In what ways have you seen Court Tree Collective grow from its start to current day? What do you envision or desire for it to look like in 5, 10 years?
Well, there have been a few different reincarnations of Court Tree Collective. Over the years we have found ourselves moving in the direction that is most natural for us during that time. We started out as an event space (2013 - 2017) that became a venue for creatives to share their talent with others. Gradually, we started producing our own events focused on young up-and-coming self taught chefs (2016 - 2019). Some of which went on to have very successful careers. The one mainstay was always art, but that didn’t fully become full time until 2019 when we moved locations to Industry City, Brooklyn. I think it was here where we finally hit our stride in regards to curated exhibitions and artists. It’s a destination location, and we get hundreds of people coming in on the weekends. So even though that does not translate to collectors, it does translate to getting a reaction to the work. It makes us push harder to have things on display that are different. We make an effort to keep the space free-flowing at all times.
I don’t take anything in this world for granted so it’s hard to say where I envision Court Tree in the future. I will be optimistic and say I hope to get to the next level organically.
What have been the most memorable exhibits and/or moments from Court Tree Collective in the past decade?
Every single exhibition is special to me personally, because I remember them all like it was yesterday. Even the ones that (in my opinion) sucked. Not because of the artist, but because of my own execution. It happens sometimes and you just have to move on from it. However, working with the artist KAVES changed my entire scope on what it meant to be a curator. I have never seen an artist work as hard as he did for his exhibition. He made his vision crystal clear from day one and never strayed from that. I can recall saying to myself, “from here on out, every single exhibition needs to be on this level”. Which is obviously hard, but I think if you look back and see what we have done since KAVES, the bar was sent much higher.
KAVES, “Concrete Cathedrals, February 8 – March 8, 2020
The ‘FOOD’ events were pretty amazing looking back. Some of the chefs we worked with went on to do some pretty amazing things. We were fortunate enough to have worked with some of them before they blew up. Timing is everything and when we first got going ‘FOOD POP-UPS’ were fully in vogue. We are definitely proud of these events. I think it’s interesting how today we have a new group of patrons that have no idea about this part of Court Tree Collective. There was a time when the FOOD events were a higher profile than the art exhibitions.
Tropical Ghana with Charles Cann 2015
The Masao Gozu exhibition was pretty amazing. Big shout out to my friend and amazing artist Christian Nguyen for making the connection. The historical aspect of his sculptures and photographs hit home to me personally on so many levels. Some of his photographs were taken in Little Italy where my grandparents are from. The sculupture’s materials were also originally found in this section of New York City. The installation that we did in Industry City’s Japan Village after the exhibition was incredible. Unfortunately, they are no longer installed there, but we hope to find a new home for them soon.
Masao Gozu: Windows to New York, May 15th – Aug 1st, 2021
One of the best things has been being able to work with so many talented artists--some of which changed us in many ways. Meeting Jacob Gerard was a pretty big deal for me personally. He hadn’t shown his work much (or at all) before we met. I was immediately drawn to his work and aesthetic. I felt like his work was and is exactly where my curation and taste hit. We took a chance and our audience also loves his work. So, that helped to build confidence in our style and choices. It sparked a major change in our future. His work also opened our eyes to other outsider artists. Jacob also has amazing taste, so working with him confirmed 100% that our taste is valid. It opened the door for so many things. Yool Kim is another artist that I feel the same way about. I am proud to be the only gallerist in New York showing both of their works. Both have done really well for us. Also when you have good artists other artists take notice. They are both artists’ favorite artists.
As a photographer, what are components of the ‘perfect shot’ for you?
The perfect shot is when all aspects of photography fall into place. The light, the subject, and the moment all need to make magic happen simultaneously. It’s super rare, but when it happens you know.
Your photos contain a tender yet emotive quality. Whether it be a woman confidently standing with a shirt that says “IF YOU DON’T LIKE MY BROOKLYN ATTITUDE QUIT TALKING TO ME!” or a couple cradling each other on the bus, each photo tells a very human story. What goes through your head when you capture these small moments in your subjects? Any interesting stories about someone you’ve photographed?
Thank you for the kind words. I had a great mentor in Lillian Bassman, the famous fashion photographer and artist. She used to tell me: “You need to find out what type of painter you are.” She helped me to understand that what you are creating in the lens should be your canvas. Much like a painter would do. “Use every part of the canvas,” she would say. Working with her was a life changing experience. Unless you have had this kind of relationship it’s hard to comprehend, but 100% she led me down this path.
I have many interesting stories from my photography career. In college, I almost got whacked for taking photos inside a social club in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I really should have known better, but the moment was too perfect. As I raised my camera to take a shot, the door behind me closed and this group of fine gentlemen surrounded me. I don’t know how I talked myself out of it, but my Dad grew up in that neighborhood. They let me go, but scared the shit out of me. They even took down my ID and driver’s license number. I like to think being Sicilian might have gotten me a pass haha.
I once photographed a guy saying goodbye to his dog in a park. It was so sad, but I kept my distance and let the scene unfold from a distance.
