Art Haven Monster Island Bids Farewell to Brooklyn

Alongside the East River, the brightly colored artists’ oasis Monster Island, an industrial-warehouse-turned-studio, rises above the Williamsburg waterfront. For 17 years, the collectively-run site has been a haven for art collectives to communally create and exhibit their work. By the end of the month, the site’s ownership will be turned over to the Chetrit Group, a firm headed by real-estate magnate Joseph Chetrit, who has also recently acquired the site of the former Hotel Chelsea. The waterfront building will be demolished and is expected to be replaced by condominiums, a far cry from the once-bustling scene of do-it-yourself artists and exhibitionists.

As high-rises are built and sold in Williamsburg along Kent Street and streets like it, the community’s pace is transforming into one more focused on upper-class housing developments and chain stores. Now, the area’s most prominent art figures are off to find new homes for their work.

“Williamsburg is becoming the neighborhood of Duane Reade,” said Erik Zajaceskowski, a member of artist collective Secret Project Robot. Secret Project Robot also acts as a performance space located inside of Monster Island, based around the idea that art should be, more than anything else, fun. In 2008, Secret Project Robot was granted non-profit status by the IRS as a ‘arts and educational charitable institution.’ The venue will be relocating their studios to the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. “These changes will take a lot of getting used to, but this city has always kept evolving. In a way, how we grow through this adds to this city’s beauty.”

Martin Amorini, a newly retired resident of the area, appreciates Monster Island’s presence in his neighborhood. “Living in Brooklyn all these years, you begin to realize that nothing here, or anywhere, stays the same,” he said. “It’s so important that we keep telling the history of these talented people, but we have to let the next wave take over.”

Cameron Michel, who co-founded Lives With Animals, the visual and performance art organization and gallery in 2006, also located within the Monster Island building, worked a variety of odd jobs during his 10 years of living in Williamsburg. After spending time behind various fast food restaurant registers and inside the technology department offices at Parsons, he became inspired by his surroundings and took charge of them, becoming a full-time artist and exhibitioner.

“I’m fueled by the people I talk to and the people I see,” Michel said, standing barefoot in his studio of murals and sculptures, in between bites of pepperoni pizza. “It’s such an essential part of how we live, and that’s why it is so necessary to give back.”

Lives With Animals has hosted a wide variety of concerts and gallery events, allowing locals and visitors alike to bond over the power of art. Michel plans to relocate his collective to Manhattan, although plans are still in the process of being finalized.

As the sun’s midday rays begin to take shape, Emily Mathers, a stay-at-home mother, and her 1-year-old son, Jeremy, walk along the rocky shoreline of nearby Grand Ferry Park and watch the cars shoot over the Williamsburg Bridge, past the old factories and past the new residential zones.

“When you’re a member of a community like this, you can’t help but share these streets with artists,” Mathers said. “With them at this crossroads for finding the next great spot, it’s bittersweet.”

Longtime residents such as Mathers are hoping to keep in touch with the visions of Williamsburg’s creators, even as they find new locations for studios. “I’ll always connect with them. That’s never going away, no matter where they go.”

© Copyright 2011, New School Free Press.