A Tribute to Jane Walentas
Karen Brooks Hopkins
“Rome wasn’t built in a day!” How often have we heard this cliché and others like it that address the truth about what it takes to bring large-scale transformational projects and ideas to fruition?
Achieving success after decades of steadfast work day … after day … after day is not for the faint of heart or the impatient, or for those without an unwavering commitment to get the job done.
The Brooklyn we know and love today was built by a spectacular patchwork of pioneers who shared the belief that our borough did not have to be a second-rate Manhattan, but could stand on its own merit and individual character to become the most diverse, interesting, and creative neighborhood in America. Those believers immersed themselves in this idea over many decades.
Jane Walentas was one of this group of visionaries who, along with her husband, David, their son, Jed, and an amazing array of other leaders and makers with different skills and talents, stepped up for Brooklyn when many dismissed the idea that anything great could happen on our side of the bridge.
Jane’s Carousel, lovingly restored by Jane’s own hand over 27 long years, sits nestled in its beautiful cocoon (the Jean Nouvel jewelbox where it lives) in Brooklyn Bridge Park welcoming all who come to ride its magnificent ceramic horses.
These carousel equestrians move up and down astride the multi-colored thoroughbreds hearing the music of a calliope surrounded by the great urban park, the East River, and a view of Manhattan in the distance.
Jane’s Carousel, like many of the city’s great icons, is a symbol of all the possibilities New York offers to those who want to find their destiny in the greatest city in the world!
Jane was a kind and generous person and a champion of the arts. Her support for artists and arts organizations made it possible for so many to make and share their work with the public. Since 1998, Jane, her husband David, and son Jed have supported Smack Mellon and so many other arts organizations in DUMBO, the thriving neighborhood they shaped where creativity is front and center.
Jane was an artist and she understood the importance of making a place for artists. To do so, she lent tremendous support to the people and institutions that allow artists to flourish and create. She reached thousands of artists and hundreds of thousands of people who visited nascent organizations like Smack Mellon and St. Ann’s Warehouse in the early years, and many others that moved to DUMBO through her space subsidy program.
Through the ongoing generosity of Jane and the Walentas family, Two Trees provides over 100,000 square feet of donated and subsidized space to artists and arts organizations like Smack Mellon, Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, ISSUE Project Room, Brooklyn Arts Council, Art in General, A.I.R. Gallery, NYFA, United Photo Industries, and many other small galleries and non-profit organizations. I don’t know of any other developer that provides space on this scale in NYC. Their support for Smack Mellon since 1998 has enabled us to support hundreds of artists with exhibitions, free studio space, and free art education programs for NYC public high school students. We would not be able to do any of this without the support of Two Trees.
Jane’s legacy continues. Her support for artists does not end when they leave their Smack Mellon or Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, or when they complete a world premiere run at St. Ann’s. Having been given the chance to develop their work at an early stage of their career these artists are given the momentum they need to continue to produce and show their work. Jane’s investment in them is compounding, it’s growing, and it is unstoppable.
Jane was the Founder and Executive Director of Jane’s Carousel, a 1922 carousel that she spent 27 years restoring. It lives at Brooklyn Bridge Park, between the bridges and brings joy to people, young and old. It is a monument to Jane.
Thank you, Jane. I am forever grateful to you and I will miss you.
Dear Jane, You are missed.
When I think of my interactions with Jane—from meetings to meals, celebrations of the DUMBO Arts Festival, discussions with the board of the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, an epic trip to Marfa, and my first time ever on a golf course—these memories all conjure feelings of joy and delight. I was even married at the carousel, a venue suggested and offered with generosity by Jane. There was a way that she would say “Hi, Lisa” to me that was more than a greeting—she showed me the kindness and support of a mentor, the tenderness and love of a dear friend. Her tone was an invitation to hear more about whatever it was that we may have been planning. It was a feeling of mutual trust and admiration. I will miss her smile and her hellos.
