Dressed in a crisp, button-down shirt, khaki cut-offs and Keds, her ginger bob peeking out from under a white fedora, Gail Nathan looked something like a 62-year old hipster as she climbed the four flights of stairs up to her messy office at the Bronx River Art Center in East Tremont.
It was 90 degrees in early September and there was no air conditioning. Nathan felt as determined as she was cranky.
Someone had left the center’s garden gates open the night before, and Nathan was livid. She grabbed the phone and fumed to an employee on the other end: “You never know what could have happened,” she said. “Leaving the center in that vulnerable situation was irresponsible and dangerous.”
The 23-year-old art center on East Tremont Avenue and Bronx Street is her baby, one she is about to transform into a state-of-the-art cultural force after seven years of lobbying for $7 million in restoration funds. And if Nathan doesn’t take care of it, no one will.
Driving her work is a fiery determination to provide quality art education to low-income families. She sees the center as a diamond in the rough, providing free art classes and events for children in an area where, according to the Citizens’ Committee for Children, 54 percent live below the poverty line.
“The arts got me up and out of the Bronx and into my profession, so I know it can be done for others,” she said. “The arts are what divide humans from the animals, and people of limited means need to have that same opportunity.”
It’s a cause to which she has dedicated her life. Nathan has never been married or had children, and now lives alone in City Island. She doesn’t mind.
“I was too busy,” she said. “I’ve done what I do best, which is making sure underserved communities have opportunities to expand their lives through the arts.”
Nathan was born and raised on 149th Street between Grand Concourse and Walton Avenue. Her Jewish father worked as a Morse code and Teletype operator and her Catholic mother waited tables at Schrafft’s, a once-glamorous Manhattan restaurant.
Nathan spent her childhood playing on the streets in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, earning her and her friends the nickname, “The Stadium Kids.” Her father knew all the guys at the gate, so they went to games for free and sat in box seats.
“Now I can’t go to a Yankee game because I can’t afford the seats,” she said. “Sitting way up in the bleachers is not my style.”
Becoming an artist was Nathan’s earliest dream, and although it was an unlikely pursuit for a Jewish girl from the Bronx, she had plenty of support.
“My father was a latent artist of sorts,” she said. “So he lived out his desires to be an artist through me.”
After attending Public School 31 and Junior High School 22, both in the Bronx, Nathan attended the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
As a teenager, all of her Jewish friends escaped the Bronx for the suburbs, but Nathan, her parents and her older sister, Jeanne, stayed.
“It was the white flight,” she said, “but we weren’t suburban, so we never moved out.”
To fill the void left by her friends, Nathan took dance classes downtown and worked in the West Village theater scene. Yet despite her admiration for the performing arts, she yearned to become a visual artist.
After earning her Bachelor’s degree at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, she realized that painting was her true calling, and so became a painter, taught painting at New York University and commuted to New Jersey for her Master’s of Fine Arts at Rutgers University. All the while, she lived in an artist studio in SoHo, back when it was cheap.
“My first loft was $80 a month,” she said, “and my last one was $125 a month.”
In 1977, she was drawn back to her old streets when they became decimated by drugs, violence and poverty. Until 1980, she worked for the Bronx Museum of the Arts, organizing satellite gallery programs and painting public art murals. It was her first taste of community development through art, and after spending the next 18 years traveling the world as a visiting artist and professor, it was what brought her back to the Bronx.
In the interview for her job as center director in 1998, she raised the idea of restoring the building. Now, 12 years and countless hours of grant-writing later, Nathan is finally making the center’s appearance a reflection of what goes on inside of it.
“Gail had aggressive chutzpah to really put this renovation together,” said Daniel DelValle, a board member of the center since 1996. “She has an insightful vision of the future for us. Art classes existed here before her, but they were primitive.”
Nestled on the bank of the Bronx River, the center’s classes in drawing, painting, sculpting, cartooning, digital photography and filmmaking, some of which are held in the garden or on the riverbank, encourage students to gain artistic inspiration from and respect for the local environment. To Nathan, the center is a “Community-Based, 21st Century Bauhaus.”
Yet until now, it has been a destination for beauty on the inside, and an eye sore on the outside. The structure it calls home is a drab gray warehouse with no elevators. Aside from a small sign above the door proclaiming the center’s name, it’s hard to tell that an art center lies inside.
“Seven million dollars is not a lot of money to restore an 18,000 square foot, nearly 100-year-old building that sits next to a river,” Nathan insisted one recent afternoon.
On Sept. 30, the center closed its doors to prepare for the renovation that kicks off in January. The building itself is to stay, but elevators will be installed, along with LEED-certified central heating and cooling. There will be a full floor and a half dedicated to arts classes, another floor of artist studios at below market prices, an expanded gallery space, and a theater for performances and presentations of students’ and artists’ work. Visitors to the neighborhood should have no trouble finding the center, as its blue prints display a vibrant white exterior covered with giant green graphics of the center’s nickname, “BRAC.”
Yet, rather than feeling exalted about the renovation she’s worked so hard and long for, Nathan could only do what she does best: worry and plan her next endeavor.
Fear crept in that with the center closed for the next two years, people would assume that it had moved on.
“We stand here as a committed community-based cultural center,” she said, “and we’re not going to abandon the people who’ve come to trust us.”
So, for the next two years Nathan and her art center will travel like nomads throughout the borough, holding gallery events at The Bronx Art Space in Mott Haven, and free art classes at schools and community organizations across the Bronx. The center’s offices will assume temporary residency in another old building on Boston Road and East 179th Street until the center reopens. And once it does, Nathan will finally allow herself a moment of pride.
“This new and beautiful building will be a keystone of the revitalization of this neighborhood,” she said. “We’ll be the thing that turns this area into a destination.”