“Must be something in the water,” Crossroads Theater producer Ricardo Khan told me after the 1985 world premiere of Trenton playwright William Mastrosimone’s “Tamer of Horse” — which I was reviewing for the Times of Trenton.
Khan was talking metaphorically, but he was emphatic that something was going on in Trenton that was making an artistic difference.
After all, in addition to Mastrosimone — who had written the hot New York play “Extremities” — there was a list that included the internationally known playwright and poet Ntozake Shange, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cristofer, and nationally known playwright Don Evans who inspired the creation of Crossroads and developed the Players Company in Trenton (and is also the father of internationally known Trenton-born jazz pianist Orrin Evans).
But it wasn’t just the stage. There was world famous pianist-composer George Antheil who became a sensation when he took Trenton to Paris and collaborated with poets James Joyce and William Butler Yeats.
Filmmaker Amy Robinson put Trenton on the screen with “Baby It’s You” and Zalman King heated it up with “Two Moon Junction” and “Wild Orchards.”
And innovative television pioneer Ernie Kovacs brought Trenton humor to the world.
So what about these artistic waters? Several artists readily dove in when asked about it.
One is the late internationally known Trenton alto sax jazz performer Richie Cole, who created the soulful and playful big band composition called “Trenton Style.”
When asked to explain the idea of a Trenton style, Cole told me Trenton style has “a certain sound. When you hear it, you know it. It is the sound of Trenton, New Jersey. It’s a mood thing. When you hear it, you can picture Trenton. It’s a mellow, sexy sound between Philadelphia and New York. When you hear it, you say ‘that sounds like Trenton.’”
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Trenton resident Yusef Komunyakaa, who was born in Louisiana and came to Trenton after he joined the faculty at Princeton University in 1997 (he now teaches at New York University), has his own personal riff on the capital city.
“Trenton became an anchor of the past for me,” he told me a few years ago. “It seemed that there’s a southern enclave here. I think a lot has to do with the rituals and how people interact with one another. I started thinking about the great migration — and I felt slightly at home. The other reason that I ended up here in Trenton was that (novelist and Princeton University faculty member) Russell Banks told me that he wished he had purchased a place in Trenton instead of Princeton. I think that says something of the artist in him. Here there are down-to-earth-people — which is the blues.”
From his West State Street home, the poet continued to share his thoughts on his adopted city. “Trenton is interesting. There is something. The history of the place fascinates me. The culture and the great potential fascinate me even more. I think there’s a little enclave that people are waiting to discover. One of the collections that I’m writing is called ‘The Country Across the River,’ and I think it’s about Trenton. I’m slowly discovering what the essence of that is. I think it’s going to take me a little while to write that collection.
“I think what happens is that we internalize a landscape, and that’s how we view the rest of the world, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. There’s something that seems as if I have been here before. I lived in a small town, and that’s one appeal. I wish I had I had known what (Trenton) was like earlier.
“There’s also an element of the blues here. I hear it. I don’t know why, because the Delaware is not the Mississippi. I hear an element of the blues, this yearning for what is to become as well as for what was there. It’s that beckoning. The foundation exists, but also the dreaming. That’s what it is all about. I call it ‘extended possibility.’ It’s great when artists begin to see it.”
Nationally known visual artist Mel Leipzig said recently that moving from his native New York City to Trenton “was one of the best things I did. There was nothing to do here. Just paint. I could just do my own thing. It is so comfortable to paint here because you do anything you want to do.”
Leipzig, whose work is in major collections and who has interacted with some of the major artists of the 20th century, said, “There were so many artists in New York, and you were friends with so many people and hear all their opinions — there were so many influences that have nothing to do with you. In New York (artists) are so intense in dragging you into their way of thinking. Here I was able to work at my own rate and do what I wanted to do.”
Yet Trenton’s proximity to other cities and the art world in general was a benefit. “Because I was near New York I could go in and see shows and I could go into Philadelphia — they have good shows. But I could do things that expressed me, what I was interested in doing.”
A retired professor of art at Mercer County Community College who lives in Trenton’s Glen Afton neighborhood, Leipzig said, “A lot of things I ended up painting had to do with this city. And because I was so obsessive I ended up painting my students, the teachers, and people at my college — I’m the only person who painted the cafeteria.”
About his art he added, “I don’t consider myself an imaginative painter. I find reality unbelievably fascinating. I think I have a unique approach — I’m not a realist.”
After saying, “I must paint people,” Leipzig added that “besides the subject matter, it’s the way I approach painting. I approach figure painting in a way that the background is important. That excites me. The way, they interact with their backgrounds.”
“I love Trenton,” he continued. “I think it gave me the freedom to go into myself. There is a precedent. In order to become a great painter Cezanne left Paris and went to the south of France to develop his style.”
After accessing some of the city’s characteristics and thinking about the history of art, Leipzig said, “It is between being a country town and a city town — it is also the state capital. And it really has as many people as did (ancient) Athens — you can only have culture in a city.
Thinking about his recent art — where he readily replaces soft blue skies for bold oranges and reds — he said, “I was influenced by (Trenton’s) graffiti artists. As I was painting them, everything started changing. And I would not have known the graffiti artists if I was in New York. I really respect them tremendously.”
One of those artists, Leon Rainbow, has his own thoughts on the subject. “Being between being New York and Philadelphia has been good. We have brought people from both places to Trenton and learned. Trenton is a great blend of New York and Philadelphia and New Jersey. It’s like a melting pot in that aspect.”
Rainbow said one of the factors that helped him was that “Trenton was real open — partially because of the issues it has. We were able to have a lot of freedom. We would get permission to paint and people seemed to like it. The politicians liked it. The city has always been accepting of us.”
He summed it up by saying that one of the things that has worked for him is “people really being open to allow you to be creative.”
That includes fellow artists. “There was also some healthy competition. (Artist Will) Kasso would do a great wall, then I’d want to do a great wall. Then there were some competitions and projects, Art All Night, and the Punk Rock Flea Markets.”
He said the desire to find “our own style” was important. “New York and Philadelphia have their own things — and everyone pisses on New Jersey. But at the same time it gives us that chip on the shoulder that makes us what to prove something. And that is good.”
Asked to explain the style, Rainbow said, “There is something that is indescribable. There is a lot of positivity and negativity we struggle through. But greatness comes through struggle, and that’s part of it. You have a lot creative people who are doing stuff and people. You get a wide range of emotions that you get to pull from, and I pull from both negative and positive experience. I definitely feel like there’s some sort of special sauce.”
One that includes that metaphorical Trenton water.