A Working Artists’ Haven, Built From Concrete and Love

January 27, 2015 Updated: January 27, 2015

NEW YORK—Look south on 11th Street in Long Island City and you’ll see the Pulaski Bridge leading into Brooklyn. Look north and you’ll see the red-and-white smokestacks of the old Con Edison plant puffing away. On the corner at 46th Avenue stands a red brick building that looks slightly more welcoming than the rest of the nondescript buildings that surround it.

This is the new home-away-from-home for a group of about 35 artists dedicated to practicing the tradition of fine art begun in the Renaissance—what’s been called realism since the modern art movements of the last century changed people’s notions of what qualified as art.

For seven years, the Grand Central Academy (now Grand Central Atelier) existed on one floor of a Midtown Manhattan building on the same block as the Harvard Club, the New York Yacht Club, and the New York City Bar Association.

Grand Central Academy offered workshops and evening and weekend studio sessions six days a week.

Though these sessions drew after-work hobbyist types as well as serious career artists, the curriculum was vigorous. Regardless of whether one was a full-time or part-time student—or whether they intended to become working artists at all—everyone was expected to eventually be able to sculpt anatomically correct human forms, draw hands, eyes, and ears accurately, and master color theory, with the ultimate goal being to paint the figure in color.

The 42nd Street space just couldn’t match the ambition of its users. There was no easily accessible bathroom, no kitchen, and barely a spot to hang a coat. Because classes took precedence and space was limited, you couldn’t work after 5 p.m., which is when the evening classes start, and if you needed to relax for a moment, your options were to doze at your easel or escape to the nearest coffeehouse.

A Space for Ideas

This new sprawling space, 12,000 square feet of it, still smelling of construction on the day of my late December visit, is sectioned by movable walls into rooms for cast drawing, sculpture, still life, portraits, and nude studies. Every surface is tacked with drawings. Workspaces flow organically into each other without boundaries.

Artists working at Eleventh Street Art at in Long Island City, New York, the new location for Grand Central Atelier, on Dec. 18, 2014. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Artists working at Eleventh Street Art at in Long Island City, New York, the new location for Grand Central Atelier, on Dec. 18, 2014. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

The floors are uneven, the concrete marked with blue painter’s tape in rough places, the tacked-together ceilings look like a mixed media project, and places to hang a coat are still rare.

When I arrived, a handful of artists were getting a last bit of drawing in before the evening’s holiday party. On the sprawling main floor, easels could be seen every few feet in any direction, poking up like masts over a sea of sketchpads, chairs, and personal affects. Strings of Christmas lights were rigged across the tops.

On the upper floor they have a lounge, a kitchen with an espresso machine, a billiards table, even a shower for those who bike in from different parts of the city. The director finally has her own office.

The crowning glory of this place is the skylights. There are nine throughout, each about 7 feet wide and lined with aluminum sheeting. In the old space, tall neighboring buildings made natural lighting rare.

There are no clocks in the studios—not by design or decree, but the result is that once you’re here, you enter a state of flow and don’t want to leave.

The Academy Graduates

For landscape painter and GCA instructor Emilie Lee, this space is a blessing. After she completed the four-year program in 2012, she worked out of her home, and then spent the rest of two years bouncing from place to place.

“I was moving around so much that I couldn’t settle in and work on some of the larger projects I wanted to work on,” she said. “It is just so draining to always be looking for space.”

In one space, the landlord wanted to force the artists out with higher rents. In other places she had to share space with artists whose work was completely different from hers, or had day jobs.

Grand Central Atelier resident Emilie Lee at her easel. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Grand Central Atelier resident Emilie Lee at her easel. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Here, she finds a place where like-minded, serious career artists can work, play, consult, and create together.

GCA no longer calls those in the four-year program “students,” but apprentices. Those who have completed the program are called residents. Currently they number five: Lee, Patrick Byrnes, Liz Beard, Devin Cecil-Wishing, and Anthony Baus, with more joining. They mostly work on independent projects and commissions when they are not teaching.

Previously, the culture was such that people would expect degrees, according to Lee. At Grand Central Atelier, artists come because they want to perfect their art—period. Because there is no diploma to work for, no tests to pass, and no one to check homework, the only motivation is intrinsic.

Apprentices are admitted via an application process and are engaged in the same rigorous, full-time training program as always, said Byrnes.

Gallery and Community

Straight off the main entrance is an impressive gallery space, open yet cozy. This is Eleventh Street Arts, the public-facing part of Grand Central Atelier.

When GCA first learned of the building two years ago, it was in shambles—and the gallery area was in the worst shape of all. Now it is the most built-out and elegant part, with track lighting and ample space.

Artists working at Eleventh Street Art at in Long Island City, New York, the new location for Grand Central Atelier, on Dec. 18, 2014. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Grand Central Atelier apprentice Griff Leek works on a sculpture at Grand Central Atelier in Long Island City, New York, on Dec. 18, 2014. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

The inaugural show, which recently closed, featured paintings and sculptures by artists who have at some point been part of the GCA community. The network is vast, ranging from current instructors to apprentices, and other artists like Patricia Watwood, who have long established their own studios apart from GCA.

“On 42nd Street, our shows always had an exuberant DIY [do-it-yourself] feel,” Byrnes said. “Here we get to have a professional environment to present work that deserves to be presented; which was especially important was we get out of student mode [as an institution].”

Because exhibitions are mounted in-house, artists get to keep a higher percentage of the profit, and have more control about how the art is marketed and written about, Lee said.

Eventually Eleventh Street Arts will hold public viewing hours, talks, artists workshops, and show films in the gallery. Being a stone’s throw from MoMa, The Bridgeview School of Fine Art, and several other artists’ collectives, Eleventh Street Arts seems like it’s finally in the right neighborhood.

For more information about Grand Central Atelier and Eleventh Street Arts, visit grandcentralatelier.org and eleventhstreetarts.com

Upcoming Exhibition
Ai Fiori: The Alla Prima Floral Sketch
Feb. 6–March 20

Eleventh Street Arts
46-06 11th St.,
Long Island City, NY
By appointment only