See the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse before the fire
Ken Rush’s oil painting depicts beleaguered warehouse
In fact, Rush has done two paintings of the Gowanus Canal-side warehouse that preservationists are fighting to save.
A 2018 fire, intentionally set, damaged the 1880s storehouse at 595 Smith St. And recently the city Buildings Department issued a Stop Work Order halting demolition that was underway.
The Gowanus Canal been one of Rush’s painterly obsessions over four and a half decades of artmaking.
“I am one of many who feel it is our industrial Venice,” Rush told me during a March 21 visit to his studio.
The storefront studio is in his Carroll Gardens home a few blocks away from the toxic but trendy canal. He has done scores of oil paintings, drawings and prints of canal bridges and canal-side businesses since he first focused on the waterway in the 1970s.
His affinity for the Gowanus Canal could be related to the fact that his great, great, great, great grandfather John Randall fought in the Gowanus swamps in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Brooklyn, Rush said.
Monumental, silent and serene
He did a painting of the Smith Street façade of the storehouse in the 1980s.
In 2018 he did his two paintings of the canal-facing side of the vacant grain storehouse, which is located on a Red Hook site near the Hamilton Avenue Bridge.
When he embarked last spring on the first of those two paintings, he didn’t know the Chetrit Group, the four-story brick building’s owner, planned to tear it down.
“I was drawn to its industrial beauty,” Rush said. “Abandoned buildings like this become numinous. They’re our industrial churches.” (If the word “numinous” isn’t in your vocabulary, it means “supernatural, divine or mysterious.”)
Rush took his French easel – the kind that folds – to the sidewalk on the Hamilton Avenue Bridge and spent uncounted days in the open air, painting.
Take a look at his finished work: “Hamilton Avenue Bridge Looking South.”
He captured the grain storehouse’s monumentality, its silent serenity, its boarded-up windows and Day-Glo orange buoys floating on the canal in front of it.
‘It was like farmers harvesting the roof’
Rush, who retired in 2015 from his job as upper school visual arts and art history teacher at Brooklyn Heights’ Packer Collegiate Institute, began a second painting of the grain storehouse in May.
One day when he got to his usual spot on the bridge, he was shocked to see workers with pitchforks and shovels on the building’s roof.
They were up there without safety nets or guidewires, dropping debris down a hole into the building.
“It was absolutely terrifying,” he recalled. “It was like farmers harvesting the roof.”
Then one June day when Rush showed up the air smelled acrid. There had been a fire.
He decided not to finish that painting. He couldn’t bear to depict the damage the fire caused.
The Gowanus Landmarking Coalition, which is made up of community groups, businesses and city-wide preservationist organizations, is fighting to save the grain storehouse. Rush isn’t involved in their campaign.
But “I support it totally,” he said.
A barber shop studio
Rush, who graduated from Syracuse University School of Fine Arts and also studied in London and Maine, lives and works in a Sackett Street rowhouse he and his wife Chris bought in 1979.
It was built in 1871. A storefront that housed a barber shop in the 1940s serves as his studio.
The house has two rental units. In his and Chris’s early years there, a retired longshoreman and his family were tenants.
On one wall of his art studio Rush has screwed tin panels into the plaster. He attaches super magnets to the back of the canvas he’s working on and hangs it on the wall instead of using an easel.
He has also attached super magnets to finished paintings, which he displays on the tin-covered wall.
By the way — super magnets are extremely powerful magnets made of rare earth alloys.
Part of the year, Rush lives and paints in Danby, Vermont.
His Twin Towers painting is headed to the 9/11 museum
Another of Rush’s waterfront Brooklyn paintings is headed for the collection of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
The oil on panel painting, which he did in 1971, is called “The Brooklyn Bridge and the World Trade Towers.” It depicts the tops of the Twin Towers when they were under construction, the top of the iconic bridge and a vast expanse of sky.
Rush opened his front door one day and discovered a man standing outside his storefront window, intently reading a description of the painting, which was on display. He was a museum executive who lives in the neighborhood.
Another of Rush’s waterfront Brooklyn paintings is having a moment in the spotlight.
“Mid-day, Coney Island,” a 12-foot mural he painted in 1988, is on public display at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Follow Brooklyn Eagle reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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