Sweat darkened the brim of Nicholas Evans-Catoâ€™s straw hat last week as he brushed oil paint onto a six-foot-wide canvas, all the while perched on the tar-paper roof of an old factory building in Dumbo, Brooklyn. It was scorching hot up there, but Mr. Evans-Cato had no time to waste.
In front of him was a half-finished painting of the Brooklyn waterfront, a panorama that includes the Williamsburg Bridge, several new condominium buildings and a quintet of towering brick smokestacks from the Consolidated Edison Hudson Avenue Generating Station on the edge of Vinegar Hill. The problem for Mr. Evans-Cato, who has been working on the painting for more than two months, is that the view is about to change.
In the next week or so, said the plantâ€™s manager, Gus Sanoulis, workers will begin dismantling three of the five stacks. Only two are needed now because the plant is using fewer boilers to generate steam. The job will take about four months but will begin to alter the view immediately.
â€œI guess all I can say is Iâ€™m trying to paint better, faster,â€ said Mr. Evans-Cato, 33. â€œItâ€™s a matter of not second-guessing myself as often as I usually would.
â€œTheyâ€™re like musical notes on a staff,â€ he said of the 350-foot-tall stacks, erected three-quarters of a century ago. â€œIf I lose them it disrupts the whole composition.â€
Pointing to the canvas, he explained: â€œIâ€™m using these stacks to tell me about these windows. The dark of these lines against the sky helps me calibrate the other darks. When theyâ€™re gone, there will be that much less to define the arc of the sky.â€
The smokestacks Mr. Evans-Cato values have long been regarded as difficult neighbors by many who lived near them.
Don Condrill, 84, who grew up on the corner of Sands and Navy Streets, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, remembered how neighborhood women used to scramble to take their laundry off the lines when the stacks were venting black dust.
â€œTheyâ€™d yell out, â€˜Sootâ€™s coming down! Sootâ€™s coming down!â€™ â€ Mr. Condrill, who now lives in Centreville, Va., and is a friend of Mr. Evans-Catoâ€™s, said by phone. â€œThey wouldnâ€™t have any sentimentality about losing those stacks.â€
Mr. Evans-Cato, who said change had always been a part of New York, isnâ€™t out to save the smokestacks. But he has a show in October and had expected to work on his Dumbo painting until then.
â€œIâ€™d never want to stop the clock,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™d just be nice if I could slow it down just a little bit.â€