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The Greenpoint Legacy: Showcasing Polish Art in America



In the 1980s, Brian and Teresa McMahon embarked on an extraordinary journey with Polish art while living in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. They transformed their home at 16 Clifford Place into a gallery, exhibiting works from Polish artists who had fled their homeland's economic and political turmoil. This passion for art led them to assemble an extensive collection, including over 400 Polish posters, which they stored for three decades. With the help of their children, the McMahons are now sharing these treasures with the public, celebrating the resilience and creativity of Polish artists who found new beginnings in America.


Greenpoint: A Sanctuary for Polish Artists

Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was more than just a neighborhood; it was a sanctuary for Polish immigrants. The area’s strong ethnic identity and supportive community provided a comforting environment for artists and newcomers. Conversations in Polish were ordinary in local businesses, churches, and community centers, maintaining a cultural bridge between Poland and the U.S. This vibrant enclave, characterized by Polish-language newspapers and community services, became a dynamic hub for the Polish diaspora.

Teresa Chmura, who moved to Greenpoint in 1974, and Brian McMahon, who arrived in 1983, epitomized the spirit of hard work and resilience. Despite her limited English, Teresa initially worked in a Manhattan clothing store, eventually owning a delicatessen in Greenpoint. Brian, an architect schooled at Pratt, trained in historic preservation and architectural design-build entrepreneur, married Teresa in 1984, and together, they renovated a fire-damaged row house on Clifford Place, incorporating a public art gallery.


FFA Gallery: A Cultural Hub

The McMahons' FFA Gallery quickly became a focal point for local Polish artists and the broader artistic community. Their gallery hosted exhibitions featuring renowned artists like Andrzej Czeczot, Jan Sawka, and Allan Rzepka. The gallery also attracted notable visitors, including Isamu Noguchi and Keith Haring, further cementing its status as a cultural hub.

Brian McMahon's strategic vision extended beyond the gallery walls. He provided rent-free accommodations in the ground-floor unit of his home, creating a literal resting spot for artists and friends. This hospitality and the gallery's vibrant exhibitions positioned the McMahons at the vanguard of Greenpoint's revitalization. A Newsday reporter highlighted McMahon's role in this transformation, capturing the family's commitment to fostering an artistic community.


Honoring the Legacy of Polish Art

The Clifford Place Collection, including the 400 Polish posters stored for decades, is now being shared with the public. These posters, rediscovered in pristine condition, reflect their creators' artistic ingenuity and resilience. Polish artists during the 20th century navigated the challenges of war and censorship, using posters as a powerful medium of expression. Despite government restrictions, artists like Jan Sawka employed metaphor and symbolism to convey their messages, gaining international acclaim.


The Clifford Place Collection in Minnesota

In 1990, the McMahons brought their extensive art collection to Minnesota. With the urging and assistance of their children, the family carefully unrolled their vintage posters and prepared them for public viewing. Their daughter, a professional biologist, Mariah McMahon, meticulously framed the posters, including new additions like works by Minnesota-based Polish-American artist Piotr Szyhalski.

Today, they are delighted to share these remarkable works with a broader audience. The Clifford Place Collection will be exhibited at Vandalia Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota, starting June 1. This exhibition features about 25 posters and a selection of original artworks in Suite 234, an industrial space that complements the posters' historical origins as street art. The space, with its large windows and crisscross trestles, provides an airy and fitting backdrop for the collection.


The Exhibition: A Walk Through History

Visitors to the exhibit will encounter various posters, including theatrical posters, art exhibition advertisements, and more. Many posters carry subtle political messages, while others, like Jan Sawka's "Solidarity" poster funded by the American AFL-CIO union, are overtly political. This poster, a tagline for anti-martial law organizing in Poland, underscores the decisive role of art in social movements.

Additionally, the exhibit will feature Brian McMahon’s footage of their Greenpoint neighborhood from the 1980s, offering a nostalgic glimpse into the past. One column in the gallery will be covered in xeroxed posters, mimicking the kiosks in the old Polish neighborhood, enhancing the historical ambiance.


Opening Event and Exhibition Details

The Polish poster exhibition opens on Saturday, June 1, at noon, with a reception at 4:00 p.m. that includes a brief program and live music. The exhibit will run through June, with gallery hours from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Admission is free.


For more information, visit www.cliffordplacecollection.com or contact Brian McMahon at (651) 399-7221 or brianmcmahonco@gmail.com.

Discover the vibrant legacy of Polish art and the enduring spirit of a community that found new beginnings in America.


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