I am seven years old. I have left my school early. The teacher has sent me to the house of my best friend, Tilly. She lives a short distance outside the village, in a farm between the meadows. Today she stayed home because she did not feel well. I’ve walked this road often, but never without Tilly. It’s a little after 12 noon, hot and quiet. A few birds are perched on the barbed wire fences. There are deep cracks in the dirt road, and I do my best not to trip over loose stones. My knee socks have sagged, as have the hems of my green plaid skirt. The school is far behind me, a dot on the horizon. In front of me I see the low roof of Tilly’s farmhouse. I stop, hearing an airplane that traces a wispy line high in the sky. I follow it with my finger.
And then it happens. Out of nowhere I realize, in full force, that I am “Me.” Not my parents. Not Tilly. Just me, myself, and I. I exist. Here and now. I awake to my own life, in which I play the leading role. It is an overwhelming experience. I have crossed a threshold. I left one world and, with the shock of recognition, have discovered my own. How long I stood there on that sandy road under the burning sun with my new insight, I do not know. Not even how the rest of the afternoon went. I know I did not tell anyone. I never forgot, but I could not explain it either. But from that moment on, everything was different.
A while ago I read the book “I Am I: Sudden Flashes of Self-Awareness in Childhood” by developmental psychologist Dolph Kohnstamm, which reports on such experiences. I found out that I am not the only one with whom the sense of self suddenly broke through. People describe it as a flash or a shock. A lifting of the fog. Often they are somewhere alone. Many remember the details sharply. It is an unforgettable experience.
For me the moment marked the end of a life in which things simply happened to me. This was the beginning of a new life in which I myself was involved and had a voice and a mind and free will of my own.
I just have to close my eyes to be back on that dirt road. I feel the pebbles under my sandals. The bright sun prickling my skin. I can stop the time and stretch the moment, as if it were made of elastic, responsive to me. I can choose to look at a thin line in the sky and try to follow it with my finger. Behind me is my old life. The school, the classroom with the teacher reading so nicely, my desk with the colored pencils and the ruler.
A few hundred meters to go, and at the end Tilly will be there waiting for me. She will smell like homemade stew and she has a dog.
But for a moment I hover between past and present, keeping a delicate balance between the world that is past and the world that is to come. In the meantime I am here.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is filling in for Richard K. Rein, who is on assignment.
Active Imprints, a provider of customized screen-printed and embroidered promotional products, has left its Monmouth Junction location after being acquired by Moxie Print. The Somerset-based printer specializes in brochures, business cards, postcards, and custom mailings.
Craig Ferguson has been named deputy director for operations and chief operating officer at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, effective February 4.
“We are delighted to have Craig join our team,” said PPPL director Steven Cowley in a statement. “His background and expertise will be extremely valuable as we pursue PPPL’s mission in developing fusion energy. His breadth of experience in operations at world-leading laboratories makes him an excellent choice.”
Rich Hawryluk, a 44-year employee of the lab who filled the position on an interim basis for the past 10 months, will resume work as associate director for fusion.
Ferguson’s responsibilities will include overseeing all facets of day-to-day operations except for science and research. “I’m excited about it,” Ferguson said in a statement. “PPPL is on the forefront of plasma and fusion research and to be part of that is just fantastic.”
Ferguson earned his bachelor’s degree in nuclear technology at Excelsior College in Albany, New York, and received a master’s in safety sciences from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
He spent nine years working for the Navy propulsion program and has worked with numerous nuclear facilities, including Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and most recently as vice president of mission assurance at Longenecker & Associates, a consulting firm that works with the Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration facilities.
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, 100 Stellarator Road, James Forrestal Campus, Princeton 08540; 609-243-2000. Steven Cowley, director. www.pppl.gov
PSEG has sold a former coal plant in Hamilton Township to a Chicago-based developer, which plans to redevelop the 132-acre site into a modern industrial park. The Mercer Generating Station, located on Lamberton Road, was retired in June, 2017.
