By James Maher
Name: Lola Sáenz
Occupation: Artist, Poet
Location: 12th Street
Date: Saturday, Jan. 28 at noon
Read Part 1 with Lola from last week here.
I’ve been exhibiting with a group named Artistas de Loisaida since the late 1990s. It’s still alive and kicking and it’s run by Carolyn Ratcliffe, who is the art director. Mostly I exhibit at Theatre for the New City, and I also donated some paintings to the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art on Wooster Street – the first LGBTQ art museum in the world.
I always dreamt about getting into a gallery or working with an art dealer but that whole thing is so hard to get into – it’s insane. I think it’s all who you know. I have files of turndown letters. I haven’t been able to get into a gallery because nobody’s responding, so I said screw it — I can be my own agent. It’s such a game.
I created a painting called Crossing Borders inspired by the women crossing the border. I’m Mexican and most of my relatives are in Mexico, and I said that belongs in my hometown, so I aimed for the El Paso Museum of Art. When I used to run cross-country in high school, as we were running the levy, I would see the Coyotes carrying the ladies on their shoulders walking through the Rio Grande. This piece was inspired by that — running for a better life. When I would go to visit my family, my mother and I would go to the Museum. I would drop off the portfolio to the art director, and I would take her to see all the artwork. They turned me down for like 15 years.
Then my mama Gloria passed away, and I decide to submit one more time in her honor. I said, ‘I want to donate this to my hometown.’ I shipped it, they got it, and they had almost a 3-month wait. It had to be approved by the committee, the Culture Department of El Paso, the mayor, the cockroaches, and maybe a couple of mice. So finally they wrote to me and said they loved it — yes. When I went to the museum with my family for the show, I felt as if my mother's spirit was there holding my hand. It was beautiful. It was my mami who said, ‘Never give up on your dreams.’
I was really taken by 9/11. I created a canvas called 9/11 Broken Heart. I would take it to Union Square and I was walking around and Martha Cooper discovered the painting — she’s a well-known photographer who specializes in graffiti artists. She suggested collecting some of the 9/11 artwork and turning it into a show, and I said sure. She introduced me to Marci Reaven, who worked for City Lore, and she called me and told me that I was invited to have my painting as part of an exhibit called Missing at the New-York Historical Society Museum.
A couple years passed and then I created a black-and-white painting of bodies called Ground Zero. I became very acquainted with the curator for the 9/11 Memorial Museum because I wanted to give them this one. She turned me down — saying they haven’t quit finished building the museum. A year later she said no still. So when they finished the museum, I sent her an email and said, ‘Look, this is it, again, in case you forgot what it looked like.’ And she said, ‘Wow are those bodies?’ I said, ‘Yeah, those are dead bodies.’ I said, ‘Can you just let me bring it and you and your people can just see it face to face?’ So she said ok.
Jan Ramirez is the curator of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and she had turned me down a few times in the past few years. But they finally said YES and they acquired Ground Zero and Fallen Leaves. It pays to believe in your dream and be persistent.
My mom raised 5 kids. My parents got divorced when I was 13, so I think a lot of the early work had a lot of trying to get over a lot of stuff — but it’s also part of life. The documentary end of it happens when I get inspired by an event like the East Village gas explosion or by Sandy.
During Sandy, I was in the dark here just with a flashlight, working. I did one piece titled Uptown, because I took the bus uptown and everybody was partying and having brunch and eating and shopping, and everything looked so beautiful and colorful. I was shocked that half of these people had no idea that downtown was in the dark and that it was really bad. Downtown was dark and it was watery. It was just the total opposite of uptown, so that’s where that inspiration came from.
The gentrification that’s happening breaks my heart. I do miss a lot of the places that used to be here. I miss Something Sweet the most — that little bakery on 11th Street and First Avenue, and the owner and her family were wonderful people. And another place comes in, and 18 months later and they’re not there anymore. It’s been a lot of there and not there. On 9th Street between First and Second, there’s a building that went up that looks like it should be on Fifth Avenue, my god. It’s pretty wild. It’s hard to believe. I would have never imagined in 1993 that we’d be experiencing all these dramatic changes.
But I love the East Village no matter what. It still has its grub. It still has its little dark side. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. To me, it’s very bohemian no matter what. Even with all my neighbors who are probably NYU students because they party a lot. Ever since I’ve been here people have been partying. Now I’ve heard the building is about 80 percent NYU students, but the noise doesn’t bother me.
I feel very lucky and very blessed. I’d like to end up in a few other museums and then maybe find a place to have a solo show, because I’m ready. Those are my next goals.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.