When thinking about the Princeton Artists Alliance, it is impossible to stop the oft-recounted Margaret Mead quote from running through your head: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”
Ever since 1989, this group of 20 artists has been meeting monthly to discuss their work, challenge each other to stretch, enjoy stimulating conversation and camaraderie, and organize exhibitions that challenge the viewer to see the world in a more enlightened way. And by changing the way we see the world, we may be inspired to take action that will lead to change. Many PAA members are educators, so there is a strong intellectual component to the conversations.
The Arts Council of Princeton is celebrating 25 years of the PAA with an exhibition opening Saturday, October 11, from 3 to 5 p.m., and artwork on view through Wednesday, November 26.
But it doesn’t stop after 25. PAA’s newest exhibition, “America Through Artists’ Eyes” at the New Jersey State Museum, opens Saturday, October 25. And “Abbott Marshlands: More than Meets the Eye,” on view at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie through Sunday, November 16, includes work by many PAA artists and is a sort of continuation of their 2006 exhibition on the marsh.
When thinking about all the themes PAA has taken on, it is also impossible to not ponder, “Think global, act local.” Exhibitions have centered on themes of the environment and land preservation to politics, literature, and who we are in the world today. And while the theme of the Arts Council exhibition is the anniversary, PAA’s concerns about the environment show up in just about every work.
Twenty-five years ago, Charles McVicker — a professor emeritus at the College of New Jersey and former illustrator, known for his almost photo-realistic landscapes, in which each rock tells a story — longed to be part of a group like the impressionists who gathered in Parisian cafes or the abstract expressionists who held forth at New York’s Cedar Tavern — a scene depicted by sculptor Red Grooms in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum. “I wanted to talk to other artists and didn’t know too many,” McVicker says.
He and his wife, Lucy Graves McVicker, also an artist, invited Princeton printmakers and painters Marie Sturken, Margaret Kennard Johnson, Joanne Scott, and Jane Eccles to discuss the idea of a group. Each created a list of 10 artists, and they compared and reviewed the list to create their group of 20. “More than that would be unwieldy,” says McVicker.
“In the beginning, we found an empty store in Forrestal Village and covered the mirrors with Homasote to have an exhibit,” says McVicker. Their second exhibition was in a model home — Charles’ painting was hung in the bathroom.
“Then we got the idea to do themed shows and moved up to bigger and better galleries. Susan Hockaday came up with the idea to do Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ inspired by Robert Fagles’ new translation,” he says. “Homer’s Odyssey: Interpreted by the Princeton Artists Alliance” was exhibited at the Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb in 1999, then went on to the Newark Museum, the College of New Jersey, the Foundation of Hellenic Culture, Franklin & Marshall College, the Noyes Museum, and in the lobby gallery of Deutsche Bank in New York.
PAA was on to something!
Though written more than 2,500 years ago, “The Odyssey” contains universal themes that still are relevant today: the aftermath of a war that takes a toll on the victors as well as the vanquished. “This examination tells us a lot about the ancient Greeks, but also a lot about ourselves,” wrote Dr. Fred Mench, professor of Greek culture and classical studies at Richard Stockton College, in the forward to the exhibition catalog at the Noyes.
M. Teresa Lapid Rodrigues, director/curator, George Segal Gallery at Montclair State University, describes the artists as expressionists because of their “very personal and passionate articulation, but without the angst or gestural fire common to the American abstract expressionism of the 1950s. Theirs is a neo-expressionism of the figurative type with painterly quality, acutely skill-oriented, definitely environmentally friendly, inventive in concepts and materials, and many with intense messages.”
About half a decade later, PAA exhibited “Visions and Voice” at the New Jersey State Museum, in which artists responded to works of poetry and poets responded to works of art. That exhibit was later reprised at the Brodsky Center Gallery at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick.
Another themed show to start at Bristol-Myers Squibb and travel beyond was “Marsh Meditations” in 2006. The marsh — then called the Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh — has recently been renamed the Abbott Marshlands. Rider University biology professor emerita Mary Leck, who spearheaded the preservation of the marsh, led PAA members through the 1,250-acre tidal site, with its more than 230 bird and 550 plant species. Their artistic response helped to create greater awareness of the ecological treasure along the Delaware.
At the time, curator Kate Somers said, “I am thrilled to see what I consider some of the best work of these artists’ careers. A lot of the artists pushed themselves this time with different materials.”
Madelaine Shellaby, who often works in digital format, painted “Leaving the Marsh,” a large canvas of birds that inhabit the marsh: a swan, an owl, an osprey, a heron, an eagle, a red-winged blackbird, a sparrow, and a seagull.
“The notion of extinction is what I was thinking of when I titled my painting ‘Leaving the Marsh’ — hence the darkness towards which they are flying,” she said at the time. “I almost titled it ‘Odd Flock,’ because of course in nature these different birds would not fly together. Hopefully, the attention that is once again being paid to the marsh might indeed have some favorable effect on the habitat.”
Shellaby’s accordion-folded book, “Bonaparte in Bordentown: Earlier Times in the Hamilton-Trenton Marsh,” told the story of how Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, came to the U.S. after the family was banished from France and built a group of houses overlooking the Bordentown bluffs. It uses digitally printed, crisp photos showing natural vistas in the marsh against a sewage waste drain, gum wrappers, rusting car parts, and a cyclone fence.
