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'I've Got To Do More Than Earn a Living': Union Workers Show Off Art Skills

 Julio Pantoja with his painting series,
Julio Pantoja with his painting series, "The Fragmented Landscape," at 32BJ SEIU's annual art show.
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DNAinfo/Maya Rajamani

CHELSEA — After Julio Pantoja ends his shift as a janitor at a building in Kew Gardens, he heads home to his apartment and picks up a paint brush.

“One of the reasons I came to New York was to become an artist,” said the 54-year-old, whose paintings tackle subjects ranging from “human feelings” like love to climate change and the environment. “When I’m not painting, something’s missing.”

Pantoja is one of 136 union members whose photographs, paintings, poems and sculptures are on display at 32BJ SEIU’s office at 25 W. 18th St., near Sixth Avenue, until the end of the month.

The annual show — which presented the work of just 16 artists when it launched a decade ago — gives union members a chance to showcase what they create outside of work, 32BJ SEIU’s assistant to the president Lenore Friedlaender said.

“Some of our members who participate are very active about exhibiting their art, but for other participants, this is the only place they exhibit,” she said.

32BJ SEIU, which touts itself as the largest property services union in the nation, represents 80,000 workers from the five boroughs and Long Island. 

Pantoja, who’s worked as a janitor for more than 30 years, started painting not long after he moved to New York from Colombia in the 1980s.

The desire to paint “would not leave [him] alone,” he explained.

“I said… I’ve got to do more than earn a living,” he noted. “It was something I wanted to do.”

Like Pantoja, 59-year-old Teresito Paez — who’s worked as a porter at NYU for the past 16 years — creates art outside of work, using discarded items he finds around the school.

Teresito Paez with a sculpture he crafted from candles, a piece of wood and a discarded plastic bird. (DNAinfo/Maya Rajamani) 

So much stuff that we… dispose of.. just ends up in a landfill,” he said. “I decided to create art out of many of those objects.”

His pieces — including a wax sculpture he crafted from candles, an old piece of wood and a discarded plastic bird — remind him of objects he created during his childhood.

Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Paez and his peers often built their own toys — like a cart fashioned from halved avocado pits and sardine cans.

“We always dreamed about getting [toys], but we couldn’t… because my parents were poor,” he said. “[But] we had a wonderful childhood creating our own stuff.

“Creating art, for me, is like meditation,” he added.

Participating in the show gives union members a chance to meet other artists in an environment that isn’t competitive, Pantoja said.

They're also able to reveal a side of themselves that the people they work with don't get to see.

“You show that you have a different life — it’s not only about your job, it’s about something else,” Paez said. “We are artists, we create. We not only clean, but… we have a talent.”