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August 23, 2011

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World arts mecca in Brooklyn

BUSHWICK, Brooklyn, used to be a dangerous ghost town, but now it draws A-list artists, musicians, film makers from around the world, reports Verena Dobnik.

Brooklyn's old Bushwick neighborhood has quickly become a new world-class arts mecca - with music, dance, sculpture and theater bursting from defunct warehouses and desolate streets where gangs still roam.

That hasn't kept artists away from the affordable, industrial spaces - ever more rare in a pricey city.

"This was a ghost town, with tumbleweeds blowing down the street five years ago," says Jay Leritz, co-owner of Yummus Hummus, a Middle Eastern-style cafe on a street filled with musician rehearsal and recording spaces.

"The streets were empty," says Leritz, "and that was the big attraction - the lack of rules, like your parents went away for the weekend and it's a free-for-all."

Born-in-Bushwick creations have reached Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other top venues in the United States and abroad - even the tallest building on earth, the 160-story Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

That's where four canvases of Bushwick artist Kevork Mourad now hang.

The son of Armenian refugees in Syria is pioneering a special technique - a counterpoint of art and music he's performed with cellist Yo-Yo Ma: Squeezing a tube of paint between thumb and forefinger, Mourad swipes his pinky lightning-fast across paper to improvise images to sounds, projected on a screen. Then a computer unleashes his hand-painted animation, turning the visuals into yet newer forms.

Bushwick is "very private, and you can go into your bubble, your world, here without being interrupted by the fast stream of New York City," says the artist, whose abstract self-portrait sold for US$20,000 in April at a Christie's auction, topping an estimate of up to US$8,000.

His favorite sidekick is 4-year-old daughter Cirene, who occasionally pops up in his Bushwick studio, dancing, singing and painting. "She's the boss; she has her own style," says her dad.

She's watched him paint with greats like Ma, playing Bach. Mourad also teamed up with French guitarist Stephane Wrembel, who tosses off riffs in gypsy jazz style with off-the-cuff virtuosity.

Wrembel, whose music is featured in Woody Allen's film "Midnight in Paris," showed up at Mourad's studio to jam with singer/songwriter John Presnell and guitarist Spencer Katzman.

In the heat of a July night, their smoldering sounds filled the third-floor space on Meadow Street. The audience of several dozen people, sitting on a hand-woven Armenian carpet, was riveted.

"This is so cool!" says Quincy McQ, a Nigerian-born British music promoter.

Several blocks away is residential Bushwick, where families live in neatly kept homes or row houses. Enticing smoke from barbecues fills the air in a part of New York that is slowly being resurrected from decades of burned-out destruction.

Art recovery

A dozen years ago, this urban turf still struggled with crime and poverty. There were few banks, schools or social services - never mind the arts.

Then came help in the form of city money. Bushwick started to recover. It's the perfect place for income-poor, up-and-coming artists. They're spreading their raw vibes through the debris-strewn streets and converted warehouses of the area's non-residential industrial zone. On Saturday nights here, "underground" parties come alive with high-tech lighting and unlicensed bars.

A pizza joint, Roberta's, is packed at night, with an Internet-only radio station housed in two converted metal shipping containers offering talk about natural foods sprinkled with hip music.

"There's so much happening here that it's just unbelievable," says Mourad.

Earlier in July, Presnell, the songwriter, appeared in a double-height warehouse space two blocks from Mourad's studio. Singing in a rich, plaintive voice, Presnell played the brief Kafkaesque part of a lovelorn New York cockroach in an otherwise cheesy, sex-fueled musical featuring aerial acrobats. In the audience was Darren Aronofsky, who directed the Oscar-nominated film "Black Swan."

After the show, the director made a beeline for Presnell, while another performer told the songwriter he had "a new fan." Perhaps someday, Presnell might be what Aronofsky - or some other high-powered, artsy type - can use.

In the annals of art neighborhoods, Bushwick harkens back to New York's bohemian Greenwich Village in the 1950s and '60s, when real estate there was affordable, accompanied by drugs that brought murders and muggings to Manhattan's East Village.

When prices climbed, artists discovered nearby SoHo. And by the 1990s, Manhattan was off-limits to all but the already successful ones. The rest crossed the East River to Brooklyn's Williamsburg.

Now, it too is populated by "hipsters with a trust fund," jokes Adam Johnson, who chisels inspired, artistic furniture at the 3rd Ward, a 20,000-square-foot Bushwick building teeming with activity around the corner from Mourad's Meadow Street.

Teenage neighbors

The former warehouse is ringed by parked bicycles belonging to mostly youngish adventurers generating a whirlwind of activity amid weathered walls that house everything from fashion classes to high-end sculpture in chocolate taught by Mehdi Chellaoui, a former chef for rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs.

One neighborhood over is East New York, the city's most violent and hardly a magnet for artists.

Even in Bushwick, pedestrians stay alert for teenage members of the Latin Kings and Crips gangs. One evening, a police cruiser stopped, beaming a flashlight into the faces of a group of friends walking past abandoned buildings with blown-out windows.

Mourad plans to take his art to these streets soon, with Lil Buck, a brilliant young Los Angeles break dancer who also has performed with Ma. He and the cellist have drawn almost 1.4 million YouTube views for their rendition of Camille Saint-Saens' dying-swan song in a Spike Jonze-produced video.

There's something else on Buskwick streets that's of no use to anyone but attractive to some artists: trash.

In the 3rd Ward, sculptor Luke Schumacher melts copper he retrieves from throwaway electric wiring to his dramatic welded sculptures - their rough-hewn twists inspired by his childhood in California's Mojave Desert.

"This is like a fossil, from the time of the dinosaurs," he adds with a laugh, cradling one piece.


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