By day they work as doormen, as property cleaners, in daycare centers, and as security officers. But once that work is done, these members of 32BJ SEIU (Service Employees International Union) realize their other life as fine artists.

Last Saturday, 100 union members came together to display their work at the 17th Annual 32BJ Art Show. Under the theme “Nothing is Impossible,” the artists shared paintings, photographs, drawings, and poems that gave their take on the world’s possibilities. Their artwork was spread across the fourth floor of the auditorium of the union’s headquarters at 25 West 18th Street in Manhattan and will remain on view for one month.

Ed Bochnak, who is originally from Poland, has been working as a superintendent for 21 years now. He was on a break from his job and took the time to talk about his work. “I have three pictures; this is from different parts of the Earth; I went to Ethiopia, Burma, and India…Last time, I went to the Zanskar in Tibet, climbing, hiking, making a movie, writing stories––this is all my adventure.”

Bochnak said that he saves money all year and uses up his three weeks of vacation time to go on mountaineering and photography trips. He has traveled to Asia, Africa, South America, and throughout North America. His expeditions are documented in books and on his YouTube channel, “EdsAdventures.”

“This is my hobby; this is not a job. This doesn’t make me money,” he said. “I have to pay; I have to spend my money to be there.”

Bochnak takes his art seriously. He’s one of the original founders of the 32BJ Art Committee, which was established in 2006. Committee members take part in monthly meetings and try to help promote the union and the concept of organizing with their art. In 2013, the committee invited members of 1199 SEIU to also display their artwork in the annual show.

Naja Quintero, another 32BJ Art Committee founder, works in a Jersey City childcare center with children who range in age from six months up to 12 years old. A 20-year union member, Quintero said she is privileged to be able to teach children that they can make art with recycled materials.

“I also try to introduce them to the idea that it’s not just the paint, the oil, the brush, but that we also must look for inspiration in simple things, in things that someone else might think is garbage,” she said. “We can use coffee grounds, seeds, nuts, rice, wheat and dry them and assemble them for art.”

Practicing art is therapeutic, said Quintero, who is originally from Ecuador. “When I’m angry, I try to calm myself down: I go to my room, and I have my studio there. I stay there for a few seconds; then I say, ‘I need to create.’ It’s like a pressure relief. I suffer from lupus, and the doctor told me that I have to do something that fascinates me, that relaxes me. And that, to me, is art. 

Karen Juanita Carrillo photos

Ed Bochnak, independent photographer who has traveled the world to produce his art, has been a member of 32BJ for last 26 years
Julius Gaston Sr. with his traditional realistic paintings

“When I paint, that’s what really relaxes me, it’s what makes me connect. If I had enough money, this is who I would be: someone who had the time to create what I like.”

Retired security officer and Harlem native Gerald Timberlake used the “Nothing is Impossible” theme to paint a fictitious gathering of famous Black female entertainers. He used markers to draw depictions of Tina Turner, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Phyllis Hyman, Whitney Houston, Minnie Riperton, and Nina Simone. In another piece, he looks at the representation of Black women in the fashion industry—particularly in the 1960s, when they were rarely seen as fashion models. His third piece shows that there’s nothing impossible in love.

Connie Brown also exhibited paintings at the 32BJ Art Show. Brown, who is retired now, has been creating art since the age of 6. He said that when he initially moved to New York City, he spent his first five years just staying at home after work, lying on the floor, doing his artwork, and listening to music. “And I said, you need to get out and meet people,” he told himself. “Nobody knows you’re in here.”

He did start socializing, but continued making art in his spare time.

Julius Gaston Sr., started painting after he came home from the military in 1981. He lives in Pennsylvania and works as a porter, taking care of three buildings in Queens. Five days a week, he does a two-hour round trip drive to and from work.

Once he’s home, he spends time with his family. “After I shower and have dinner, I’ve got to help the children with their homework and talk to the missus. And then I paint as much as I can until it’s time to go to bed. And then on weekends, when I’m off, I try to paint as much as I can when I’m not cutting into time with the family.”

Gaston paints in a style called traditional realism, and has been commissioned to do portraits, landscapes, and nudes.

Jamaica-born Ricardo Buchanan has worked as a maintenance/handyman in a Harlem residential building since 1985 and has been a vocal member of 32BJ for the same amount of time. His charcoal drawing of the April 8, 2024, solar eclipse is on display at the 32BJ Art Show alongside a poem he wrote based on this year’s art show theme.

“Nothing is impossible and with faith and hope, we learn to cope to defeat the impossible,” one part of his poem says. “Organize and centralize and we will compel the world to realize that nothing is impossible, just give yourselves a try. Nothing is impossible.”

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