There’s another hyper-local gallery in Bay Ridge. Underland Gallery, a brainchild of Hannah Salyer, Ester Kwon and Maxim Elrod, opened softly in October 2021, just before the COVID Omicron wave. Shaded by trees and with a mysterious cat-headed-sea-serpent adorning the gas lamp outside, Underland is a strange chimera of performance space, art gallery, and community center.
Join us as we explore this unique community space occupying an entire floor of gallery and performance space in Bay Ridge’s brownstone belt between 5th and 4th Avenue. How do such unique galleries come to be? What does it take to get one running? And what’s next for Underland?
Quickly jump to key parts of the episode by clicking the links below…
Underland is the brainchild of three local artists: Hannah Salyer, Ester Kwon, and Maxim Elrod.
You can check out Hannah Salyer’s illustration work on her webpage and her Instagram. You can also buy her latest children’s book, Packs: Strength In Numbers from HarperCollins. You can learn more about her practice in this interview from Kirkus.
Ester Kwon, as Hannah mentions in the episode, is a talented ceramicist who is part of the staff at Gasworks in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
At the moment, Underland is open on Saturdays from noon to 3pm during exhibitions (unless otherwise stated online). You can also contact Underland directly to arrange a visit! Check out their webpage for more detail and info on their operating hours.
- Underland is the latest gallery in the neighborhood, but it’s not the only one! You can check out our previous coverage of Underland’s “sister gallery” Stand4, as well as Brooklyn Army Terminal’s BioBAT Art Space, in our episode “Crafting Bay Ridge’s Art Galleries“
Expand to view the entire show transcript (lightly edited for readability)…
Dan: Hey there, and welcome to Radio Free Bay Ridge, your hyper-local progressive podcast focusing exclusively on beautiful Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I am your host Dan. I’m joined with…
Dan: …and we are in a brand-new art space that’s reopening very soon. Some of its co-founders are here. Meet the people behind Underland gallery, Hannah Salyer and Maxim Elrod. Guys, thank you so much for coming.
Maxim: Thanks for having us, Dan and Mary.
Mary: We’re excited to talk about this space, right here in Bay Ridge!
Hannah: I’m so grateful you guys reached out. As Dan mentioned, we’re kind of dusting off the books. We have a show coming up that I’m really excited about, so I’m super excited to talk to you both.
Setting the Scene
Mary: So let’s set the scene a little bit for our listeners.
We are in a beautiful brownstone. Your typical Bay Ridge Brooklyn brownstone. And can I just say this is a gorgeous space? I love it here. The open space, the hardwood floors, the parquet, the half-wallpaper. You’ve even got a tin ceiling, which is one of my favorite architectural elements. I can’t say enough about this space.
Hannah: Aw! Well, we love it a lot. It’s not lost on us, how beautiful it is. We’re lucky we didn’t have to do a ton to this space. We live over it, so we didn’t find it randomly. There was a lawyer here. Once she moved out it needed a lot of TLC. But beyond that, we recognized how special the space was.
Maxim: As much as it pains me to say nice things about a landlord… our landlords are really great people. They are artists themselves and understood what we were looking to do. And so they helped us out with some of the renovations, which was huge. We owe a lot to their interest.
Hannah: And their generosity.
Maxim: Yes, absolutely.
Dan: There was a New York Times article that came out a little while ago. [Ed Note: Ok, it was just a Tweet thread.] It was about how a reporter was going into all these weird unique spaces in the city. Bookstores and art spaces. They were asking people, “How do you keep this space going?” And almost to a T every single one of them was like, “We have a unique relationship with a very weird landlord.”
Mary: I knew this was gonna be a good story when you said our landlords are really great people and not a corporation.
Introducing Hannah Salyer
If you guys didn’t come here to start a gallery, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and how that happened?
Hannah: Well, I am a transplant… as are many people these days. I’ve been here for coming up on 10 years now, but I came here for school. I went to Pratt Institute, which, Dan, I know you are…
Dan: Yes. Also an alum.
Mary: Lots of Cannoneer pride in the room.
Dan: (Laughter) Oh gosh, I can’t believe you remembered the name. I think they changed it from Cannoneers to the Cats, because there’s so many wild cats on campus.
