All photos by Frances F. Denny

Two Williamsburg artists, gallery owners and urban pioneers have made Williamsburg history by turning unconventional spaces into artistic strongholds.

Paulien Lethen
Holland Tunnel &
Stairmasters Gallery

Paulien Lethen has ample experience doing a lot with a little. When she was in her 20s, she moved from her native Netherlands to the Aegean island of Paros to live with her then-husband, also a painter. With a small amount of money—a wedding gift from their parents—they bought a piece of land and a house. There were two cars on the whole island.

“We lived in a little farmhouse with a well, with oil lamps, and we cooked on gas bottles,” she says. “I learned a lot—not to waste things, to be grateful for electricity and running water.”

Lethen’s Stairmasters Gallery
Photo by Frances F. Denny.
Lethen’s Stairmasters Gallery turns art into an interactive experience, spanning four floors.
Paulien Lethen’s Stairmasters Gallery turns art into an interactive experience, spanning four floors. Photos by Frances F. Denny.

Roughing it got even rougher when she moved to Williamsburg in the 1980s. Having moved to a Manhattan apartment on Greenwich Street in 1982, she soon realized that her family would not be able to shoulder the rising rent. One day after dropping her kids off at school she continued east to Williamsburg on the L train. The neighborhood appealed to her with its small-town feel and proximity to the river—a reminder of her home in the Low Countries—and she soon found a house that called to her. It seemed like it had to be kismet that the home was located in Brooklyn, its name an Anglicized version of Breukelen, the town in the Dutch province of Utrecht where she taught art as a young woman.

She called in an inspector, who told her the house was dying. Her reaction? “I bought it immediately.” She didn’t want the house to fall to ruin.

Not only did the house need to be completely gutted and redone, floor by floor, before it could be inhabited—a nightmarish project that took a year—but the neighborhood was infamously dangerous. “After 8 o’clock there was nobody in the street,” she remembers. “I bought this house the 30th of December ‘86. The 4th of January ‘87 there was a front page New York Times story—three people shot dead on South 3rd Street and Bedford Avenue. A drug-related killing.” But what was done was done. She braced herself and threw the newspaper away.

Soon she acclimated to the street, which was largely a family block, and learned the trick for getting reluctant cabbies to take her home from Manhattan. The law requires cab drivers to take passengers where they need to go once they’ve gotten into the car. She figured out a system: get the kids in the car, jump in after them, and then give the driver her address.

More and more artists started moving into the neighborhood, and a tight-knit community emerged. “You really knew when people were moving in. You met people, you invited people, you ate together. So you always knew what was happening.”

She opened the Holland Tunnel gallery in a Home Depot garden shed for the purpose of exhibiting the work of her artist friends. Word quickly spread. Artists began approaching her and asking to have shows—and a full-fledged art exhibition space, albeit a small one, was born in her own backyard.

Paulien Lethen outside her home in Williamsburg
Paulien Lethen outside her home in Williamsburg. Right: A pre-fab garden shed became a part of history as a space for art and performance. Photos by Frances F. Denny.

“For ten years, this little shed was really a working gallery. Every five weeks a show, a press release,” she says. “In ‘97 when we were all living here, it was really artists doing their own thing, artist-run galleries here in the neighborhood. There were about 26 galleries here, most of them artist-run, and people were really very enthusiastic, working together. For me the fact that all these people came here and they did shows, that they took this tiny little place seriously—that made really amazing things happen, in Holland Tunnel Gallery and later in Stairmasters Gallery.”

Shortly after the gallery opened she featured an esoteric show by a local artist, complete with black lights and experimental music. A “conservative looking couple” walked up and asked to see it. “I thought, oh I bet they’ll hate the show,” Lethen remembers. The pair lingered and then asked to join her mailing list.

She said yes, but specified that it was “only for people who are really interested,” as the mailings were expensive. Once the couple departed, she read the names they had signed: Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz, the heavy-hitting art critic power couple. “I thought, what a blunder! They must have laughed about it.”

Smith called and asked Lethen to leave the exhibit up for one more week so she could write about it. She published an article in the New York Times with a picture of Holland Tunnel under the headline “Brooklyn Haven for Art Heats Up.”

The Holland Tunnel became an institution, with artists from all over coming to hang their work. “Everybody just did it,” Lethen says. “We were really serious about it.”

After 10 years, she realized the time she spent maintaining the gallery was inhibiting her from inhibiting her own output. Her art has always been influenced by her environment, from the neighbors and views of her Greek island to the kimonos she picked up by the stack when she lived in Kyoto to the rooftops of Manhattan that inspired her when she first moved.

“I like to work on found objects, recycling found objects to give them a different destination,” she says. It turned out that her new neighborhood provided her with ample fodder. At that time, Williamsburg was a dumping ground for stolen cars. Lethen salvaged the hoods and began painting on them, abstract “landscapes on car hoods” that ended up making up exhibitions in New York and the Netherlands, as well as decorating her home.

