‘It’s a stressful time,” says Trenton-based artist, journalist, and freelance communication specialist Lauren Otis. “This is the final week to sign artists up for Art All Day. We’re trying to piece together that network of artists.”
Art All Day — set for Saturday, November 9, from noon to 5 p.m. — is a lively afternoon of capital city open artist studios, open gallery exhibitions, and arts events that Otis — a 25-year resident of the city — spearheads through Artworks, the non-profit arts center of which Otis is a board member and sometimes project coordinator.
“Art All Day is close to my heart,” says Otis, who launched the initial event last November. “There is a lot of creativity in Trenton that people on the outside don’t see. When (attendees) show up and see all these creative young people, it is very heartening. There’s a lot going on. One day never gets you seeing everything, but art all day is just one day, and it gives people one taste of what is going on and people will come back and see more.”
That tastes include the participation of more than 70 area artists throughout the city, Trenton Art Trolley Rides, bicycle art tours, maps for guided studio tours, the Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market, and opportunities to see artists at work, including graffiti and street artists Will Kasso and Leon Rainbow, the AbOminOg Arts Collective’s iron pouring, and nationally recognized Trenton-based painter Mel Leipzig painting on site at the New Jersey State Museum. The afternoon concludes with reception for participating artists and visitors, among whom will be this reporter, at Artworks from 5 to 8 p.m.
The event will also invites visitors to Otis’ studio in the old Polish Falcon’s Hall on Cass Street, a building he owns with fellow Trenton-based artist Andrew Wilkinson.
In his second-floor work area — surrounded by vacuum tube radios, black and white photographs, and out-of-date recording devices — Otis talks about Art All day and his own work.
Although the technology and the early 20th-century club room — equipped with an old kitchen and men’s and women’s rooms — are dated, it is clear that the artist is willing to embrace new technology, as demonstrated by his website, www.alchemicalprojects.com.
“The website is a very personal website and it is part of me,” says Otis. So is the reference to alchemy.
“My business card says ‘Alchemical Projects — Creating projects out of thin air,’” Otis says. “I like creating ideas out of nothing. An idea hatches in the mind and winds up on the wall or written page that has value and substance.”
“I have had a lifelong interest in alchemy — which I think is misunderstood — but it actually encompasses knowledge and spirituality and faith. There are these building blocks that you use to create something golden, if not gold. It’s like Trenton, where we want to make something,” he says. “The life of the mind can be transformative. I love discussing ideas and cool concepts.”
Alchemy and artistry are connected, says Otis. “Artists take cool concepts and thrust them before us and make us contemplate. They can be uncomfortable or be part of our lives.”
Otis says he creates artistic alchemy using four sources that have played a part in his life: liquid, visuals, sound, and words.
“I left my job at the Princeton Packet to work at a New Jersey winery,” says Otis when asked about liquid and art. Initially it was full-time position at Unionville Winery in Ringoes, but now it is part-time administration and sales at Hopewell Valley Vineyards. At both locations, he was exposed to the transformation of one substance to another, a process that connects to the creation of art and the concept of transcendence.
“Wine or spirits are fraught with meaning absolutely. I think in America people associate them with negative aspects. Alcohol is a disinfectant and preservative, and our society may not have flourished without alcohol. I grew up in a family that enjoyed food and wine, so I think it is part of me. And I think the process of distilling is a fascinating process, where something evaporates and re-condenses as a new substance. Before prohibition Americans had a weird relationship to alcohol. I find it is a pleasurable thing to partake in and an intellectual part of our life,” he says.
Regarding his visual art work, Otis says, “I have been a photographer since I was in grade school. In high school it was probably in ninth grade when I started working in a dark room, so I have been developing my pictures from an early age. It is wonderful to see the images appear from nothing.”
The interest in photography continued after he moved to Trenton in 1989. It was, he says, part of way of meeting the city. “I was pretty much a photographer, going through all sorts of neighbors and meeting all kinds of people. I still take plenty of photographs and consider my photography, but my work evolved to create street portraits.” He also began kayaking and taking photos of the city and the bridges.
Then there was a two-step transformation from taking photographs to making art from photographs or photo-based art. “When I was at the Princeton Packet I got to my desk and there was a box full of ancient headshots; I was discarding them and saw that they were real prints and brought the boxes home.”
Around the same time Otis visited the Asia Society in New York City and viewed a show by the Vietnamese-American artist Din Q Lee, who, Otis says, “first opened my eyes to the possibilities for physically weaving multiple photo images together.” Din noted that his inspiration came from his mother’s weaving.
Otis says that the box of corporate headshots presented both a resource to use and an artistic concept to explore. “Corporate headshots have a reason for being — to show them in their best corporate light. (The subject) may have a different life outside of business that you don’t see, but they need to be seen as conservative,” he says. It is from that point that he began to experiment with both the image and the medium.