Hannah: Yes. The Pratt Cats, which the administration was trying to remove for a while…
Dan: Exactly. The old guy that ran the steam plant. No one on the show knows…
Mary: (Interrupting) Dan. Hyper local. Hyperlocal, Dan. (Laughter)
Hannah: I studied illustration, and I am an illustrator by trade. I feel very lucky to call myself an illustrator. It’s not easy for artists these days, but I have been able to make it work. I write and illustrate children’s books. I also teach at Parsons, undergrad, and I also teach private lessons to kids. I love working with little ones.
My life very much revolves around the arts, both in my own practice, and in artistic communities. I’m a member of Gasworks, a ceramics studio up in Greenwood. They’re a wonderful community. That all bleeds into Underland as a space.
Mary: If anybody’s familiar with Empty Bowls Bay Ridge, I think Gasworks has donated bowls in the past.
Hannah: Yes And they’re just a short train ride north from here. And then you…
Introducing Maxim Elrod
Maxim: I graduated from the College of Wooster in 2015. A small liberal arts school in Ohio. With a philosophy degree in hand, I was sitting on my butt and a friend was like, “Hey, I’m moving to New York. Do you wanna come?” I’m like, “Sure. Yeah. Why not.”
Mary: That’s how I moved to New York too!
Maxim: (Laughter) Far out. I decided there’s too much money in the philosophy racket, so I’m gonna try and be a musician in New York City. It actually worked out for me. I did the solo musician gigging thing for a while, playing in bands.
Eventually that transitioned into doing more recording work. A lot of recording engineers, they fall into it, right? They get a practice space with some friends and start dabbling in recording. Then they get really into it because they’re obsessive, like me. Finally it becomes like what they do full time. So I’ve pivoted to that.
I met Hannah cause I was working at a music venue. This band Elysian Fields, her cousin is the lead vocalist. She saw that I was doing sound and bartending, and she had this beautiful cousin and played a little matchmaker. That’s how I ended up with this wonderful person that I’ve been carving out life with ever since.
And I’m just basically trying to hold on for dear life. Because Hannah is quite the force.
Hannah: (laughter, protesting) No, no.
I’m glad you brought up The Owl because I feel like The Owl music parlor, that’s how we met. That is a community art space centered around music I feel really inspired our vision for this space.
Finding the Apartment
Dan: What brought you guys to Bay Ridge?
Maxim: Desperation, if I’m being honest. We always liked Bay Ridge. But we suffered under the illusion that it was a little too far out, which I think is a very common perception.
We were looking for an apartment and we were just striking out. So we saw this listing in Bay Ridge. The pictures looked like something out of a horror movie. They were so poorly taken.
Hannah: The house looked haunted.
Maxim: Whoever the broker was, like… why choose those photos?
Hannah: They had done flash pictures. There’s orbs floating. And the room looked really dull. But we had so many misses with places. We felt there’s nothing to lose by coming down here to see this potentially haunted house.
Maxim: We showed up to this place. It was like night and day. We got led in and we’re hit with this incredible smell.
The landlords run a restaurant in South Slope called Korzo. Incredible chefs. Whatever they were cooking, it was just like the most inviting smell you could imagine. The house was well lit. It was beautiful. The floors were immaculate. Beautiful parquet floors.
Hannah: All the old intricate wood moldings were intact and like restored. I think we audibly gasped.
Maxim: The landlords immediately exuded this incredible kindness and generosity of spirit. We clicked right away. We knew this was the place that we wanted to spend the long haul in. So we became part of this community that we just have gotten nothing but joy and support from.
Dan: And the Korzo chefs briefly had an outpost of Korzo in Bay Ridge called Brooklyn Beet Company, up on Third Avenue.
Maxim: R.I.P! That place was so good.
Creating the Gallery
Dan: You guys were upstairs. So down here was a lawyer’s office. People in Bay Ridge instinctively know, when you go down through Brownstone Belt Bay Ridge, it’s lawyer, doctor, lawyer, doctor, lawyer, lawyer, doctor, doctor, doctor. But now there’s a gallery. How did that happen? Why isn’t it another lawyer?
Finding the Space
Maxim: When the lawyer moved out, we expressed interest. We were down to take over this space and do something a little different with it.
The landlord thought about it for a moment.
They were like, “Well, you know, it’s nice to know that we won’t have to be on call from a lawyer every time a light bulb needs to be changed. You guys have been good about taking care of the space upstairs so… we can work something out.”
They were so into it. They acted like they had reservations, but I could tell they were really stoked about it.
