By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Art. Outdoors. Among Bed-Stuy brownstones. What could be better?
Fulton Art Fair is an annual open-air celebration of the artists of the African diaspora that dates back to the dawn of the Civil Rights movement – and everyone's invited.
The artists who hang their works on the fence at Fulton Park run the gamut from venerated veterans like Otto Neals, whose works are in the Smithsonian and Oprah Winfrey's collection, to Hofstra art student Tabitha Theogene.
Launched in 1958 by Bedford-Stuyvesant businesswoman Shirley Hawkins, it's the oldest Black visual arts event in Brooklyn. When she first started the fair, many neighborhood residents didn't know how many artists lived among them.
This year's fair, which runs for three weekends, began June 14. We were there for opening day, which was fabulous, and want to share these photos and artists' anecdotes. Of course you'll want to experience it for yourself.
It continues June 21-22 and June 28-29, from noon to 8 p.m. on Saturdays and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays. The art is displayed on the Fulton Street side of Fulton Park, which stretches from Stuyvesant to Lewis Avenues. The Chauncey Street side of the park is bordered by stunning brownstones, which shouldn't surprise you – this is Stuyvesant Heights, a landmarked section of Bed-Stuy.
If you're not lucky enough to live in the area, why not arrive before the fair starts – and stroll through the nearby streets to sample the architectural eye candy? If a caffeine pick-me-up is needed, the Georges-André Vintage Café on Halsey Street serves up cheese biscuits and La Colombe coffee.
* Otto Neals, 83, has been a faithful Fulton Art Fair participant since its inception.
“I enjoy it each and every year,” said the versatile artist, who brought watercolor portraits with him to Fulton Park – and is a noted sculptor and print- maker as well as painter.
Brooklynites have seen his work in Prospect Park – he did the bronze statue of Peter and his dog Willie, based on the works of children's author Ezra Jack Keats – and at Kings County Hospital, where a 20-foot mural of his is on display.
Neals, who lives in Crown Heights, was born in Lake City, South Carolina. Though he's an octogenarian, he gets up at 6 every morning so he can work.
* Karl McIntosh, 72, a friend of Neals' and another distinguished veteran of Brooklyn's artistic community, said he'll bring some of his collages and works made of found objects to the fair this coming weekend. He was showing some paintings the day we attended the fair.
The art he makes with found objects is great fun to look at. Some pieces are faces, others are human figures, and they're constructed with things like spatulas and junk metal. Look him up on the Weusi Artist Collective's website – www.weusiart.com – if you can't wait until this weekend to see what the works look like.
McIntosh, who grew up in Bed-Stuy, lives in Flatbush. He's a director of the Dorsey Art Gallery in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, which art patron Lawrence Dorsey owned until his death in 2007.
* Violet Hewitt Chandler also exhibited her work at the very first Fulton Art Fair in 1958.
“We had no idea it was going to last so long,” the 90-year-old painter said.
She paints portraits of children with innocent, serious gazes, dressed in traditional African garb or clothing of generations past.
Initially, her seven children served as her models. Later her grandchildren took on that task. More recently, she did a painting of one of her great-grandchildren.
Chandler, who was born in Bushwick, has lived in Bed-Stuy since 1947. Such changes she's seen in Brooklyn over the years.
“Oh Lord!” she said.
She doesn't like the tall towers that have been built recently, the ones that have usurped the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank building as the tallest landmark on Brooklyn's horizon.
“No matter where you were, if you were lost you would look for the clock tower,” she said.
*Diane Grazette-Collins exhibited acrylics of fierce, thoughtful women.
“These are faces I made up in my head,” said the painter. “I'm looking for a mood or an emotion.”
Her family has had a house on Chauncey Street across from Fulton Park since 1939, when her great-grandparents arrived from Barbados.
“My great-grandfather taught me to ride my bike on the sidewalk around Fulton Park,” she said.
She currently lives in the house with her 16-year-old son, who is the fifth-generation member of the family to call it home.
* Sadikisha Collier, the president of the Fulton Art Fair, hung her eye-catching collage of Harriet Tubman and a painting of kids saying the Pledge of Allegiance on the park fence.
When she returned to Bed-Stuy after college in 1983, the art fair clued her into the fact that her neighborhood was full of fellow artists.
“I felt validated,” she recalled. “Before, I felt alone.”
* Abdul Badi, 60, paints powerful images of southern Ethiopia's Omo Valley tribes.
“There's something about them that touches me,” the East New York artist explained. “There's an innocence and purity about them.”
He wants to capture their spirit while there's still time: “These cultures are being absorbed into modernity,” he said.
He spends his summers participating in art shows all along the East Coast – and finds the Fulton Art Fair a particular favorite.
“Bed-Stuy has such a rich history,” he said.
The whole borough is quite the hot spot these days, he mused momentarily.
“We're the cat's pajamas,” he said.
* Will Gray, 66, showed one of his gigantic floral photographs, which he stretches onto canvas and embellishes with paint.
“It's all about the orchids,” the Park Slope resident said of his passion for his subject matter.
“I grew up in the red hills of Alabama. We had no orchids.”
He travels to see fine specimens of them in Florida, the Dominican Republic and Philadelphia, where Longwood Gardens hosts a major orchid show.
* David G. Wilson, 61, looked at Van Gogh's famous painting of sunflowers, imagined taking it apart and putting it back together as a woman's face – and turned his idea into a terrific painting.
“There's an alternative reality in every image,” said the artist, who lives in Jamaica, Queens and has participated in the Fulton Art Fair for 20 years. “You just have to look for it.”
Another painting he brought to the show was a portrait of eagle-eyed President Obama – we mean that literally. One of Obama's eyes in the portrait is a small eagle.
* Benito Morales, 68, showed vibrant paintings of dancers.
One is coiled in a powerful crouch, another has her toes effortlessly pointed skywards, a third is shown from the knees down in a perfect ballet pose.
“I love dancing,” the Kew Gardens resident said. “The human body is so beautiful. People don't appreciate it.”
* Tabitha Theogene, 24, drew fair-goers' attention by setting up an easel and working on an acrylic painting – of a giant eyeball with a rose in its center instead of a pupil.
She called the work “The Beholder,” a visual echo of the old adage, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Theogene, who was born and raised in Flatbush, started doing ink drawing when she was 8, but thought she would become a lawyer or judge when she grew up.
Then she attended the funeral of her grandfather, whose side of the family she didn't really know. So many relatives she encountered there were artists. Suddenly, it felt like art was the right profession to embrace.
“It went from being a wish to a wish and a tradition,” she said.