If you look carefully at “St. Marks Place,” the above painting by artist Lola Saenz inspired by the gas explosion on Second Avenue, you can see two faces, one screaming or gaping in astonishment, the other with its head quietly lowered. The painting encapsulates the shock and despair felt by East Villagers as they witnessed the sudden crisis that took two people’s lives.
As Saenz stood on a nearby rooftop looking down at the destruction, she felt herself immediately inspired and began the painting that same day. It’s not the first time Saenz, who has lived on East 12th Street for more than 20 years, has documented New Yorkers’ response to tragedy; September 11th was the inspiration for several of her paintings, and last week she found out two of them have been accepted to the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
Sáenz grew up in El Paso, Texas, and received a scholarship to an art college in Missouri but couldn’t attend because she lacked the funds to pay for her dorm. So she moved to Los Angeles, where she tried to attend art classes but realized she couldn’t work full time and keep up with her assignments. Undaunted, she continued to make art, and when she first visited New York in 1990, she found herself immediately inspired by the city. Three years later she moved into her East Village apartment — the neighborhood was a little different back in the early ’90s, she said. “It was a really, really tough neighborhood because a lot of drugs were being sold,” she said.
The first painting she sold in New York was “Los Dos Taxis,” a tribute to the old-style Manhattan taxi, which she sold to model and restauranteur B. Smith, who hung it in her iconic restaurant. Today Sáenz has work hanging in four museums, but she still describes herself as a struggling artist and makes ends meet with a part-time job at a local juice bar. “When I sell my prints and art, then I buy supplies. That’s when I can afford it,” she said.
Deeply affected by September 11th, Sáenz painted “911 Broken Heart” (now permanently on display at the New York Historical Society) within 24 hours after the buildings fell. She took the painting to Union Square, which had transformed into a gathering place where people erected memorials and displayed tributes to loved ones. She carried the painting to the park every day for several days and placed it in a corner, where it stood for hours while she walked around the square. It quickly became obvious that people were gravitating toward the piece. Jan Ramirez, curator for the 9/11 Memorial Museum, remembers it well.
“Attached to the fencing was this angry red acrylic painting,” she said. “As photographers and videographers started converging to capture the mood of the crowd, very often you would see that piece. It was very striking.” Years later, as Saenz continued to process the tragedy, she created a pair of intricate black and white paintings called “Ground 0” and “Fallen Leaves,” which were recently accepted into the Memorial Museum.
“It was a beautiful September day that turned into what seemed a very bad dream,” Sáenz says in a statement explaining the paintings. “I saw the Twin Towers burn from my rooftop in my East Village apartment. Watching for days and months, I imagined that it was like a symphony of people dancing, flying, crying dying and burning into the ashes, and I felt the same! It was a universal feeling that lingered.”
Ramirez said it’s still too early to determine where and when the paintings will be displayed in the museum, but she believes they would work beautifully in a number of places where art will be displayed. “I think they’re really beautiful pieces — beautiful and awful at the same time,” she said. “It is the distillation of what she saw from her apartment looking down from her roof that day — the incomprehensible site of people falling. She in her mind wanted to not perpetuate the horror of that but really just kind of show that last few seconds of pure humanity where people are holding hands and trying to help each other.”
Sáenz said the view of the gas explosion from her friend’s Second Avenue rooftop brought back the same feelings. “It reminded me of how everything around 9/11 was barricaded, too, and the disruption of daily life,” she said. She was deeply affected by the disjointed feel of the neighborhood; for days after the buildings’ collapse pedestrians “couldn’t walk through the streets like normal people,” she said. “We had to walk in circles just to get from point A to B.”
Again she channeled her sadness into her work, and now “St. Marks Place,” the completed painting, hangs on her kitchen wall. She said she chose the title as a tribute to the iconic street because it was affected by the blast but isn’t represented in writing like 7th Street, Second Avenue and “Papas Fritas” (Pommes Frites). For now, she continues to work in the organized chaos of her tiny apartment studio, which is filled to the brim with art supplies, brightly colored knickknacks and photos of Marilyn Monroe.
Click through our slideshow to get a taste of her work.