Hannah: And as we were walking through this space, I asked, “So what’s the deal with the cellar? Is there storage down there? “
Dan: Was it equally haunted?
Hannah: Our landlord was like, “Yeah, I’ll bring you down there.” So he walks us down these stairs into this finished basement with a recording studio. Max’s head exploded.
Maxim: My jaw was on the floor for sure.
It was clear this was a perfect storm of coincidences and serendipity. It felt like it was meant to be.
Mary: You’ve also mentioned you have a third member.
Introducing Ester Kwon
Hannah: That’s Ester Kwon, our very good friend and neighbor. She lives across the street. It’s very convenient in that regard. I met her through our ceramics studio, through Gasworks. She’s a talented ceramicist and art teacher, and has a background in the arts nonprofit world, which is a really great background to have when you’re venturing into the territory that we have crossed into.
Ester and I tend to focus on the visual arts component so far. We’ve only had two shows, with a couple more coming up. But she is my design guru. I really value her sensibilities when it comes to graphic design and gallery layout.
I feel like we make a great team. She has a bottomless knowledge about curation and art exhibits and the history of art in general. She’s always surprising me with her capacity to take on these shows.
Maxim: I think it’s important to emphasize just how essential Ester Kwon is to this operation.
Sometimes it feels like there’s 2.5 people running the show… and I’m the 0.5. I know Hannah probably would say that’s not the case, but…
Hannah: That’s certainly not true.
Maxim: If Hannah is Duke Ellington, then Ester Kwon is Billy Strayhorn. She’s the other half of her heartbeat.
The Art of Curation
Mary: I always feel like artists don’t get enough credit for being entrepreneurs. Nobody has more hustle than an artist except maybe a musician. (laughter) Curation is such a creative act. How’s it been for you as a visual artist to step behind that curtain?
Hannah: It’s been an interesting experience because for me personally, I haven’t stepped into that role before. It’s a very different experience.
You’re very much outside yourself, and not focused on your own practice. You’re focused on a visual language, making sure things are cohesive, thinking about how someone is gonna move through a space.
I’ve enjoyed it. It’s a challenge. Forming Underland we didn’t have a clear theme. We didn’t say “Oh, yes. We’re going to have shows about a certain type of subject matter.” But it’s actually shaken out that almost all of them have had to do with death. And the next show is no different, actually.
Underland: Origins of the name
Of course the concept of Underland, this name Underland… I cannot take the credit for the word. I was working on one of my picture books about cave art and early human art. And I picked up this really immersive book by Robert McFarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey. It’s one of my favorites.
Underland. As in, the sub-layers of the earth. Both geologically, geographically, and how it exists in mythology. How we relate to it as humans.
I was so captured by that idea. I can’t recommend the book enough.
He’s visiting all these different sites. An underground river. He’s spelunking in different caves. Visiting the catacombs in France. Cave art. He’s visiting a glacier. Underground salt labs.
It felt like the perfect connection. The perfect name for this space. Part of it is actually underground. And it’s under this beautiful place where we were living. It just took us by surprise. So that’s what is contained in the name.
Soft Launch and Inaugural Shows
We assumed occupancy in March of 2021.
Maxim: God, it’s been that long?
Hannah: I know. That summer is really when we were painting and they so kindly redid the floors.
Mary: And then you guys had your opening show on Halloween, right?
Hannah: Technically the first show in the space was in late September. Linnea Ryshke. She had a book launch and she also displayed some of the art that was in her book, Kindling, the original pieces. Linnea’s show felt like a soft opening. That was about 40 to 50 people. It went really well. People were impressed with the space.
Then we organized this big group show, Death Mask, which we were calling the inaugural. I think a couple hundred people who came through here throughout the night. That was more of a party. A joyous Halloween bash, if you will.
Underland as a performance space
Dan: So it’s not just a gallery space, but it’s also a performing area.
Maxim: Precisely. And this summer we’re actually hoping in between the shows to have performances by musicians and potentially poets. So keep an eye out for that.
There’s a lot of artists in Bay Ridge, but there are also a huge, huge number of musicians scattered throughout all the back alleys.
Dan: It’s amazing when you stumble upon someone who has a half-built studio in their apartment.
Mary: You guys are making it sound like an infestation.
Maxim: It is an infestation. (laughter) Truly.