Her presence was one of calm, clarity, and conviction. Her quiet confidence was unmistakable and her command and demand of excellence was crystal clear. There was never a waver or a doubt in the paths she chose, and I always marveled at her quick, solid decision making. She knew what, how, and why she wanted things a certain way. It is extraordinary that her artistic eye and skill would be focused on a project that would take decades of care and commitment, all in the name of sharing a special piece of history and pure joy with so many.
It was never just Jane, it was more often Jane and David. I admired their love for each other, the softness and sparkle in David’s eyes with Jane by his side, their “battling in the trenches” together for more than 50 years. She is so deeply missed.
I am grateful to have been in Jane's orbit for the last decade of her embodied life on earth. There is no doubt that her star shines bright—as a jewel box on the Brooklyn waterfront, through her son and grandchildren, and through the lives, work, and aspirations of so many people that she inspired and touched with her generosity and her life’s work.
Thank you, Jane.
We miss you.
She was the perfect first lady for DUMBO. Stood by her man, devoted herself to art and culture, diversity and philanthropy, was tough and compassionate. She understood the business of real estate and the art of building a neighborhood; felt the battles between “the enlightened developers” versus “the entitled colonialists,” both vulnerable and thick skinned to the slings and arrows, with a rare combination of grit, compassion, and outright talent.
Their controversial mythos preceded the Walentases. The first time I met Jane in her studio, I was immediately enchanted by the room full of upright carousel horses on their posts—each one lovingly named, with its own colors and coat of arms, and Jane, blade-in-hand, carefully scraping away old paint, chatting and welcoming me to DUMBO. It was a magical moment, and I thought, “Who could be against this?” Who indeed?
In my travels looking for theater to bring back to America, I happened upon Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair overlooking Sydney Harbor, and I wondered about Mrs. Macquarie and why she had a chair named for her, how she must have sat on that spot until it was literally set in stone in remembrance of her. In the future people will wonder “Who was Jane and why did she have a carousel named after her?” Why indeed? Thank you, Jane, for 20 years of DUMBO, many spent defending vision, art, and a touch of Wonderland.
Jane’s favorite horse on the carousel was the lead horse, the most decorated and intricately carved. It is a white horse with a silver-leafed plume, adorning pink flowers, a dark blue saddle, and a saddle blanket with a gold-leafed “PTC” monogram. Though they’re arranged in a circle, all of the other horses “follow” behind it—one of the many carousel facts I have come to learn over the last nine years as an operator. Jane and I had a laugh when Kim Kardashian showed up at the carousel and chose the lead horse to sit on. “Of course she would choose that one!” we said to ourselves chuckling. We hung a black sash around the lead horse in remembrance when Jane passed away in July.
I met Jane in August of 2011. I had just moved to New York City for a residency at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation Space Program, one of many, many DUMBO art spaces generously funded by Jane and David Walentas. I saw a note hanging on the bulletin board in the building that read, “Looking for Carousel Operator.” I had never operated a carousel but it felt like my destiny, and like something I had seen on a TV sitcom about life in the big city.
By then, Jane had been working on the carousel for 25 years. PTC #61, a three-row, 48-horse carousel made in 1922 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company and originally placed in Youngstown, Ohio. Jane and David purchased the carousel at an auction in 1984, bidding on every single horse to keep it together. In her studio on Washington Street, Jane meticulously restored each of the horses. She studied them, scraping off many layers of paint down to the original layer to begin restoration. Jane intimately knew every inch of the wooden horses’ trappings and ornaments. She was hands-on, involved in every aspect of the project. Her huge smile would light up when talking about the details—the original jewels, the carving of Joan of Arc, and the pastoral paintings on the rounding board. The pavilion, designed by Jean Nouvel, is a jewel box, with the carousel’s 1,200 light bulbs illuminating the colorful horses amongst the city skyline. Every time I ride the train over the Manhattan Bridge or drive on the FDR I look out to catch a glimpse of the bright spectacle.
