Suspended from the high ceiling of Judy Moonelis’ Grand Street studio is an expansive and exquisite sculpture consisting of wire, strands of glass, metal mesh and clay. The work depicts a type of brain cell known as mirror neurons, which, among other functions, may control humans’ ability to feel empathy. It’s one of numerous thought-provoking pieces displayed in the fifth-floor space where Moonelis has worked for 33 years.
Like many creative people, she came to the Lower East Side in the early 1980s because it was affordable, but was also drawn to the area for other reasons. “This neighborhood, the scale of it, the history, it just felt like my kind of place,” Moonelis said during a recent interview in the bright and spacious loft that she will soon be forced to give up. Noting that her grandparents once lived on Rivington Street, Moonelis added, “I felt like I had come home. It has, of course, changed a lot but I still feel that strong connection.”
The studio is located within the former Ridley and Sons Department Store building, the landmark-protected property on the southwest corner of Grand and Orchard streets. It was sold last year to two firms, Waterbridge Capital and Continental Worsteds; the developers reportedly plan to convert it to upscale retail and residential space. Due to rent increases, Moonelis said she has no choice but to seek out a new studio, hopefully on the Lower East Side.
In today’s overheated real estate market, it won’t be easy to find anything comparable to the loft Moonelis has shared with another artist, painter Gail Marks, all these years. The “Pink Building,” portions of which date to 1886, features a freight elevator, oversized windows, a skylight and 11-foot ceilings.
Moonelis explained why the studio is so important to her work. “It is precious to me,” she said, “to have the ability to step back and see [a piece] from a distance, so that I can have a white wall [in the background] and all these linear forms.” The studio, Moonelis added, is her laboratory.
During the past three decades, it’s the place where she has created hundreds of pieces, some of which are represented in major national collections, including the Smithsonian Institutions’ Renwick Gallery and the Museum of Arts and Design here in New York. Moonelis holds a teaching position at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, which has helped sustain her as a New York City artist.
“I have always been interested in the human body,” Moonelis said, “looking internally as well as externally.” Working with a cellular biologist, she has explored “the idea of this inner [molecular] life that is so explosive.” Through her work, Moonelis also delves into the concepts of memory and history, and has been commissioned for several site-specific exhibitions.
She transformed a former cell block at the historic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, creating “speculative visual models” of the brains of former inmates. Here on the Lower East Side, Moonelis has a permanent exhibition at the historic Kehila Kedosha Janina, the only remaining Greek synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. Its centerpieces are two cone-shaped mixed media sculptures hanging from skylights, “celestial structures” representing the heavens. The works allude to the shared memories of the people of Janina, a community that was nearly destroyed in the Holocaust.
Moonelis is sad about having to move, but is undeterred, and even optimistic about the next phase of her creative life. She’s searching for space throughout New York City, including in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. In today’s Lower East Side, it is, of course, increasingly difficult for artists to live and work. But Moonelis knows things are always changing in the city, and she’s prepared to adapt.
“It’s hard to be an artist, in general,” she said. “But for me, there’s no choice. This is what I will do until the day I die. I feel so lucky that I have this way to discover the world and learn about the world and share what I see with others.”