For example, we had dinner with our neighbors from down the street. I found out that this fellow, Joseph Anastasi, has a studio and he’s been doing music his whole life. He is super involved with art foundations, including his wife, Audrey, too.
Audrey’s involved with Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition, which is the collection of artists that are literally underneath the studio where I work in Red Hook. These connections are so serendipitous.
Hannah: They actually have their own gallery and gathering space in Sunset Park. Audrey and Joseph have been really lovely and helpful and kind. They’ve been us advice and expert tips.
Dan: The serendipity really is interesting. You mentioned Red Hook. John Avalluto used to run the Owls Head Wine Bar, which used to hold similar events. John ended up landing just a pier away from you guys over at Red Hook Winery.
There are so many things in this space. It’s collaboration of multiple people. It really is a weird Chimera of a gallery. Speaking of chimeras, I just had to ask, where does the logo come from?
It’s beautiful. I always, in my head, refer to it as a Hippocattus.
Hannah: (laughter) I love that.
Maxim: Gosh. We’re gonna use that.
Hannah: I hired a very dear friend of mine who is an incredibly talented graphic designer and illustrator. He goes by Ricardo Diseño. He is down in Galveston with another close friend of mine, his partner, Lindsay McAleavy, she’s a filmmaker and photographer.
Ricardo designed this magnificent logo, and the typeface. All I gave to him was: “I want some Edward Gorey influence. Something that’s dark and mystical and also begs a question. Someone’s gonna see it and say, whoa, what is that? I wanna know!”
Dan: It 100% worked. You are on 77th street, right next to the 77th street subway stop. Any time the sign is out for Underland on this old gas lamp light… the logo is a half cat, half sea serpent. It’s pawing into the air. Black and white. Edward Gorey style, exactly. There’s a huge tree next to the building too, so it’s hiding in shade. And I immediately thought, “What is that?”
Mary: Yeah. I’d say they really delivered on that artist brief.
Hannah: Ricardo is great. He just ran with it and he really hit the nail on the head.
Dan: So let’s go into what’s next for the gallery. Because right now, the space as it’s transitioning into the next opening, which is on July 22nd, right?
Hannah: Yes. The opening is July 22nd, and there’s gonna be an artist talk the day after.
The show is called Kindred Spirits: Honoring Animals in Death.
It’s interesting because the two participating artists chose that name nodding to our first two shows. Our very first show was called Kindling and our second show is Death Mask. And they wanted to tie in. I didn’t suggest that to them, that was of their own accord. It’s in conversation with our last two shows both in name and subject matter.
This show is going to hone in on the work of two artists. One being Amanda Stronza, who is a anthropologist, a conservationist, and a very, very talented wildlife photographer.
She keeps saying, “I’m not an artist, I’m not an artist”. I’m like, “Amanda, you can’t say that anymore! You are so talented. You have so much work to show!”
Dan: You have a gallery opening now! You can’t say you’re not an artist.
Hannah: (Laughter) Yeah, she is very much an artist at heart. She’s worked extensively in Botswana, the Amazon, Peru, and Columbia. She works with communities to promote and help conservation efforts. Focusing on the union between humans and the bigger ecosystem. That alone is amazing.
But what she calls her passion is creating these animal memorials. She lives in Texas, in Austin. And she creates really exquisite memorials for dead animals she finds on the road. Pushing back against this notion of roadkill. Of lives that are discarded. Viewed as trash or waste.
She likes to take the time to notice these really exquisite creatures. A lot of people, when I’m first talking about this, they think, “Oh gosh, am I gonna be seeing gory photos of these dead animals?” That’s not at all what’s happening.
Dan: They’re beautiful.
Hannah: Yes. They’re really exquisite. She puts so much care into these memorials.
She’s collecting wildflowers and arranging them in specific ways. She really spends her time to honor the lives of these creatures and you get to see them in all their beauty. A lot of them just look like they’ve fallen asleep.
Also joined in the show is going to be Rachel Ivanyi. She has a background in scientific illustration. She has this amazing skill set for illustrating fur and feather. And she’s really a master at that.
And so she’s creating pieces that kind of are in conversation with Amanda’s memorials. They want to highlight the fact that these creatures were autonomous sentient beings who lived lives.
So they will have their work. And then we’re also going to have floral installations by a good friend of mine who’s a florist and a very talented ceramicist. She goes by Moo. We’re going to have this kind of interactive shrine that people can add to.
