By James Maher
Name: Lola Sáenz
Occupation: Artist, Poet
Location: 12th Street
Date: Saturday, Jan. 28 at noon
I was born in El Paso, Texas. I always wanted to be an artist. When I left high school, I couldn’t afford to go to art school, so I moved to LA and lived there for about 10 years. I started to do artwork the last few years living there. Then I met this girl who was from here in the gay pride parade and she said, ‘You gotta come to New York because it’s the place.’ I said, ‘Yeah, well, I’ve always dreamt about it.’
I moved to New York in 1990. The first year here I lived on King Street. I was personal training. I had already met a woman in LA who lived in New York City. Her name was Linda Stein, who was a big real-estate broker to celebrities and manager of the Ramones. Linda was the first person who gave me work. I became her personal trainer, for 15 years. She also said that if I needed to move, I could always stay upstairs for free in her apartment where her daughter used to have bunk beds, and I could use their bathroom and kitchen.
So I did, and I moved uptown to Central Park West. It was a tiny little room on the top of the building — a gorgeous view. All I could fit there was a futon and an art table, and it had one window. I would share the bathroom down the hallway with the guys, the doormen. In that building, I met Bill and Judith Moyers and got to train them. Linda introduced me to a lot of clients to train, including the owner of Hess Oil.
Not having a kitchen or a bathroom was tough. So after a year I found this small apartment in the East Village in 1993. I’ve been here ever since. I eventually stopped training Linda to focus on the art, and a few years or so later she was murdered by her yoga teacher. I was shocked and devastated. Most of the magazine and newspaper articles were writing about the story, making it sound like it was Linda's fault. It was impossible that anyone would deserve to be murdered for saying the word fuck or blowing smoke.
I wrote to The New York Times, New York Magazine, etc. in her defense, but no one took my story except Lincoln Anderson from The Villager. And of course I was right. After all the investigation, it was found that the yoga teacher had been stealing from Linda. She remains in prison.
There was a shop called Peter Leggieri's Sculpture Supply Store below my apartment where the record store is now. It became my living room. That’s where I learned how to carve. He would sell stones from all over the world. He would give me a few stones and chisels. It was a great outlet in the East Village because all the artists would stop by and say hello. It was bit rough. There were a lot of drugs on the block. I remember a detective friend would go up on the roof through the back of Peter’s place to spy.
It got rough right in my next-door apartment, which was a lady-of-the-night hangout for all the junkies. It was a little weird. I kept thinking where else can I go, so I stuck it out. I didn’t really care what people did with their lives. People would be getting high on the staircase, and I didn’t want any confrontation with any of them. It was like that for the whole first year.
Then Giuliani came to power, and before you know it the marshals came and broke the door, pulled everyone out, and arrested a bunch of people. The undercover cops started arresting a lot of people. The year after that was cool because I didn’t have to bump into anybody living next door to me. I didn’t care about the outside world — it was just what was next door to me.
I’m a self-taught artist. Since I was a kid, all I wanted to be was an artist. I started to watch and study Picasso and Frida Kahlo and Matisse and Diego. I would go to museums and be inspired by the work. I guess you’re born with it or something. The first few paintings that I did in LA, I felt like I had been guided by the hand of God or something. It was me, but it was like somebody else was there.
I decided to create one painting a year. My artwork has four or five layers of paint, and I don’t like transparency — and the paint supplies are very expensive. I do a lot of city-related paintings and a lot of self-portraits. I add a little poetry to an artwork sometimes. I’ll work on a painting like a maniac. Every painting has its own story. I could work on it for a month straight every day and every night with a couple days off a week. If I’m really in it, I will work it until I feel exhausted or I get stuck.
In Part 2 next week, Sáenz talks about the influence of 9/11 on her work and thoughts on the neighborhood today. "I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else."
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.