“This tidal marsh — where dragonflies love to lay their eggs, where the fish hide out in the pickerel weed, and where fertile plants that grow there feed fish in the Delaware Bay — is a truly fragile environment, an environment in which every species is dependent on another for its survival,” wrote Lucy Graves McVicker for the exhibition. She used acrylic, rice paper, colored pencils, twine, and marsh reeds to show the “Fragile Connections” at daybreak, noon, dusk, and nightfall.
A similar exhibition, responding to the Pine Barrens, was held at the Noyes Museum. The environmental theme continued in an exhibit at D&R Greenway last year, about the effects of Hurricane Sandy, and returns in “Abbott Marshlands.”
In 2007 PAA exhibited “Crossing Cultures” at the Princeton Public Library, an exchange with Princeton’s sister city, Colmar, France. The cities became sisters in 1987, and since then delegations from each have traveled to the other, including students, athletes, singers, and artists.
Spearheaded by then-PAA President Hetty Baiz, the project involved each artist creating a work to fit into a book that celebrates the relationship with Colmar. A group of PAA delegates went to present the book to Colmar at the Salon du livre. It is on permanent loan to the Princeton Public Library.
Also under Baiz’s leadership was “The Artist’s Eye,” exhibited at the Arts Council’s Paul Robeson Center, in which PAA members responded to artwork in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum.
For upcoming “America,” artists were asked to define and depict the nation in a visual reflection of their personal ideology, style, and convictions. Curator of fine arts Margaret O’Reilly supplemented the work by PAA artists with others such as Leon Rainbow, Will “Kasso” Condry, artists of the A-Team, Siona Benjamin, Ela Shah, and others. The exhibition is dedicated to former PAA member Nancy Lee Kern who initiated the concept for the show. She died in the spring of this year.
PAA leadership is rotating — everyone gets to serve as president or chair (even the title changes), and committees are responsible for hanging, publicity, and coming up with ideas for exhibitions.
Looking to the future, McVicker says PAA would like to recruit younger members. “We are looking not only for the quality of the work, but for a type that might add something to the group,” he says.
“We are looking for people who will contribute to the goals of the group and share and inspire each other,” says Shellaby, who joined 20 years ago. Shellaby served as co-chair with former member Ruane Miller, when the group held its meetings at the Montgomery Center for the Arts.
“In my work as artist and curator, it’s helpful to know these people and the work they do,” says Shellaby. “It’s a group of a certain stature, and we have been able to share ideas about art in general. In grad school you have a built-in network, but mid-career you need an organization where you can still connect with a larger network of artists. Artists are isolated in their studios.”
“Because we focus on themed exhibits, it pushes us to go beyond our comfort level to explore topics and themes,” says Baiz. “It has created breakthroughs in my work. You get a sense of angst when you have to respond to a theme that doesn’t resonate. You do research, you problem solve, you engage in creative experimentation. You can get stuck in a way of working that you just repeat.”
Her breakthrough came shortly after she joined PAA and had to work on “The Odyssey.” “I read the book, and a passage resonated, when Odysseus returns after 20 years and finds his home filled with men pursuing his wife. Her suitors in his own home had young women they were cavorting with. He murders them and hangs the women. I thought of doing something abstract, but realized I had to do one of these women murdered by Odysseus. That’s when I started doing body collages, using my body for imprints in collage.”
What, in turn, does PAA offer to the community? “The group keeps art in the forefront, and it’s part of the vitality of the Princeton area, making sure there’s always a conversation about art — exploring the meaning, untangling subject matter for an enlivening experience,” says Shellaby. “For example, the ‘America’ show explores who we are as Americans.”
“I doubt many communities are as fortunate in having such a serious, vibrant, and enduring artists’ group like the PAA,” says curator Somers. “While each artist works independently, the group also works together to raise awareness on important cultural and environmental issues, such as how to preserve our unique landscape for the next generation to enjoy as we do.”
“A number of us have been involved in the Art for Healing initiative at the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro and Capital Health, both through their art acquisition programs and galleries,” says Baiz. “Art has been shown to contribute to the healing process as it can direct attention away from pain and suffering to something beautiful and uplifting.”
Over the years, PAA has seen members come and go, for various reasons. The catalog for the ACP exhibition includes the names of 22 past members. There has been one group, MOVIS, that formed from several former PAA members (Maggi Johnson remains a member of both groups). And other groups have formed with PAA as a model.
“Not too many art groups hang together for 25 years,” says McVicker. “The glue is we’ve become friends. We value watching each other’s work and we influence one another — we’re friends and competitors. The competition forces us to do our best.”
Princeton Artists Alliance: 25 Years, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Opens with a reception on Saturday, October 11, 3 to 5 p.m. Continues Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Wednesday, November 26. Free. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.
America Through Artists’ Eyes, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Opens with a reception on Sunday, October 26, 2 to 5 p.m. (RSVP requested before Friday, October 17, to email@example.com), and continues Tuesdays through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., through Saturday, April 5. Suggested admission $5. 609-292-6464 or www.nj.gov/state/museum.
Abbott Marshlands: More than Meets the Eye, Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Trenton. Continues Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays 1 to 4 p.m., through Sunday, November 16. Free. 609-989-1191 or www.ellarslie.org.