The purchaser, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, also acquired a 241-acre site in Jersey City. The company has previously redeveloped coal plants in Boston and Chicago. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Redevelopment work, including any remediation necessary, is expected to take 18 to 24 months. Hilco plans to turn the site into a warehouse-distribution center.
Choose New Jersey has announced plans to relocate its headquarters from Princeton Forrestal Village to an expanded space in Newark, part of a consolidation of state economic development initiatives in New Jersey’s largest city.
Choose will be one of three state offices to occupy new space at One Gateway Center. It will join the state EDA (Economic Development Authority), which plans to open a satellite office there, as well as a satellite governor’s office.
The nonprofit agency, founded under former Gov. Chris Christie in 2010, is tasked with nurturing economic growth in the state by attracting businesses to New Jersey to stimulate job growth and capital investment. It will continue to maintain a satellite office in the capital region.
Choose New Jersey, 201 Rockingham Row, Princeton 08540; 609-297-2200. Jose Lozano, president and CEO. www.choosenj.com.
Christie Henry, director of the Princeton University Press, is having a hard time deciding how to refer to her audience. It used to be easy: they were readers. But now, as audiobooks grow in popularity, some of the press’s titles have more listeners than readers. It’s not clear that there is a generic term to encompass both of these groups. “Those who engage with a book in any medium” doesn’t have a great ring to it.
This is actually a good problem for Henry to have, as the press has recently launched its own audio division, which is bringing in a whole new crowd of book-engagers.
Audio is making waves throughout the publishing industry. In a year-end e-mail to employees, Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy said that the publisher’s audiobook unit was its fastest-growing division and predicted that the proliferation of Amazon Echo and other smart speakers and listening devices will fuel more rapid growth in audiobooks.
One such device on the horizon is the Waze Audio Player, made by the same company that makes the popular navigation app. Waze is partnering with Scribd to make audio books for the platform. The collaboration is banking on the association between audio and driving, since audiobook consumers do much of their listening in the car anyway.
Princeton University Press has not been sleeping during the audiobook trend. For years the press has partnered with Audible (owned by Amazon) to record and distribute audio versions of its books, but last summer the press launched its own in-house audio division, with a starting list of nine titles.
Henry said Princeton University Press’s Audible licensing agreement is going well, but its downside is that there is little clue to listeners that they are listening to Princeton University Press titles. The logic of branding demanded that Princeton have some titles under its own banner on its own website.
The business considerations of audiobooks are different from their print counterparts, and calculating the cost and profit margin of one format versus the other is not always straightforward. “The costs of audio are in large part driven by the length of the books, as that correlates to hours of narration,” Henry wrote in an e-mail.
“Many of the actors charge by the hour — and the costs of audio include narration and distribution. It’s hard to say audio is significantly cheaper to produce, as the variables of narration rates are considerable. And each distributor also has different terms associated with releasing them into the world,” she wrote.
The press assigned its former international rights manager, Kim Williams, the task of managing the audiobooks. She partnered with British audio production company Sound Understanding, which produces the popular Economist podcast. PUP picked out nine of its titles to turn into audiobooks. Although the press turns out a large number of academically focused books, the ones it picked for its audio division launch were aimed at the general public.
“Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy is Threatening our Future” by Louise I. Shelly covers how computers and social media have supercharged black markets. “Making Up Your Own Mind: Thinking Effectively through Creative Puzzle-Solving” by Edward B. Burger discusses how you can learn to be better at solving real-world problems by learning puzzle-solving skills and creative thinking techniques.
The roster also includes “Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines and Ancient Dreams of Technology” by Adrienne Mayor, which tells the story of how ancient people imagined robots and other forms of artificial life. One unique title is “Workers’ Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain,” edited by Michael Rosen and read by a variety of narrators.
