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Park Slope's 'Neighborhood' Artist Wins Shot at Brooklyn Museum Show

By Leslie Albrecht | September 28, 2012 7:30am

PARK SLOPE — Painter Jonathan Blum has three words of advice for struggling artists — get a storefront.

If he could, he'd whisper that phrase in the ears of young painters the way someone murmured "plastics" to Dustin Hoffman's character in "The Graduate," Blum said.

He said his storefront studio on Park Slope's bustling Fifth Avenue was probably one of the reasons he was selected out of almost 2,000 artists for a shot at a show at the Brooklyn Museum this winter.

Blum is one of 10 artists who made the cut, which was based on the number of votes artists received during GO Open Studios, a two-day open studios event in early September. Art lovers visited the studios of artists boroughwide, then cast their ballots for their favorites.

GO announced the finalists this week. Curators will visit each artist's studio in the coming weeks and choose works for a show that will hang at the museum for three months. The 10 finalists have been told there's a chance their work may not be selected for the show, but Blum feels confident.

"Deep down I believe I will be picked," Blum said as he showed off his work at his storefront studio at 285 Fifth Ave., which is open "by appointment and by luck," according to the sign in the window.

"When I first heard about this contest, I thought, 'I'm golden on this. I'm one of the few artists that has a storefront. I'm well known in the neighborhood,'" Blum said.

His confidence wavered when he realized he'd be competing against Gowanus buildings filled to the brim with artists' studios, which would probably attract thousands of visitors.

In the end, 127 people visited Blum's studio, and he was pleasantly surprised when he was named as a finalist. "I still don't know mathematically how it happened," Blum said.

He figures the foot traffic helped him rack up votes, but so did his work's humorous tone. Blum specializes in realistic yet whimsical portraits of people, often rabbis, with a favorite object perched on their head. He also paints portraits of dogs, and the occasional goat.

Blum, who counts Marc Chagall and Chuck Close among his influences, got started on his unique portraiture style when he was living in New Orleans and a family commissioned him to paint each member wearing their favorite kind of fruit on top of their head.

"I tried to talk them out of it because I thought it was so silly," Blum, 47, said. "But I've basiscally been doing that ever since. I loved the humor of it."

Since then he's exhibited in Berlin, Prague and Israel, and had his last public show in 2009 at The Green Building in Gowanus. Today his biggest sellers are his portraits of rabbis, which Blum said straddle the line between respectful and playful.

Blum has worked out of his storefront studio for 12 years, and paints there until 3 a.m. on many nights.

He was skeptical at first when he rented the space. Having the public peering through the front window while he toiled on a painting — a process that sometimes involves talking to himself — took some getting used to.

But Blum, who lives in Kensington and has two kids in elementary school, now says he's glad he has the storefront, which is next door to a postal supplies store and a cafe and across the street from a dry cleaner.

He doesn't like having his work represented by galleries, so he sells his paintings himself out of the store, which means the art is up to a third cheaper, he said. Locals often commission him for portraits of their pets and family members, and his work is many a Park Slopers' first art purchase, he said.

"I feel like telling artists, get a storefront," Blum said. "It's been good on so many levels.

"I felt right away like I was in the community and the community has been keeping me going."