There are several similarities between the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie and the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Each is housed in an historic building (Ellarslie in an Italianate villa designed by John Notman and the Michener in a former Quaker prison), each has its roots in a significant collection representative of the cultural heritage of the region (Trenton pottery, Bucks County Impressionism), and both continue to exhibit contemporary regional artists while paying homage to their roots.
Two new exhibits, “Bruce Katsiff: 50 Years — Looking Back & Forward” and “Face Maps: Explorations in Shape, Space and Soul,” on view September 23 through November 12, with an opening reception on Saturday, September 23, from 6 to 9 p.m., reveal yet another relationship between the two institutions on opposite sides of the river. Joan Perkes, president of the board of trustees at Ellarslie, and Bruce Katsiff, the Michener’s director and CEO from 1989 to 2012, have a friendship that began nearly half a century ago.
It was 1970, Perkes says, when she was running a small gallery in New Hope and Philadelphia. “Bruce came in and told me he was a photographer,” says Perkes. “I told him I just sell paintings and sculpture, and he said his fine art photography had been reviewed in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and I said ‘OK, I guess I’m showing photographs.’”
Both Perkes and Katsiff, and their respective spouses, moved to Lumberville, Pennsylvania. Perkes was a subject in a photo essay Katsiff made about the riverside Bucks County community and went on to co-found the New Hope-Solebury Community School with Katsiff’s wife, Joane, and AnneMarie Torres, but then “we took different paths in the art world.”
At the helm of the Michener, Katsiff would often describe his job as being like Robin Hood, giving from the rich to poor artists. He said he had never known an artist to literally starve — they usually get jobs teaching or working in museums. That was the path Katsiff took, both as chair of the art and music department at Bucks County Community College, and then during his 25-year tenure at the Michener.
The three components of the Katsiff retrospective are “Nature Morte,” “Historic Taxidermy,” and “Mysterious Bucks County,” and his work forms the starting point for Face Maps, an exhibit of sculpture and photography. In “Face Maps: Explorations in Shape, Space and Soul,” Katsiff’s photography shares the stage with five sculptors — Contance Bassett, Harry Georgeson, Isabel Borgatta, Stacie Speer Scott, and Nick Pan — whose explorations in bronze, stone, terracotta, and wood explore the inward journey.
Katsiff calls his images “directorial,” in that he creates the subject by gathering and arranging objects or by manipulating the digital image to build his own visual universe.
“Over the years photography has served as my personal psychiatrist, a private tool to help me understand and interact with the world,” says the Philadelphia resident. “My pictures are always personal. They explore changing issues that, at their best, mix together ideas from my conscious and unconscious mind. I am compelled to photograph subject matter that is challenging and uncomfortable, rejecting the ever-present temptation to make ‘pretty pictures.’ My hope is that my photographs will offer the viewer images that are unique and impactful, even if they may at times be disturbing.”
In 1983 Katsiff became fascinated with the carcass of a deer he found decaying in the woods across from his Lumberville home. He began to photograph the deer as it melted into the earth. This led to the series “Nature Morte.” “As the work progressed I brought my subjects into the studio and constructed environments to be photographed. For me the creatures that I record reveal the structure beneath the surface. Many of my subjects are not born until the death of their hosts. I find great beauty in animal bones and fur. When the smoothness and finish of the outer body surface is removed, the forms underneath hint at the mystery of life.”
For the “Face Maps” series, he digitally stitches together individual photographs to present multiple views of a face. The scale and detail offer a voyeuristic view of the human face, as if it has been fractured through a prism and reconstructed.
A small sample from his current work, “Historic Taxidermy,” is exhibited for the first time. Working in the studio Katsiff arranges and records decaying taxidermy that has been hidden in museum storage vaults, unseen for decades. “These large-scale color prints marvel at the colors and forms of animals whose embalmed and posed bodies still convey an original splendor only partially diminished by the pathos found in their faces and current condition,” he writes in the exhibition catalog.
The son of a Philadelphia butcher and a seamstress, Bruce Katsiff found a personal connection to photography at Central High, working in the darkroom and on the student newspaper and for the literary magazine. He fondly recalls the quality art teachers there, noting that legendary artists Thomas Eakins and William Glackens graduated from Central High. Katsiff’s very first exhibit, when he was 17, was at the Guilded Cage Coffee House in Philadelphia.
To please his parents, Katsiff entered the pre-law program at Penn State, but soon left to work in the photo lab at Brooklyn-based Abraham & Strauss department store’s advertising department, commuting by motor scooter to a one-room apartment with a shared bath in the hall and a hotplate hidden under the bed.