Henry said the press is experimenting with scholarly audio but wanted to try books that had already proven popular with general readers. One reason for this approach is that the audiobooks are not likely to cannibalize paper book sales. The press’s market research shows that audiobook listeners are not the same people as book readers. Listening to the audiobook will likely come at the expense of podcasts or other audio entertainment.
Edward Burger’s book was a natural selection for audio because Burger also has a popular podcast and could bring in a crossover audience. The author narrated his own audiobook. Adrienne Mayor also has a strong social media presence, and Henry said the subject matter of gods and robots lent itself to audio very well.
Rosen’s book is the boldest experiment and posed the biggest challenge to record, as it included 160 different narrators. But this was a hidden marketing boost, as each of those narrators promoted the book to his or her own audiences.
Another new marketing technique the Princeton University Press is trying out is making video trailers to go along with the audiobooks. The trailers are produced much like movie trailers and are easily sharable on social media.
Henry said the initial selection covers multiple topics because the press wanted to reach multiple audiences. “We didn’t do all economics books or all science books,” she said. One reason for covering this range over a relatively small number of books was to give the new audio publisher a reasonable workload so she could give a lot of attention to the production of each title. The PUP also did not want to jeopardize the audio publishing deals with Audible and other publishers.
It will be a few months before the Princeton Press has statistics on how well the new audiobooks did. “It’s still a relatively small data set,” said Henry. “But early attention has been really high, and the excitement of the authors is tangible.”
The PUP is working on a new website to showcase the audio books. But for now, they are available for reading, listening, or engagement at press.princeton.edu/audiobooks.
Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton 08540. 609-258-4900. Christie Henry, director. press.princeton.edu.
Anthony Catanese, the writer and director of “Teenage Bloodsuckin’ Bimbos” gives a bemused smile as he describes his new film. “It’s a fun B-horror comedy with an edge. It goes back to the movies I’d watch late at night on USA’s ‘Up All Night,’” a series of low budget B-Horror Films.
True to that spirit, Catanese’s film is about a trio of young female vampires sucking blood and other fluids from Trenton bikers, prostitutes, or anybody else who happens to end up in a scene with them in this 145-minute feature film made in Trenton.
An employee of Exit 7A Creative Services and Studios in Trenton, where he sits at a video editing console during this interview, Catanese says the film’s ideal audience is “anyone who loves horror films.” But then he deprecatingly adds another demographic, “or 14 year-old boys.”
But generally he takes his tongue-in-cheek work seriously and says the film should appeal to fans of horror and horror comedy: “People who like things on the edge, oddball things. People looking for something not the same-old-same-old.”
That seems to include the New Jersey Film Festival reviewers who selected “Teenage Bloodsuckin’ Bimbos” for a screening in the annual spring festival, running January 25 to March 1. “Bimbos” is scheduled for Saturday, January 26.
While the film follows a less respected tradition and is unabashedly politically incorrect, Catanese says he is proud of the production. “For the time and budget we had, I can’t believe we pulled it off. I look at the film and can’t get over it.”
He says the film was part of a progression stemming from when he began making movies at age 15 in his Groveville (Hamilton Township) home, where he lived with his construction worker dad and mom who worked in a supermarket meat department.
After graduating from Steinert High School in 1998, he wasn’t interested in going to college but signed up for a few local classes and wrote a letter to Troma Films in New York City — the independent makers of the “Toxic Avenger,” “The Class of Nuke ‘Em High,” and other low budget favorites.
Troma invited him in and gave him a hands-on education on low-budget filmmaking with duties ranging from production assistant to wardrobe manager.
They also gave something you don’t learn in college. “From Troma I learned how to do things with what we have and make it work — that’s the key to low-budget or no-budget filmmaking. You need to get it done.”
In addition to Troma Films, Catanese says other influences include Woody Allen and the Baltimore-based, very independent filmmaker John Waters, whose “Pink Flamingos” is noted for its wit, whack, and shock.
