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Floating Artist Utopia Boatel Comes to an End

By Janet Upadhye | October 17, 2012 7:19am

FAR ROCKAWAY — Two years ago, 23 artists came together to create a floating art installation made up of boats nestled in the waters off of Far Rockaway. Named Boatel, the installation was not only interesting to look at, but the boats were also available to the public to rent overnight.

Cockpit doors were open to paying costumers who could sleep in the belly of an artfully decorated houseboat during summer and fall weekends. What resulted was an oasis at the edge of the city where creativity thrived, and sunsets could be seen from the deck of a boat while planes took off from JFK International Airport and flew overhead.

“It was beautiful in an interesting way,” said artist Kelie Bowman, who worked on one of the boats. “The planes leaving New York City felt romantic and the windows on the housing projects across the bay would light up like fire when the sun set.

“There is no doubt,” she said. “That was a special time.”

But Boatel’s days are numbered. A project some artists hoped would last forever will come to an end on the night before Halloween.

Boatel was first envisioned by artist Constance Hockaday, who had utopian dreams about living a self-reliant life on the water, according to a New York Times profile. Marina 59 made her vision possible.

Marina owner Ari Zablozki, an active supporter of the arts, donated junk boats to the artists, giving them full rein to create whatever they chose. He also invited the artists to use the docks off the marina to house the interactive art installations.

“The boats were super gnarly when we got them,” Bowman said. “Some people just stripped the thing and started from scratch.”

Cozy, artfully decorated vessels emerged from the wreckage, with themes like “a patchwork tree house, a Victorian-era naturalist's laboratory, and a hillbilly kama sutra honeymoon suite.”

But after two years of barbecues, movie nights and midnight swims, Marina 59 management plans to pull the boats from the water. Small mirrors will be scraped off the interiors, cherry red vinyl stripped away, streamers and lights unplugged, and paint sanded away, leaving only the shell of the boats.

“Our boats will then be ready for something new,” Angie Kang, Boatel organizer and artist, said.

Kang, who's not totally sure about the ultimate fate of the boats, said she believes the plan is to “upgrade the boats with super-slick renovations.”

“The idea is to charge more and be able to turn a profit,” she said.

Visitors were charged between $60 and $100 a night, but Kang said these rates only covered taxes and upkeep. With a makeover, Boatel would become less like adventure camping and more like a real hotel, with prices reflecting the new comforts of upgraded boats.

Kang admitted the boats were beginning to show signs of wear and tear and needed some love. But her hope was that artists would be able to work on the boats, sprucing them up and expanding on what they had already created.

Zablozki, however, has other plans, Kang said.

“He wants to create a place his mother would be comfortable staying,” she said.

Zablozki did not respond to several calls and emails seeking comment.

And though disappointed, Kang is not upset.

“We are used to art being ephemeral,” she said.  “We will just have to float our dreams somewhere else.”