2003-09-05 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Rockaway Artists Alliance
by Susan Hartenstein
From The Artists Studio Rockaway Artists Alliance by Susan Hartenstein


RAA mural apprentices. Left to right. Cindy Lindner, 10 years old and Rachel     RAA mural apprentices. Left to right. Cindy Lindner, 10 years old and Rachel                McGovern, 14 years old helping paint the “Monarch Landscape” mural.RAA mural apprentices. Left to right. Cindy Lindner, 10 years old and Rachel     RAA mural apprentices. Left to right. Cindy Lindner, 10 years old and Rachel                McGovern, 14 years old helping paint the “Monarch Landscape” mural.

ARTSPLASH 2003 and DIGITALSPLASH 2003 September 20-October 26. Who needs MoMA, you have RoCA. Cutting edge art in your own neighborhood.

If you have driven along Shore Front Parkway in Rockaway, you have seen the stunning murals painted on the four "wave’ bus shelters along that road. Perhaps you have wondered who is responsible for the murals and the history of how they came to be created. To find out, read on.

First of all, you should know that this had been a seven-year mission. Before moving to Rockaway 10 years ago, sculptor Esther Grillo and her photographer husband John lived in Howard Beach. She had done an interactive sculpture in Manhattan, entitled "Freedom’s Door," about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Grillo then did a series of socio-political artworks dealing with the effects of nuclear energy and with war. From this strong body of indoor and outdoor monumental sculpture, Grillo received the MTA/Creative Stations Grant to do the Howard Beach/JFK bas relief, "In Search of Harmony Bay," that dealt with the Howard Beach racial incident of many years ago.

After she moved to Rockaway Grillo wanted to put public artwork, namely sculpture, in her new community, where she observed that there was very little public art. Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer, who is Executive Director of the Queens Council on the Arts, and was then a fellow RAA member, suggested the wave shelters. Grillo saw them as beautiful sculptural structures that had become eyesores. Her initial interest was to incorporate three-dimensional sculptured phantasmagorical sea creatures onto the walls of the shelters in a painted underwater scene. But certain Parks Department regulations made this impractical. So, not to be deterred from her ultimate mission, Grillo decided to render in paint what would have been sculptural. This proposal was approved and "Mythical Cavern" on 84th Street became the first of the artist’s Shore Front murals and the first of her major outdoor murals created on site. RAA President and muralist Geoff Rawling was very helpful with technical advice. In addition, Grillo did extensive research into the techniques of transforming the drawing of a mural design into an actual mural. Grillo got the idea for her next mural while working on her first. Passersby in wet suits carrying surfboards suggested the theme. That was how "Surf’s Up" on 108th Street was born. "The Deep" on 102nd Street was inspired by divers of "Almost Paradise" and their underwater photos.

From the beginning, Grillo intended to transform all four shelter sites. Part of the artist’s agreement with the Parks Department stipulated that they would prepare the surface of the shelter, repair the lights and make sure the floor was in proper condition. Each site, she reasoned, would be turned from a symbol of dilapidation, a dark hangout for undesirables hated by those who lived across the street from it, into a place that would be embraced by the thousands of people that lived there. Her vision was that Shore Front Parkway would be a place to bring visitors to show the beauty and sophistication of Rockaway. Grillo believes, "You have to prove to people that art is worth the effort and the cost." She was paid a nominal amount, but donated approximately a thousand hours to bring this goal to fruition, working an average of six months on each project. The last of her murals, the artist says, has been a pleasure. She has worked closely with the Parks Department and states emphatically that without their help these projects would not have happened.

Without the Rockaway Artist Alliance, Grillo continues, the creation of these wave murals would not have been possible. RAA recognized the importance of supporting her apprenticeship programs, which began, independently, with the MTA/Creative Stations project. The programs teach high school students and neighborhood children assisting with each mural, the hands-on techniques of mural creation and teamwork while giving them a sense of connection to and pride in their community and themselves. For each of the murals, RAA funded the first few months of the apprenticeship program and Grillo donated her time for the last three months.

So this brings us to the fourth and final mural, "Monarch Landscape," on Beach 76 Street. After September 11, 2001, Esther Grillo felt her community needed some relief from that overwhelming sadness. She wanted to do a very happy mural that would bring joy to all who looked at it. "What can be more uplifting than fields of sunflowers, poppies and wildflowers with a ribbon of Monarch butterflies flying free overhead?" Indeed, a block away from the site is a community garden filled with sunflowers that, each August and September, is visited by migrating Monarchs. The mural’s ribbon cutting ceremony is Saturday, October 4 at 11 a.m. Watch this column for more details.

For her efforts, her dedication and her formidable talents, on October 25 RAA will present Esther Grillo with its Member of the Year award. I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.


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