Teens make their Gowanus death masks

for The Brooklyn Paper
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The Gowanus Canal is smelly, funky and totally gross — all of which make it a juicy subject for teens.

For a project at the Starting Artists center in Cobble Hill, two activists gave teenagers paint, markers, ribbon and airborne contaminant masks, and told them to express how they felt about planned clean-up efforts of the putrid corpse of water.

What came out was pure revulsion.

“Death was a theme. Carcinogens were a theme. Fear and anxiety were themes,” said Triada Samaras, an artist and supporter of the federal effort to declare the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site. “But they were couched in the innocence of young people with soft imagery, so that it was clear that the kids were trying to reconcile the two.”

Guided by the activists, the high-schoolers researched the issue and then expressed themselves through painted phrases like “Save the Gowanus” and “Gowanus Chemicals Warning.”

But were the teens just a mouthpiece for advocates on the Superfund side of this large and dirty issue? The program’s organizers say, no.

“The teenagers were thirsty for knowledge. You can’t exaggerate the truth of this situation, it’s so unreal,” said Susan Handler, the program’s other leader who is executive director of the Arts Alliance of the Lower Hudson.

Some of the creative face coverings will make politically edged and decidedly dystopic entries for the “Brooklyn Utopias?” teen exhibition opening on Nov. 12 at Starting Artists, which follows two adult exhibitions at the Old Stone House and the Brooklyn Historical Society.

As for the unusual medium, Samaras said that masks were the perfect vehicles for youthful expression.

“Teenagers like the whole idea of changing persona, like at Halloween,” said Samaras. “They’re fashion-conscious and make a statements through what they wear.”

“Brooklyn Utopias?” Teen Art Exhibition opens Nov. 12 at Starting Artists [211 Smith St. in Cobble Hill, (718) 701-5483]. For info, visit

Updated 5:18 pm, November 4, 2009
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Reasonable discourse

wendy says:
Maybe we should actively participate in the positive clean up instead of using the youth for your own agenda.
Oct. 30, 2009, 7:50 pm
you from bs says:
I am shocked that people are living in the Gowanus Canal area -- a proposed Superfund site. No children, nor anyone should be permitted to live there given the contaminant dangers. The city and state will be sued for billions when all the people living there now will die of cancer. The city must vacate the area immediately and condemn all the contaminated housing there. State legislation is necessary to that end. I will write to our legislators.
Nov. 24, 2009, 1:13 pm

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