BROOKLYN — Most New Yorkers develop an immunity to the sensory overload this city throws at us. The competing sights, sounds and smells of this city brimming with color and personality tend to become background noise as we go about our way. Street art, too, becomes a backdrop for this distinctive urban experience — just one of the many stimuli vying for our attention.
But amongst the color blitz that adorns the walls and ever-present construction scaffolding of our city, one artist’s work stands out. It’s a simple caricature style sketch of a woman’s face, oversized eyes peering back you. Thick, curved black lines outline her face, the only color often a pop of red on the lips. It’s an arresting image, forcing the viewer to pause for a moment (gasp!) and ponder its origin. It’s almost subversive in its simplicity, a stark contrast to the busyness that surrounds it.
It’s the work of Sara Erenthal, a self-taught multimedia artist from Brooklyn.
“I call it a subconscious self-portrait,” she tells me,“It’s evolved over the years and I guess it’s become a bit of an obsession.”
Her murals — which make more use of color, but follow the same linear, one-dimensional style — can now be spotted on streets all around New York City. But in addition to her commissioned work she’s becoming increasingly known in the street art community, and among the legions of fans that follow her on social media, for finding an unlikely surface for her portraits; namely discarded trash she finds on the street. Television sets, mattresses, refrigerators, tables and mirrors have all become canvases for her upcycled art.
She estimates the number of pieces she’s done “in the thousands.”
“Creative reuse or the process of transforming by-products, waste materials, useless, or unwanted products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value.” (Wikipedia)
I first spotted Erenthal’s work a couple of years back on a roller door outside a yoga studio in Park Slope. The mural featured three girls in what I soon came to understand was her trademark style. On closer examination I noticed Yiddish text woven into one of the girls clothing. That caught my attention. Titled “Sara’s Three Selves,” the piece depicts three notable stages of her life; from her childhood growing up in a ultra-Orthodox charedi sect, through her journey of self-discovery, and ultimately to finding art as her calling (more on this later).
It was an imposing, thought-provoking image. One that evoked so much emotion, depth and dimension, despite (or maybe because of) its striking simplicity.
A quick search and “follow” on Instagram brought up Erenthal’s upcycled pieces. I was intrigued further and I soon started noticing more of these pieces popping up during my jaunts around Brooklyn. Aside from the portraits staring back at me, the text accompanying them always seemed to stop me in my tracks — almost as if she just knew what the viewer needed to see at that precise moment.
I had to find out more about her process, so I tagged along with her one cold, blustery day earlier this winter to watch her in action and learn more about the inspiration behind her work.
I meet her in her studio in Bushwick, a rapidly-gentrifying-but-still-quite-industrial part of Brooklyn that’s home to many artists.
Armed with her materials (a handful of paint markers) we head out into the wind to scout for some pieces of trash to transform, a seemingly ridiculously easy venture in this city.
We pass a group of tourists taking a tour of the street art that covers much of Bushwick’s buildings. Murals 20-feet high, bursting with color, tower over sections of the neighborhood as part of The Bushwick Collective, a program to draw international street artists to the neighborhood.
We talk as we walk, discussing how her “on-the-way-to-somewhere habit” evolved over the years.
One Man’s Trash, Another Man’s Treasure
Seven years ago Erenthal was a 30-year old struggling artist who had just returned from a two-year backpacking trip around India. She’d been drawing and painting and sewing, and “just general creating” she tells me, her whole life, but it was during this trip that she developed a newfound love for art. There she committed to making it her full-time pursuit upon her return to New York.
Now back in the city, and with little money for canvases and supplies, she would collect items she found on the street and bring it back to her studio to paint on. One day she saw an old window pane on the sidewalk that she really liked but couldn’t safely bring back to her studio. She drew on it, taped her business card to it, and left it there. Later, word got back to her that someone had picked it up and taken it home.
“That window pane must have been sitting there awhile and no-one cared about it. And then it become art and it became more valuable. It just gave it new life.”
“That window pane must have been sitting there awhile and no-one cared about it,” she mused, “And then it become art and it became more valuable. It just gave it new life.”
This reframed her thinking. Now she started taking more notice of the garbage on the streets. A mattress she noticed sitting on the sidewalk near her home for a few weeks, which she previously would have ignored, became her next canvas. A broken television set followed after. Soon text started accompanying her portraits.
“At first it was totally spontaneous, but with time it became more intentional,” she told me.
Now Erenthal, 37, has the city’s trash collection schedule memorized like an actor knows his lines. She knows precisely what days the bulk items are collected in the neighborhoods she frequents, and can bet on the quality of garbage in different areas.
We come across a discarded plastic folding table leaning against the wire fence of an empty corner lot. Erenthal assesses if it will make for a good surface — not all trash is created equal after all.
She positions it, leaning it against the fence. Green overgrowth pokes through the concrete around it as empty soda cans and food wrappers gather flight in the wind around us. Noisy trucks rattle by. She gets to work and a likeness soon appears. Oversized eyes light up the face, a helmet of hair crowns the head. Text follows: “I miss the good things we shared.”
She signs it with her signature; her name in Sanskrit, that in a serendipitous twist of fate, also reads as “art” — something she picked up while in India.
Asked if she wanted to share the meaning of the statement on this piece, she declined. “This one is private,” she said.
Sometimes she’ll stick around and see if anyone collects her art.
