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Brooklyn-based artists to receive Colene Brown Art Prize unrestricted grants

BRIC, a leading arts and media institution in Downtown Brooklyn, awarded $10,000 each to under-recognized New York-based visual artists.

September 19, 2022 Evan Rosen, Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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The Colene Brown Art Prize is in its third year of helping New York artists achieve their creative goals. This year, the Harold and Colene Brown Family Foundation in partnership with BRIC, awarded $100,000 total to ten artists. The grants are underwritten by artist and former board-member Deborah Brown in memory of her late mother, Colene Brown. 

Among the winners were three talented Brooklynites: Valerie Hegarty, who creates paintings, sculptures and installations which she says “explore issues of memory, place and history.” Painter Aaron Gilbert, whose ‘Psychic Novellas’ portray the complexities of intimate relationships through deeply emotive imagery. And Sara Jimenez, who “creates immersive installations that reflect on marginalized and colonial histories, oppressive and reclaimed power, and loss through her perspective as a Filipino-Canadian.”

All three use the medium of visual art in drastically different ways. The common thread amongst them is the personal qualities, the deeply ancestral and intentional process of bringing themselves – their history and their family’s history – into the work they create. I had an opportunity to talk with them recently about their process, their life in Brooklyn, and their recognition they have deservedly found in the 2022 Colene Brown Art Prize. Here is what they had to say:

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What is your relationship to Brooklyn?  

Valerie Hegarty. Photo: BRIC

Valerie Hegarty (VH): I moved to Brooklyn in 2003 (originally from Burlington, VT). I lived directly across from the Brooklyn Museum for about 17 years, on Eastern Parkway. I still consider Brooklyn home and have definitely been influenced, just by walking around. Recently, I had a show where I recreated the subway stop for Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum out of paper. 

Aaron Gilbert (AG): I’ve been in Brooklyn for close to 20 years, in Bed-Stuy (originally from Altoona, PA). I’m the third generation in my family to be spending a good amount of their life in New York. I love the people in Brooklyn. I have a lot of trouble with what Brooklyn has turned into. The area I’m in now was a middle class, black-friendly neighborhood. It was really tight knit, multiple generations living on the same block. People looked out for each other, and now with gentrification, it’s devastated the area. 

Sara Jimenez (SJ): I am on the border of Bushwick and Ridgewood. I moved to Brooklyn in 2007, and I’ve lived in Crown Heights, Ditmas Park, Kensington, Midwood and Greenpoint. My studio is also in DUMBO. When I think of Brooklyn, I don’t think of one place, I think of a multiplicity of worlds. I love it for that – that it’s a thousand things in one borough. 

How long have you been practicing your art form? 

VH: When I first came to New York, I was working in bigger installations. Then I started working sculpturally pretty quickly, so my career basically started in New York and it’s been about 20 years now. 

Aaron Gilbert. Photo: BRIC

AG: I really got into art when I was twenty years old. I initially studied mechanical engineering technology because I was really brought up with a strong sense of – you need to support a family, you need to be able to hold it down. But, it felt like I would be producing things that were destructive. I didn’t want to be a defense contractor, I didn’t want to design cars, I didn’t want to make things that would just end up as landfill. So it didn’t feel like I could work as an engineer and really be in line with who I wanted to be in the world. The interesting thing was that, as part of that program, I had to take an art class and it just really clicked. 

SJ: The first installation I did was in graduate school. But, those were installations you couldn’t walk into, you would just look at it from the outside. Then I did this residency at Wave Hill in 2015. I started to weave together this net-tapestry thing with found fabric and I was just letting myself experiment with new materials. Then I realized as I began attaching it to the wall that it could become a kind of space that you walk into. And I like the idea of a porous space; a space that blurred the inside and the outside; that isn’t fixed … I think the seeds started there. 

Was there a moment you realized that you wanted to work in this medium?

VH: Yeah, I went to grad school in Chicago and I started doing these paper installations when I got out. Really, I started working sculpturally because of market pressure, to have something that I could really sell to collectors. It was something I was interested in, but was also something that could stand alone and be sold.

AG: I’m really interested in the idea of world-creation and storytelling. ‘Psychic Novellas’ are what I started calling my work because I’m interested in the spiritual, the metaphysical, and the mischief and unknown of those things. There’s always these questions of something on the other side that we can access, to make us more potent in this world. I’ve been inspired by Frida Kahlo, because she’s always starting from her own personal life and putting everything into that, in terms of political, myth-making or historical themes too. 

SJ: I think for a long time I did drawing and painting, only because I feel like I was in educational systems where I didn’t have a lot of exposure to other kinds of art-making. It really wasn’t until grad school that I began to experiment with performance and sculptures and materials. And I realized my body really craved these physical things in the world, that I could surround myself with. Even though I loved drawing and painting, I felt a little stuck in that. 

Sara Jimenez. Photo: BRIC

What other things do you do outside of your art? 

VH: More recently I started applying more of my time to writing. I had gotten a cancer diagnosis in 2016 (The cancer was caught very early and I’ve been cancer free since then), and writing was always something I wanted to do, so I thought maybe now was the time. I wrote a short story about the diagnosis the same week I rescued a kitten in Bushwick that was living outside my art studio. It’s very comedic too, and it won a PEN Prize, so that gave me a little bit of a boost. I felt like I could pursue this and get published, so I’ve been working more on my writing now – fiction and also personal essays. 

