New York, US
Without question, 26-year-old Brooklyn-based producer and curator Brittany Natale is doing important things for young women in the downtown art scene. Last April, she curated Teen Dream – a showcase of art by all-female identifying teens – which drew attention from outlets including the New York Times and Dazed & Confused. The follow-up exhibition which launched in Chinatown in September in collaboration with Topshop was another successful step in helping the art world to come around to the idea that teen girls should have the space and resources to share their work offline. Visiting Brittany in her sun-dappled apartment on the Bushwick-Ridgewood border – we take a brief tour of her bookshelf (Joan Didion, Patti Smith, Rumi and well-loved National Geographic collection) before sitting down in her bedroom-slash-studio to talk growing up in New York, the meaning of ‘DIY’ and how her grandmother sparked her interest in art.
Words by Olivia Aylmer & Photography by Tatum Mangus
You mentioned that Mercury’s in retrograde. Do you follow astrology closely?
I really do. The day retrograde started, I woke up and just had a feeling. All it means is that the energy is shifting. I follow my tarot cards and get my aura read and read my horoscope. I’ll occasionally look at the moon to see if it’s full (laughs).
So have you always lived in New York?
Yes, I grew up in New York City, mostly in Flushing—Main Street, off the 7. My two roommates and I moved into this apartment a few months ago; we’re still decorating.
Oh, that’s funny; I grew up in Floral Park!
Oh my God. What school did you go to?
Our Lady of the Snows…
OH MY GOD. That’s insane, so did I!
Did you go to college here, too?
Yes, I went to Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). I studied advertising and marketing. My mom went to Parsons in the ’80s, but she didn’t want me to go to art school. So I had this strategic idea that I was going to go to FIT instead.
I hear this a lot from my friends whose parents were or still are artists—that they don’t want their kids to go to art school. It’s not that they’re discouraging of their ambitions, but they’re aware of the challenges. They’re cautionary…
Exactly. That’s why I do all these shows. My mom graduated in the late ’80s and it was so hard for her to get into the art world and to be taken seriously, and my grandmother was a watercolor painter but could never do much with it, so I got annoyed. That’s why I do what I do.
It’s like your own little personal rebellion.
Totally. I was carrying all of this pent-up frustration.
When do you recall feeling that frustration for the first time?
I remember in 8th grade, at Our Lady of the Snows (laughs), I would get really depressed before school every day. What we were learning wasn’t creative enough, and I knew I wanted to do something more artistic. My parents divorced when I was in freshman year of high school and everything got weird—my mom moved out of state and my dad went to rehab for the first or second time and then he disappeared. So I went to live in my grandmother’s house in Flushing, Queens. All of her artwork was on the wall, and even though she wasn’t practicing professionally, she was always super creative and encouraging of me to pursue art. I think that’s when it started. I have always been interested in pulling motivation from situations where I wasn’t treated right. I went to St. Mary’s, in Manhasset, for high school—it was extremely sports-oriented and they favoured the boys and I remember a lot of experiences with teachers and the deans where they didn’t treat girls right. That added to my frustration – like, hold on: we can’t do what we want to do, creatively.
“I was always kind of scared to go fully into the art world because of my mom. She was encouraging, but she would also say, ‘By the way, X Y Z ripped up my portfolio.'”
The misperceptions that some people direct toward young women making art is often based on the way they look or sound…
Appearance can only project so much. Like I said, I look younger than I am. I’m 5’2, 5’3. I’m 26 and I look like I’m 16. I sound younger on the phone. I’m generally upbeat and happy, but little do people know: I have PTSD. I have anxiety. I have depression. I’m the child of divorce. I’m the oldest of 4 children. My dad’s a drug addict; he just got out of rehab last month. I came from a lower middle-class family. So I feel like your appearance only gets so much across. When people meet me at first, they sometimes say to me: “Oh, Brittany, she’s so tiny and cute and young and upbeat!”. Meanwhile, underneath it all I experience panic attacks.
So did you start by making your own work? How did you find your way into this field?
I used to make my own work, and I still sort of do. When my parents got divorced and I moved in with my grandmother in Flushing, I moved to the house where my mom and my grandma grew up; all the art supplies was still in my mom’s bedroom. It was untouched. So I would do illustrations and watercolor and listen to Imogen Heap—well, actually, it was Frou Frou back then—and Goldfrapp and Santigold and The Cure and cry and write. And my grandmother had a piano, so I’d play and write songs. The arts were my outlet. Then in high school I tried to get involved with as many extracurriculars as I could that were creative. I did dance and I helped with the costumes and scenery for this dance competition they held. I was always kind of scared to go fully into the art world because of my mom. She was encouraging, but she would also say, “By the way, X Y Z ripped up my portfolio.” Or, “By the way, it’s cutthroat. I don’t want them to say the same things to you that they said to me.” So that’s how I ended up at FIT; I transferred from Marymount College. I thought that if I can’t do art, then I’m going to go to school for advertising and marketing and take a bunch of psychology classes and then use that to produce shows. I had a studio up until last year and I made collage work. But I like to always be moving and to see results instantaneously, and what I was doing with art wasn’t fulfilling me. I started to think, well, maybe I could put my energy into creating platforms and spaces where other people who are super dedicated to their art could show their work.
“I would go to galleries and museums, and the majority of the work they showed was by male artists.”
Do you recall one of the first works of art or artists that sparked your interest in pursuing your own career?
