'I like a place that feels haunted': a Brooklyn brownstone filled with stories and art

Mark C O'Flaherty

Brooklyn brownstones have handsome bones, but are notorious for their lack of daylight. Some of their elongated rooms also have a shadowy history. “By American standards, a building like this, from the 19th century, is very old,” says Maria Gracia Donoso, an artist who grew up with six brothers in Chile during the dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s. “Part of my Chilean heritage is a connection with ghosts,” she says, walking up a beautiful wooden staircase, alongside a wall inset with screens showing an ever-changing selection of her video art. “I like a place that has a story, somewhere that feels haunted.”

Her house in the Fort Greene neighbourhood, which she bought in 2010 – a relative bargain, following the financial crash two years earlier – fits the bill. “I looked into the history of this place,” she says. “So many people had lived here over the centuries. I bought it from a woman who had been here for 45 years, and she told me that a young woman had killed herself in one of the upstairs rooms. It definitely had a strange feeling.” Donoso brought a shaman in to cleanse the place. “The spirit left, and now it feels much more peaceful.”

The ground floor is a vast open space that shifts from kitchen to lounge to salon to garden. The hallway walls are covered with old family photographs, and along the floor is a neat row of doll faces. The first floor has two large bedrooms, and the top floor is given over to her studio. Many of the rooms are filled with exhilarating colour, from neon-striped walls to richly coloured textiles.

The large living room has original stucco detail on the ceiling; the ornate Italianate plaster is offset with contemporary light fittings and ceiling fan, and angular modern furniture. The look is bohemian but stately, with some neat architectural adjustments – including a shaft that runs from the top floor through the floor below, channelling daylight to the bathtub next to her bedroom.

Donoso’s studio incorporates a romantic jumble of mementoes from friends and trips around the world, displayed on shelves made from reclaimed wood. Exposed timber beams on the ceiling suspend numerous talisman-like metal sculptures. In her bedroom, a dozen or so acoustic bowls are arranged on the floor surrounded by crystals. At first glance, it looks like a decorous way to deal with a leak in the ceiling, but the arrangement is for ritual and reflection. “My mother had a lot of crystals in her house,” Donoso says. “I was meditating with her from the age of 11. A while back, I was participating in a spiritual retreat at Mount Shasta – the volcano in the Cascade Range in California – and a woman played a concert with a set of crystal bowls. It was amazing. Now I have these at home.”

Her belief in the healing power of sound, crystals, and the strangeness of certain physical forms spills over into her art. There’s a resin cube sculpture in the living room, next to a classic Herman Miller sofa and a statue of Buddha from Myanmar that belonged to her great-grandparents. The sculpture is part of her 2015 series The Light Project. Sitting on a square plinth, with sunshine radiating through it and overlooking the back garden, it resembles a piece of artfully shaped ice. Look closely, and there are deliberate flaws that suggest a miniature universe. “It is bio-art,” she explains. “I was experimenting with chemicals in a laboratory, making explosions within the resin, and it created a landscape. I have a passion for other worlds.” The presence of an ET doll in her bedroom flags up a sense of humour as well as an obsession with alien artefacts.

While the brownstone is home, Donoso has been something of a nomad since leaving Chile at the age of 20 with her first child, then aged three. Currently she splits her time between Brooklyn and Paris. “I spent a large part of my life in France, studied in the city, and I have many friends there,” she says.

The current pandemic, however, has caught her in neither city. She found herself stranded in Santiago, after heading back to Chile for the birth of her grandson, and then breaking her arm and being unable to get home. She hopes to get back to New York soon.

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Her home is a place for art, artists and art lovers. Friends from South America and Europe often stay with her: for six years, the Chilean artist Sebastian Errazuriz lived in the basement, and some of his work remains here, including a chair painted with the slogan “Too big to fail”, from his Occupy Chairs series. Other pieces include naive paintings by Germain Van der Steen; and a drawing on her bedroom wall of a man and woman embracing, by Pierre-Yves Trémois. “He was my mother’s lover when they were living in Paris,” she says. “She was immersed in the world of the surrealists. And very good friends with Dalí.” Donoso’s home is nothing if not a collection of lives, all creatively lived.