When I visited New York City in 2017 to see if I’d be happy moving here, I was in awe of all the street art and color throughout Bushwick. While the real estate agent drove me around the neighborhood, I knew that I would have to move there. Bushwick is well-known for luring international artists to paint every square inch. When I decided to leave the neighborhood the following year, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be seeing art on a daily basis. I chose to move to the more affordable Flatbush neighborhood, adjacent to Prospect Lefferts Gardens. The neighborhood’s appeal lied in its proximity to Prospect Park, but I still lamented the loss of my daily street art habit.
Prospect Lefferts Gardens, or PLG, was named after Prospect Park, the former Dutch Lefferts farm on which it stands, and the nearby Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. It’s a relatively small neighborhood where most of the buildings were constructed between 1895 and 1925. The neighborhood was officially named in 1969. It features elegant, historic row homes, which rival nearby Park Slope. This area is recognized for the Caribbean community that has moved here within the last century, particularly on Labor Day weekend when the West Indian Carnival is hosted on nearby Eastern Parkway.
Prospect Lefferts Gardens, or PLG, was named after Prospect Park, the former Dutch Lefferts farm on which it stands, and the nearby Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.
I recently walked along Flatbush Avenue, the neighborhood’s major commercial thoroughfare, and noticed a few murals going up on storefront gates. I discovered that this was the execution of a new project by local resident Josephine Freeman. I interviewed Freeman to get an idea of her vision for the neighborhood and see what plans she has coming up next.
Josephine Freeman is a visionary. After just a few minutes speaking with her, I sensed her vibrant and ambitious personality, which radiated throughout our conversation. She is a self-described “Flatbush girl.” She explained that her parents immigrated from Liberia when she was an infant and moved to nearby Crown Heights, close to the Brooklyn Museum. “Art has been a part of my life for a very long time, especially the arts in Brooklyn and New York. I’ve never been so happy that God landed me in New York City.”
Freeman started the J. Lotus Gallery in 2017 in the BKLYN Commons with the intention to showcase regional artists. After using the space for a few months, she realized that she was far busier with exhibits outside of the office. “It turned out that I’m paying rent for this space, and I learned in the art world that you can do art pretty much everywhere. So I gave it up, and I’ve been doing shows here and there, but everything became virtual,” she said. She had prior experience curating spaces at her full-time job at Flatbush’s Brooklyn Public Library. While working as a children’s librarian, she also collaborated with community artists to book the gallery space on the second floor of the library. She said this was when she had her epiphany to open a gallery.
One of Freeman’s largest projects to date is her Lotus Live Art Exhibitions where she plans to bring outdoor art to PLG. The coronavirus inspired her to start this initiative. “During the second week of COVID, it was gloom and doom everywhere, and I thought, ‘when this thing is over we gotta lift spirits.’ I contacted my friends in Japan, Argentina, and my friends here, like Jeff Beler that does the Underhill Walls. I called Meres One that did 5 Pointz. There’s an artist in the neighborhood, Sarah Erenthal, and she was going at it….I was like, ‘we have do this because art is gonna make people feel better.’” With Freeman recruiting local artists and curators to help out, she was able to bring art to the neighborhood. She started going door to door to ask businesses if the artists could paint their gates.
During the quarantine, Freeman expressed that residents of PLG didn’t have much happiness. In May, Governor Cuomo said the zip code of 11226, which covers parts of Flatbush, East Flatbush and Prospect Lefferts Gardens, was said to be one of the hardest hit areas with overall cases and hospitalizations. All shops and restaurants were shut down for a period of months, so many people began walking in the nearby Prospect Park. She said, “In the mornings, people are getting up early to avoid crowds, so now you can see beauty in the neighborhood and lift up the neighborhood. Then we have the other instance where businesses were going to be struggling because of how the restaurants and stores couldn’t be open, so the ideal case is to help them out. Art is going to help people ask ‘what store is that’ if you’ve never been there. The heart of this project is lifting spirits, helping out local businesses, and bringing us together. Art heals and that’s my main goal: to put a smile on everyone’s faces.” Freeman often thought of immunocompromised residents who couldn’t get out of their homes. She wanted everyone to be able to see the colors from their windows.
By the beginning of August, Freeman had already curated two murals on Flatbush Avenue, with many more to come. She is optimistic that she can get one mural up per week until the end of the year. She explained that recruiting artists and businesses has relied upon word-of-mouth and grassroots organizing. ”It was a dream of mine to see street art in the neighborhood for years,” Freeman said. She made that dream come true.
The first mural to go up, titled ‘Peaceful Mind,’ was painted by Japanese artist Funqest for First Class Liquors at 699 Flatbush Avenue. This work showcases his signature style with two horizontal cyborg portraits, energetic patterns, and images of records. At the same time, Megan E. Watters painted the gate on City Center Optical, located at 708 Flatbush Avenue. Watters’s work features a pair of 3D glasses and vibrant, psychedelic botanicals. Both paintings have brought life to PLG. Many residents are looking forward to seeing more artistic gates.
Most of the murals are painted on Sunday, when businesses are closed. “I’m concerned about everyone’s health, so the social distancing works since we are only doing one a week. And the artists come out pretty early in the morning. It makes me feel good that they are taken care of.” Freeman wants to focus her efforts on Flatbush Avenue from Lincoln Road to Ocean Avenue. She has connected with the Cortelyou Merchants Association, who have asked her to bring artists further into Flatbush. The B and Q trains run through this neighborhood, with stops at Prospect Park and Parkside Avenue to see the first murals.
Freeman is open to all artists who want to get involved in the project. “It is our neighborhood and we are not discriminating against anyone. This is an international and universal project. I would like some of the people in our neighborhood to get their hands on it. If you ever had a dream to do a mural, live that dream. This is a freedom project.”
Freeman is open to all artists who want to get involved in the project. “It is our neighborhood and we are not discriminating against anyone. This is an international and universal project. I would like some of the people in our neighborhood to get their hands on it. If you ever had a dream to do a mural, live that dream. This is a freedom project.” As a curator, Freeman is humble and modest. She explained that it isn’t just her ambition driving the project. Before the Lotus Exhibitions, another local was trying to bring murals to PLG. “Someone else had started it, but it slowly went away. I’m glad that I’m picking up the mantle. I always tell them everyday, ‘thank you for starting it. You encourage me to keep going.’”
Bringing art to an entire neighborhood in Brooklyn is no easy task, but Josephine Freeman is the woman to do it. “I grew up in this neighborhood, so it’s really like friends of family, even the places we would visit as kids. This is really a family neighborhood. I’m glad I’m making everybody happy and bringing sunshine.” By the end of 2020, Prospect Lefferts Gardens might become NYC’s hottest new art spot. Follow @jlotusgallery for updates on the project or to contact Freeman and help out.
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Caitlin Sowers grew up outside of Pittsburgh, PA and received her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts and Art Education. She was first exposed to street art when she saw Shepard Fairey’s solo show at the Andy Warhol Museum in 2009. A former high school teacher, she moved to New York in 2017 to pursue a Master’s Degree in Art Business and graduated from Sotheby’s Institute of Art in December 2018. Caitlin also loves fostering kittens, going to art openings, and spending time in Prospect Park. In addition to writing for UP, Caitlin leads tours of New York City’s subway art.