You have to make it clear that I did that when I was in college,” says Ani — Anita — Rosskam about “The Party.” “I used to do drawings all the time when I went to Roosevelt parties. There were all these parties that used to happen. This was a wild ‘60s party and they were based on real people. I just made it. It was definitely a period piece. That really then had little to do with my own work.”
Rosskam says that work was selected for “Artists of Roosevelt” by curator Margaret O’Reilly, who saw it and thought it was fun (see page 22). “It’s just an observation of life foregone. (The figures) were all based on real people, including the young handsome alcoholic who was having affairs with everyone. All are not from Roosevelt; it was just from life. It was a party, a document of a moment. Everyone’s a character.”
The artist, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1952 and came to Roosevelt with her artist parents, Edwin and Louise, when she was two, recalls the town in the 1950s.
“It was vibrant, it was energetic,” Rosskam says. “Lots of different worlds going on. Great story tellers. Great senses of humor. There was a great group of artists and writers, and everyone overlapped on different levels. There were a lot of European Jewish garment workers. There was always this political edge and existential edge. They all came out of the war and what they observed.”
Despite Roosevelt’s reputation as a “Pinko” town, Rosskam says that not everyone in the town was liberal, and that there were people in town who would turn others in during the McCarthy era. But despite that, she says, “It was relaxed town. You could go in anyone’s house. It was very intimate town. People always cared about other people’s kids.”
They also cared about art and ideas. Says Rosskam, each of the talented artists in the show “was part of my parents’ personal life” and would regularly be visitors to their home. “It was stimulating,” she says.
She also grew up among other artists, especially Jonathan Shahn. “Johnny was like a brother. We’re still friends. He is a great artist.”
The atmosphere seems conducive to becoming attracted to the arts, and Rosskam says, “I have accidently fallen into things all my life. Which is sort of good and bad.”
Rosskam then thinks about her parents work and influences. “They did not think of their work as art. They did it as a job. There was purpose associated with it — more political and more self conscious.”
While her parents worked in partnership and were more interested in results than credit, Rosskam says a trained eye can sort out the photographer. “My father’s work has more an edge in what he observes and my mother could see was much more — she could identify and could extract the good in things. He pointed out what wasn’t: the tragedy of things. Not in all pictures, but he could have that edge.”
Rosskam says toward the end of her mother’s life, Louise Rosskam was discovered by the Library of Congress and asked to sort the images. “She was obsessed in getting it done. It was her personal recognition coming at the end of life. She was always the behind-the-scenes person. I think I am too.”
After attending the Roosevelt School — home of Ben Shahn’s famous New Jersey Homesteads mural — Rosskam went first to Hightstown High School, but says she felt alienated. “I couldn’t relate to Hightstown High School because Roosevelt was a different town. Attitudes were different.” She then attended Solebury School in New Hope, received a BA from the Tyler School of Art in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and moved to Boston, where she created art and eventually taught at the Boston Art Institute.
She says that she had mixed feelings about leaving the town of artists. “I was naive to think (life in Roosevelt) was what life was like elsewhere. Being in the artistic environment was like normalcy to me. Yet it was exiting to discover the ‘real’ world out there. Then there were lots of things I missed (about Roosevelt), but there were a lot of things to discover.”
One of the discoveries was her husband, Bill Leech. “I met him at Skowhegan (artist residency program) in Maine. He is a great painter. He’s a Midwestern. It was funny for him to come into this Jewish town. But the people were so great. He was so handsome, and he had that dry wit, hysterically funny. He can diffuse anything with his sense of humor. And he’s such a good artist. When I go in his studio, I understand why I’m there.”
After the two artists married, they decided to move to the New York City area, and like many of the Roosevelt artists before them found that the location provided the opportunity to work in one of the world’s major urban centers as well as live in a rural small town.
Like Rosskam’s parents the couple works on commercial artistic projects together through their company, Rosskam & Leech Murals. “We’ll work on things together on commercial work, not our personal work,” she says.
