Windsor Terrace

The Windsor Terrace artist who is giving her works away

To own an Emily Waters original, it's first come, first served.

July 29, 2019 Lore Croghan
Emily Waters, seen here with a watercolor she painted of her cat, Bamboo, gives away an artwork every week. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

A Windsor Terrace artist is giving her work away one piece at a time — and bringing a little joy to her neighbors in the process.

Once a week, painter and printmaker Emily Waters puts a work of art in a wooden display case that she made out of wine boxes and set beside her stoop. She posts a photo of the work on her Instagram account, and then she waits.

If you want to own the piece, you have to write to Waters and tell her so, whether by email, Instagram direct message or via a note you leave in her real-life mailbox.

The first person to ask for the work is the one who wins it.

“We live in a time that’s so stressful,” Waters said in a recent interview in the back garden of her house. “And I think art is as important as what’s going on in the news … Maybe it’s the salve or something — I don’t know — of existence.”

The art-display box is lit up at night, brightening the way for people out on the street. Dog walkers especially like it. So do people walking with their kids.

Waters started the giveaway a few months ago. She got the idea from free libraries, those wooden stands where you can take a book or leave a book.

A ‘morning painter’

The dining room of Waters’ Windsor Terrace home doubles as a studio, where the artist sits down every morning around 5 or 6 a.m. and paints for two hours.

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“It kind of continues the dream state,” Waters said. “The light is fantastic.”

To keep from breaking the spell, she tries not to touch her phone or any other electronic devices.

“I call myself a ‘morning painter,’” Waters said. “It’s just my methodology.”

Her two cats, Bamboo and Houdini, keep her company. They are sometimes the subject matter of her works because they are “ever-present,” she said.

From an Illinois farm to the East Village

Waters, the seventh of nine children, grew up on a farm in Illinois. Neither of her parents was an artist. But her father, who was an office worker, was also a dreamer.

“He worked nights on the farm, because the farm was his dream,” she explained. “He loved the land.”

At an early age, she decided to be an artist. It gave her a “personal identity,” she said, and a way to spend time alone, which is a valuable thing when you live with your big family.

One of her sisters is also an artist. She lives in West Virginia and teaches art at a high school.

Waters got her undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois, where she studied art history and graphic design. After that, at art school in Basel, she had teachers who taught old-fashioned drawing skills. She got her graduate degree in graphic design and drawing from the Swiss art school Kunstgewerbeschule Basel.

“They were really masters,” she said.

In 1984, once she finished grad school, Waters came to New York. For several years, she lived in a building on East 5th Street in the East Village. It was surrounded by vacant lots but “turned out to be a really cool building,” she recalled.

Some of the tenants were performance artists. Some were “sort of indigent,” she said.

The rent was just $175 a month when she moved in. There were rats in her apartment, though. “We had to learn how to stuff the rat holes with chicken wire and steel wool,” she said.

She put her art career aside for a while, and worked in a restaurant and went to nightclubs. Now, Waters works as an adjunct professor at the Cooper Union and Parsons The New School.

A Park Slope apartment big enough for a loom

When she had kids in the 1990s — a pair of twins, to be specific — she headed for Brooklyn. She found a seven-room apartment in Park Slope for $700 a month. There was room in the fourth-floor walk-up for her to set up a huge loom and weave.

A friend at the Museum of Modern Art hired her to do graphics work for catalogs and create signage for exhibitions.

It was a great time to be at MoMA, “when curators still kind of ruled,” she said. “They were really amazing, the curators, then.”

She found a Windsor Terrace rowhouse in 2001 for around $300,000 a couple blocks from Prospect Park, where she still lives today.

The closing was supposed to take place at a bank on Wall Street the week of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. In the wake of the attacks, it was done later, on Staten Island.

‘Kind of spiritual’

Waters doesn’t have gallery representation. That will come in due time, when she’s ready. In the meantime, she plans to continue her art giveaway indefinitely. She’s happy that her work is out there. Her Instagram followers say they love seeing art in front of her house.

“I walk by your display every morning and it never fails to make me smile,” one of them posted.

“Thank you for this lovely addition to the neighborhood,” a second person wrote.

“I’m obsessed,” said a third.

The neighbors give Waters compliments in person, too. “This guy came by last night. He was walking his dog when I came home,” Waters recounted. “And he said, ‘Oh, you did this? This is really nice. I come by because it’s kind of spiritual.’”

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.

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