@ WORK: An Artist’s Statement

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Artist and filmmaker Zoe Beloff grapples with representing labor, especially so-called “essential workers,” for a contemporary audience.  

@ WORK is a public art project that celebrates the workers who keep the city moving. My initial idea was to create a wall mural with life-size portraits, a great parade of working people. I am not a muralist or a portrait painter, but I do admire the great WPA murals, and I wanted to update this form for today. My partner Eric Muzzy suggested that beside each worker, there should be a large QR code linked to a short documentary about them. So, the project became a collaboration with Eric as the cinematographer and co-creator of the films.

My first task was to apply for grants. I felt this would give Eric and I legitimacy in the eyes of the people we wanted to include in the work . Though the project was simple and hardly original, coming out of COVID in 2021, funding agencies were probably glad someone was doing this, and we did indeed receive enough money to cover expenses. Because one organization stipulated the work be shown in Philadelphia, another in Manhattan. And since a mural cannot travel, I decided to create, in addition to a mural, a series of large canvas banners each a life size  portrait with a QR code to link the documentary films. The New York City Artist Corp grant required a public work in progress presentation no later than two months after we were awarded the money, so we flung ourselves in headfirst. I knew I was looking for very diverse participants, some documented, some not.  Some we knew already, others I approached cold. For example I rode the East River ferries for an afternoon until I found a ferry worker who wanted to talk with us. A friend, bolder than me, was ready on our behalf to approach workers whose language she did not understand. She corralled passersby to translate. So, Eric and I met Ah Bao, a shoe mender and knife sharpener who speaks only Cantonese. What we learned quite quickly was that without immigrant women, the city would go under pretty quickly.

In the end we included fifteen participants. We paid them $200 each from our grant money. I always began interviews with the words “we are here for you…” I prepared questions as prompts to get the conversation started. Eric and I saw our role as working for the workers. We aimed to give people a platform to speak about what was important to them. Indeed participants shared their films eagerly with often far flung family and friends. For a short time I was a celebrity in the post office and the grocery store as the participants introduced me to their co-workers and managers. 

 Sometimes it was a challenge to steer people away from speaking in generalities and to tell stories from their real-life experience. Another challenge was the fact that one cannot film some types of work. For example, one cannot get permission to shoot on a union construction site or in the intensive care unit of a hospital.  Since Eric and I wanted the movies to be more than simple talking heads, we had to find creative ways to bring people’s worlds alive. We worked with animation, archival footage, participants’ home snapshots, as well as shooting film that functioned more poetically than literally. For example, in the film about a respiratory therapist the bare branches of weeping willows stood in for patient’s damaged lungs. When Lowely Cheung, an electrician and Chinese immigrant, explained how her previous job was outsourced back to China, I created a lively stop motion sequence with cardboard cut-outs. As filmmakers, Eric and I were eager to go beyond literal illustration. We invited each participant to choose a piece of music for their soundtrack and it seemed that everyone had a signature song.

Finding a site for a mural was the biggest challenge. I wanted a space that was large, that was low enough to access the QR codes, where I would have time to paint, and where the artwork would last a reasonable amount of time before being graffitied over. It was a tall order. While I was looking, I was approached by Barrie Cline, an artist who teaches at Empire State College and connected to IBEW Electrical Workers Union Local #3. She proposed to the Union that I do an indoor mural at the Electrical Industry Training Center in Long Island City. It is a beautiful new building. I was offered a wide corridor with a long wall on one side and a series of architectural boxes on the other for which I created a series of free-standing figures. I am sure that if I approached the union directly this would never have happened. It took hard work and energy for Barrie to persuade the union to accept my proposal. 

Painting in public was a new experience to me. I was there for close to three months. I had lively conversations with the custodial staff, instructors, and the apprentices who came in daily for lectures. I became the go-to person if people wanted to know if they or their children had artistic talent. I believe we all have talent. What the union members appreciated most about my work was the realism. Or in their words, that I knew my craft.  The union originally specified that the work should be up for two years only, but, after seeing it completed, decided that it should be permanent. My only regret was that the work is not available to the public. Eric and I asked for a one-day open house so we could invite the participants in the project and our guests to view it. It turns out to be impossible. The people in charge were concerned that there might be liability issues with inviting non union people onto the premises. Then they decided that they wanted union leadership present. Finally one day was offered and when it turned out that I was teaching in Los Angeles on this particular date, the matter was put on hold.

I wanted a space that was large, that was low enough to access the QR codes, where I would have time to paint, and where the artwork would last a reasonable amount of time before being graffitied over. It was a tall order.”

The banners have traveled to the most diverse locations. The Slought Foundation in Philadelphia, The CUNY Graduate Center,  were two institutions who provided funding. But quite surprisingly they were also invited to the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research in upper Manhattan, Charim Gallery in Vienna and forthcoming, the Sanitary Tortilla Factory in Albuquerque. I am happy to report that six of the banners will be hanging at the entrance to the 53rd Street Public Library, through the summer of 2024. For me, a public library which is free and welcoming to all is the perfect exhibition space where people can enjoy seeing people like themselves, celebrated. I would like this work to reside in a public archive. It is a document of work and workers in a particular time and place. To date this has not happened but I’m open to offers and suggestions. 

Public art is still very much alive. The New York City subway murals are a wonderful example. Artists are chosen by open call. I understand particular attention is paid to the artist’s connection with the specific neighborhood where the mural will be. Unions do fund art projects. The headquarters of the Healthcare Workers Union SEIU 1199 has fabulous murals by Sir David Adjaye’s architectural company, images that made their way into one of our films. The IBEW Local #3 works with Barrie Cline who facilitates artwork by the union members themselves including a 9/11 memorial mural designed and created by the workers downstairs from our project. 

It is hard being an entrepreneur of one’s own work. The best advice I can give is don’t let lack of experience or lack of money stand in your way. It is always good to tell everyone about what you are doing, often someone knows someone who can help you or make a connection. But most of all be ready to do it yourself. If we had not been able to afford a Lumix we would have shot our films with a phone. If I had not found a space for a mural, I would have turned my paintings into cheap posters and wheat-pasted them up around town in the middle of the night. I gave serious thought to this idea. Indeed we did a small version of this in Philadelphia.  Ultimately it might have been the best solution, to bring the people’s portraits to the public directly right here where they live in New York. 

Eric Muzzy studied documentary filmmaking at Temple University though he started his young professional life peripatetically in a series of pursuits including factory worker, cabinet maker, house builder, deckhand and cameraman. He has worked in the film industry as well as acting as director of photography on independent films. He regularly collaborates with two New York artists, Zoe Beloff and composer and singer Shelley Hirsch. He has done theatrical lighting and multimedia visuals with Shelley and is the cinematographer on all of Zoe Beloff’s films and installations. He is also a still photographer. Find out more at Eric Muzzy

@ Work by Zoe Beloff and Eric Muzzy, including all the films is available to view here: https://theworkerswall.com