That commercial work includes commissions and historic restoration for individuals and public entities. Among their clients are the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services — for the State House and the State House Annex — and the Old Barracks in Trenton.
While they are serious and accomplished artists and artisans, Rosskam says they are lacking on some self-promotion. “We don’t record a lot of works. We have always thought art was more important than our survival. If we just concentrated on our work world, we would have been more famous than we are. I did stuff for Robert Mapplethorpe. I painted marbleizing columns in New York City and custom stenciling for Mike Nichols, Diane Sawyer.” She adds that she also works with architects, including Michael Graves. “I would color consult. I would do murals and finishings, renderings, and (architecture) models.”
While self-promotion may be an afterthought, staying current is always on their minds. “We had to reinvent ourselves so many times that now we can do many things. We had to develop ways to make a living. Our skills are in the arts. It’s becoming harder because a lot of things are done by computer. We have gotten into textile design and all aspects of design. Just to keep up is exhausting,” she says.
Despite the day art job, there is the personal pursuit of creating collages and paintings. “I always did my own art. It wasn’t the forefront on how I portray myself because I did commercial work. The personal art was what I did to (personally) survive. It is like nutrition.”
In response to a question about finding her personal voice in a community of artists, Rosskam says that it was it was no harder than any other young artist, but being around artists gave her an insight. “Everyone tries on different hats. You have your influences. And it’s a process of elimination until you find our own (voice). I saw people who had gone through the process. For me I saw it as a struggle, but I saw it as normal. People take a real risk to leave familiarity, which is being artist.”
After reflecting a moment, she talks about the urge to continue developing and overcoming self-perceived limits. “You do have doubt. I personally do. Any artist has self-doubt in their work. If they didn’t they wouldn’t keep going. It keeps you going to the next piece. You’re trying to reach something.”
That something for her is something “more intuitive than planned. I don’t know what I am doing until I’m done.”
It is also something individual for both artists who work independently and as partners on the commercial projects where they “speak the same language” and “throw around ideas and designs” and more. “We’ve thrown a few cans of paint. We have our own points of view; we have to prove to one another why were right. We have to argue your point and who ever makes the best argument. It’s not so much arguing it’s to show one another,” she says.
Rosskam says that Roosevelt, like the rest of the world, has changed over time. The original people are gone, other long-time members of the community grow older, and others move in, attracted to the town as a bedroom community. But, she says, there is still “a lively arts community of writers, musicians, theater, and visual artists,” and cites the Roosevelt Arts Project — including the organization’s photography exhibition in Roosevelt on Saturday and Sunday, April 5 and 6, and music concerts on Friday and Saturday, May 9 and 10.
Her 22-year-old son, Jack, is also part of the new artistry in the town. “He is definably into producing and composing music. He grew up growing on art openings and museums. He used to go to these openings. And one day he said that he wanted his own opening, cleaned out the garage, and invited people over. He took over the garage. And he goes into the garage and works. He’s instilled in himself to make a living. We don’t believe that you can be a self-supporting artist. It’s nearly impossible.”
While eras and people change, something remains and Rosskam says, “Roosevelt is a place that is very welcoming of anyone who wants to do whatever they want. If you want to be an artist, it’s very welcoming.”
So is the exhibition at the New Jersey State Museum — where visitors can join the party.
Artists of Roosevelt, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Tuesday through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Through Sunday, May 25. $5 suggested admission. 609-292-6464 or www.nj.gov/state/museum. rosskamleechmurals.com. anirosskam.com.
Roosevelt Arts Project: A Moment in Time, Assifa Space, 40 Tamara Drive, Roosevelt. Photography by current and former Roosevelt residents. Saturday and Sunday, April 5 and 6, noon to 5 p.m.
Roosevelt String Band, Borough Hall, 33 North Rochdale Avenue, Roosevelt. Friday and Saturday, May 9 and 10, 8 p.m. music.columbia.edu/roosevelt/index.html.