WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — For the past eight years, Gabe Kirchheimer has traveled to Fort Tryon Park to photograph 850 cultivated and native flowers, carefully cultivating a database of 3,000 flowers and landscapes.
So when the time came to submit an idea for a new poster to adorn one of the elevators at the 181st Street and 190th Street A train stations — which are only allowed to have MTA-approved decorations for fear of loose paper becoming a fire hazard — Kirchheimer jumped at the chance.
“I always had an interest in the flowers around here, and always wanted to photograph this amazing things happening in my own backyard,” said Kirchheimer, 56, whose poster, “The Flower Capital of Manhattan” was selected through the Artists Unite-MTA Poster Project. “I was out there every day, photographing flowers for years and they would chase me out of the woods there.”
Kirchheimer said he moved into the community almost 35 years ago and began photographing the park. At first, the gardeners of the park would kick him out, until eventually they realized he was serious about photographing the park and that he was trying to document every flower that grew there, because he knew it was an extraordinary number and wanted to prove it.
“They stopped kicking me out of the flower beds and hired me to the give tours of the gardens,” said Kirchheimer.
And although Kirchheimer said he’s no flower expert and has no formal training, he has learned the names of a lot of flowers from the occasional classes at the New York Botanical Garden and support from a few Facebook Groups.
“Nature is very important to preserve and maintain in the city… extremely important,” Kirchheimer said. “I think it’s more important than a lot of people realize. If you really think about it, some of the worst neighborhoods in the city very often have no park. Nature has a really positive effect on people, and we need to support that.”
Rosa Naparstek, director and curator for Artists Unite, said Kirchheimer’s poster highlights the goal of the project, which although doesn’t have a particular theme, the organization does look “for variety and quality of work.”
The Artists Unite project emerged in 2008, years after the MTA cracked down on elevator operators in the station from decorating or having displays inside the elevators.
The MTA has since expanded the number of spaces where artists can display their work underground, now allowing the organization to have nine display slots, up from the normal six displays, inside the 181st and 190th Street A-Train station elevators to exhibit the work. The organization said it receives approximately 100 submissions each year.
Naparstek said they’re organizing several events this year to celebrate all the 40 previous poster submissions and announce this year’s winners.
“A lot of people have moved in, and they don’t know the history [of the community], and this is the time for people to be aware of the power of community building,” she said, adding that this year was essential to hold this larger exhibit because of the political climate and to demonstrate the power of the arts.
For Kirchheimer, having his poster selected is only the beginning. His long-term aspirations are to brand the station with photographs and signage that highlights what’s inside Fort Tryon Park.
“There’s nothing in the station to indicate that one of the most beautiful parks is just upstairs,” Kirchheimer said. “It’s a real no-brainer. It would increase tourism.”
The Artist Unite exhibit launches on Saturday, June 3 at the Hudson View Gardens Lounge at 128 Pinehurst Ave. at West 183rd St. The winning posters will be up in the elevators for approximately a year, Naparstek said.
Kirchheimer photography of the park, including copies of the winning poster, could be found online at the Fort Tryon Park Flowers.