Now she curates installations in Stairmasters, the gallery next door, currently housing its eighth exhibition with work by some 110 artists. The space has gotten a little bigger and a lot more vertical, but the guiding spirit remains the same—a mix of local Williamsburg artist and Dutch and European transplants, including Lethen and her family members. The gallery is open by appointment, and Lethen encourages art appreciators to come out and experience it. As she can tell you from her own experience, part of the fun is the climb.

Ellen Rand welcomes curious passersby with brightly colored canvasses.
Ellen Rand welcomes curious passersby with brightly colored canvasses.

Ellen Rand
Art 101

“I just can’t help but have art everywhere,” says Ellen Rand as she opens the door to her miniatures gallery—and then to the bathroom, which is also bedecked with paintings. Her space may be small, but it’s maximized for artistic expression.

She began the miniatures gallery after she asked a group of her favorite artists to bring one or two small pieces to show. The next year, one of them asked why she wasn’t doing it again. “I hate the idea of doing the same thing every year, so I cut off the closet to make a permanent miniatures gallery,” she says, adding, “I love to open it when people say, ‘We’d love to buy something but we don’t have any more wall space.’”

The brightly painted canvasses that make up the current show, part one of a two-part exhibition called “Solastalgia,” call out to anyone walking down Grand Street on a gray winter day.

“I love these galleries because they’re open to the street. The door is open and there’s a dialogue immediately, whether you want to engage in it or not,” she says. Indeed, with its intimate scale and the ever-present company of Aggie the terrier, the space has a warm, neighborhood feel—a contrast to the cold austerity of many Chelsea galleries.

Rand shares the name of her grandmother Ellen Emmet Rand, a famous painter in her day. Unlike her grandmother, the younger Rand was never formally trained as an artist. She studied stage design in college, but found that working in the theater was not her calling. Suddenly, when she was in her 20s, she began to paint.

“It was like it built up in me. It was as though a door opened into myself,” she says. “I really shut myself up and just painted. I didn’t go to art school, I didn’t look at museums, I didn’t do anything. And then I started to get pretty serious. I was teaching art, I started painting and showing.”

That was the 70s, which Rand describes as a “wonderful golden age.” “Soho was beginning, Tribeca wasn’t yet Tribeca. There were a bunch of artists that I knew. We all lived on almost nothing. If anyone sold anything, he or she immediately had a party.”

Eventually the building she shared with other artists got bought out—the perennial story of New York. She found an ad posted by two young architects in the Village Voice for a “possible live/work space.” She went to check it out and found that the vibe was right.

“When I had my loft in Tribeca, there was nobody there. It was great. You could just make your own life. And I had the same feeling here.” She pauses. “Although it was drugs and guns and hookers.”

101 Grand Street was attached to a rotted-out dance hall. The building, which had become a dumping ground for the neighborhood’s detritus, was boarded up and impossible to enter through the front door. Sifting past crack vials and other vile “found objects,” Rand and her entourage had to go through the dance hall, onto the balcony, up onto the roof and through the windows to get it in. “It was such a disaster. We had to take everything apart.”

But like Lethen, Rand would not be deterred. And like her soon-to-be friend around the block, Rand was also a mother. “My daughter was a little girl and she was not allowed to touch anything without asking,” she remembers.

At the time, there were very few art exhibition spaces in the area, which was flush with artists. Once she finally got the place fixed up—a process that took years—she looked it over and thought, “I want to have a gallery.”

The first Art 101 show featured the work of a dozen friends and relatives. “Immediately it started growing, growing, growing,” Rand says. A white panel used to set the gallery space in the front off from her living space in the back, but “as the gallery got bigger and better, I kept moving it back, and then finally I got rid of it.”

The gallery thrived, enjoying a new heyday circa 2004 when many new experimental galleries opened in the area, but business fell off with the 2008 recession. Still, it has maintained its high reputation among artists—as well as a unique pull for Korean tourists to the neighborhood. One day a young design journalist came in, spoke to Rand, and took pictures of her space. Later she sent Rand a copy of a glossy Korean magazine with a large spread about her and the gallery. Korean visitors continued to stream in—one even brought her a present. “They weren’t particularly interested in the art. I didn’t understand it at all,” Rand says. A couple of years later, a young Korean couple came in and translated the essence of the magazine article. It wasn’t about the art, they said, but the harmony of the space.

Rand sees Art 101 firmly as an artists’ gallery, always prioritizing showing good work over making sales. As for how she picks the artists she shows, her standards are high but her requirements are simple. “I show a lot of Brooklyn artists because they’re an endangered species,” she says. “I show artists whose work I admire. That’s really it.”

Art 101 is also home to poetry readings, musical evenings and intense conversations about art that take place around Rand’s round table. “Sometimes we have 30 people [at events], sometimes we have four people,” she says. “It’s great, whatever it is.”

Now Rand is focusing on her own artistic output, as well as reviving the legacy of her grandmother, the subject of a book and an upcoming exhibition at the University of Connecticut.

She also wants the changing Williamsburg community to come experience the culture and community that Art 101 has been building for decades. Like Lethen, Rand and her gallery embody the spirit of Williamsburg’s epoch-making artistic community, rich with history and heart. Rand puts it best: “It’s little but it has big ripples.”

Ellen Rand's notebook
Photo by Frances F. Denny.