A Bunker Sets the Scene for Veterans to Exhibit ArtLibrado Romero/The New York Times
Lenny Goodstein behind the altered face of his gallery, Prophecies, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he will be showing veterans' artwork.
Published: April 15, 2011
On a tranquil side street in brownstone Brooklyn, where the biggest battles are over takeout menus and strollers, looms a jarringly martial sight: dozens of olive-drab sandbags piled high under a saw-toothed zinc roof.Enlarge This Image
Librado Romero/The New York Times
“The Ho Chi Minh Trail,” by Robert Gulley, is a wood-and-leather elephant trudging through a thicket of grass fashioned from broom bristles painted green.Enlarge This Image
Librado Romero/The New York Times
A painting by Domingo Vega.Enlarge This Image
Librado Romero/The New York Times
John Coffiel at the Prophecies gallery, where some of his works, left, including a self-portrait, are being shown.
This week, Lenny Goodstein has transformed his Park Slope art and antiques gallery into a bunker — a fortified haven for a different sort of exhibit. On the walls, from floor to ceiling, he has hung paintings, photographs and sculptures by military veterans, many of whom survived combat only to confront another struggle as they readjusted to civilian life.
Mr. Goodstein, himself a Vietnam veteran, says these men and women have been discarded. He knows something about spotting diamonds in the dirt, having once built a thriving antiques business by salvaging furniture and knickknacks that New Yorkers had kicked to the curb without a thought.
But as he met more veterans from past and current wars, he was alarmed to find that many were gifted artists toiling in obscurity while the wolf — or an impatient landlord — stood at the door. He considers the exhibit, which will run from April 30 to May 31 at his gallery, on President Street, his most ambitious reclamation yet, helping to give these men and women some recognition and a few dollars, too.
“They need help, and often there’s nothing,” said Mr. Goodstein, who completed his fortress on Thursday night. “So you know what? This is the most exciting thing I can be doing. This is not about art, but something deeper.”
His gallery is called Prophecies, which is fitting, given the flowing white hair and beard that make him look like a seer — albeit one who speaks in rapid-fire Brooklynese. Mr. Goodstein, 63, returned to Park Slope nine months ago, having tired of a 12-year sojourn in Puerto Rico, where he owned a restaurant near one of the island’s most notorious slums.
Back in the borough of his birth, he began to have troubling memories of his late-1960s Army tour in Thailand, where he transported ammunition to air bases, supplying bombs that would rain down during raids against the Vietnamese enemy.
“I used to write ‘Love, Lenny’ on these bombs,” he recalled. “What do you know when you’re 19 and you’re the kids they don’t want? I started to get a little depressed thinking about what I had done over there, so I went for therapy.”
He had finished a therapy session a few months ago at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on 23rd Street when he met Domingo Vega, a more recent veteran who was deep into painting. The work — naïf-style scenes of battlefields, visions of the afterlife and more — stayed with Mr. Goodstein.
“This guy, all he does is draw all day long,” he said. “Deep stuff, intense stuff. It inspired me. I knew I had to do something.”
As if on cue, he bumped into Barry Campbell, a 30-year V.A. employee who helps veterans navigate the bureaucratic maze to get benefits.
“I know so many vets who have talent and you never heard of them, man,” Mr. Campbell said. “We needed to give a show somewhere. Then Lenny came up to me and told me how he had an art gallery. I said, ‘It’s on.’ ”
Through word of mouth and fliers, artists sought out Mr. Goodstein. Among them was Robert Gulley, a formally trained sculptor whose lanky frame, deep-set eyes and gaunt, bearded face make him look like a figure painted by El Greco. Mr. Gulley was a radio operator in Vietnam, came home “pretty messed up,” he said, and knocked about until he enrolled in college, studied art and pursued it as a career.
“I came to New York in 1980 with big ambitions,” he said. “At the time, you could walk into a gallery and meet dealers. I never realized you needed to sell yourself, to have a lot of charm. So I worked as a carpenter doing apartment renovations, and once in a while my sculpture got in a show.”
He was sidelined from work two years ago, when his knees gave out and he developed arthritis. He is fighting eviction from the Lower East Side apartment where he has lived for 30 years.
“I’m a senior citizen with a low rent,” Mr. Gulley, 63, said. “I’m a real danger to the landlord.”
His pieces are displayed prominently in the gallery: a helicopter made from an office chair, and a work titled “The Ho Chi Minh Trail,” a wood-and-leather elephant trudging through a thicket of grass fashioned from broom bristles painted green. Selling his work has been difficult, he said, but he has modest hopes for the exhibit.
For other artists, the show is more about camaraderie than about need. Phil Tolvin, who served in a light-infantry brigade in the late 1960s and retired from managing a commercial photo studio, knew Mr. Goodstein through a mutual friend in the antiques business. Mr. Goodstein learned only recently that Mr. Tolvin was also a photographer, whose work includes recent scenes of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and vintage shots of Washington Square Park.
“It’s good to participate in an art show with all my brothers,” Mr. Tolvin said. “There is a bond among the guys you served with, an affinity. You don’t know what it’s like unless you were there. I mean, I couldn’t even say the word Vietnam for 20 years.”
With his work safe in the bunker, it is time for others to be speechless. On Friday morning, the gallery’s neighbors encountered the wall of sandbags, craning their necks in bewilderment.
“This one lady came by and said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this on the street,’ ” Mr. Goodstein said. “Well, I’ve seen plenty of them. Now all I need is an M60 machine gun.”
A version of this article appeared in print on April 16, 2011, on page A16 of the New York edition.
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