Kelie Bowman and Sto have lived in Williamsburg for seven years now, and have been running Cinders Gallery on Havemeyer Street for three years. They just opened their second annual Porch Show. I met with them to discuss the themes of the show, how the neighborhood is changing, and what it means to be part of this loosely-knit community of artists that they represent.
Kate Strassman: Tell me about the Porch Show. How did this concept for a show come to be?
Kelie Bowman: We've always been interested in ideas of home, and we try to do reoccurring themed shows dealing with home.
Sto: We're definitely obsessed with the idea of home and what that means living in New York, since it always feels like you could be leaving. There are a lot of people constantly in and out. A big part of running a gallery for us is being able to create community and to have people in this community come look at art, show art, and be part of this whole thing. So with that idea, the porch is a meeting ground for the public and the private. Throughout history, the porch has always been the space where you can sit down and talk to neighbors and have these interactions with people. In this day and age, we've lost some of that, especially in the city with people confined to their little places.
Kelie: But even in history, since WWII, the porch has been in decline because of television, and air conditioning...
KS: Also because of architecture. New houses don't even really have porches.
Kelie: Exactly, a lot of homes are gated, and there are less people walking around. People are more guarded now, and there is a loss of community. My parents and my brother live in suburbia, and talking to them I feel like people have less sense of what's going on in the world. Especially in the , there isn't an acknowledgment of how poor the poor really are, and that other people are struggling to survive. Not that they're dumb-- they read the paper, they're educated, but it's easier to lose touch with reality in suburbia.
Sto: Yeah you know; You live in your house. You wake up every morning, get in your car, and you drive to work. Then at the end of the day you get back in your car, and drive home.
Kelie: I know a lot of Americans in small towns who are very afraid to leave and do very little traveling. Especially after 9/11 and our country's self-induced fear of terrorism, some Americans are still totally frightened to even get on a plane.
Sto: It's true, and even broader than that there is this general fear of others. There's a climate these days where you're almost spying on your neighbors and you're supposed to tell someone if you see something bad. There's all this distrust and fear.
Kelie: Going back to the last question, "Home" can be a metaphor for many different things. How does one define their home? I feel that home sort of centers you in the world. There's this John Berger book, "And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos", and in it he talks about how when you're home, you're closest to heaven and hell. It provides this axis point-- you're closest to the gods in the sky and the hell in the ground. And that for me is super important. In New York City you're so transient and a lot of people are searching for that home base. And we try to provide that within our gallery. We want to provide more of a community center, a place where people can go to feel good, hang out, and interact.
Sto: It comes from a selfish impulse too. For many years we lived here and didn't have a space for that. I was always waiting for that gallery to open up where I could be friends with the people who run it, and show there, and just be a part of it. I just wanted to help out, to be a part of something that's a representation of what I like and my neighborhood. We felt like there was a void, and starting this gallery came out of that impulse. And with the Porch Show, it's almost a quintessential show to provide that.
Kelie: We also used to live in the back of Cinders, and so the porch for us is super selfish...
Sto: Literally it was the front of our house, as well as our gallery. We're both from southern states, I grew up in Virginia and Kelie's from Florida. I actually grew up in an apartment, but going to college people had houses with porches and it had that slow, southern lifestyle. People would sit out on their porches all night. So, we were missing that.The idea with this show is to bring in all these different types of people out who might not usually come to an art show and to keep the space active. We want to make it a meeting spot. Come hang out on the porch, have a BBQ, and hear some music. We're having events where bands will be playing on the porch while people sit on the "lawn" and watch.
KS: How do these ideas of community and gentrification apply to your own neighborhood of Williamsburg? How is the community changing?
Kelie: I think the neighborhood's at this really pivotal point. It's changing so rapidly-- I mean we're saying stuff like this all the time-- But now, it' really changing, it's separating, and people can't afford to live here. It will be interesting to see what happens. I feel like if it keeps continuing in this direction, artists aren't going to want to live here anymore. I've heard a lot of people say, 'If I can't live in Williamsburg, I'm just going to move away from the city." And I know that the Bloomberg administration values the creative people in the city, but they're not addressing it in any real way.
KS: It is the artists who make New York what it is.
Kelie: So yeah. The Porch Show for us, is a way to celebrate community while we still can.
KS: If you break down the waves of gentrification in Williamsburg's history, the original population of Williamsburg is mostly Dominican, Puerto Rican, maybe a small runoff of Poles from Greenpoint. Then 10 or so years ago, young, relatively poor, mostly white, artists moved here because of the cheap rent and the big spaces. People have been flocking here the last few years to become a part of this community. Now, there is a current wave of gentrification with all these high-rise luxury condos being constructed and sold or rented to young professionals moving in who make more money, causing rents to skyrocket. This pattern is happening everywhere. You mention on your website how these small family businesses-- the bodegas, the laundromats, mostly run by the original population of Williamsburg-- are such an integral part of the community. Bedford now is turning into a strip of boutiques. What is it like to be a gallery that represents the middle people here? Has your gallery ever considered showcasing artists from the Hispanic population, or done a collaborative project with this community? Do you see a diversity of people attending your openings and events? I'm curious how that relationship exists between neighbors.
