This Brooklyn artist gives you a reason to look up

Garry Nichols can also track down ghosts

June 21, 2022 Mary Frost
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It pays to look 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 stand across the street or down the block, you will see two colorful, moving pieces packed with imagery. One is in the form of a 6’ x 4’ flag, the other an oversized, working weathervane. 

The exhibit is part of an ongoing series called Grand Flag, curated by artist James Esber. To date, 21 flags created by artists of note have been featured on the roof. Nichols is the first to have created both a flag and a weathervane. 

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Nichols’ images in Grand Flag are deceptively bold and bright, considering the art’s dark theme of war and plague. With colorful, cartoonish faces and body parts crammed onto or around WW1-era bi-planes, the pieces bring to mind a Coney Island funhouse version of Picasso’s Guernica.

The works are an outgrowth 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 loud ignoramus to be their captain. The ancient philosopher was trying to make a point about what happens when fools take over the government.

The functioning weathervane and flag created by Garry Nichols. The work is based on the historic allegory of the Ship of Fools. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

The allegory resurfaced in 1494, when German poet Sebastian Brandt published his satire called Ship of Fools and illustrated the book with woodcuts. It 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 war, plagues and needless destruction, and what is happening today.

“Drunken revelers boarding a ship to nowhere — what a great metaphor for where we are going politically and aesthetically and spiritually,” he added. “These are the people who are being lead like lemmings off the edge of a cliff.”

Esber said he decided to curate the rooftop series because “I like having art in a new context that is accessible to the public. Doing this project in a neighborhood that I’ve lived in for 36 years has really made me sensitive to interacting with my neighbors. People identify me with this building, and so I feel some obligation to the people in the neighborhood, and the people that are just passing through the neighborhood, to give them something worthwhile to look at.” 

The front side of the flag art created by Garry Nichols. Like the weathervane, it is based on the allegory of the Ship of Fools. Photo courtesy of James Esber

Esber says that many people tell him and his wife, artist Jane Fine, that they regularly look for the flags. (Esber and Fine have both exhibited extensively, and sometimes work collaboratively on paintings under the name J. Fiber.)

Nichols’ wife, Deborah Kaufman, performed with the 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. (Her clown alter ego is “Dr. Dibble.”)

Artist James Esber, curator of the ongoing rooftop exhibition, with his dog Leroy. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Why a weathervane? 

On trips across the U.S., Nichols searched for the traditional weathervanes that once topped homes and barns. He discovered that most of the original vanes, many more than a century old, were missing — stolen or sold for their value as folk art. “They ended up in antique shops and also in the Folk Art Museum in New York City,” he said.

“I found large and small weathervanes, all copper pretty much, and they all had one common denominator: they all had bullet holes in them. Especially a 6-foot-tall piece of a Native American figure with a bow and arrow — many bullet holes. People were shooting them and using them as target practice,” he said.

Nichols hopes to revive the weathervane tradition. “I’ve made about 30 different prototype designs over a 10-year period. They have a meaning, they are decorative and they have a function — they give people direction. They are a strong metaphor for our need to study the weather, to study the planet, to look up and see what’s going on around us. And to look at beauty.”

The flip side of the weathervane by Garry Nichols. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

He dowses for water and can track down a ghost

Nichols is also a longstanding member of the American Society of Dowsers, using esoteric skills to find water, lost objects and missing people. He learned the ancient art — also known as divining or water witching — 35 years ago from his father-in-law, world-famous dowser Ted Kaufmann. Kaufmann regularly helped upstate New York police locate missing people and bodies, and Nichols became his dowsing partner. 

Nichols’ Tasmanian background may have influenced his openness to the idea of dowsing. “I was open to the idea that you could find something you can’t see,” he said. “That locating an energy form, be it water, be it other objects that are missing, was very doable. You just have to focus on it, put your mind into it, and you can search and find something that’s not visible to the eye.”

“I’ve found water veins for lots of people — broken pipes, frozen pipes underground. I also do ghost dowsing and past life dowsing,” he said. “I’ve gone up and down the Eastern Seaboard looking for buried treasure. I’m not interested in finding the actual money, I’m interested in the adventure.” He figures he is in the 75 percent accuracy range. 

One of Nichols’ most memorable dowsing experiences took place when he helped The Jewish Museum, at 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 mansion for use as a museum in 1944. 

The flip side of the flag art by Garry Nichols. Photo courtesy of James Esber

“A guard had seen an apparition of a woman in the gallery and recognize her from photographs,” Nichols said. “A registrar of the museum had seen the same apparition in the storage room in the basement. They both recognized, independently of each other, that this was Freida.” The museum invited Nichols in to have a look.

“I couldn’t see her but I could feel her,” Nichols said. “I used my dowsing tools, especially a pendulum, to talk to her, and I got yes and no answers. My tool was swinging out of my hand. It was so amazing.”

“She told me that she wanted the guard and the registrar to see her because she was visiting to check on her former home, to see how it was being utilized, and she was really pleased,” Nichols said. “She only made herself visible to those two employees so they could see and not be afraid, and know that she was present.”

Nichols regularly lectures on the topic of the relationship between his dowsing and his art. 

“It’s a spiritual thing; both dowsing and art are unscientific and intuitive. There’s an energy, a directional force” that cycles from the dowsing to the artwork and back to the dowsing, he said.

Dowsing has been “life-changing,” he said. Another life-changing experience has been his boxing. “I called up Gleason’s gym and I said, ‘Do you have anybody there who can teach a 60-year-old artist how to box?’ And they said, ‘Yes, come on down. We have David Lawrence and he’ll teach you. I went down the same day and I haven’t stopped. I’ve been boxing almost five years with the same trainer.”

Grand Flag is ongoing on the roof of 179 Grand St. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Nichols’ pieces will be exhibited through the month of June. Photos of the flags and a video of an interview with Nichols can be seen at Grand.Flag on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/grand.flag/

Photos of past flags can be seen on Esber’s website, jamesesber.com.


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