Artist Garry Nichols stands in front of his art – a flag, left and a weather vane, right – which are on display in Williamsburg. The pieces are part of an ongoing rooftop series called Grand Flag, curated by artist James Esber. Photo courtesy of James Esber
It is worth looking up while walking in Williamsburg.
Garry Nichols, a Tasmanian who paints in Brooklyn, is this month’s featured artist in a rooftop gallery near the corner of Grand Street and Bedford Avenue. If you’re across the street or down the block, you’ll see two colorful, moving pieces filled with images. One is shaped like a 6 ‘x 4’ flag, the other a large, working weather vane.
The exhibition is part of an ongoing series called Grand Flag, curated by artist James Esber. To date, 21 flags created by prominent artists have been displayed on the roof. Nichols is the first to have created both a flag and a weather vane.
Nichols’ images in Grand Flag are deceptively bold and bright, considering the dark theme of the art of war and plague. With colorful cartoon faces and body parts crammed on or around World War I-era biplanes, the pieces are reminiscent of a Coney Island funhouse version of Picasso’s Guernica.
The works are a consequence of Nichols’ series of paintings based on the allegory of the ship of fools, an idea that dates back to Plato’s Republic. Plato described a ship taken over by drunken sailors who appoint a great ignoramus as their captain. The ancient philosopher was trying to clarify what happens when fools take government.
The allegory resurfaced in 1494, when the German poet Sebastian Brandt published his satire entitled Ship of Fools and illustrated the book with woodcuts. Quickly became a best seller.
“I first looked at Sebastian Brandt’s collection of allegories and images maybe 20 years ago,” Nichols told the Brooklyn Eagle. “I could see parallels between what was happening during his day in Europe with unnecessary wars, plagues and destruction, and what is happening today.
“Drunk revelers board a ship to nowhere – what a great metaphor of where we are going politically, aesthetically and spiritually,” he added. “These are the people who are led like lemmings from the edge of a cliff.”
Esber said he decided to curate the series on the roof because “I like having art in a new context that is accessible to the public. Carrying out this project in a neighborhood I’ve lived in for 36 years made me very sensitive to interacting with my neighbors. People identify me with this building, so I feel an obligation to people in the neighborhood and people who are just passing through the neighborhood to give them something worth looking at. ”
Esber says many people say to him and his wife, artist Jane Fine, who regularly search for flags. (Esber and Fine have both exhibited extensively and sometimes work collaboratively on the paintings under the name of J. Fiber.)
Nichols’ wife Deborah Kaufman has performed with Big Apple Circus for 30 years as a hospital clown. Now she and two of her colleagues run their own clown company called Healthy humor. (His clown alter ego is “Dr. Dibble.”)
Why a weather vane?
While traveling around the United States, Nichols looked for the traditional weathervanes that once towered over houses and barns. He found that most of the original palettes, many older than a century, were missing, stolen or sold for their folk art value. “They ended up in antique stores and even in the New York City Folk Art Museum,” he said.
“I found large and small weather vanes, mostly copper, and they all had a common denominator: they all had bullet holes. Especially a 6 foot tall piece of a Native American figure with a bow and arrow – lots of bullet holes. People shot them and used them as target practice, “she said.
Nichols hopes to revive the weather vane tradition. “I have done about 30 different prototype projects over a 10 year period. They have a meaning, they are decorative and they have a function: they give directions to people. They are a strong metaphor of our need to study time, to study the planet, to look up and see what is happening around us. And look at the beauty “.
He is darkened by the water and can track down a ghost
Nichols is also a longtime member of the American Society of Dowsers, which uses esoteric skills to find water, lost property and missing persons. He learned the ancient art – also known as divination or water sorcery – 35 years ago from his father-in-law, world-renowned diviner Ted Kaufmann. Kaufmann regularly helped the New York State Police locate missing people and bodies, and Nichols became his diviner’s companion.
Nichols’ Tasmanian background may have influenced his openness to the idea of dowsing. “I was open to the idea that you might find something you can’t see,” she said. “That identifying a form of energy, be it water or other missing objects, was very feasible. You just have to focus on it, put your mind into it and you can search and find something that is not visible to the eye.
“I found water veins for many people: broken pipes, frozen pipes underground. I also do ghost dowsing and past life dowsing, “he said.” I’ve been going up and down the east coast looking for buried treasure. I’m not interested in finding real money, I’m interested in adventure. ” She understands that she is in the 75% accuracy range.
One of Nichols’ most memorable dowsing experiences took place when he helped the Jewish Museum, between Fifth Avenue and 92nd St., with a ghost problem.
The Jewish Museum is housed in the former home of Frieda Schiff Warburg and her husband, businessman and philanthropist Felix Warburg. Frieda donated the palace to use as a museum in 1944.
“A guard saw a woman’s appearance in the gallery and recognized her from the photographs,” Nichols said. “A museum chancellor had seen the same apparition in the basement closet. They both recognized, independently of each other, that this was Freida. The museum invited Nichols to take a look.
“I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it,” said Nichols. “I used my divining tools, especially a pendulum, to talk to her, and I got yes and no answers. My instrument was swinging from my hand. It was so incredible ”.
“She told me she wanted the guard and the registrar to see her because she was visiting to check out her former home, to see how it was being used, and she was really happy,” Nichols said. “She made herself visible to those two employees only so that they could see and not be afraid and know that she was there.”
Nichols regularly lectures on the subject of the relationship between his dowsing and his art.
“It’s a spiritual thing; both dowsing and art are unscientific and intuitive. There is an energy, a directional force ”that goes from dowsing to work of art and back to dowsing, he said.
Dowsing has “changed lives,” he said. Another life changing experience was her boxing. “I called Gleason’s gym and said, ‘Is there anyone who can teach a 60-year-old artist to box?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, come on down. We have David Lawrence and he’ll teach you. I got off the same day and I haven’t stopped. I’ve been boxing for almost five years with the same coach.’
Grand Flag is underway on the roof of 179 Grand St. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Nichols’ pieces will be exhibited throughout the month of June. Photos of the flags and a video of an interview with Nichols can be seen on Grand.Flag on Instagram:
Photos of past flags can be seen on Esber’s website, jamesesber.com.