Hoping art will prompt discussion about local issues
Sometimes a space hollers, “Transform me. Please!”
Eight young designers and artists have done just that to the old Bengels Auto Body Shop in Bellport Village, vacant for eight years, in an attempt to jump-start an artistic revolution in its thinking by using the area’s local influence as a vehicle. Its current installation, “The Beach Show,” which will run through Aug. 28, displays coastal erosion hazard maps of the Old Inlet breach, along with a large wood structure, made entirely from pieces of driftwood on Ho Hum Beach, as an example.
The group is called Auto Body because of the origin of the building; Georgia Read wrote the proposal that got the landlord on board.
“We’ll clean your space,” she recalled, “if you will give us this space for the rest of the summer.”
Georgia with her sister Claire, Johnny Knapp, Aria McManus, Tyler Healy, Quinn Sherman, Will Rose and Charles Stravinsky then set out to markedly change the interior. “We had a vision for an exposed ceiling,” Claire said, looking up at the wood rafters. The group, which ranges in age from 21 to 27, worked on it with some expertise from dads who were contractors. Two ceilings were taken down, noted McManus.
Their first exhibit, “The Car Show,” featured oil stick drawings of car accessory parts along with car-themed merchandise; a 1964 Ford Econoline was the main riveting display, a nod to the history of the place. For “The Book Show,” their second, “the content was from the community,” said Healy. “They brought in the books.”
Community members stuck a handwritten bookmark in their donated tome with information on who donated the book and why they chose it; the books were displayed imaginatively on small wooden pedestals.
“We see smaller bookstores in the city do well,” Knapp said of the desire to bring back a small bookstore similar to Bellport’s former Sou’wester, now that even the big-box bookstores are fast disappearing.
As Healy said, the thrust is “how can these pieces of art generate conversation.”
Their exhibits do create an interesting browsing interlude; Sunday night’s visit included the coastal erosion drawings and a room with key chains, pencils, little art magazines with senses of humor like “Animals Driving,” or “Animals Tanning,” car calendars, historic black-and-white and color postcards for sale. A table offered hand screened T-shirts designed by everyone in the group, featuring imprints of boiled-down blackberries. There was a Google Earth image of the Old Inlet breach on a beach towel, and Thaddeus O’Neil swimsuits. (O’Neil, a local, designs and makes them.) The exhibited merchandise numbers about 150 pieces and some are kept from previous shows. Prices for the artwork start at $5.
The area’s coastline, its erosion, the breach and preservation of cleaner waters has been in the news forefront.
“Whatever the theme is for the show, the merchandise is center stage,” explained Sherman, who helped curate a past Bellport-Brookhaven Historical Society exhibition, “Nearthebay and the World of Birdsall Otis Edey.”
Then there was a large, mystical wood structure built from driftwood, the kind that whisks observers away in their minds to magical places. “We built this structure on the beach last Sunday and it was washed away Tuesday; then we had to reassemble it,” McManus explained. Talk about artistic ingenuity; wood pieces were then dismantled on Ho Hum Beach and carted off in wagons, then brought to their art locale. “We tried to make it somewhat similar,” recalled Georgia Read of the 8-foot-wide, 10-foot-high structure they recreated.
The hope is to keep the building going as a percolating creative hotbed for young people. Read cited the landlord as “their angel,” but there were realities; the rent is $3,500 a month and they would need twice that much monthly for utilities and other expenses if they were to keep the exhibit space open three or four days a week. So far, there is one more show after “The Beach Show” ends next week.
Village business owners like Patricia Traynor of The Bellport and Chris Hane and Dan Haynes, partners at MVP Automotive Service Center, have been supportive, Read said.
Traynor said she loved the façade of the building with its concrete floors, high ceilings and rafters and was hoping to get local woodworkers, including staffers from her restaurant, in there to sell their original wares. She knew the Read girls and would bring her concept up to Georgia.
“I kept throwing these pictures to her,” she said. “I spoke to the landlord and said, ‘I have a group of kids and they want to do a pop-up’ and he came out from the city and gave them guidelines and we moved it on.”
Hane talked about the enthusiasm the partners saw. They had the keys to the buildings. “They would keep coming in for them and because we have a shared backyard, we’d see them haul the garbage out,” explained Hane. The partners recently gave Auto Body ad space in the Aug. 14 Advance. “I liked the fact that they were trying to bring some life back to the village.” Hane, who is on the board of the Bellport Chamber, tried to guide them promotionally; Haynes gave them business advice.
Bellport Village Mayor Ray Fell was another cheerleader. “We would love for them to continue,” he said. “I stopped by when they were first setting up and they were very excited about their prospects. We’re thrilled they had the success they’ve had and it goes to show, if you’re creative and have an idea, you never know how it moves forward.”
As for the group’s purpose and enthusiasm, “we all have jobs in the city,” explained Knapp, who will debut a film at the exhibit space on Friday. “But it’s important to erase the stigma that you can only get art and culture in the city.”
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