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Williamsburg locals may not realize it, but they’re surrounded by the artwork of a neighbor. Walk down Grand Street or Bedford Avenue and you’ll see pieces like the tree-branch-like fence outside the kitchenware shop Whisk, or the embedded Celtic-spiral gate in front of Iona, a popular bar. These, and many others like them around the neighborhood, are the handiwork of Kristina Kozak: eighteen-year Brooklyn resident, antique-shopkeeper, bar owner, and undercover metalworker.
“I consider myself both a craftsperson and an artist. I can’t separate the two,” says Kozak, 48. She is adamant, though, that she is not a blacksmith. “It’s about the technique and materials, but I’m also a sculptor, an artist, and a designer. A painting — a piece of fine art — I could make something like that, but I create functional art.”
Kozak says she has made about eight or nine large pieces for her adoptive neighborhood of Williamsburg, but — as a self-described “weirdly shy and modest” artisan — she never tags her work. Some of her output is rarely seen, like the elaborate, metallic rendition of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, tucked away in the basement of SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Crown Heights. Kozak’s art lives and dies with her buyers. If a bar that has displayed her fencing or façades closes, her work goes along with it. For instance, Trash Bar on Grand Street will be closing in a few months, taking with it the flame-colored metal gate inlaid with silhouettes of mudflap girls — one of Kozak’s most recognizable pieces, despite the lack of an identifying signature.
Kozak likes giving unexpected life to standard metal façades and ordinary security gates. “In general, metalwork is pretty ugly,” Kozak says. “I look around and I’m like, ‘Meh, there’s no design here. It’s just metal bars.’ It’s boring. I’m trying to provide an alternative to the boring stuff. I compare my work to graffiti. It stands out from what’s normally out there, and it’s definitely graphic.”
Kozak has been handcrafting objects since she was eighteen, working her way up from jewelry to sculptures and spiral staircases. In 1997, she moved from upstate New York to Brooklyn, settling in Williamsburg. She bought a building on the corner of Grand Street and Bedford Avenue and opened Mine, an antique shop that at the time was one of the only businesses on the block. Now, eighteen years later, Kozak has transformed her humble antiques shop into a bar featuring some of her metal handiwork. Billet and Bellows (177 Grand Street) opened quietly in January, with an official media introduction in March. The name is inspired by the tools of her trade: A billet is a semi-finished narrow bar of steel, and bellows are devices that produce strong currents of air.
Despite having a business partner, owning and operating a bar has been a challenge for Kozak. She had to stop taking work commissions and now gives her remaining contracts to other metalworking friends in the city. She says she hopes to soon get back to creating, and already has plans for an ornate metal partition to separate the front of the bar from the back.
Most of her creations come to life in a workshop on Berriman Street in an industrial section of East New York. The area is home to a number of metalworkers, but Kozak says she’s the only female.
“There are probably around six female metalworkers in the whole city. Metalworking is a man’s world,” she says. “We are about 0.1 percent of the metalworkers out there. I’m kind of an anomaly.”
Kozak spends her days hunched in front of a burning forge, hammering hot, malleable metal into her unique pieces. It’s hard, physical work — much more so than the bar-owner side of her business — but she’s happiest in her shop. “My work defines me,” she says. “If someone asked who I am, I’d say without hesitation, I’m a metalworker. I’m a maker.”