The carousel draws people to it with its mesmerizing beauty. They take a ride and time seems to stop. There are intimate moments of wonder caught up in the drumming of the calliope organ and big public moments like weddings, proposals, birthdays, photo shoots, and school field trips. Neighborhood regulars have grown up at the carousel, from toddlers racing to their favorite horse to pre-teens coming by for an after-school ride. Adults who rode the carousel as children in the 1950s in Youngstown make pilgrimages to find that Jane has honored and restored their childhood memories faithfully and with care.
Jane’s carousel is a larger than life, interactive sculpture that has created a community. She has hired many artists over the years to operate the carousel and we continue to care for it as a work of our own. The ride lasts for three minutes, load on and load off, one rider after the next. “Two bucks to pony up!” is embroidered on the back of our operators’ jackets. The repetition in this is comforting, knowing that Jane’s gift will keep spinning and her smile will be reflected in the faces of the riders.
Before I knew Jane Walentas, I was dazzled by her carousel. More striking, even, than the choreography of the 48 carved horses over the DUMBO waterfront is the care with which Jane restored the 1920s American treasure. For 27 years, she devoted herself to the project, scouring the country for an antique set and then painstakingly stripping peeling paint by hand.
When Phong shared the good news that we found a supporter for the Rail’s Dance section, it wasn’t a balletomane or experimental dance devotee, but rather someone who dedicated herself to the core of what dance criticism works to uphold: the preservation of a craft and the belief in live experience to bring people together.
When I met Jane at one of the Rail’s communal Friday lunches, her stories relayed the vision and generosity of someone who was an artist and patron in one. With her support, the Dance section has been able to champion artists and writers, covering performance on the city’s largest stages and in its smallest basements. Jane’s legacy will live on in all of the projects, institutions, and people that she touched. We will forever be grateful.
With a heavy heart I am writing this tribute to a wonderful person who is dearly missed in this world. I had the great honor of working with Jane on her beloved carousel, which became my beloved carousel as well, and now beloved by so many others. Hours turned into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. A true labor of love!
It was always a great pleasure working for her, with her, and near her. For that, I’m deeply grateful. One cannot find a kinder, more passionate and dedicated person with such a generous heart. She had an infectious smile and laugh that drew everybody in. What a gift she has given us with bringing PTC #61—now Jane’s Carousel—back to life in all its splendor for generations to come. It is a testament of her taste and vision that I greatly admire, as well so many others I’m sure.
Jane, we thank you all from the bottom of our hearts for your passion and dedication. All the smiles and laughter that you have given us and will live forever in our memories!
It was in the late fall of 2013, at a lunch organized by Lisa Kim, then Two Trees Management’s Cultural Affairs Director, that I first met Jane. I was nervous. Jane and David had just assumed sponsorship of the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation Space Program, where I was the Studio Manager. The program had been in danger of closing. By the time our food arrived, it was clear to me that Jane and David would be more than just benefactors of the studios. Jane was earnest in her support of the arts, of artists, and the program, and she spoke with equal parts candor and warmth. I believe Jane's appreciation of artists was due in part to the fact that she was an artist in her own right—the carousel in Dumbo is a monument to her vision, dedication and love. Walking back to 20 Jay Street, I remember thinking it was going to be a good year.
The Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program receives thousands of applicants for jury consideration each year. Though it's exciting to see the work of so many artists, jury days are long, involving spirited debate. Jane liked to observe the process, always focused, listening closely as to why any of the jurors felt this or that artist was worthy of a studio the following year. Once the jury made their selections, Jane personally called the awardees, wanting to get to know them even before the coming season.
When planning for the new year started, Jane immersed herself in nearly every aspect. After all, there was the orientation to set up, studio walk-throughs to be done, and advisory committee meetings to organize. On a particularly sweltering day, I remember going out for an iced coffee and seeing Jane, early on her way to one of our meetings, waving from down the street, signature straight blonde hair and genuinely friendly smile—eager to begin. When I picture her in my mind—testing memory as we do when we know we’ll never see someone again—this is how I will remember her.