He went on to study photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, earned an MFA at Pratt Institute, where he minored in ceramics (“I always loved to play in the mud”), and did postgraduate work at Oxford University. In 1968, while at RIT, one of his works was selected by Museum of Modern Art Curator of Photography Peter Bunnell for the exhibition “Photography as Printmaking.” Katsiff, then 22, met photographer Edward Steichen at the opening in New York City.
Two years later, the New York Times compared Katsiff to Franz Kline and Willem DeKooning, saying his prints “could easily be enlarged to mural size without losing effectiveness.” He has exhibited internationally, including at the Tainjan Institute, China; American Arts Center, Exeter, England; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; and Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The path Perkes took was “working with artists in a different way,” she says. “I wanted to be out and about. My skill set was marketing and the ability to understand where an artist is going. As a gallerist I would guide them.” She exhibited her artists at art fairs, “and we had galleries all over the country.”
“I’m an instinctive person,” says Perkes. “Things come to me in patterns and pictures. I enjoy meeting people.”
Also a Philadelphia native, Perkes earned a bachelor of arts degree at Temple University. “I knew early on I had an esthetic bent, studying poetry at nine years old,” she says. Through a family friend who was a collector of painter George Ennis “I began to see the possibilities.” She went to Europe in 1967 to study at Scuola Dante Alighieri for a year, and when she returned she took the gallery director job through which she met Katsiff.
Perkes reconnected with Katsiff in 2011 when Herman Silverman invited her to open his Bucks County gallery. Silverman, a founding director of the Michener, was a close associate of Katsiff’s.
Getting involved with Ellarslie, says Perkes, was an accident. Former Ellarslie trustee Joseph Longino, whom Perkes met at the Bucks Gallery of Fine Art in Newtown, Pennsylvania, invited her to curate a show. (She has curated four shows at Ellarslie from March, 2014, to September, 2016.)
She was invited to join, and then chair, the exhibitions committee, for which she had to join the board of trustees. She rose quickly to vice president and assumed her post as president in January of this year.
A Solebury, Pennsylvania, resident, Perkes is excited about Trenton and the possibilities for the museum. “I have developed a love affair with the city, the museum, and the trustees,” she says. “I’m captivated with Trenton’s history and the keepers of the flame, and honored and proud to be here, doing what I love. My 50 years experience weaves together within the parameters of the mission.” Perkes, wearing a bold printed scarf and chunky jewelry, is a youthful 70.
“Some art has an immediate message,” she says. “Some is more everlasting.” When she chooses work for a show, she brings it home to see what it says to her. And when she visits an artist’s studio, she always asks to see the early work, both to see if there is inventory and to see the trajectory.
“Art has a sound,” she says. “Picking the artist and the art is important, but how you hang the show is the final composition. I hear it in my head.”
Among the challenges she faces at the helm of Ellarslie’s board of trustees are the financial ones. “Money is always an issue,” she says. “But the city has been as supportive as can be and tries to help us where they can. They sponsored a concert in the park this summer, and it was so nice to see museum members, trustees, and committee members sitting outside with attendees.” One goal is to better connect Ellarslie with Cadwalader Park, in which it is located — the summer exhibition on the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park and its history was one effort in that direction.
“We need to clearly define our needs,” says Perkes. “When you feel strongly and convey enthusiasm and vision, people can hear it and see it. We would like to be self-sufficient with the city as a partner.”
The museum has been without a director for a year. “When the director left it might have been a difficult moment, but instead it unleashed a creative energy among the trustees. Our trustees are powerful and intelligent people with strong points of view. They give so generously of their time and do so out of passion, driven by community service. We are looking to take our ideas in a form that moves us forward. The museum is on a wonderful trajectory, and the trustees feel it too.
“I’m very interested in long-term sustainability,” Perkes continues. “Without the financial foundation, it’s hard to grow.” Perkes hints at a “big idea” that is forming, but it’s too soon to talk about.
For both the Katsiff retrospective and “Face Maps,” Perkes has put together catalogs. She was able to secure sponsors for the catalogs. “The goal is for every show to make money. We do this through sponsorship and through lectures and other events to which we charge admission.”
The “ask” is the most difficult part, she admits. To this end she has been spending time getting to know community members and looking at ways to partner that will enhance both organizations and allow each to maintain its identity. The romance of the building and how it lives in people’s memories goes a long way toward engendering community support, she says. “You fall in love with what goes on here, and it catches you off guard. I see great things for this museum.”
Bruce Katsiff: 50 Years — Looking Back & Forward and Face Maps: Explorations in Shape, Space and Soul, Trenton City Museum, Ellarslie Mansion, Cadwalader Park, Parkside and Stuyvesant avenues, Trenton. September 23 through November 12.
Free opening reception Saturday, September 23, 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 3 p.m. Pay what you will admission. 609-989-1191 or www.ellarslie.org.