French artist Frédéric Lère arrived in New York in the 1980s and was immediately attracted to the diversity of Hell’s Kitchen. He has lived here since 1996 and uses the things he sees in the neighborhood to inspire his works of art. Here’s Frédéric’s West Side Story.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I arrived in New York City from France in September 1984 and lived for two years just off Times Square. The only food shopping available then was on 9th Avenue — which is how I discovered Hell’s Kitchen where I finally moved to in 1996, after a long stint in the West Village.
As a painter, I always enjoyed making live sketches of the neighborhood I lived in, some of which I later developed in the studio as oil paintings. There is always a lot to capture: interesting buildings, street scenes, temporary art installations — I am thinking for example of Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War on Times Square, or the new Big Button coming up in the Garment District.
In a fast changing environment, I also documented some of our neighborhood landmarks, such as the Lincoln Tunnel or the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I did a series of paintings of travelers hanging by Ralph Kramden’s statue outside the Terminal. As the Bus Terminal may soon be revamped, I recently decided to celebrate the current building. I reimagined it as a Roman bath in the style of the old Penn Station, inspired by George Bellows documenting the Penn Station excavations over a century ago. And then I added some of the kids he portrayed in other paintings.
What was your first job? What do you do now?
Back in France, I started working as a graphic designer. One needed a vivid imagination then, as documentation was not readily available in the pre-internet age. One day I had to draw a turtle and tried to remember its head movement. I was standing mimicking it when my boss arrived with an important client. My boss thought I was making fun of him and fired me. That allowed me to move on to sculpture, book illustration, comic books, theater sets and decorative painting over the years.
Now I enjoy working in oil and continuing to capture the city. I also recently embarked on a long-term project commemorating the French Renaissance poet, Pierre de Ronsard, who was from the region where I was born in France.
What’s your favorite New York minute (or moment) so far?
The first time I entered my artist studio in the Garment District. It opened up so many possibilities…
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Share with us why you love Hell’s Kitchen
Probably I was first attracted by its name which can have quite a few interpretations. Then when I started living here, I realized and enjoyed its extraordinary diversity. It’s a welcoming mix of people from every horizon, and you are able to taste so many different cuisines… And Broadway’s proximity meant that there were many suppliers, which could be used in my work. Rose Brand, Dyke’s Lumber are unfortunately now gone…
What’s your superpower or hidden talent?
Adaptability. I am always open to new ideas, new encounters and adventures.
What else should we know about you?
With all the developments that have happened in the vicinity since 1996, I have produced series of oil paintings, from the High Line to Hudson Yards and the Vessel. The view from my windows has also been impacted by the never-ending construction. In the late 90s, I painted a 360-degree series of the cityscape as seen from my floor, including from the neighbors’ apartments. A lot has changed since. While I sometimes lament the loss of the open views, the new buildings that went up across the street have provided new opportunities. Right now, I am working on a “Front Windows” painting, inspired by Hitchcock’s Rear Window and featuring Edward Hopper’s characters. I like to reinvent iconic painters’ work and adapt it to my reality.
Frédéric’s Favorite Hell’s Kitchen Places
International Grocery — 555 9th Avenue (between W40/41st St)
One of my very first go-to food stores. I enjoy cooking and could find a lot there: Greek and European specialties and exotic spices. I would buy French cheese when it was still difficult to find in the neighborhood.
Sea Breeze Fish Market — 541 9th Avenue (corner W40th St)
Fresh fish year-round, which allows for variety in my dinners. They even sell oysters!
Esposito Meat Market — 500 9th Avenue (corner W38th St)
A legend! From pheasant to rabbit, you could find everything there… Talk about diverse dinners…
Amy’s Bread — 672 9th Avenue (between W46/47th St)
Last year they celebrated their 30th anniversary. Excellent bread.
Tavola Hells Kitchen — 488 9th Avenue (between W37/38th St)
It replaced Manganaro’s where I used to enjoy going for paninis and lasagna. I was so glad when Tavola opened up. Their wood oven pizzas are delicious.
Worldwide Plaza Park — W49/50th St (between 8/9th Ave)
A vast plaza with a great fountain, its four statues representing the seasons. A peaceful place to take a break in between errands. An enclosed space protected from traffic.
The Hudson River Waterfront
It’s not all about food! I love walking along the Hudson, looking out to the Bay and the Statue of Liberty. Looking at water always gives me a sense of freedom.
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
Reminiscing about my arrival in NYC to respond to your questionnaire, I just recalled how excited I was to arrive in the city. For the movie buff I am, everywhere I turned looked like a place I had seen in famous movies. Walking down the street where I first lived, I was thrilled to discover the Actors Studio. It was inspired by the Actors Studio method that I had tried to mimic that unfortunate, poorly timed, turtle movement. Hollywood Twin, a movie theater a few blocks away from my first apartment was offering a membership. It was there that I finally was able to see for the first time on a big screen an all-time favorite: the 1961 West Side Story.
If you know someone who would make a great West Side Story (or you would like to nominate yourself) please fill in this form —w42st.info/WSSnominations
You can check out more West Side Stories and reader recommendations on W42ST’s Hell’s Kitchen Local App.