Red Dog, Brooklyn, 2011
While traveling down south, I met one of the six U.S. Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima. You know the one in the famous WW2 photo. I was in the middle of nowhere just outside of Athens, Georgia. I was photographing this old run down house and he and his wife stepped out and asked what I was doing. I would always use the same thing when I was younger: “I am studying photography in college and just taking photos for class.” We got to talking and they invited me into his house. He was super old at the time and the photos of him didn’t really come out that great. However, his wife brought out the original photo and pictures of him in WW2 to confirm. I think they were actually pitching him for a story to me.
Joe Rosenthal, Friday, Feb. 23, 1945
I also got to photograph inside Plum Island. At the time, I was shooting for the Long Island Voice. If you are not familiar with Plum Island it’s where they did all these heinous animal testings for all kinds of scary diseases. It is also known as “Anthrax Island”. The movie “Silence of the Lambs” mentioned it as a place to keep Hannibal Lecter.
At the time, the writer and I were fresh out of college. So we were the only ones on staff willing to make the trip. Personally, I had no idea what the place was. I just agreed to shoot it. It was super intense. We took a boat to get there and immediately had to undress and change into these hazmat suits. Pretty funny the shoes they had us wear were white slip on Vans. I had shown up wearing blue ones, so we got a kick out of that. All the animals, mostly cows, were in these concrete rooms, much like a racquetball court. There was a little glass window where you could look in. The cows had been injected with the diseases and the scientist would observe them and try and treat the diseases. It was pretty gnarly seeing the hoof-and-mouth disease that the cows had been given. Before we left, we had to be hosed down and scrubbed. We also had to sign a contract that stated that we could not be around any farm animals for 72 hours. Pretty crazy looking back.
It’s emphasized that you’re New York-raised and based, and your works serve as physical as well as historical evidence of that. But also, you’ve photographed in faraway places such as Bangkok and Hong Kong to name a few. What are the pros and cons to capturing local versus international scenes? And do you prefer one over the other?
I don’t think there are pros and cons to either. I think they both have their set of issues. To be honest, I have photographed the streets of New York for so long that I feel like I have exhausted it for the time being. I am still in LOVE with New York, but the subjects have changed and I feel less connected to roaming the streets like I used to. With that said, I have been working on a Brooklyn Chinatown series for some years. Covid stalled it, but it’s now getting back on track.
Traveling and taking pictures is still one of my all time favorite things to do. I don’t see that changing any time soon. When my daughter gets older I may want to take some solo travel trips again.
How have your hobbies and passions impacted your practice–as both an artist and gallery owner?
Skateboarding plays a major role in everything I do. I think anyone that has spent as much time on something as I have with skateboarding probably feels the same way. I really can’t emphasize how much it means to me. The DIY aspects to it have made me who I am and it has certainly made me create this “all hands on deck” atmosphere that has built Court Tree Collective. Skateboarding influences everything. Our brains are wired differently and we see the world very differently. I guess it’s hard to explain to people that have not experienced it before. Skateboarders are the most unique tribe ever to walk the planet, especially the ones in my generation. Even today as it has become mainstream there are still a select few that hold the torch for the next generation. I love that about it. It’s always been blind to race, gender and age.
Making music definitely helps being a gallery owner. I definitely arrange exhibitions in the same way one writes music. I will change things constantly until it feels right. The composer aspect plays a role in curating for sure.
What’s a piece of advice you would like to give to your younger self?
“Pay attention!”. Can’t tell you how many times I heard that as a kid.
Last great media (movie/book/show/music/etc.)?
This may seem odd, but I am really into watching this dance crew in South Africa, called The Vortex Crew. They do these dances to Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together”. It’s amazing! Their style, moves, and vibe reminds me so much of my own friends growing up. There is something very skate crew about them. It just proves how small the world has gotten because of social media. As damaging as social media is, seeing groups like this brings hope to the creative forces social media can have. Most importantly they are having fun, and if you are not having fun daily then you are basically fucked.
The only thing I watch these days are true crime documentaries and the BBC. Just watched “Once upon a time in Northern Ireland.” Fascinating and sad story.
I listen to everything and own over a thousand records.
Any words for your audience reading this interview?
In a world where everyone wants their flowers and wants to be a star, we find ourselves happily taking the backseat to promote the culture, art, and food that we love. The concept was that simple, but to keep afloat was and still is a painstaking adventure. We do this for the LOVE of it! We are a family-run business. We have no one backing us, no investors, and no secret trust funds. We are blessed to have each other and put in some good old fashioned blood, sweat, and tears. With that being said, we have been incredibly fortunate enough to have so many amazing human beings trust us and believe in us. There are far too many people to mention and thank, but you ALL know who you are. Because we are all still connected and the list of people to thank continues to grow. From the Vietnam Vet florist who kept the local mob from bullying us out of our first location (true story) to the world class Deadhead who saw something in us at a time when we were at our lowest (true story). There are sooo many amazing people and stories… After ten years… ten years of multiple reincarnations we still believe in this. We are still having fun and truly still feel like we are just getting started. So stay tuned, in the next few months we have plans to bring back some of the classics. THANK YOU!
Click Here ︎ to see Stephen’s work.
Stephen’s Instagram: @stephenlipumaphoto
Interview by Tiffany Kang.