At Pace U. Gallery, Sanitation Workers Celebrated for Their Hidden Talents

"Boots on the Ground," by Brendan Harkin, is among the creations by Sanitation workers in the Pace University Gallery exhibit, "Sanitation Celebrations." Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Nov. 16, 2021

Garbage, grime and danger may be the domain of their daily labor, but for some city Department of Sanitation employees it’s the bright white walls of a Downtown gallery where their talents now shine.

“Sanitation Celebration” is a Pace University Gallery exhibit of painting, video, sculpture and photography by 21 Department of Sanitation (DSNY) workers, plus the department’s artists-in-residence, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and sTo Len. The show opened on Nov. 14 and continues to Jan. 28. 

“Today we celebrate your day jobs that make such a difference,” gallery director Sarah Cunningham said at the opening ceremony of the show, co-presented by the Sanitation Foundation, the official non-profit of the DSNY. “But we also celebrate your artistic sides.”

“It feels good that people actually enjoy my artwork,” said Gregory Cajidas, 47, whose small-scale oil paintings depict his co-workers on the job. Now retired, Cajidas said that during the height of the pandemic he would take his paintings and drawings to his former garage in East Harlem. “I wanted to motivate the guys,” he said. “Keep them inspired. Keep their morale up.”

Kenny Abel’s painting, “Moment of Silence,” depicts Sanitation workers with backs to the viewer, standing somberly outside a church at the funeral of co-worker Steven Frosch, who had been crushed by a runaway mechanical broom. In his written description of the work, Abel said that the painting is meant to keep Frosch’s memory alive, “and bring awareness to the fact that this job is extremely dangerous. The equipment we deal with on a daily basis can hurt, maim and kill anyone in an instant. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first day, or you’re 30 years on the job.”

Then there is the meticulously painted pair of sneakers titled “Boots on the Ground,” by Brendan Harkin, embellished with a collage of colorful Sanitation Department iconography. “This is a tribute to my co-workers, the ‘Boots on the Ground’ who keep NYC clean and safe,” Harkin wrote about his creation.

Not all of the art is inspired by the job. Michael O’Leary’s 80" by 80" painting, “Julius Caesar,” is crammed with sketches of fingers, feet, dollar signs, eyeballs and a whole lot more. Citing Pollack and Kandinsky as inspiration, he describes the piece as “abstract expressionism in a sense because, like the majority of my stuff, I approach the canvas with no preconceived notion of what it’s going to look like. I laid an unstretched canvas on the floor and had fun.” 

“Treasures in the Trash,” a remarkable display of found items, from brass hardware to watches by the dozens to Ferbies galore, represents some the 40,000 plus objects recovered from garbage and on permanent exhibit in an Upper East Side Sanitation garage. Retired Sanitation Worker Nelson Molina, now retired, collected about 80% of them. 

“As a kid my mother always told me if you find something that someone can use, never throw it out,” said Molina, who grew up with two brother and three sisters, and was given little that was new. So I just got that passion for saving whatever I could.”

Mechanic Emilisa Robles’s passion is engines, fixing and painting them. On display is her interactive sculpture, a windable object that she engineered from various scrap parts, including the discarded piston from a Sanitation truck. Robles won the special sustainability award as the artist who “best incorporates repurposed or upcycled materials into their piece.”

“I have spent my life working on and around the internal combustion engine,” wrote Robles, 53, the DSNYs first woman mechanic. “I love drawing them, painting them and working on them. That is my dichotomy, my belief in taking care of the planet, and my love for mechanical equipment. May we all find a balance one day.”

The gallery, at 41 Park Row, is open Tuesday to Saturday, 12 to 4 p.m. and by appointment. Go here for information on COVID protocols for visiting the gallery.