Cultural Deforestation: This Brooklyn Artist Talks East NY Gentrification, Art & His Debut Solo Exhibition

Art has a way of reawakening our spirits and for Brooklyn-based Haitian American painter, Patrick Eugène, it’s no different. In a world where artists find a way to escape, Eugène chooses to paint reality.

His artwork evokes the harsh state of our times and urges viewers to rethink their inclinations, all while searching for deeper solutions.

His solo exhibition, “Deconstruction,” is a visual exploration capturing the perplexities and the impending changes coming to East New York, Brooklyn.

The people who have an emotional connection to the city and who have been living in the neighborhood for years feel this impact the most, as they watch their area and culture change right before their eyes.

Wealthy developers and their beneficiaries simply want our neighborhoods, but don’t want the struggle. As a result, they isolate, they segregate themselves, and they reproduce suburban conditions.

Gentrification is a systematic and ongoing issue that’s been gradually increasing. Sadly, gentrification is not only affecting New York, it’s affecting California, Washington D.C., Georgia, Florida, and many other communities that minority groups have helped build.

We sat down with Eugène to talk about his love of art, inspiration, fears, and his thoughts on the ongoing issues of gentrification.

Read below on what he had to share.

Astrid: When and what made you fall in love with art? What was your first memory or interpretation of visual art?

Eugène: I grew up in a house filled with Haitian art, I didn't necessarily love it more than the average person. However, I grew up with a strong passion for other art forms such as music and poetry. It wasn't until I was 27 that I actually started painting as a hobby and I enjoyed it. I realized I'd fallen in love with painting a few months after, when it went from a hobby to an addictive out-of-body experience that I couldn't walk away from.

A: What is your current state of mind before we continue with the interview?

E: I’m pretty damn anxious about this show next week but other than that I’m cool... I think.


A: It’s okay to feel anxious, it means that you care. I am sure everything will turn out well. Tell me, how did growing up in East New York and then moving to Long Island affect you? That’s a pretty drastic change.

E: Yeah, thank you, and I was pretty young when we moved. I distinctly remember the last day of school and knowing I probably wouldn't see my little 8-year-old crush again. But seriously, moving from the hood to a 4-bedroom house in the suburbs was definitely something I was able to get used to very quickly.

A: What were some of the obstacles that you went through growing up in East New York and what were some of your fondest memories?

E: Not too many obstacles being from a really tight family, but I do remember seeing things that I can’t forget. I've seen gun violence, extreme poverty in the community, and the effects of crack, but none of that ever made me feel unsafe. I lived in a four-family home, all occupied by one loving family. So we had a little community within our building which felt totally different from what was going on beyond our front door.

A: Being that you come from such a tight-knit family and community, were your family and friends supportive of your work as well?

E: Surprisingly, yes. Not surprising because they aren't supportive, but surprising because it was so new for me and everyone. At 27, you tend to feel like maybe you shouldn't leave a good paying job as a banker to pick up a paint brush. So naturally, you expect everyone to feel the same way.


A: Where does your inspiration derived from?

E: My inspiration derives mainly from my surroundings. Being in Brooklyn or just NYC in general, provides a ton of opportunity to draw inspiration. I feel like I'm a pretty good observer. I tend to focus in on certain details, sometimes that maybe in the past I would’ve overlooked, when suiting up and preparing for a dreadful day at work. I think when you're able to slow down and really take a look at the world, you realize that everything can be seen as beautiful.

A: What are some things you do to really push your vision forward?

E: I wake up early when I'm still kind of tired and allow that dreamlike state to take control. Things just seem to flow better for me when I'm not overthinking the process or worried about what else has happened throughout the day. I’ve become a student of art. I'm always watching art docs and reading biographies, just to find out what the greats were into and what their process was like.

A: If you could spend the weekend with one of those greats who would it be?

E: Either Jackson Pollock or Jean-Michel Basquiat because they just seem like my type of people. Cool personalities and true natural ability. They cared so much about their craft, but the work never seemed contrived at all. You could tell the work truly became a part of who they were even if it eventually drove them insane.

A: If you could only rework one of your pieces for the rest of your life, or chose a subject you have yet to attempt for the rest of your life, what piece or subject would it be?

E: Good question. I don't think I would have the patience for that to be totally honest. Some artists spend 6 months on one piece, I would go nuts (laughs).

A: What is the most humorous/strangest reaction or story regarding your work?

E: My grandmother’s face when she looks at one of my abstract pieces and tries figuring out what the hell she's looking at. Glasses on or off, doesn't make it any clearer.

A: On September 8th, you will be debuting “Deconstruction,” an exhibition that addresses the cultural deforestation taking place in East New York. What is the single most important take-away that you want viewers to get from this project? Both visually and conceptually.

E: Visually, I would hope they like what they see, or they may not. But I really hope they feel. I might have not taken the safest route by painting pieces that will not feel extremely comfortable to many. Conceptually, it was all inspired by my interaction with and observation of what's going on in the neighborhood. I hope they feel it.