Eventually Catanese returned to the Hamilton-Trenton area, sold drums at Russo Music, began playing drums with the Trenton band Honah Lee, started working with 7A, and began a series of B-horror films, including the 2015 film “Sodomaniac.”
IMDb (the Internet Movie Data Base) describes the film as “a group of degenerate serial date rapists” who “have the tables turned on them when a masked killer begins to hunt them down one by one and killing them in the most painful, degrading way possible.”
“We had an idea that we thought would kick the door open with ‘Sodomaniac,’” says the director. “But it was very niche audience. So I thought, let’s make a movie that is broader. And I thought, ‘Vampires! Everyone likes that.’ So I tried to make a broader (audience) movie, but it’s still a little weird. The point was to make a movie that we could sell and reach a broad audience. But it’s still a niche audience.”
Catanese says while the script for “Teenage Bloodsuckin’ Bimbos” was written in just a few months, the production took a few years.
There were several reasons, he says. One of the actresses landed a job on a reality show, left for a few months, and then got more job offers. “We had to wait for her to film a show. When she came back we had a small window to finish the shooting.”
Another was the need to wait for the return of summer for a needed shot. “We had to wait six months until we got one shot and hoped no one noticed anyone’s hair or tan change,” Catanese says.
“If we did it like a regular Hollywood movie, it would have taken a couple of months. It’s tough when you don’t have a lot of money and people have other jobs,” he says. Production cost $4,000.
“We had no money but said, ‘Let’s do this,’” he says. “We have equipment. And usually every movie comes out of our pockets.”
The money for this film came from an investment from the Punk Rock Flea Market producer Joseph Kuzemka (who is credited as a producer and appears as a vampire’s victim), and a gift from his Baltimore-based aunt, Robin Bokhari.
Catanese says other resources came from “the generous giving” of others. That includes Exit 7A and company owner Scott Miller, who volunteered equipment, served as a sound engineer, appears semi-nude as an actor, and is listed as a producer. “We wouldn’t have a film without Scott and 7A,”says Catanese.
Trenton-based filmmaker Jeff Stewart also stepped in to serve as photography director and one of several cameramen. He is also listed as a producer.
Another producer is Sara Casey, who edited the film. The Hamilton resident and graduate of the Arts Academy of Philadelphia is a co-partner in the company through which “Bimbos” was produced, d.i. why? Films, listed on their website “as a low budget production company based out of Trenton.”
“We chose (the name) d.i.why? as kind of a joke, like ‘Why are we doing this?,” says Catanese. “It’s also a play off of d.i.y, (do it yourself), because our films are very do it yourself. Being a small film company with just two of us we basically do everything ourselves.”
Money was spent on the performers contracted using a standard form Catanese and Carey used while making “Sodomaniac.” It stipulates future payments or royalties. “It eases up our liability and makes sure people know what they’re getting into,” the producer/director says.
Despite the subject matter and Catanese’s admission of liking “gross out stuff,” there are several aspects of the film that makes it artful.
One is the way it looks. That includes both some active and attractive images of Trenton shot by drone operated by Jin Wu. “He was doing some stuff for Scott, and we said we need some drone shots. And he went out and got some. He was excited and wanted to be part of (the film).”
Catanese also credits engineer and “color corrector” Peter Kuhn, who integrated the film footage shot by several different cameras and a cell phone operated by different people. “He is the genius that made the look of the film. He made it look like one camera. I’m pretty proud of Pete for doing that,” he says.
Then there are some flourishes in the writing — like the scene where the lead vampire, Tricia, quietly shares her desire to become one of the undead. It happens when her religious parents are suddenly killed and she grows angry with God.
“I was brought up real Catholic,” says Catanese, and he and heard people talk about “God’s plan.” “God messed up her plans, so she wanted to mess up his plan” by becoming an evil vampire, he explains.
The scene is enhanced when Tricia begins a chant to make another vampire. “That’s a real vampire chant,” says Catanese of the long single scene. “I found something online. It could be some vampire lore — or some real kid.”
