Overlooked New Yorkers: Zina Saunders Takes a Closer Look
by Holly Tsang
Jan 12, 2010 | 21510 views | 0 0 comments | 736 736 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Joe, a rooftop pigeon keeper and pigeon racer.
As a child growing up in New York City, Zina Saunders often saw the older men who ride around the city on ‘tricked-out’ bicycles, decorated with over-the-top displays of Puerto Rican flags or bike horns. Though her curiosity was piqued, it wasn’t until five years ago that she flagged down one of these bike men to find out where they hang out with fellow members of their informal bike clubs. With the help of a Spanish-speaking friend, Saunders conducted interviews with each of the men, snapped their photographs on a little camera and went back to her studio to paint the portraits of the interviewees.

Thus began Saunders’ zeal for telling the stories of, in her words, “overlooked New Yorkers.” The daughter of famed illustrator Norman Saunders, who was known for his pulp magazine paintings, trading cards and comic covers, Saunders’ own legacy is now available to the whole world with the 2009 publication of Overlooked New York, a collection of profiles of 68 New Yorkers who take part in seemingly wild and quirky hobbies such as scuba diving in the city’s rivers, stargazing from rooftops and fishing in the ponds of city parks.

The following is an edited excerpt of an interview with Saunders in the style of Overlooked New York, complete with a view of some of the portraits in the book. Visit www.zinasaunders.com for more information on her work and www.overlookednewyork.com for a preview of the book and additional interviews/portraits.

“As an artist and an illustrator, I was used to getting assignments and sitting in my studio and fulfilling the assignments. Doing Overlooked New York got me out of my studio and into other people’s creative worlds; the guys up on the rooftop with their pigeon coops, or people swimming in the river, or down in the subways, talking to musicians about what it is they love about playing in the subways of New York. They don’t do it because they have it; they do it because they want to!”

“I’m an artist and my overriding passion in life is painting portraits. I do it for a living, I do it for magazines and newspapers, and I do it for myself. It’s my way of celebrating New York City and the people who live in it. It’s my contribution to the project. I also have to say I bring a lot of myself into each one of those paintings. I’ve sometimes been surprised when I’ve gone back to give somebody a painting, to see that they aren’t as colorful a character as what I’ve painted. When I’m painting them, I’m trying to capture their inner vibrance and vitality for life.”

“When you get somebody talking about what it is they love to do more than anything in the world, there’s a spark that goes on inside of them and it’s like they become a firecracker, and that is what I think that I am able to capture. I haven’t seen any photograph by anybody who’s able to really capture that. I think that it’s something unique to painting pictures, because so much of yourself is in the painting, the artist. As frustrating as it is to have this really blurry photograph that I’m trying to sketch from, it also really does force me to inject more of myself in it.”

“The whole time that I’m painting the person, I’m thinking back over what they told me and what their face looked like when they were talking, and the way their eyes lit up when they were describing something. Some of the interviews are quite brief because some people just aren’t that verbal, and other people went on at some length about stuff. I wanted to honor them and let them tell their own story in their own way.”

“I’m often very attracted to the old stories of New York from the ‘50s and ‘40s, what the city used to be like. And then you come up against the people who are in the curry contest out in Rosedale who are very new immigrants to New York City. You know, here’s this whole new wave of people with their own new traditions and family stories and their own little histories that they’re building right before my eyes.”

“It’s been a really terrific experience because I’ve found that I’m so much more observant and alert to what’s going on around me in New York and I feel much more connected to everybody around me. Instead of sort of putting our heads down and walking on the street, I have my head up and I’m looking around. I’m kind of ready to share in these people’s enthusiasms, in New Yorkers’ enthusiasms.”

“You know, people the world over are interested in New York City. And these are some of the most interesting New Yorkers because they’re ordinary New Yorkers with extraordinary hobbies and passions.”

“I think what I share in common with all the people in Overlooked New York is an intense passion. My passion is profiling them. Their passions are all these fascinating ways that they’ve found to embrace life here. New York City is the greatest place in the entire world. I’ve never wanted to and I will never leave New York. It’s got the most interesting mix of people, the most heartfelt people that are just full of exciting ideas and goals and fun ways of having a blast.”

“I just hope that when people read Overlooked New York that they take a closer look around them and maybe connect with the people around. Maybe turn to the person passing you on the street with a fishing pole over their shoulder and say, ‘Hey! Where are you going?’ Ask questions and be interested in the person sitting next to you on the subway or the person passing by you on the street or sitting across from you in the park. What is it that they’re doing? Pay attention. See what people are doing and ask them about it. Connect with each other. Everybody could have their own Overlooked New York. We’re all overlooked New Yorkers, aren’t we? Except for like, Mayor Bloomberg. But the rest of us are. What Overlooked New York is celebrating is the extraordinary nature of ordinary people. That’s what it’s all about. It’s that we are extraordinary, all of us.”

“I’ll definitely do a second book. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever stop. Nobody will be able to stop me.”
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