We’ve talked a lot about the floral element in that we only have about two to three days before the flowers will wither. Dried flowers are very expensive. Do we want to do silk? In the end, we arrived at this idea that we would arrange the fresh live plants in the shrine in such a way that we would be prepared for them to wither. And that would be part of the installation.
Cycles of Life and Death
It’s going to be really fascinating, honoring these cycles of life and death.
Amanda can talk more about this in her artist talk, but she has a big online community she’s created around her memorials. People actually send her their own memorials for animals that they find. But there’s also a sliver of people who are like, “Ew, why are you showing these dead animals? You should be burying them.” People get very iffy when we confront death.
Mary: Well, this culture doesn’t provide a lot of opportunities for people to engage with cycles and death.
Hannah: Exactly. And that’s a big part of this show. Acknowledging that there can be beauty in death and these cycles that we can witness. And we don’t have to throw it in the garbage or sweep under the rug.
Maxim: As people, we tend to see animals mostly because of their instrumental value. We use them in such a way that it serves our purposes, or it makes money. We see them as objects. And the whole point of this show is to honor not only the cycles of life and decomposition, but recognizing that all creatures have a robust internal life that can be taken away.
Return of Death Masks
Dan: And, so, do you have any other plans for what’s after Kindred Spirits?
Hannah: Good question. We actually are bringing back the Death Mask group show. It was a hit last year and it went so well. The dynamic of the group show and that subject matter was so fantastic that people were asking about it. So there was kind of no question, Ester and I were said we need to make this an annual group show.
So it will be coming back around Halloween time.
Maxim: Get your costumes ready.
Connecting to Bay Ridge
Hannah: In the conception of Underland I think we were really adamant about creating a space that was not only a visual art gallery.
It’s not a fine art gallery. It’s an intimate community art space. So that encompasses many things, right? That encompasses visual arts shows, performances, readings, and gatherings.
Maxim: You are an art educator as well. So we do wanna have classes.
Hannah: In the months leading up to our opening, I was really adamant about contacting members of the community. I felt like a sleuth. I was at a blood drive and I was telling someone about forming this gallery. And they’re like, “Oh! You need to talk to Victoria Hofmo!” And so I, I reached out to Victoria Hofmo and Victoria Hofmo is a powerhouse. Oh my gosh. I don’t know if you are familiar…
Mary: Yeah. She’s classic Bay Ridge.
Hannah: Yes. She’s born and bred. She was like, well, you need to get in touch with Jeannine Bardaeu who runs Stand4. And I should say, Jeannine has been absolutely wonderful. She’s been so lovely and we kind of consider ourselves sister galleries because we’re just a block away from each other.
Mary: Yeah! It’s very convenient.
Maxim: We keep circling back to the serendipitous circumstances upon which this gallery came to be.
But every time that we’ve reached out to the Bay Ridge community, we’ve just gotten double back in the support. It’s really incredible. And we are just so grateful.
Dan: No, thank you for having this awesome space and doing this work. It’s hard. It’s tough work to create spaces like these.
Maxim: As well you know.
Getting In Touch
Mary: If anybody listening out there wants to get in touch with you, contact you, follow you, or come visit, how do they do those things?
Maxim: We’ve got a telegraph… (laughter) Sorry, just kidding.
Hannah: Just UnderlandGallery.com. Our email is [email protected] and our Instagram… I have to plug the social media… it’s just UnderlandGallery. And with the cat sea-serpent creature you’ll you’ll see that.
Maxim: You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see that. (laughter)
Dan: Awesome. And so July 22nd is the exhibition opening coming up. That’s a Friday. And then the Saturday after we’ll have an artist talk. Thank you guys for inviting us into your gallery, and for creating it with Ester!
Hannah: Thanks so much.
Maxim: Thanks Dan and Mary.
Dan: So everyone, come check out Underland on July 22nd. If you’re listening to this after that date, just go to UnderlandGallery.com and check out what’s here now. Check out Radio Free Bay Ridge at RadioFreeBayRidge.Org for show notes and more. Check us out on Twitter at @RadioFreeBR. And until next time everyone…
Stay free, Bay Ridge.
This episode was recorded on June 25th, 2022 with Daniel Hetteix, Mary Hetteix, Hannah Salyer and Maxim Elrod on location at Underland Gallery in beautiful Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. All post-production and editing was done by our producer, Daniel Hetteix.