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Gowanus Metalworks Studio Helps Students Make Art for Riverside Park

The sculpture
The sculpture "Watching Upon the Present" by artist Sequoyah Aono, shows a reclining woman. The figure will be covered in multi-colored stone pieces.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

GOWANUS — In an industrial warehouse overlooking the Gowanus Canal, a time machine is currently under construction. 

Artist Haksul Lee's 8-foot sculpture "Proceeding Being," which looks like a flying 17th century frigate, was inspired by his vision of "New York City as a big vehicle for time travel."

Lee is one of five students from The Art Students League of New York who have been hammering, sawing and welding massive metal pieces into artwork for the past month at Serett Metalworks inside the Gowanus Industrial Arts Complex on Ninth Street at the Gowanus Canal.

In two weeks, Lee and his fellow artists will see their sculptures leave the confines of the Serett Metalworks warehouse and travel to Manhattan, where they'll be installed along the Hudson River in Riverside Park South for the next year.

Lee said he's excited to put his work on view in a public place, where it will reach a much larger audience than in typical gallery show.

"Normally in a gallery show you only deal with critics and other artists," Lee said. "Now it's a much broader audience."

The sculptures are the product of a one-year program at the Art Students League called Model to Monument, which teaches artists how to create public art. Working in partnership with the city's Parks Department, the program gives art students the rare chance to have their work seen by thousands in a public setting. A year ago the Art Students League installed the first round of Model to Monument sculptures in Riverside Park South.

With the next round of sculptures set to be installed in June, the artists in the Model to Monument program have been working nearly around the clock at Serett's cavernous warehouse to complete their sculptures on time. Serett creates custom-built metal pieces for commercial and residential clients. On Thursday employees at the warehouse were working on an ornate metal staircase for a Manhattan restaurant.

"We do a lot of building of things that other people don't know how to build," said J. McDonald, an architect, designer and metalworker at Serett. "We have an aesthetic sensibility, which a lot of metalwork shops don't have."

The studio also works with artists such as Kiki Smith, and the second floor doubles as an alternative arts space called the Gowanus Ballroom.

Art student Damien Vera, a 27-year-old Queens resident, said McDonald's metalworking expertise had "saved his ass" more than once while he's been building his Model to Monument piece. Titled "Cope," Vera's work is a collection of five stainless steel towers ranging from 8 feet to 14 feet tall.

A cast stone figure is hidden inside each tower, and viewers will only be able to see the figure if they approach the tower and peer into a 1-inch-by-6-inch rectangular opening on the front.

"It's about the human experience," Vera said. "The five towers will surround viewers, they'll feel trapped, then they'll see the figures and realize they're trapped, too. I guess the whole thing is about confinement and dealing with it."

Last Thursday, Vera and McDonald were taking turns hammering away at the 14-foot stainless steel panels that will make up Vera's largest tower.

Upstairs, sculptor Roberto Franzone showed off five hulking pieces of steel, each weighing about 3,000 pounds, that will be part of his piece "Red Arches." The metal pieces will form an arch structure that will be big enough for people to sit beneath. "It recalls the ancient Roman basilica, where people used to go to talk and exchange views," Franzone said.

Like the other artists, Franzone said he's looking forward to seeing viewers interact with his work. Vera said his goal is to give viewers an emotional experience.

"I just want people to get something out of it," Vera said. "I want them to feel angry, or sad, or just something. If they feel something, I've done my job."