Sto: For Cinders, on the real basic level, we're there and we're totally open. We try to be as inviting as possible to the neighborhood. People who walk by everyday, kids in the neighborhood-- they pop in and check it out to see what sort of crazy things are happening. We've had high school field trips come check us out and talk to us. We definitely get all walks of life coming in, from old people, to young kids in the neighborhood. So on that level, they're getting exposed to all these things that we think is important and interesting. We've made a local impact on some of the high school kids who were like, "WHOA!" One of the field trips was an art class, and they got inspired to make all this stuff. The teacher told us they went back to class and started making art with all their new ideas.
Kelie: There's some confusion with Cinders and people who walk in who think we only show people in the neighborhood, or that we have only a certain aesthetic agenda. I mean, we have and aesthetic vision, but there is a larger concept. We show a lot of Californian artists, and Canadians. We're not so interested in where they are geographically, but we are interested in this larger network of people that work in the DIY punk scene.
Sto: Mainly we get our artists from that world, but it's really based on the art. If someone was living on our street that was doing art that fit, then we would show them. It's mostly about the art, not where the artists are from.
KS: How did this concept of home and the American porch help you curate this show and choose your artists? The pieces certainly have their own themes, but then they have overlapping themes that bring the show together in a very coherent way.
KB: There are definitely specific people we thought of, mostly sculptural people who we thought would be perfect for the porch like AJ Fosik's piece of the lawn ornament-- it's a fox. We know a bunch of artists whose work is about these animal worlds, and we just pictured them on the porch. We asked one of our artists to make lanterns-- she made the squirrels.
Sto: We sought people out, we really looked hard for people who were commenting about these issues, about home, about community. We worked pretty hard on the curation part.
Kelie: With the 2D work, we are showing a lot people who draw pretty intricately.
KS: There is a lot of macro in the micro, like the whole world could be found in a tiny peep hole. A lot of work is intensely detailed, and I feel like people could visit this show multiple times and discover something new each time.
Sto: We want people to come in, take time out of their day, and really slow down and look. Which people need to do-- they need to slow down for a second.
Kelie: Right now drawing is pretty big. I feel it's sort of a backlash to technology. Video art was super big in the 90's-- it still is, but now with drawing you don't need a lot to do it, you can do it anywhere. It's especially relevant in New York City where spaces are super small and you can just do it in your room. A lot of people are working that way, and we are interested in that work. But we also want to see craft involved too. When you see something over and over again, you get to this point where you're like, "Ok, are you actually good at what you do?"
Sto: It's nice to see that craft and the hand at work.
KS: There is nothing digital in this show, everything is very handmade.
Kelie: I feel like going to Chelsea now is like seeing what's new with Sony. There are crazy flat screen TV's or projectors, these ridiculous things.
KS: A lot of time those shows make me feel nothing. Although, every time I go to Chelsea, I see one or two shows that hit me, and I'm glad I went.
Kelie: I always have to go with an agenda, I can't just wander around, because it bums me out. I can't believe that such crappy work gets such attention. One thing with Chelsea, there are all these huge, empty galleries where you walk in and there's only one piece on the wall. We like to be the opposite of that, where you walk into a small room and there is a ton of work to invest your time in.
KS: You guys, have what, like 30 artists in this show? That's a lot of artists for such a small space!
Sto: Part of it is that we like to have a lot to look at. But also, it's about using what we've got. We like to use our space to the maximum.
Kelie: People spend a lot of time in our small space.
Sto: I mean, that's what I want out of an art experience. I want to be able to hang out there for an hour.
KS: None of the pieces you show seem to exceed two feet in any dimension.
Sto: We had one show with larger paintings, and she fit in 3-4 ... or it was only two paintings? Yeah, it didn't really work.
Kelie: We're a small works gallery. Going back to curating this show and focusing on themes, we did have this idea of everything having a certain level of "fakeness".
Kelie: Yeah, everything in this show is fabricated-- beer cans, flowers. It revolves around the concept, that in our society, a lot of the things in our lives are not real. They are our own fabrications.
KS: You mentioned in this dialogue the Do-it-Yourself movement, and craft. I see this work as being part of a new wave of folk art in that it is highly symbolic, it's figurative, and there's a desire to communicate or tell a story. Artists that could be considered part of this movement who are semi-main stream are people like Clare Rojas or Marcel Dzama. Do you feel like it is limiting to try to name or categorize this movement, or do you feel like it is empowering?
Sto: I think a label or a name is always limiting because people have their perceptions already of what is Folk art, so calling it New Folk... When you start labeling things, it can be dangerous and limiting to someone's perspective of what it really is.
Kelie: I mean, it would be great to be able to tell my parents, "I do this"--- you know, because it's hard to describe. I always describe it as "Illustrative" work. A lot of people talk about Marcel Dzama who walk into our gallery, and I think a lot of people forget that he didn't invent drawing or paper. Some people who show in our gallery have been doing this longer than him.
Sto: A lot of our artists don't even know who he is.