Nevertheless, the combination had a moment. “That was really a powerful scene.” And while the characters are “bimbos” and “killers,” he says “they’re also real people with problems.”
Another is the soundtrack — mainly of music from the Trenton region. “I wrote the whole movie to ’80s rock, then I was thinking I’m in a band, so I hit up my friend Drew Russo — drummer in the area metal band Midnight Hellion — who knows everything about ’80s music.” The result was pulling in music from successful and artistically strong Trenton-area bands to replicate the ’80s sound. “The big thing was finding the right bands that fit the tone,” he says.
Then Jim Smith, the Hamilton-born electronic composer and owner of the music company TEEEL, took a liking to the project and allowed access to his work.
The result, says Catanese: “We basically got the perfect soundscape we wanted. I’m really happy how that came all together — I like it better than what I had hoped to use. I was really happy.”
He is also upbeat about one other important ingredient in this and all his work: Trenton. “I love this city. There’s energy and things happening. We make fun of Trenton in the movie. And you have to be a little harder if you’re working in Trenton. Just being in Trenton influences me. I couldn’t do what I do if I were somewhere else. I’d never get anything done if I were in New York.”
In addition to his work at 7A and work on a new horror-comedy film to be included as part of a collection of stories, Catanese is the film festival coordinator for NJ Horror Con in Atlantic City, and under the stage name Tony Goggles he continues to drum for Honah Lee and hosts the monthly “Shitty Karaoke” night at the Mill Hill Saloon, where he lives in one of the upstairs apartments. He also recently got engaged.
Assessing his work, Catanese says, “We make B-movies, but I like people to say, ‘That was a lot better than I thought it would be.’”
New Jersey Film Festival, Voorhees Hall Room 105, 71 Hamilton Street, Rutgers University; January 25 through March 1. “Teenage Bloodsuckin’ Bimbos” on Saturday, January 26, 7 p.m. $9 to $12. 848-932-8482 or www.njfilmfest.com.
In 1973 Roy Lichtenstein famously painted “Things on the Wall.” Using a wood-grain texture, in lieu of his iconic benday dot technique, the pop artist framed a series of objects adhered to the wall: a playing card, paint brushes, a neatly torn-open envelope, horseshoes, a spiral-bound notebook, even a torn Lichenstein picture. “Things on the Wall” was a nod to the trompe l’oeil tradition of painting and, specifically, to John Frederick Peto, one of America’s most accomplished trompe l’oeil artists who employed the device of, well, painting things on the wall — the letters, prints and other three-dimensional objects that filled his studio.
Morven Museum & Garden, in partnership with the John F. Peto Studio Museum of Island Heights, in Ocean County, is presenting a new look at trompe l’oeil painting in New Jersey with “Masters of Illusion: The Legacy of John F. Peto,” on view through Sunday, May 12.
Pronounced “tromp loy,” trompe l’oeil is French for “to deceive the eye,” which is used to describe paintings that create the illusion of a three-dimensional scene.
In addition to Peto’s paintings, the exhibition features contemporary artists who practice the tradition, as well as a section of a 50-year retrospective of New Jersey’s contemporary trompe l’oeil artist Gary Erbe. The other part of the retrospective is at the Peto Studio Museum.
The Peto Museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the artist and celebrating the history of his life, family, and work. It is housed in the building the artist designed for his home and studio, which underwent a $2 million restoration before opening as a museum in 2011. The shingled house, under threat of demolition by a developer, was saved in 2005 when the Peter R. and Cynthia K. Kellogg Foundation bought the property and paid for the restoration.
Accompanying the artwork is Peto’s furniture and artifacts original to the house. Although some of his best-known paintings are only shown in reproduction, Peto’s brushes, palette, easel, and still life objects are on view. Shelves are lined with lanterns, teapots, and pottery that appear in his paintings — and there’s even a fragment of a trompe l’oeil bookshelf the artist painted in his home.