Jane changed the program for the better. Sometimes it was the small stuff. A studio work sink was replaced with a trough large enough to take a bath in. A new refrigerator. Shelving that became a library.
And sometimes, it was big stuff. The pandemic stole a significant portion of studio time from this year's artists, so Jane extended their stay an additional year.
Having been a participant in the studio program myself in 2011, I know firsthand how it can shape an artist’s work and life. A good space and proximity to other artists can facilitate big moves in work and foster long-lasting relationships that might not otherwise develop. Jane recognized and respected artists as working professionals. Her support impacted the lives of many and we are fortunate.
“It may sound odd, but one aspect of the year that I always remember was the commute. On nice days I would run from the studios to the ferry and head back up to Greenpoint on the water, drawing in my sketchbook on my way up the East River,” recalls Norm Paris, a resident of the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program (SWSP) in 2015 – 16. “And I would always pass Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park. As a structure, it feels like a clock: at once a symbol for linear time and the cyclical nature of the calendar. The carousel and the program, ‘like clockwork,’ markers of rare stability—a respite from the usual unpredictability of creative life.”
While many of the artists quoted here met Jane Walentas, some, myself included, participated in the program before her family became an official partner. Through the program, Jane had an incredibly positive impact on so many artists’ working lives and trajectories in our work. These personal experiences of the program’s many invaluable benefits and memories of Jane will serve to give inspiration to emerging artists and to illuminate her commitment to the arts, as Erika Ranee (2011–12) witnessed Jane spontaneously show up for a slide selection panel: “It was a long day on the jury and even though Jane was neither a juror, nor scheduled to participate, she graciously asked if she could sit in for a bit. She ended up staying the entire nine hours as we pored through thousands of images. I could see how wholeheartedly she was invested in the program.” Derek Fordjour (2017 – 18) described his group’s first meeting at the program, having unknowingly seated himself next to Jane. Fordjour perceptively notes that “although she said very little, she was keenly observant” and with his group of residents “eschewed any projection of self-importance” and “spoke with the warmth of a relative.” Of the program, he recalls Jane describing her role as “guardian angel.”
The paramount benefit of the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program is, as the title implies, the rent-free studio and for most the accompanying release from its economic pressures and the resulting creative freedom. Sun You (2018 – 19) explains how she reinvested the rent she saved directly back into her work: “In addition to the community, it’s hard to overstate the practical benefits of having a free and beautiful studio in one of the world’s most expensive cities. I found it was easier to bring people by my studio at SWSP due to its great reputation and location. I used the money I saved on rent to produce a new body of work for my first bi-coastal solo exhibition Libraries (2019) at the Pit in California and Step Sister in New York.”
That space sometimes comes as both a relief and a reprieve from the forces of gentrification as painter Don Voisine (2019 – 20) recalls, “I had just lost my studio of 29 years in Williamsburg and I was in need of a place to work … Williamsburg did not have a Jane Walentas to make sure artists still had affordable workspace available and could maintain a presence in the neighborhood.” For artist Craig Stockwell (2013–14) who returned to the city from New Hampshire, having the space came with an immediate confidence: “Arriving in NYC for a year with a firm and respected place to work from was also very helpful. Rather than coming into the city as a wannabe I arrived with a place to stand.”
Sheila Pepe (2016–17) reminisces how her studio gave her the ability to complete open-ended projects: “I think the biggest thing about the program was having a proper studio—out of the apartment—for the first time in years. And, that I was perfectly happy in a windowless space as long as it meant I had room enough to play with all of my stuff … I spent a lot of time making ‘Votive Moderns,’ an ongoing series of objects started in 1994.” Julie Curtiss (2018–19) breathlessly remembers her aspirations: “Ever since I moved to New York City ten years ago, the SWSP was always a fixed goal: It represented a form of validation to me as a young, idealistic artist dealing with the crushing realities of a very competitive art world. Located in the dizzying DUMBO area, its roomy, hardwood floor studios overlook the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline; it felt like a dream come true as I moved in.”
