The Gowanus Canal makes us think about filth: waters redolent of fecal matter, chemicals officially deemed a toxic hazard by the Environmental Protection Agency, and oft joked-about swamp-monsters dwelling beneath its shadowy depths. While the canal is the source of a lingering stench, it’s also been repurposed as something of an artistic canvas, as many floating installations have graced its murky waters, offering something of a playground that lends itself to the parity of beauty and ugliness.
For Ruth Hofheimer and Julia Whitney-Barnes, two muralists who’ve made the enrichment of Brooklyn’s art scene a personal undertaking by producing sculptures and murals throughout the borough, the Gowanus Canal isn’t necessarily a blighted eyesore, but a landmark in need of both aesthetic and structural rejuvenation. Both Hofheimer and Whitney-Barnes recently completed a mural along the canal. Painted vibrantly on the wall of Dykes Lumber building on Sixth Street and Third Avenue, the energetic mural is rife with renderings of lush plant-life. The many profuse colors are inspired by various floating gardens that have drifted down the Canal in recent years, and reflect onto the canal’s opaque surface from a luminous white backdrop.
Their project, “Gowanus: Industry & Ecology,” comes partly from a 2013 trip Whitney-Barns took to Mexico City, where she studied various floating gardens that have proliferated among the Mexican capital’s canals. Similarly to the chinampas that she encountered, “Industry & Ecology” generates a much needed respite from the gritty urban density of the city, imparting a feeling of calm among Gowanus’ roaring industrial sites. Hofheimer notes that their project would have been impossible without the Gowanus Public Art Initiative and a grant funded by City Council Member Brad Lander of District 39. The project was also facilitated by Arts Gowanus and the Old Stone House, according to Hofheimer.
To gain a little insight into the shared thought-process behind the canal’s newest artistic hallmark, we talked to both Whitney-Barnes and Hofheimer about their project.
Brooklyn Magazine: First of all, what is a floating garden?
Hofheimer: A floating garden is a garden that lives on water. The Gowanus Canal is punctuated by floating tire gardens created by the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, one of our partnering organizations. While our mural is not specifically about floating gardens, it does incorporate imagery from the Gowanus Canal area, including a floating tire garden. Though we looked at imagery of the floating gardens in Mexico City when first brainstorming, the final design is meant to represent the coming together of manmade things and nature in an abstract Gowanus landscape.
Tell me about your experiences looking at the floating gardens in Mexico city. Why did you think that could be re-created, or at least celebrated, in a mural along the Gowanus canal?
Whitney-Barnes: I went to Mexico City in 2013 to do research for a mosaic that I completed at the Brooklyn School of Inquiry, which was inspired by ancient to contemporary Mexico. While I was there, I loved the floating gardens in the canal and researched the history of them. The Gowanus Canal Conservancy has created their own versions of floating gardens using repurposed tires as floating planters and an image of one of these is pictured in the center of the mural. Also, the many plant forms depicted in the mural act as their own kind of floating garden since they all get reflected in the canal.
Is there something at play between the toxic canal and the vibrant colors of the mural? A juxtaposition of dirtiness and beauty (or something), perhaps?
Hofheimer: While it’s true that the Gowanus Canal is badly contaminated, I find the surrounding gritty industrial landscape captivating. The mural’s vivid colors stand in contrast to the enormous scrap pile adjacent to the site. And there is, in fact, a beautiful interplay between the mural and the canal water in the reflection of the brightly colored imagery at sunset.
Whitney-Barnes: Our goal from the beginning was to enliven the area with a painting that spoke to the unique character of the canal with its industrial roots and also the connection to the area’s more historic past when it was a creek and natural habitat to plants and animals. This environment is making a resurgence thanks to the cleanup and revitalization efforts of so many organizations and individuals.
Tell me about your individual work. Where do you usually paint murals and where are favorite spots to pain in Brooklyn (if you have any)?
Hofheimer: I’ve made public art in many places in the New York area and in Los Angeles. Gowanus is my favorite place to paint. I grew up in the area, and in addition to my public art projects, I’ve worked in various capacities with local nonprofits including Arts Gowanus, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, Groundswell, and Build It Green!NYC. My work in Gowanus includes six sculptures I installed on the median at Prospect and Fourth Avenues, and a block-long mural on Huntington Street between Smith Street and the Gowanus Canal.
Just to say a few things about why I like to make public art: I am interested in the power of public spaces to activate and engage communities. I’m also interested in the relationship between art and its physical context, so that’s always my jumping off point for design. My public art in Gowanus radically alters the environment and therefore creates a brand new experience for viewers. I also find the physicality of working large-scale to be freeing.
Whitney-Barnes: Ruth and I each had past experience creating murals near the canal. Ruth worked with volunteers from the Gowanus Canal Conservancy in 2013 to paint a long mural on Huntington Street (she can go into additional details). My first outdoor mural was painted in 2008 on 2nd Street near the Gowanus Dredgers boat launch site. The mural incorporated abstracted imagery of animals able to inhabit the Gowanus Canal area.
From 2006 till a few weeks ago, my studio was located near the canal and it was always one of my most inspiring parts of NYC. I’m currently 9 months pregnant (yes, that made for some challenging giant mural painting) and my husband and I just bought an Arts & Crafts house in the Hudson Valley (Poughkeepsie) that we are using for studio space and living. After 18 months of work, this mural was also an unplanned goodbye to Brooklyn for me. I’ll still feel the magnetic pull to Brooklyn and be back often but under quite different circumstances since it will no longer be as a resident. I’ve seen countless changes in my 16 years of living in Brooklyn (18 in NYC total) and find myself nostalgic for a wildness that was previously more omnipresent along the Brooklyn waterfront in general. Another favorite area is the Red Hook waterfront.
Images of “Gowanus: Industry & Ecology,” below: