Her words buzzed as she spoke of her surrealistic art, her sculptures that symbolize the suffering of blacks or women or Iraqis, the four murals on Shore Front Parkway for which she is most famous, and the kids who sometimes draw penises on them.
Esther Grillo, the Rockaway artist who painted the 70-foot murals of meadows and marine life inside the sculptural bus shelters, turning them from eyesores to icons, couldn’t sit still in her own Xanadu—a once abandoned synagogue that a friend referred to as “a piece of living art,” in which she’s lived 21 years. Every so often she was compelled to get up and explain in frenetic hand motions a piece on her wall, with her Bluetooth clasped firmly to her face.
“I melted glass over this section,” she said. “Then this breast came about. Sometimes I just diddle.”
The piece, called “Woman Floating in Choppy Water,” features a woman’s torso, one breast resembling a clay face, sculpted from broken and painted glass. It came about after Grillo ruminated deeply on women’s struggle for equality. This inequality was especially stark for Grillo growing up, during the holidays, when she would work in the kitchen alongside the other women in her family.
“It’s never a holiday for a woman,” she said as she explained an all too common sight: the women cooking and doing the dishes while the men drank wine and played cards. “Women still aren’t that far ahead. I’m lucky to have a husband that’s liberated.”
The phone rang; it was her liberated husband calling from the next room to tell Grillo to stop talking so much and let the interviewer ask questions.
“You can come in here if you want to be interviewed,” she replied, and hung up.
Deep into a conversation on women’s social issues, she stopped talking and sprang up again, her neon blue tank top and curly red hair heading to another piece, “Cannon Orange.” She said that it was a symbol of the Iraq War. The large orange cannon, raised slightly over the composition, firing feathers, seemed instantly relevant to a conversation about misogyny.
“How more symbolic can a cannon be than to have this big phallic thing ejaculating?” she said. “It’s very phallic. Here is this big penis coming out and spewing on these poor innocent people.”
She said that her artwork is a commentary on social issues, this piece, on shock and awe bombing she witnessed on CNN.
Grillo’s eyes betrayed a sudden flash of self-awareness, like maybe she’d made too heavy a sociopolitical statement. She reiterated that she was an immigrant, having come from Italy as a little girl.
“I love America,” she said. “I have a flag flying in the front. When I travel all over the world I come back and want to kiss the floor.”
Grillo has a zeal for the sociopolitical. One of her more famous pieces, a 40-foot sculptured mural depicting mythical sea creatures holding hands, on display at Beach Channel High School, is a commentary on a racially charged incident in Howard Beach in 1986 that drew Al Sharpton. A mob chased two black men after their car broke down, beating one and chasing the other onto the Belt Parkway where he was killed by a car.
“So that piece is about the search for harmony,” she said. “I thought during the seventies, with the flower children, that when I became 58, there wouldn’t be racism like this.”
Racism led the conversation back to her murals, and to Rockaway. She thought for a moment about who had designed the bus shelters, but the name escaped her. She yelled into the next room for her sleeping husband.
“John! What’s the name of that architect? Moses?”
“I can’t hear you,” he replied.
“Oh, never mind.”
The idea to paint the murals came to her after talking with a friend about how to help the peninsula, which was spiraling down with gangs and violence. The bus shelters were a hang out place for wayward youth to use drugs and commit crimes.
“There was a lot of urinating and all that crap going on under there,” she said. “They were falling apart. Nobody was taking responsibility for those structures.”
Grillo attacked the murals with the same dogged determination that runs in a family of immigrants, dressmakers, and builders, skills that would make her a sculptor and help her through the long fight to own her home in Rockaway Park, and the devastating hurricane that severely damaged it and destroyed her studio.
For the first mural, she won a grant. The Queens Council for the Arts gave her $1,500, and the Rockaway Artists Alliance, the organization she helped found, sponsored it.
“It was nothing,” she said. “I worked three months on that. I put in ten-hour days five days a week. I ran a mural apprentice program for free. But I was giving back to the community.”
She completed the iconic murals adorning the Parkway, and in the process, introduced many kids to art.
“I noticed her painting on the beach and stopped her,” said Christina Coradin, one of Grillo’s former students. “She took me under her wing. I didn’t have much guidance in my life and she found me and pushed me.”
Coradin is now a professional artist.
“Art makes people feel good about themselves,” said Grillo. “Art is an escape.
I wanted to create these caverns that when you were under them, you could dream.”
Her second mural, which Grillo funded out of her own pocket “Surf’s Up,” turned the wave-shaped bus shelter into a wave that looks real, on which several surfers are immortalized. Every now and then, she said, she sees children under “Surfs Up,” with their feet on the boards, pretending they’re surfing.
The surfing mural, however, wasn’t free from one of Grillo’s characteristic sociopolitical statements. “If you notice, the central figure is a woman surfer,” she said. “I did that on purpose.”
Her smile faded to indignation as she said that the first graffiti “was a penis, with two big balls. I had to draw a splash coming up through her legs so she wouldn’t come up with constant penises,” she said.
Grillo is responsible for removing graffiti on the murals. She cares for the murals meticulously, because she knows the positive impact they have on community pride. Most of all, she wants to give back to Rockaway for all it’s done for her. “Rockaway is my family,” she said.