Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Ground Zero

Ground Zero
Ground Zero

I was in my old studio in Astoria, Queens. The windows faced the Manhattan skyline. It was a beautiful place, and that day was a perfect day with a perfect blue sky. I took a coffee break on the fifth floor, and looked at the panorama of the city. I stood there for about half an hour. Then I saw the first plane go by and hit the World Trade Center building. My initial reaction was that I just couldn’t believe it. I thought it was an airplane that had gone out of control. I went home and watched the news. That’s when I found out about the second plane.

I knew I had to do something creative about it. I had all these doors that I’d collected, and the next day I put them against the wall and started painting. The second and third day I went to a magazine store in my area and I got a lot of magazines with the photographs of the incident, tore them out, and spread them on the floor. I ended up making eight panels, which I called Ground Zero 1-8—this is the fourth panel. The entire project went on for a year; when I work, I tend to go back and forth from painting to painting.

The morning I painted this I was playing music in my studio. I had two doors on the floor. I took a big bucket of gel medium, which dries clear, and poured the entire thing on the doors. Then I took a French door and put it down so that it became submerged in the gel. The glass pushed against the gel, and I took a hammer and started breaking it all over those doors and watched it sink.

I let it dry for about a day or so. I really liked the way it looked, but it needed color, so I leaned it up against the wall and I started adding the colors. I used enamel paint, pouring it down the broken glass.

Everything I did was partly conscious and unconscious.

Today I don’t have a painting studio because they raised the rent on me. I had to move out of Queens and move into Manhattan. I have all of my larger works in storage. I work out of my apartment, which is packed to the brim with artwork. I have separated my rooms; the front room is for abstract art and the back room is for all of my figurative art.

I just started a new series. It’s a mixed media project—collage and paint. I have a big box of materials with different textures and various photo images. While I paint, I cut things off and add things, and some of the stuff falls onto the floor covered in paint. At the end of the night I pick up all the materials and save them to reuse in my later paintings.

When I had my studio, it became a part of the artwork. I use a lot of oil paint; back then I also liked to mix oil with looser paints like enamel paint, which the conservatives say is not great to use, but I can’t get away from it. It’s really good stuff, similar to house paint, except oil-based. They use it on battleships and for outdoor painting; it lasts forever. It’s kind of drippy. You can mix it with oil paint and splatter it all over the place. It makes a mess. I need a studio again because my landlord and super wouldn’t appreciate me destroying the whole place, even though I have already.

Lately I am mostly painting abstracts, but I’ve done a lot of figurative art too, and I started out painting from models in figure drawing classes. Even today, while I’ve been doing my abstracts, I just did a whole big series of celebrities and rock stars. The show at the Fountain Gallery right now has two of my paintings—one is a triple painting of Madonna and a painting of Iman, David Bowie’s wife. I’ve done a lot of celebrities, where I combine realistic painting and abstract painting, so it’s a lot different than what you’re seeing here.

I became a member of the Fountain House about fifteen years ago; it was amazing to me that a program like this existed. The atmosphere there has always been supportive; if you’re a member, you have the chance to do work and to be a part of a team of people that pull together for one another.

The Fountain Gallery opened about eleven years ago. Hell’s Kitchen was re-gentrifying; the Fountain House is in Hell’s Kitchen, and the organization wanted to convert a thrift shop that it had into an art gallery because it wasn’t breaking even.

Esther Montanez, this incredible woman who was the special events coordinator, ended up becoming the director of the gallery. She didn’t have an art background and she started gathering members; I was the first one she asked. I came over and I actually helped do the construction of the gallery. I was ripping down walls and taking out the plaster.

Esther was the most motivated person. She would get people to come in and do work, she put together a core of volunteers. At the beginning there were about twenty of us; now there are about forty-eight artists. I thought it was amazing that a program like this would be so supportive of artists.

I’ve worked a lot of jobs, I’ve had all kinds of jobs in frame shops and galleries, I had my own gallery down in the East Village and used to work all over the place, and then I got sick and fell out of the loop for a couple of years. Coming to Fountain House got me back on track; it got me work through its employment agency—it has this thing called TEP, transitional employment, which allows you to work on a job for six to eight months, longer sometimes. There are all kinds corporations involved, like HBO and Estée Lauder. I’ve actually met a lot of collectors through Fountain House—Estée Lauder, for instance, is really interested in my work; it gave me art shows.

It’s been a really great program for me because Esther took such a liking to me and took me into this venture, and for the first four or five years I became an assistant director, I probably directed most of the gallery, but if I were to get a title it would be assistant director because Esther was a paid employee.

Esther died of heart failure in 2006, and Jason Bowman came in. He was a worker from Fountain House who took over the gallery. I really miss Esther, but Jason is a great director. I’m really good friends with him, and the work continues.

—As told to Construction

This painting is now in the private collection of Ronnie Wiener at the Full Moon Arts Center.