email.” Outside, through the trolley windows, a sandwich man walking on the street corner can be seen with a sign that reads: what is three minutes of your time? Typically there would be a crew of at least five people helping Henry.

One email response was: “You managed to steal 3 minutes of our (the passengers) time yesterday. I noticed that you had bought yourself a new suit and that you had an accomplice with a sign. For what purpose?”

The whole performance was documented by multiple cameras. It won him the La Bourse Federal, the National Swiss stipend for contemporary art, and Le Prix Contonal de Geneve, or the Geneva State prize for Contemporary Art. He was the first foreigner in Switzerland ever win the Providentia Prize (Young Art) for contemporary artists.

Erik Hokanson, co-director of Grace Exhibition Space and friend of Henry. says, “Myk can be really obsessive, pushy and can size things up accurately, and it’s these three things that make him great. He has this ability to mix social issues, political issues, racial issues, and gender politics, and squeezes them through a fine mesh so that you’re getting a distillation of all these ideas with a beautiful perplexity. He’s so conceptual, and it can be very literal, but it’s this intensity of purpose which keeps you continually focused on his actions.”

Henry has a lot of documentation of these performances on DVD’s, few of which can be found on the internet. He has neither an artist website, nor a dedicated Vimeo page for his performance work. Only a listing on apartmenttherapy.com about his work as a renovator can be found, where clients talk about his jobs installing a French door, a loft, a kitchen, renovating an apartment in the West Village, the Upper East Side, or repairing buildings by the Fulton Fish Market.

“If your project involves anything with wood or metal and needs a clever eye and a master’s touch, Myk is your man,” wrote one client. “Myk expertly rebuilt my closet the other day. He does what he says, charges fairly, and left my apartment in excellent shape. He also happens to be a very interesting, thoughtful fellow, an unexpected fringe benefit.” wrote another. From “I got this out of the whole deal,” he said, pulling out a sword from its sheath, and brandishing it in his dining room. He had just come from a Hurricane Sandy-related flood, and a client was throwing away a pile of old rusty antiques. Henry said the tenant gave him the old sword, an Arabian looking weapon, after he finished the demolition job.

His adeptness of being a renovator comes from his experience at building art installations. In the Warehouse Scene, he was a construction coordinator, and his skill developed further working on a construction crew. “It was stimulating to be part of a young team,” he said. “I’ve always been handy, and I’m really good at it now. I’m able to pull things together that others couldn’t even dream of doing. I can make the unimaginable happen and make it all look professional. How do you figure this stuff out? How do you make this picture in your head a reality? How do you transform your dreams into reality?”

At press time the WG learned that Henry’s next project is organizing a multi-city North American Performance Art Festival. In June and July, a group of performance artists from around the globe will bring live art to audiences across the USA and Canada, traveling in an old school bus Henry proposes to convert into a mobile command pod.

Rent me
Park of the Future, Amsterdam
April 1999

As many as two million people are feared to
have perished in North Korea since food shortages
swept the country in the mid-1990’s with
refugees and aid officials on the border painting
a picture of a society in desperate straits. Their
countrymen are therefore turning the women
and girls of North Korea into merchandise to be
traded for food and money. There is currently a
widespread shortage of women in China and it
seems that there is an increasing number of
young North Korean women, many in their
teens, being smuggled out of the country and
sold to Chinese farmers as brides, so that families
can eat. (The Herald Tribune February 1999)
The intention with the performance rent me was
to highlight the situation in North Korea by
placing myself in the Park of the Future shop as
the merchandise. I was not for sale outright but
could have been rented by any individual for the
duration of one month. As a means of initiating
a slave trade I rented myself without conditions.
The only stipulations were; a sum of 15,000
Euros was to be paid as a rental fee, the rental
agreement would be for one month, and I would
have the right to document whatever took place
during this period of time. Beyond this the
renter had complete freedom to do whatever
he/she pleased with me during this time.

The 15,000 Euros was to be donated to an international
aid organization working in North Korea.

Note 1: Many people were curious and throughout
the day posed a wide range of ethical, political,
racial and financial questions. One offer
was made to rent me by another performance
artist but this turned out to be a hoax.

Note 2: Some of the questions asked were as
follows:

I have some financial problems with a business
deal at the moment. If I was to give you a gun
could you go and shoot somebody for me?
If I gave you 15,000 Euros could you to go to
Korea and bring me back a teenage girl?

What gives you the right as a white western
male to represent a situation here in Europe
which is actually affecting young Asian girls in
the far East? Why don’t you go there and do
something about it?

Has anybody offered to buy you?

One Critic’s Virtual Exhibition of Hot Women Artists: Hello, Brooklyn Museum…anyone home?

“What sort of art would you show if you had access to the Brooklyn Museums space, its power, its audience?”

Our critic, Sarah Schmerler, asked this question last fall; then she started her own curatorial initiative called “GO:Curate.” She selected the paintings of Lori Ellison and Elsie Kagan as a good place to start building a show of pertinent art made by women working in Brooklyn today. Here’s a taste of what an exhibition might look like, with two works by each:

About the artists:
Lori Ellison has been making labor-intensive works in ballpoint pen on paper and gouache on panel for two decades. They may be humble in scale (no larger than a piece of notebook paper), but their surfaces pulsate with energy.

Elsie Kagan studied at Tyler in Philadelphia, and is highly influenced by art history—Northern Renaissance painting and Baroque ceiling painting, in particular. An accomplished muralist, she tends to work large. These two works (see way below) are 5 feet square.

Lori Ellison, "Untitled," 2010 Gouache on wood panel 7 x 5 inches

Lori Ellison untitled 2011 gouache on wood panel 10" x 8" / Photo Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, New York

Elsie Kagan" ways to be good and happy, 2012" acrylic and oil on canvas 60" x 60"

Elsie Kagan "full and by," 2012, acrylic and oil on canvas 60" x 60"