The recent tragic fire on Diamond Street made me think about one of the most fascinating characters from my book “ Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past. “Joseph Bartnikowski, born in 1926 just down the street from the blaze, was a reclusive and eccentric self-taught genius painter who died in 2005. It was only after his death that people understood the sheer size of his work and the talent he had.

Starting in the seventies, Bartnikowski for three decades or so was a familiar, if somewhat strange, fixture in the area. Astride his bicycle, with easel, and paints ready, he was constantly on the look out for subject. Dressed in a French Foreign Legion style military cap with the brim flattened out, and a home–made curtain-like attachment to protect his neck from the sun, he painted what struck and sometimes infuriated his subjects when he told them that his canvases were not for sale.

Only after his death did people begin to realize that he was an amazing completely self-taught painter. He was very reclusive and few people know much about him, but my wife’s best friend was married to one of the few friends he had and I learned a little about him. As a little kid looking out his window down onto Diamond Street, Bartnikowksi first fell in love with the art kids drew on the street with chalk. Bartnikowski had an epiphany at this moment that remained with him the rest of his life; he was fascinated by line and color and he determined that he would master it.

His birth came on the heels of tragedy. Two weeks before his entry into the world, his father had died of a brain aneurysm and his mother, just a teenager, was left with three children. She went off to work in the Jute Mill on Oak Street, barely scraping together enough money to send him to Saint Stanislaw Kostka.

A beloved older brother proved to be mentally unstable and died in a psychiatric hospital. The painter blamed himself for the death and decided to work in a psychiatric hospital himself to help people like his brother. He grew silent and reclusive.


Bartnikowsi had his own successful jazz band and a girlfriend, but he gave up both to focus on art, going every day for years to museums, studying how the great masters drew and used colors. Amazingly he perfected his artistic skills alone. He proved to be a genius; some, though, might call him nuts because he did weird things like sleeping outside on the hospital grounds and refusing to ever sell his paintings, even when offered good money.

He bought a home on the island near the hospital and began to surround himself with the thousands of pieces of art he produced, but could never bear to part with. Finally, the firemen responded to an alarm at his house. When they finally doused the flames they found his charred body together with his life’s work, which was largely spared from the flames.

I have no idea what has happened to his work. It would be great for his paintings to be part of a local show because he painted stunning local scenes.

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  1. My family knew Joe well. For many years during the 70’s/80’s, he shared an apartment/storage space with my uncle on Bedford Avenue. Joe wasn’t the talkative type and mostly kept to himself whenever the rest of us were around (even at my uncle’s table, he almost never engaged anyone else in conversation) but his comings and goings, packing his tools on his bike, setting himself up on the corner, rummaging through the store room for his things, mumbling a bit whenever we spoke to him, were all part of our family experience.

    As a kid, on occasion I’d mill around looking at his works stacked around the place over the years and wonder if that’s how the neighborhood really looked to him. We grew up knowing him as ‘Joe the Painter’, but only my uncle knew him on a personal level. Eventually he moved out to Islip while we all grew older and spread out from the Northside to Greenpoint.

    It was quite a few years before I could appreciate the quality of his work, and then, only from my memories of what I saw in my uncle’s storage room when I was a kid.

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