Beyond the blue collar

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Janitors, window cleaners, doormen and other service workers put their inner artists on display at the fifth-annual 32BJ Art Show in Manhattan last month.

Hosted by Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, the art show featured 62 artists from the city’s union community, including 13 from Queens.

“Our goal is to create a forum and an opportunity to express themselves through art,” said Lenore Friedlaender, vice president of SEIU Local 32BJ. “It reflects our view that our workers are whole people and not just the person who opens the door or cleans.”

A group of artistic union workers formed an art committee in 2006, which led to the union’s first art show the following year. This year’s show, themed “The World in Our Hands,” featured more than 125 pieces of artwork and opened June 10 with a reception in the union building’s auditorium at 101 Ave. of the Americas. Spouses and children of union workers also contributed to the art show, which remained on display in the union building’s lobby until the end of June.

Not all of the artists have had professional training, but they have created powerful paintings, sculptures, photographs and poems that express their concerns about social issues.

“I wanted to do something about global warming. It’s a national issue that we all have to pay attention to,” artist Julio Pantoja said about his oil painting. His carefully crafted conglomeration of paint and plastic shreds depicts a nuclear reactor and environmental catastrophes.

Pantoja, 48, works as a janitor on Wall Street and lives with his wife in Jamaica. He came from Colombia 30 years ago and took art lessons at the Art Students League in Manhattan and at Brooklyn Community College under acclaimed artist Seymour Chwast.

As a night janitor, Pantoja has found ample time to pursue his artistic interests.

“My job has nothing to do with my art. When I do my job, I can think about my art since I don’t need to use my head,” he said.

His early art, mostly watercolors, highlights the cityscape, particularly bridges and views from the No. 7 train platform at Queens Plaza.

“I think the views that I choose give the sense of immensity, because it’s about the city — I like that,” Pantoja said.

Pantoja’s later works include a series on the human heart, painted in response to the events of Sept. 11. In response to the outbreak of the Iraq War, Pantoja painted a chaotic image of a soldier seeing ghosts called “Fear.”

“As an artist, I could not stand still and not paint something about the war,” he said.

Other artists at the art exhibit focused on the adventurous world outside the city.

Union member Ed Bochnak, 42, moved from Poland to Glendale 20 years ago and takes photographs and videos of exotic places around the world. He hopes to capture images of distant places before they are destroyed by construction.

“I want to try to show what you’re feeling when you climb Kilimanjaro and the sun rises behind you,” Bochnak said.

At the art show, Bochnak displayed photographs from his travels to the Kingdom of Lo in east Asia last year. He typically spends several weeks a year traveling in addition to his job as a building superintendent in Manhattan. Bochnak also joined National Geographic in its search for the source of the Amazon River in 1998 and 2000.

“I touched the place where the Amazon starts,” he said.

Bochnak has participated in the art show since its inception five years ago.

“I’m very thankful to the union and [Union President] Mark Fishman for this exhibit,” Bochnak said. “We can express ourselves through this exhibit and show what else we are doing besides our regular work.”

Artwork by 32BJ artists will be on display from September to December at the American Labor Museum Botto House in Paterson, N.J., and Borough of Manhattan Community College from Oct. 28 to Dec. 2. Images from this and previous years’ art shows can be found at 32bjarts.org.

Reach reporter Evelyn Cheng by phone at 718-260-4524.

Updated 11:30 am, October 12, 2011
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