LIC opens to the arts

Artist Gabriele stands beside his work on display at a street fair during the LIC Arts Open event. Photo by Ken Maldonado
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A powerful form of kinetic energy must exist in Long Island City, where 500 artists commune and create. Back in the glory days of manufacturing, the largest nabe in Queens was home to many large businesses. Since 1970, its genesis as a vibrant artistic and cultural hub — saturated with galleries, studio spaces and art venues — came about as droves of artists escaped Manhattan’s high rents, in search of work studios in the area.

It was another banner year for the 2012 LIC Arts Open, which ran from May 12 to May 20, and there was an impressive turnout, as a multi-faceted culture fest took the hood by storm, reminding New Yorkers that L.I.C. is much more than just a bunch of industrial buildings and expensive lofts.

The sunny final weekend of the Arts Open was a perfect way to end eight days devoted to all the arts have to offer. More than 200 artists in 10 buildings opened their studios to the public, showcasing a dizzying array of spectacular pan-genre exhibitions — everything from graffiti and abstract to hyper-realism. The block party on 22nd Street was a fun diversion for those suffering from culture overload.

The previous week’s festivities featured special events: A Launch Party hosted by Reis Studios, in honor of its 10-year anniversary; theater and jazz performances; even improv acts and children’s art contest, which culminated in an awards ceremony led by Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), who sponsored the Arts Open.

Installations were on view at MoMA P.S. 1 and along Vernon Boulevard, playing host to the creative community’s creations.

At the LIC Art Center Gallery, 44-02 23rd St., the jaw-dropping “Subway Goddess Pageant” series was on display. Artist Karen Kettering Dimit said it was created in response to the effect her patriarchal upbringing had on her sense of worth. Her mosaic on three-dimensional carved stone sculptures and figurines also explore the concept of ancient, powerful female figures versus today’s goddesses.

“The reaction of the community has been great. I had a 2-year-old girl who could not tear herself away from Kali (a Hindu goddess),” said the artist. “I’ve been gratified to see a lot of people being very captivated. It’s been very rewarding.”

Dimit’s works also have to do with the pecking order of men and women: “Of where we are with feminism in today’s society,” she explained. “At the time, there was an honoring of the feminine energy and its contribution to society. The message for today is that women tend to be undervalued for their contribution to society.”

Her second, more organic, exhibit featured unusual alabaster with burl wood pieces.

In another studio in the art center building, Meredith Nieves, artiste and president of Abingdon Square Painters, spoke about the 10-artist group who shared space there for three years: “We work together, learn together; we’re artists of all levels.”

Nieves works in oil, mostly on canvas, sometimes on wood. “I love color, so that’s what moves me and why I’m drawn to still life,” she said. “We love the Arts Open; it really is a great way to bring people to L.I.C. It’s hard to get people to come here just to see ‘your show,’ but once it’s an event, they can walk around, there’s music and dance, as well as the visual arts.”

Seated in front of a series of quirky acrylic paintings was Abingdon Square’s director, Tony Mavilia from Kew Gardens. After 32 years as a special edcuation teacher, he’s retired and comes to the studio regularly. His work is based on photographs he took of a vine growing to the side of a building in the Meatpacking District, on 14th Street I do drawings that are very tangled, like society; how society pulls you in with moirés, culture, life.”

Artist Jim Plunkett stood on a ladder in his studio, putting the finishing touches on his work. The father of two comes to L.I.C. from Manhattan five days a week. He’s been in this building for six years. His thing is painting from life. Portraits, like the one of an attractive Asian woman, were displayed everywhere. “It’s a real visceral kind of drawing,” he said, referring to his use of oil on wood panels.

The Artisans Guild of America had a booth at the block party. Its wonderful exhibition at the Reis Building, 43-01 22nd St., featured 25 artisans with unique specialties including chandelier makers and leathersmiths. There were high-end, handmade baby items and linens beside hand-printed fabrics. The building housed small, niche businesses.

The guild’s vice president, Eli Rios, copies furniture and restores antiques. Working with interior designers, he has a 6,000-square-foot factory in the area. “This is refreshing. It’s a great place to work and develop,” he said. Formerly based in Manhattan for 20 years, Rios said he was lucky to find space in the area.

Ernie Smith, guild president and master embroiderer, has a 10,000-square-foot factory with 13 employees in L.I.C. They work by hand, using hand-guided and computer-driven machines.

His company, Penn & Fletcher Embroidery, is located just north of the bridge at 21st Street and 41st Avenue. They do work for Broadway shows, movies, circuses, religious organizations. “We just did a curtain and Torah covers for a shul in Prague, built in 1270.” For film, they created Alice’s dress in “Alice in Wonderland” and the kimonos for “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Recently, they finished a beaded Dolly Parton dress.

“We’re employers providing jobs for people who are very talented, but don’t have computer skills or educational backgrounds,” said Smith, who recalled that awhile back, Mayor Bloomberg was saying that the city was not a good place for manufacturing. “But he’s now changed his tune; he realizes how important it is to the economy of New York City. You can’t rely on the financial district only.”

Reflecting on L.I.C.’s future, Smith said, “One of the things I see happening is that people are trying to differentiate themselves. Large corporations make big quantities overseas and try and sell it to you, so everyone looks alike.

“Small manufacturers can make unique things that can’t be made on a mass market scale and now, with greater interest in individuality, people are looking to artisans to create something special.

“People are amazed this kind of work is being done in America, especially, in Long Island City.”

Updated 12:48 pm, May 31, 2012
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