When we would go to my grandmother’s house, all the artwork on the walls was by her or my mom. I constantly looked at it growing up. I also like Yayoi Kusama, particularly her relationship to mental illness and the way she’s still able to create. It’s so inspiring to me. And there’s this artist Jim Power—he’s a mosaic man, he does the mosaic lampposts in New York City. I actually became friends with him. He’s in his ‘70s, he’s a war veteran, and he’s so dedicated. He doesn’t have a lot of money—for a point I think he was homeless in Manhattan—but doesn’t let anything stand in his way. You’ll see him rolling around in the East Village in his wheelchair. And I feel like since I grew up here, I connect to a lot of NY-based artists, like Basquiat and Keith Haring.
What made you want to create a space specifically for young women’s work?
When I was 15 or 16, it wasn’t even a thought that I could show my work. I would go to galleries and museums, and the majority of the work they showed was by male artists. I always felt that there was a disconnect present. I used to live briefly in Chelsea, by the gallery district and when I’d go to openings, I would read the artists’ statements and would not totally connect to them.
When you were in high school and college, did you meet other young women who wanted to step into the art/design world? What were some of the conversations you remember having that cemented your desire to create a space that would allow them to show their work?
Back in high school, I knew I wanted to do this—but I didn’t know what it was called. I just knew I wanted to put things together. In high school, my best friend Stephanie, who now lives in London, we’d always talk and plan and try to make a zine. But we were 15 and 16, and we didn’t know where to start. So it was always, “In the future, I’ll do that.” I think for a big portion of high school and college, even though I was connecting with other girls who wanted to do this and going to places that were encouraging, I never felt like I was ready enough. It was a mental block. At the end of college, I did an internship at a gallery in Williamsburg, and the gallery director said to me, “Ok, you mentioned you wanted to put together a show. Do you still want to do that?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said “You have 3 weeks.” So I had 3 weeks from the beginning to end. I was 21 at this point. I hung all the work myself; my roommates and my boyfriend at the time helped me. We winged it, basically. So she said, “Ok you can do another show.” I remember Agnes Gund from the Museum of Modern Art came. I was in shock! Then idea for the teen show came about 3 or 4 years ago. But there was still that mental blockage. I didn’t feel like I was old enough or had the resources.
“In my mind, DIY means getting it done by whatever means necessary. You’re either going to have an art handler hang the work or your friends will hang it.”
I imagine at the time it must have been difficult to pitch a show that would completely centre on art by teen girls…
Yes, I was still in college, I didn’t have money to pay for the space, and I didn’t have the confidence. I felt like I had nothing to show. It was about getting over the fear, because the fear’s always going to be there. I remember this quote I read a few weeks ago; I can’t recall the source. It basically says, “If you’re scared, you’re gonna have to do it scared.”
The term ‘DIY’ carries this perception of inexperience, of ‘winging it,’ while ‘curator’ suggests professionalism, and those who call themselves curators are generally more respected within artistic institutions. When you started out, you were essentially a ‘DIY curator.’ How did you reckon with the complicated perceptions of these labels?
In my mind, DIY means getting it done by whatever means necessary. You’re either going to have an art handler hang the work or your friends will hang it. And a curator, I define the term extremely loosely. I think of myself as a curator, but at the same time, I’m a doer and an activist and a producer and the person behind-the-scenes putting a bunch of moving parts together. Sometimes I wake up and I don’t feel 100%, but you have to break through that bubble wrap. Then, once I get through it, I build up that confidence. I have two younger sisters and I often tell them, you’re not going to just wake up one day and feel 100% confident or ready to do what you want to do – you have to push through those insecurities and do it anyway. Create your own “right time”.
How has the Internet allowed you to connect with other girls in the arts?
I love the computer. I love the Internet. I’m always on it. I was always really into researching. Growing up, I was constantly looking up events happening throughout the city: art shows, concerts, events in the park. But this was before Instagram and Twitter. When Instagram came out, I feel like it connected so many people. I think of it as a digital scrapbook. I first started connecting with some zines and zine collectives like Crybaby. And then I kept building from there.
It’s really an amazing tool. Where do you go in the city when you need to catch your breath and find inspiration?
The New York City bus system has become a very good friend of mine since I was little. I started taking it by myself when I was 12 or 13. I’d rather take the bus over the subway any day. Going over the Williamsburg Bridge, I believe it’s the B-39, and going over the Queensborough Bridge from Ridgewood, is so meditative and consoling. It’s beautiful to see the city come into view; I never get tired of it.I also spent a lot of time downtown, in Chinatown, and on Bond Street by Blick Art Materials, where my friend and I used to hang out when we were 15. I feel like I leave pieces of myself around the city. When I return to them now, I revisit the feelings I had then. New York is a city that grows up with you. And I’m a big walker. Whenever I’m feeling anxious, I’ll put on the Marvin Gaye version of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and walk around and feel like I’m in a little New York diorama. I love David Lynch’s whole thing about finding ideas as if you’re fishing as opposed to creating ideas. That’s part of the reason I don’t have a separate studio anymore. My ideas felt too contained within a physical space.
“I want the artists featured to use these shows as a springboard to do other things. I want the profits from the sales to go to the girls. I want to invite people who can give them more opportunities. ”
Whom do you consider to be a mentor?
My emotions and experiences serve as a mentor to me. They’ve rendered me into who I am today. It’s fabulous to cry, of course. But I cried a lot growing up about what I was going through, and now it’s just my fuel.
Speaking of fuel, what’s your current goal as a curator?
My goal is to keep doing these shows and creating a platform and programming, because I’m passionate about this. I want the artists featured to use these shows as a springboard to do other things. I want the profits from the sales to go to the girls. I want to invite people who can give them more opportunities, and I want press to provide coverage so that these artists can have an even larger platform to share their voice and be heard – so that that young artists who are across the country on the opposite coast can also read about their work and feel connected. Everything I’m doing is strategic. Nothing I do is without intention. I basically don’t want girls growing up today to feel the way I did when I was 15.