His work was largely overlooked for many years because William Harnett’s signature was forged on the best Peto paintings. Harnett was a better known trompe l’oeil painter whom Peto befriended at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). The best of Harnett’s work is actually Peto’s, according to the Peto Museum website.
Art & Antiques magazine referred to the forgeries as “the most dramatic detective discovery in the annals of American art scholarship, the solution to a baffling case of double identity,” comparing it to a John Le Carre thriller. Until the dual identity was discovered, paintings by Peto, assumed to be by Harnett, were purchased by Nelson Rockefeller, Alfred Barr (director of the Museum of Modern Art), and Franklin Roosevelt, among others.
In the late 1940s, an art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, researching the late 19th-century trompe l’oeil movement, grew curious about stylistic differences he noticed in some paintings signed by William Harnett. The critic was able to identify about 20 paintings as works by Peto based on a comparison of style and choice of pigments. While both Peto and Harnett painted similar subjects, their styles are different. Almost photographic in quality, Harnett’s work is noted for tight compositions, crisp brushwork, deep hues, and a polished surface. Peto’s, in contrast, is more abstract with soft, painterly contours, thickly painted and textured surfaces, a concern for light effects, and a bright palette. Especially in his later paintings, Peto makes the viewer question the deeper meaning and motives behind the objects depicted.
As it turned out, a Philadelphia-based art dealer had purchased a number of Peto paintings and forged Harnett’s signature on them in order to obtain higher prices. But by the 1950s, after the truth came out, Peto began to be rediscovered. In the early 1980s the National Gallery of Art exhibited his work. Today Peto’s works can be found in such museums as the Art Institute of Chicago, High Museum in Atlanta, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Spain’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, MoMA, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, National Gallery, PAFA, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum, and the New Jersey State Museum.
Peto’s influence went beyond Lichtenstein. Jasper Johns signed his 1962 painting “4 the News,” “Peto Johns.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1854, he may have learned from his father, a picture frame gilder and dealer in fire department supplies who also gilded designs on fire trucks.
Peto was raised by his grandparents. The household included Peto’s two “maiden aunts” who are pictured in a Peto photograph at Morven. The women, in Victorian attire, are seated in a tree. The women came to live with Peto in his Island Heights home which, according to legend, did not go over well with Peto’s wife.
Peto’s uncle, William Bell, a noted Civil War photographer, had his studio nearby and encouraged Peto to pursue photography. In fact Peto originally went to Island Heights with the intent of opening a photography studio.
He studied at PAFA for just one year, in 1877, and exhibited there that same year, but later referred to himself as self-taught. In addition to being a visual artist, Peto was a musician, playing the cornet and other instruments. One photograph shows him playing the violin.
To earn money Peto played the cornet for the Island Heights Methodist Camp Meeting, and he and his wife took in seasonal boarders. He supplemented this income by selling paintings to tourists and often bartered small paintings for goods and services. Many paintings were sold to local business people and to the local drug store, where they were on display.
After Peto’s death in 1907 from kidney disease — he was 54 — the house remained in the family until 2002. His daughter and then his granddaughter ran the house and studio as a bed and breakfast.
In his lifetime, Peto never had a solo exhibit. He preferred to paint mundane objects such as the daily newspaper, smoking pipes, and mugs through the early 1890s. Some of his more complicated compositions depicting bookshelves are dated between 1885 and 1906. Objects such as violins painted against a background of old doors or wallboards are also from that period and give the viewer a sense of the passage of time.
His most inventive compositions were the “office board paintings,” or bulletin board paintings, from the late 1890s to the early 1900s, with their letters, cards, photos, and other ephemera either adhered to the latticework tapes of a card rack or pinned to a board. The illusion of depth is reinforced with attention to cast shadows, often from a single candle as the light source.
Sometimes humorous and often highly personal, these works are notable for near abstract designs, striking patterns, textures, and coloration, predating the works of the modernists.
