Four-Story 1860s Corner Brick Townhouse


Location Fort Greene (Brooklyn)

Price $330,000 (1998)
Square feet 2400

Occupant Nicholas Evans-Cato (painter; teacher, the Maryland Institute College of Art)

You paid for your house from a car accident? I was a seven-year-old asleep in the back of a car. A drunk driver of an 18-wheeler killed my father instantly, broke 18 bones including both my legs, and I almost bled to death and spent the next 10 years in and out of hospitals. My mother was away on vacation. My father was a painter and teacher at Brooklyn College. This was 1980. The insurance settlement was the down payment on this house. Interest rates were what they were in ’98. A cutout cardboard model was the invitation to my housewarming. I have two tenants. I can’t move my painting studio here because I need the rental income to pay the mortgage. I’ve had a studio in Vinegar Hill since ’95.

Let’s discuss why we’re really here. The living room windows are blocked out with cardboard. Only one has a pinhole. You’ve turned the room into a camera obscura, a darkened chamber that collects the inverted image made by light rays passing through a pinhole, the most ancient form of projection, which Mo Ti—you know, the fifth-century B.C. Chinese philosopher—called a “locked treasure room.” Shall we begin? Let your eyes adjust as I turn down the lights . . . more . . . and more . . .

Look, there’s a car on the ceiling, a house on your wall. There goes a person, and another car, a red one. The whole thing is in color . . . Pretty neat, huh? What we’re seeing is across the street but upside down, backward, and out of focus.

Like a little movie . . . No! People have tried to compare the camera obscura to movies and photography. A better analogy might be a live broadcast of whatever happens to be in front of you.

Ernie Gehr made a video of the giant camera obscura’s mirrored reflection at San Francisco’s Cliff House. Sometimes the ocean waves were on their sides. You need a bright sunny day outside to see all this.

Are you sad when night falls that it’s gone. No! At night what you see are the brake lights.

So, if we look at the house across the street on your wall, it’s like being a spy upside down. No! It’s no more like being a spy than looking out the window.

I’m just trying to get some footing here. That water tower on a rooftop is my favorite part. Water towers are always so hopeful, with their pointed heads, standing proudly on four legs. Now as soon as you hold up that illustration board to capture the image, it’s like a little painting. No! It’s not like a painting. The clouds are moving. You can say it’s like a painting because this image has a poetic quality in and of itself. There’s something ineffable about it. There’s nothing too dark or too bright, something very calm and silent. My living room’s just been this way for three weeks. I have my students making cardboard camera obscuras as drawing tools.

Landscape painting—your field, though you do strictly industrial scenes—has its origins in the power politics of property, you said. It’s about who owns the view, what’s being viewed, where the artist stands. I prefer painting standing on the sidewalk than from a rooftop. There’s something more democratic about it. Pissarro did a beautiful series of paintings looking down from his windows in Paris. But there’s something agoraphobic about them. Why didn’t he go outside and paint them? I don’t like the idea of looking down.

Why are you living on the top floor? I chose this apartment for life, not for art.

Did you spend a lot of time as a child recovering in the hospital? No! I spent a lot of time at home looking out the window. That’s probably one of the reasons I do like to paint outside.