Before we move on she takes a photo of the piece and uploads it to Instagram. The transient nature of street art makes documenting her work an integral part of the process. “This is the only thing I’ll have left of something on the street,” she notes. It also lets fans know where they can potentially find one of her pieces.
We continue down the road and around the corner, keeping our eyes peeled.
“Trash used to background noise,” she smiles. Not anymore.
We spot a mattress and she pauses for a moment as she considers what she’ll draw. She doesn’t need much time and soon puts marker to mattress.
A face soon fills the queen-sized bed. Big hair, big eyes. Some passersby pause and take a peek at the artist at work, others — in true New York fashion — don’t skip a beat on their way, eyes glued down at their phones.
“Dreaming of warmth” she sketches underneath which, I assume, can be interpreted in both a physical (did I mention it’s cold?) and metaphorical sense.
“It’s a way of expressing myself,” she says of the subconscious self-portrait. And the way she draws the hair is intentional, too, representing her emotions during different times in her life. “When I started doing these portraits, they actually didn’t have hair they were just heads. Then over time I started giving them hair, and I started realizing that I was drawing the hairstyle that I had at the time… I started changing it up.”
For some this might seem like a stretch, a teenage faux rebellion in the form of a crew cut and color. But for Erenthal hair has become an unlikely expression of her freedom and empowerment.
She was born in Israel to a family that was part of the Neturei Karta sect, a stringent group considered by most in the more mainstream ultra-Orthodox community to be on the fringe. When she was three her parents moved to New York and she spent most of her childhood in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. Among many other things, dress and hairstyles were strictly regulated, and Erenthal was forced to wear her hair in two long, Willie Nelson style braids — represented by girl number one in “Sara’s Three Selves.”
When she was 17-years old her parents returned to Israel and not long after attempted to set her up for marriage.
“Art is kind of what saved my life…”
A day before she was meant to meet her future husband she escaped her home and joined the Israeli army. She also cut her hair short, a symbol of her rebellion and newfound independence.
She moved back to the U.S. after finishing her stint in the army and in the 20 years since she’s had every hairstyle possible, she tells me, at times allowing it to grow back — perhaps an indication of her moving on?
“It represents change and different emotions,” she says, “It’s a piece of me, a part of me.”
We move the down the street and find a stack of vintage suitcases standing against a tree trunk alongside an assortment of chairs, none that seem to be part of a set. “This must have been cleared out of someone’s house who just passed away,” she notes, gesturing at a handicapped shower chair.
She stacks the suitcases and pulls out her marker. A white one this time. Also affected by the cold, it takes a few vigorous shakes to get the ink flowing. The sketch soon appears with “I’m ready to go” emblazoned underneath.
Art As Healing
Her favorite kind of art is art that makes her cry.
“I’m a sucker for emotional art, art that makes me feel.” she says, “I like to feel something and if I feel something I can connect to it.”
She’s had a number of exhibitions and art shows over the last few years, including one in Tel Aviv last year as well as at the Jewish Museum in Montreal — that one a retrospective on her life journey thus far. She also led a community art education program for underprivileged children in Guatemala last summer, giving back where she can.
“I like to feel something and if I feel something I can connect to it.”
In all her work — murals, wheat-pasting and upcycled, on the streets and in the studio — she brings a rawness and empathy that is almost right there for the viewer to tap into.
It’s partially for her catharsis, but also to help others.
“One of the things that I’ve been pushing myself to do is to allow myself to be more vulnerable in my work,” she said. “I really started sharing more vulnerabilities in my work for my own healing, but then I started sharing it with the public after realizing that it might be something someone else is going through… You might be going through something and seeing that vulnerability might help you.”
“It kind of lets you know you’re not alone and I realize that, so it actually pushed me to share it.”
For her, personally, art has been such a pivotal part of that journey of healing and growth as she transitioned from her restricted charedi upbringing to a secular lifestyle cut off from the community she once knew. When she returned to New York as a 20-year old, she had to completely relearn the city she grew up in.
“It was almost like I was a new immigrant in my own country,” she said. “I had to relearn my city all over again from a very different perspective.”
She hopes her art brings a message of hope and empowerment to others.
When I met her in Bushwick she showed me a stack of posters she was preparing to wheat-paste around her old neighborhood — a circuitous route back to Borough Park. “I have a voice,” “Empower yourself” and “Women are leaders” read some of them. A snow storm hit soon after which put a dampen on that particular venture, but she’s left a similar mark in chassidic Williamsburg and Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim neighborhood.
“For me art is kind of what saved my life,” she said.
“I’ve been through so much, and had a lot of struggle with finding myself and finding what I’m good at… Finding the way to let go of things from the past,” she said. “Art gave me that. It gave me a way to express myself. To have that outlet really changed me and made me more whole with myself.”
In communities where women’s faces are hidden from public media, just drawing a sketch of a female face is an act of acute subversion. One portrait she drew on a window in Meah Shearim was smudged within hours of her drawing it, she recently told the hosts of an art podcast.
Now she’s moved to a new neighborhood in Brooklyn so residents in Crown Heights can expect to see more of her upcycled pieces around. No doubt this neighborhood too, mostly populated by Chabad Chasidim and African-American residents, will benefit from her work.
“It is really important to have art in the public space,” she says, “It makes it more accessible to everyone.”