You look like a precious jewel with a beautiful smile. . .

If you like stories, painting, poetry, and learning about folks from far-flung locales who call Brooklyn their home, make your way to the Brooklyn Historical Society, where there’s a fascinating exhibition, Painting Brooklyn Stories, on view until February 27th.

Brooklyn Historical Society

The show tells stories of Brooklynites through paintings made by Nina Talbot, and poems penned by Esther Cohen. It’s a gem. While there, you might see Cristina Garza, the Coordinator of Visitor Services, who warmly greeted me at the admissions desk. I was particularly happy to see Cristina because she and I used to work at the Rubin Museum together.

While Cristina and I explored the exhibition, I learned that Nina Talbot’s paintings were inspired by interviews she conducted with folks from Midwood to East Flatbush and from Fort Greene to Brighton Beach. Through Talbot’s colorful, expressive touch—she’s a very painterly painter—and a rich array of material artifacts, photos, letters, and other objects, we slipped seamlessly into their narratives of struggle, survival, success, and heroism.

Painting Brooklyn Stories

Although Talbot colorful paintings generate a sense of joy and optimism at first, on second glance, one soon realizes that her works belie a richer and darker truth, one that unfolds in poignant waves. The first wave begins with a portrait of a young woman, Fatima, whose family is from Pakistan and own a fabric store in Midwood. After the 9/11 attacks, they, along with other Pakistani shop owners, felt threatened and quickly hung American flags around their stores, as illustrated by Talbot’s haunting depiction of Fatima.

Fatima of Royal House of Fabrics

Yet another powerful painting is of Lahiny, who grew up in Haiti, and watched her uncle murdered in the streets of Port-au-Prince by Tonton Macoutes, the personal police force of dictator Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc). As an adult, Lahiny has found a semblance of peace living in East Flatbush but floating above her head in the painting is a horrible scene: Papa Doc’s large head looms in the sky while a man is being executed by “necklacing” below; a rubber tire filled with gasoline has been thrust around his chest and arms and lit on fire. Lahiny may have fled Haiti but the past is ever present.


One of the most touching paintings in the show is of Tanasia Mitchell, an adorable little girl who died from kidney cancer when she was eight years old. As a memorial to Tanasia, Nina Talbot placed her in the center of the painting, smiling, surrounded by the extended arms of her parents.


Looking at pages from Tanasia’s diary selected for the exhibition, we learn that she loved Hello Kitty, pizza, and the color pink. We also see that after she died, her mother, Tuwana, inserted messages into Tanasia’s diary in response to her daughter’s entries, as if she were continuing to communicate with her through the written word.

This is an excerpt of one of Tuwana’s messages to her daughter:

It’s so unfair. We stood strong. We fought with all we had. Still it wasn’t enough. But not even death can stop my love for you . . . I feel you in my heart always. I see you when I close my eyes. You look like a precious jewel with a beautiful smile.

Love Always, Mom

But rather than focusing on a sense of loss, Nina Talbot’s beautiful family portrait, with its rich whirl of pinks, violets, reds, embraces Tanasia and the family, bringing the love home. This painting, as well as the others in the show, emphasizes the importance of friends, family, and the safety we provide each other, both physically and emotionally, and how important is for us to cherish these gifts.

Memory and story are closely connected and creatively brought to life in this stunning exhibition. It’s a dynamic collaborative effort, knitting together image, text, and sound.

What are some of the ways you remember and honor your own stories and those of others? How do you bring the love home?

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