Natalie Featherston, formerly of Trenton, is a contemporary artist who also paints things tacked to the wall. Sometimes those things are children’s pictures families hang on the refrigerator. In the contemporary section of “Masters of Illusion,” Featherston has painstakingly reproduced these in oil, recreating the folds of crumpled paper, the shadows at the edges, and the masking tape that holds them to the wall.
“What inspires me most is the creative voice, whimsy, and humor trompe l’oeil allows the artist to express,” says Featherston. “Unlike portraits or landscape, good still life doesn’t simply exist around us. You have to build the stage for the painting, selecting the color and textures. The end result draws the viewer in and connects with them in a meaningful way. This is why I’ve always found trompe l’oeil to be a challenge, and although it may qualify me as a one-trick-pony, I can’t imagine painting anything else.”
In “Not a Pipe” (2017) she paints a photograph of a pipe taped on to mahogany, along with Scrabble tiles spelling out “NOT A PIPE.” There is an open book of matches, and one match has been used. Smoke emanates from the pipe in the crinkled photo, clearly a campy contemporary take on the style of Peto.
Gary Erbe started painting in 1965 and discovered trompe l’oeil two years later, including the works of Peto and Harnett. His work requires infinite patience, and he begins by preparing his palette before sunrise. He creates his composition by preparing a plywood construction before even setting brush to canvas. The painting can take up to 16 months. “I’m trying to bring trompe l’oeil to the 21st century,” he says, integrating principles of modern art with trompe l’oeil. The Nutley resident has work in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Brandywine River Museum.
One of Erbe’s paintings, “The Big Splash,” includes a black-and-white TV screen from the 1950s with TV characters of the era, a TV Guide with Howdy Doody on the cover, and a TV dinner. “When TV was introduced in the 1950s it changed society,” he says. “No longer did you see people sitting on their porches, talking to one another; they’d be in the house, watching television.”
Morven Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Elizabeth Allan first learned about Peto as a student and went to visit the Peto Museum after its restoration. It had been a long-time dream to bring Peto to Morven, and she worked closely with the Peto Museum. She had also read the 1983 monograph on Peto written by retired Princeton University art professor John Wilmerding.
What makes the work of Peto and other trompe l’oeil artists significant today, in a post-photography era, says Allan, is the skill. “When people look closely, they see that what they’re looking at is not actually burlap, and it boggles the mind in a way that doesn’t happen with a photograph. And there are layers of meaning. Erbe includes tiny things that would never be photographed. Every thing is included for a reason.” Even the frames around Erbe’s paintings have been designed by the artist to continue to fool the eye.
Masters of Illusion: The Legacy of John F. Peto, Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On view through Sunday, May 12. $8 to $10. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.
A portrait of George Washington hangs prominently on the wall of an award-winning historian and history professor’s office in “The Niceties,” Eleanor Burgess’s timely and intelligently provocative play at McCarter Theater through Sunday, February 10.
Surrounding it are pictures of Nelson Mandela, Pancho Villa, Lech Walesa, and others who championed democracy in their native lands.
In a lecture, the historian, an expert in the American Revolution and revolution in general, states America was lucky to have Washington and Thomas Jefferson as two of its first three presidents.
An undergraduate disagrees. She says having Washington’s image offends her and makes her feel unwelcome and unsafe in the historian’s office and at the Ivy League university in which it is situated. Lauding Washington and Jefferson adds insult and a galling want of empathy to the wound her sensibility has sustained via the portrait.
She wants Washington removed from her presence and from the institution. She objects to what she regards as his patrimony and to him being revered as a hero when he was a holder of slaves.
Thus “The Niceties” puts a crucial controversy and conflict flaring today on stage.
The dialectic skirmish between teacher and student over Washington is only one example Burgess offers to exhibit the current and expanding gulf regarding the way American history is viewed and told, particularly when race, gender, sexual preference, age, generation, politics, and trigger issues figure into the telling.