Kelie: I think people like to drop names for the sake of it, and need to associate things they know with things they don't know so they can sort of fit it in this box. A lot of people need to hear from someone else that an artist is great before they support them. It took a bunch of people to say about Claire Rojas, "She's great, she's famous," for people to start paying attention. Now she has shows all over the world. We have people who come in and buy work because they love it and they don't care if people have name recognition.
KS: Consider some very real, concrete movements like the Surrealists, or Fluxus. Do you feel our generation even has the ability to start a movement, or are we too individualistic to do something like write a manifesto?
Kelie: Someone in history will someday name it and will make it seem like it was a movement. I think reading about things in history books always makes it seem like it was more of a community of people working together. I think people loosely play off each other, but I don't think it's as tight-knit, it's just always written about later.
I also don't think it's as obvious as that. I feel when you talk about movements or manifestos or changing the world, it's always kind of false.
KS: I guess it sort of creates a platform for bad art. Like "I'm going to say THIS, to be a part of ... THIS." It makes for sort of clever, obvious, didactic, work.
Kelie: I think it's better to affect people on a smaller level. I think artists want people to look, and think, and be influenced. It's hard because I think a lot of people don't see art as necessary thing in our society. It's definately not as essential as food or shelter. But it's important to have art in your life.
KS: It's interesting that you say that, because this Porch Show is about those little things-- food, shelter, family, friends-- all these little details that make up your life.
Sto: When people see other artists doing this stuff, it does influence them.
KS: A lot of the artists you show in your gallery look like they're brothers and sisters in the way they work although they do not live near eachother or even know about eachother. It's almost like there is something in the air or the water that brings the art together and makes it a reflection of our time, our culture.
KS: There is another theme I see in this show, and it's sort of a longing to return to nature, or a longing for a more simple way of life. It is a rejection of the urban climate and life in the city. There are animals and nature in this show, there isn't any square architecture, or windows, or cars, or technology. And it's interesting because a lot of artists are staying and thriving in the city and making this art out of a longing for what they don't have.
Sto: People are obsessed with nature for a lot of reasons. I know, for us, for me, just living in the city does make me long for nature, but I don't want to live just in nature. I want to live in the city-- that's why I'm here. But, you know, we have an artist right now that lives upstate in a barn.
KS: You have these photographs in the show of this ramshackle shack that was created out of found scraps and in another photo, a woman who looks like she's living in this house that she built herself--- What's the story behind that?
Sto: The artist travels around, trainhops, and takes polaroids wherever he goes. His name's the Polaroid Kid. And those were photos of a house in North Carolina. It's a real house outside of Asheville. That's someone who wants to lives off-the-grid, off the beaten path away from society, on their own terms, not having to pay rent. So yeah, there are artists living in the city and longing for that kind of stuff. But there's also something mystical about nature and animals.
KS: In this art that has nature and animals as a theme, there seems to be a desire to create new mythology through these symbols, a need to document these thoughts and dreams. I mean, do we want to knock down all our buildings and return to nature? No, not really, but...
Sto: I mean the amount of building and destruction that goes on, and the things we keep doing to nature and ourselves, that just keeps getting worse and worse.
KS: Do you think art like this could help stop this cycle?
Kelie: In an ideal world
Sto: I mean it gets people going, "Oh, I love tigers! I love the jungle! We shouldn't cut down those rain forests." But maybe at least that imagery brings these issues up. For me it does. For someone who doesn't go to the forest that often, maybe this art will trigger a desire to revisit that side of themselves. You know, being in a field and having that feeling that you could run with your eyes closed and not run into someone.
Kelie: Nature and animals specifically are innocent, and maybe that's the metaphor for something.
Sto: Us humans have so much inner strife with each other. Animals are such purer beings.
KS: I'm a little curious what it's like to be a working artist while running this gallery-- You get to show your work, and yet you are also facilitating this community. What's that like?
Sto: It's a total challenge. On one level, you're there when people come into the show, and you witness how everyone interacts with the art. A lot of times the artist doesn't see those visitors, so it's a real eye-opener to be privy how people react to the art.
KS: Do you share with the artists, "So-and-so said this about your art" ?
Sto: Of course! We really get to interact with people on a personal level.
Kelie: Being an artist while running this gallery, I've never made more art than now. Yet, there are so many deadlines and both of us are pretty unrealistic about time and what we can get done.
Sto: The gallery pushes us. We did the Porch Show while we were doing this show in , and we sent the art out the same week we were working on the porch.
KS: And life is rich. You guys are happy, healthy looking people.
Sto: Yeah, we go out, have fun, are part of this whole thing...
Kelie: Uh, we don't go out that much.
Sto: Well, I go out that much.
Kelie: We didn't go out for the last two months before the Porch Show.
Sto: You do have to have that discipline. But it's so rewarding. You don't have to wait around for "that show" to happen-- you can just be like, "I wanna do this show!" and have this venue to do it in. With the porch, we get to curate the whole space and have all of our favorite people to be part of it. There's nothing more rewarding than that. It's awesome.
The Porch Show is having many on-going events. Stay tuned for some incredible music shows, a film night with popcorn, and plenty of barbecues. The schedule of events and more pictures of the work can be found at