AG: I used to work full-time in fabrication facilities, doing the design and then the building of props for things, a lot of retail things and stuff like that. 

SJ: I’m a part-time faculty member at Parsons – I’ve been there since 2015. I teach in the MFA fine arts program and I also teach undergrad. I also adjunct sometimes at NYU, which I really love. When I’m not teaching I love doing things for my body – like dance – for movement research. But then I also have a 17-month old daughter named “Red” and my husband Jason, and I love being with them. Red is the best. I named her when I was pregnant and working on one of my first full-blown red and pink installations, and I feel like she was the internal muse who inspired me at the time. 

How did it feel when you found out you received this award?

Valerie Hegarty’s Teapot with Clipper Ship (The Covid Diaries Series), 2021. Wire, tin foil, epoxy resin, acrylics, 33 in x 4 ft 11 in x 20 in. Photo: BRIC

VH: It felt fantastic.I didn’t know who nominated me or how many people were up for it… I’ve been nominated for a lot of other grants and I’ve applied for a lot of other grants, so I wasn’t expecting it. It was a really wonderful surprise. Then I found out who nominated me, and she’s another artist who I really admire, so that also felt really good. 

AG: It was really awesome. These things make a huge difference and I felt so grateful to the Colene Brown family and the legacy they’ve left behind. 

SJ: I was super excited. I’ve known other people who have received this award and I was really excited at the opportunity to have more of a cushion, especially with the new baby. When I got the email saying I had been a finalist, I thought there was another round of interviews I had to go through and when I got on the phone and they said I got the grant, I was like, “what?” And I was speechless, I was so astonished.

What does this money mean to you? 

VH: It’s definitely a really generous thing for the family to do in their mothers’s name. Deborah Brown, who is another person behind the grant, is also a painter, and I think it’s great for artists to be giving the money to artists. The money will go towards my income and will help pay for my studio and art supplies for the year. It buys me more time to make my work. It’s extremely generous.

Arron Gilbert’s Grace (Love Still Good), 2021. Oil on linen, 34 x 45 in. Photo: BRIC

AG: All I can say at this point is that I’m starting a new body of work, and this money allows me to focus on developing it in a more serious way. There’s something enormous in it; it’s a luxury to be able to invest yourself entirely into the creative process. This award gives me the freedom to do that. 

SJ: It’ll help me out a lot. Some of it will go towards immediate projects I have upcoming, and some will go towards my family.

Is there anything you want people to know about your art that they might not know?

VH: The work comes from a very personal place, even though sometimes it’s referring back to American history or art history. I grew up in New England and my parents had reproductions of early American art on the walls. So a lot of times I’m using imagery that I knew from my childhood. The work isn’t coming from a great love of history necessarily, but a more personal place. It’s kind of me trying to make sense of the world, and is usually inspired by current events or current anxieties, collapsed with art history or American history. 

AG: What I hope my art does in its best moments, is to engage with the poetic.

SJ: I think there’s something about intuition – secrets which we’re not really conscious of – that I think are a guide for me. A lot of my work is based around research of my own ancestry from the Philippines and around historical moments in the Philippines, and then deconstructing that and rearranging it; having a new relationship to these colonial spaces where I un-colonize them. I also find the process where I create these spaces – previously I felt I had to know so much intellectually before I start the work and now I realize how many answers and guides are only available when I’m actually doing the work.

Sara Jimenez’s Silent Malady, 2017. Scanned and printed colonial images of the Philippines, inkjet prints of online news images, paint 24 x 9 x 1 ft. Photo: BRIC

Where can people see your work right now?

VH: I’m in a group show at a space called Marquee Projects, which is in Bellport, New York. It’s in a show which was curated by Paul Laster. I also have work at the William Benton Museum of Art on UConn’s campus, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. People can also find me on instagram @valeriejhegarty

AG: Opening soon at PPOW Gallery, there’s a triptych that will be on display at their satellite space at 390 Broadway. It’s brand new, and I just finished it and I’m really excited about it. I actually did a two-person show with Martin Wong at PPOW last year and that was a really special opportunity. He’s number two, after Frida Kahlo, of artists who I’ve thought about the most.

SJ: I have an installation right now at 125 Maiden Lane, in Lower Manhattan. It’s part of the Art & Buildings Program where they commission artists to make new work in different buildings across the city, so I’m there with another artist, Jasmine Murrell. And currently I’m finishing up an installation that’s going to be at Cornell University on their arts quad for the Cornell Biennial, and will be on display until the end of October.

AG (cont): A profound thanks to Colene Brown and her family who have created this prize because there’s a different kind of creative growth that can happen when you’re given these moments of freedom when some of the initial financial pressures are removed.


Wes Jackson, BRIC President & Elizabeth Ferrer, BRIC Chief Curator, Contemporary Art said:

“Supporting artists throughout their lifecycle is at the heart of BRIC’s mission, and the Colene Browne Art Prize is a tangible way that we’re able to directly impact the course of an artist’s creative pursuits. It’s a privilege to be able to offer this prize, now in its third year, and we look forward to seeing these artists continue to grow. BRIC thanks Deborah Brown Harold and the Colene Brown Family Foundation for their continued generosity.”

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