The playwright deftly and serially sets up arguments and disagreements, some familiar, that lead to clashes and discord. While it may look as if she is broaching obvious and long-tread issues and quarrels, Burgess accomplishes exponentially more by placing intense, divergent attitudes before you so they can be examined, close up, with meticulous clarity and a shrewd way of giving both sides some due.
Equally significant, she addresses headier stuff than showing adversaries and their points of view at odds. “The Niceties” is an important play. It employs the simple tack of having philosophical opponents make recognizable cases while delving deeper into seminal issues.
That includes an historian’s need to authenticate assertions by reference to original and indisputable sources; and the virtue of civil discourse over emotional diatribe, uses and shifts of personal power, a difference between negotiated policy and shrill manifesto, a distinction between reasonable and unrealistic demands, the dividing line between justice and revenge, the palliative effect of compromise, today’s immediate means of stirring public opinion via social media, and wanton, perhaps reckless, use of threats.
It’s all there, swirling between and within the lines professor and undergraduate use to make their cases.
Revolution and its repercussions are at the core of the historian’s study. Burgess, in “The Niceties,” does no less than plainly show today’s cultural revolution in immediate action, including the effects it may have if emotion, unchecked populism, and the unrealistic hold sway.
The writing and presentation are more than rich. Burgess endows both of her characters with intelligence and the ability to make points worthy of discussion and further consideration. Though tension is always palpable, and extreme behavior by one character or another is feared, teacher and student exercise enough control to keep focus on ideas and attitudes being raised rather than becoming unduly temperamental or physically violent. Burgess also demonstrates skill in introducing characters’ personal traits, including ethnicity, into the story.
“The Niceties” encapsulates the debate America needs to have before basic standards erode to extinction, and sentimentality runs amok.
My only cavil with Burgess’s script is her providing too handy a reason why the student may be so committed to her stances and the belief they will attract a following. Youth, naivety, fervor, and untempered emotion seem motivation enough. Adding more, especially a concrete revelation fairly late in the proceedings, creates an excuse that mitigates and weakens what we see. It’s a softening that panders and protects more than it enhances.
In general, Burgess deserves a lot of congratulations for crafting a piece that is so needed and so smart. Director Kimberly Senior and the McCarter cast, Lisa Banes and Jordan Boatman, share those congratulations.
Senior’s production is taut and blessed with a tempo that gives both reasonable conversation and bitter enmity a chance to register. Senior’s clean staging leaves room for all that Burgess packs into “The Niceties” to come to light. It strikes the right notes to allow dialogue to do its job by never letting it seem as if the characters are playing verbal ping-pong, serving up a thought to be met with a rejoinder. Burgess’ words and the conflict they cause come across naturally via the canny acting of Banes and Boatman.
Lisa Banes is extraordinary in the way she keeps the historian poised, even when provoked or rattled, and ready to present a quiet, measured case.
Banes’ professor takes one bold, aggressive step, understandable in context, but in general combines cool reasonable expression with a warm, passionate regard for her work, herself, and the student she sincerely believes she is helping.
Jordan Boatman has an impressive knack for combining the student’s smug pride and confidence with a sense of humor. Her smirks are not all indications of contempt or a feeling she is the one in control of all situations. Boatman provides a sense that the student enjoys the confrontation and is genuinely amused even when she’s aware she’s walking into danger or about to erupt like an angry volcano. There’s a laugh in Boatman’s perceptive eyes that adds interest to her character.
The pictures of Washington, Mandela, Walesa, and Villa are all part of a handsome set by Cameron Anderson that uses a sharp-angled dormer, bright white paint, books on shelves and floors, and a marvelously carved, strategically placed window to create a setting that is both traditionally academic and contemporarily sophisticated.
Kara Harmon has a good eye for dressing both the historian and the student. D.M. Wood’s lighting subtly underscores moods.
The Niceties, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, February 10. $25 to $90. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.