A: What does culture mean to you and what role does art play in it?

E: Culture is what defines us as a community of people. It's what derives from our interactions with those within our ecosystem. I think language is a huge part of this. Language in the form of words but more broadly through the artistic expression. This includes music, dance, poetry, and visual art.

A: What are your sentiments about the current art world?

E: I think it's cool. I’ve personally only experienced the art world as it is at the moment. Some say it's not the same. Some say pop art has killed true artistry. I say sometimes things evolve, sometimes things shift a little. Art is art, the one thing I think we should be careful about is categorizing and comparing it. I think as long as we have fun with it and stay true to what we do or feel, who's to judge?

A: How do you think your artwork speaks to the movement and the changes that are happening? How important is it for the community to fight to retain what they've built?

E: I’m not too aware of the current art movement. I do, however, feel we are in a Renaissance period. I feel like many people have witnessed things, like wars and economic collapses, and have realized that life is truly unpredictable. I feel we are currently in a time where people are willing to take risks both artistically and in their daily lives. I guess my work is a testament to that.

A: Yes and we are living in a time where technology and social media really give people that sort of outlet to voice their opinions in such matters. Recently, in an interview with The Culture LP, you explained how they are pushing the elderly first out of the neighborhoods. Not to get too personal, but for instance, how has gentrification affected the people you know directly?

E: Yes, this is true, and it’s affected my friends and neighbors tremendously, especially when the rent goes up. People have struggled to raise families for years in a forgotten corner of the city. Once a little light is shined in its direction, it seems to be illuminating the way for wealthy developers and their beneficiaries, rather than on those who have been there for decades. The people, the culture, get pushed deeper into the shadows. Eventually standing on the outside and looking in at something they've desired but can't possibly afford to be a part of.

A: What places have you seen disappear that you miss?

E: They've knocked down a few landmarks but I personally don't have an affinity for the buildings. The little mom and pop stores, and the people who’ve stuck with the neighborhood through the tough times, and who are still fighting, is what I care for.

A: In your opinion, what are some of the pros and cons of gentrification?

E: The pros of inclusionary development are more consumer options and a safer community for ALL people. Diversity is always a good thing, but I don't think I see too many pros with gentrification, as it is a displacement method.

A: Some of us are drawn to what is new and exciting, but are unwilling to really educate ourselves about the real dilemma. Do you sometimes feel that part of our generation is at fault for what is happening?

E: I don't know, maybe, maybe not. It's hard to pinpoint one generation because the current generation is a byproduct of the previous generation. So there's a long chain of f*cked up things that may have led our generation to intentionally or unintentionally learn to not “care” as much. I don't personally come across too many people who fit into that category though. We may have shorter attention spans for it, but I believe the Internet has allowed us to become pretty aware of what's going on now-a-days.

A: Some often feel that gentrification can be correlated to the aftermath of the 9/11 events, do you think this is something that was a long time coming, even before the tragedy and our financial crisis?

E: I haven't heard much about the 9/11 correlation, but I do think it's a cycle that has been going on long before these fairly recent events. I used the word “deconstruction” not only to hint at the actual demolition process of breaking down buildings to rebuild, but also the long term attack on poor urban communities over the years to prepare for the gentrification process. So to answer your question, yes, I believe this process was well thought out a long time ago.


A: Violence often seems to result from issues like gentrification and communities pushing out other communities. Do you think that this violence comes from a place of disempowerment and a feeling of helplessness?

E: I was not aware of increased violence directly related to gentrification, but I do know people get pissed off about it.

A: Well it almost feels like minorities are being attacked from all angles. Think about it, they want to make everything “better” for themselves. From the cases of police brutality to economic equality, it feels like a constant struggle for us. It seems to me that gentrifiers are threatened by our differences. They try to feed us this BS that race has nothing to do with it, but the Black and Latino communities are disproportionately arrested and criminalized because the new residents feel like they are “in danger.” I guess what I'm trying to say is that apart from it being a political and systematic problem, it also boils down to it being a class and race issue. As hard as it is for people of different cultures to recognize, racism still exists. I personally feel that gentrifiers have taken away the identity and culture of many areas and as a result, this can eventually lead to discords, violence, and certain tensions with the long-term residents. Many of the established residents already find themselves economically and socially marginalized because of the changes.

E: Definitely, I mean hey, if I were to get kicked out of the home I've lived in for 20 years because it's now the new hot spot for a 20 something year old person to move into, I may punch a wall or two. It has to suck!

A: Can art survive gentrification? How do you think artists can continue to contribute to strive against gentrification and displacement?

E: I think some artists are blessed enough to have a voice. Whether you're a singer, writer, painter, photographer, dancer– I think it's important to stay true to the art form first. Then secondly, use the platform you have to inspire positive change, if that's what you desire. Being that most artists are part of the groups being displaced, I think it would be beneficial to say something about it.

[Feature Image Courtesy Instagram] 

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