The complementing psychic space of the studio was energizing, or as Norm Paris explains, “I often felt like I was taking myself apart and putting myself back together again in different ways.” He continues: “That profound gift of time and space at the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program allowed for a more open search. I drew hundreds of drawings that year. I made sculptures and then dropped them off ladders, producing new work from the fragments … I am still walking many of the paths that I charted during that year, especially in my drawings.”
The transformative space of the studio, a place that allows for and whose community supports risk-taking, is beautifully described by Erika Ranee in her first foray into abstraction: “I was already on a gradual transition away from representational imagery to the abstract. I worked through my fair share of frustration and uncertainty with one painting in particular. Very close to falling back into my comfort zone, I considered adding some floating heads for a more direct read. Amid my anxiety that our open studios were scheduled for the next evening, Judy Pfaff brought her students around the afternoon before. I was terrified to have anyone see the painting—in my mind I needed about another week. When Judy walked in with her students, she immediately zeroed in on that painting, and before I could defend its faults, she exclaimed, ‘It’s done!’ And her students agreed. That was a transformative moment—and a transformative painting for me, my first ever completed abstract painting. The cherry on top was Judy’s intervention. She helped me see the work with a different lens, for which I’m grateful. It wouldn’t have been able to happen anywhere else but at the residency and that’s a significant turning point of my time there.”
Continuing to expand on the importance of audacity in one’s studio life, Mira Schor (1992–93; 2019–20), one of a few awarded the residency twice, notes, “For most of my working life, I’ve painted in small, basically domestic spaces, either on small paintings or creating large painting installations from accretion of small modular units. I had an incredibly productive residency the second year of the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation in the early ’90s. Since then I’ve long wanted to test my ability—conceptual, formal, and physical—to work on very large paintings and thus to take on the great tradition of Western painting … I got a fantastic studio with beautiful proportions and light, and with an incredible view.”
What might seem contrapuntal to the inward-turning space of the studio is the social community of artists, the dialogue among them, and opportunities out of which emerge. “Serendipitous conversations in the hallways and studio visits served as a reminder that people were at varying points in their lives—so many different ways to be an artist,” observes Norm Paris, thankful for artist-neighbors. Sun You elaborates, “Exchanges with fellow residents are at the heart of the program. There were many formal and informal events that encouraged us to get to know each other. I’ll always remember the printmaking and exchange nights, preparing for the open studio event, all the artist presentations and individual studio visits.” On these dialogues and their fruits, Craig Stockwell asserts, “The group conversation has been sustaining and I loved having an open door with random stop-ins during the day. My work, itself, was abundant and experimental. I was in the studio seven days a week, I rarely had that much time at home. I was also, early on, given the chance to do some writing for the Brooklyn Rail, due to the presence of a Rail editor in our group” (the writer of this article, in fact).
The 2013–14 SWSP was a magical year for my working life as an artist also. Having just lost my post-graduate school Greenpoint studio of seven years to a ramshackle hotel development plan, the timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous. Discovering a picture-postcard view of the Manhattan Bridge in my studio, the first thing I did was install vertical blinds to be able to close that distracting panorama. (In writing this piece and speaking with Mira Schor, we figured out that they are still hanging in what is currently her studio.) Like many, I experimented—with scale and materials, making the first two in a series of paintings that were shown a couple years later at the North Carolina Museum of Art. These human-sized paintings’ uniform dimensions had been inadvertently determined by fellow painter Pinkney Herbert when he loaned a stretcher he had built, demonstrating the generosity of spirit characteristic of my fellow residents. I had many heart-to-hearts with Rachel Beach about living, teaching, and the developments we were making in bodies of work, and with Debra Priestly about teaching, making art, and living with artists. As a group, we all marveled when Barbara Hammer, who passed away last year, invited us to her studio for a private preview of the performance What You are Not Supposed to Look at (2014) with a cellist and hanging X-rays that she later restaged during open studios.