The initial art work was, he says, “regimented and then became nuttier and abstract.” On his website, Otis notes that “In weaving together many old headshots, a new person emerges, or is released. Eerie, haunting, complicated, maybe even human underneath that drab suit.”
The effect of each piece was enhanced by a title that incorporated regular business jargon, such as “Win Win,” “Synergy,” “Outside the Box,” “Team Building, and “Fast Track.” “It was taking the language and images of this realm and kind of turning them on their head, inverting them if not subverting them,” says Otis of the works that were exhibited at Gallery 125 and Artworks in Trenton, and even at the Mercer County Chamber of Commerce.
Another photo series focuses on the “ghosts” of Trenton architecture. “I love the old infrastructure of the buildings, and I would take black and white portraits of the buildings and hand-tint them. I like the idea of hand-tinting the gritty city. As some of the buildings got renovated I would pair the portrait with the repairs, like a before and after.”
In addition to working with visuals, Otis works with sound, examples of which can be found on his website. “I always loved music and love ambient sound. We are all used to listening on a park lawn and listening to the birds. Moving in the sound realm, expand the art. I love sound pieces.”
However, the process is more difficult than it . . . well . . . sounds. “I kind of chip away at making them. They tend to be more involved in creating them and creating what you want,” he says.
One recent piece is “Unchained Sound Piece,” made for an exhibition of art work inspired by bicycles. “It is pretty straight up. Riding a bicycle can be a great group experience, but when you are riding on your own you are in a zone of awareness, and that kind of evaporates when you get to your destination. I wanted to create a record of that driving through the city. People have told me that it is a very calming experience listening to it, in a very Zen way, although there are some non-Zen things such as people cursing you off.”
Word art, he says, was the next visual step, “moving into the realm of word art the concept of words and fonts guiding us. I became obsessed with typewriters and the idea that there is an echo in our society. I started making videos and text pieces with typewriter fonts.”
To realize the exact feeling and tone of the fonts, Otis worked with Hopewell-based David Sellers, who through his Pied Oxen Printers works with artists on the production of original graphic art. “I continued to do text pieces, but, and I don’t know how it happened, I then moved into visual art again. I call them color control bars: a series of identical shapes yet imbued with colors.”
Otis is a talking about the chromatic bar codes — tiny colored squares — found on packages, everything from Scott toilet tissue to Brooklyn Brewery beer. “It’s a commercial language,” he says. “The New York Times code is the first one I noticed, and then I saw them everywhere. If people only appreciate them as abstractions, that’s cool. I think they’re visually appealing. But then if they make the next step and look at their packaging more closely — how much energy and expense to put that packaging before them, it will serve a social purpose.”
“Being in tuned to our environment is important, and artists attune to things that we don’t see otherwise. The next step I am completing is creating my own visual language inspired by commercial codes,” he says.
The codes, along with his photos, sound pieces, and graphics, will all be part of his Art All Day studio offerings, as well as some new city-inspired art.
Of his interest in cities, Otis says, “I was born outside of Detroit. When I was three years old my family moved to New York City. I think — as a teenager in the 1970s — that I formed my affinity for adventure in New York and never lost.”
His introduction to the New Jersey’s capital city came by train, while studying English literature, physics, and art history at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (from 1977 to 1981). “I would go back to visit my parents and on the train ride I would see Trenton; it never made much of an impression, although I wrote short stories and wrote one about Trenton.” To do so, he got off the train and took a walk to the Delaware River, experiencing the city for the first time.
In the late 1980s Otis had returned to New York City and was living with Debbie Osgood, who decided to take a portfolio and assessment management position with Merrill Lynch in Princeton. “Rather than move to Princeton, I was adamant about finding an interesting urban area, and we looked at New Brunswick and Mill Hill in Trenton and moved there.”
About his livelihood in those days, Otis says that he was mostly a magazine writer who wrote features for the New York Times and the Trenton Times and edited the Public Policy Group of New Jersey. His last job in old media was as business editor of the Princeton Packet. “My education provided me with a livelihood because I learned how to write. I remember selling my first article and was amazed that a skill that was like talking could actually make me money. The photography was utilitarian that I could provide images as well as a story.”
When Otis says, “I’ve lived here ever since,” he means mainly the island section of the city, along the Delaware River. That’s where he brought up his son (Oberon), now a college sophomore at Clemson College, and daughter (Cady), attempting to establish herself as a graphic designer in Brooklyn. Otis and Osgood had maintained a common-law relationship but no longer live together.
The artist’s interest in both cities and art came naturally. “My father was an architect and urban planning worked for New York City planning department for 25 years. My mother worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a paper conservator in the prints and drawings department. I grew up in a family where art mattered, and we talked about politics, city planning, and cities. We would go on trips when we get to other cities. My father served on the city art commission, so public art was always discussed. There were always discussions about artists’ intent. And a commitment to living in an urban area was given. I have lived in cities my whole life,” he says.
“I have also seen how, albeit slowly, a city could come back. New York City in the 1970s was not the city that is today. I remember when Soho in Manhattan was a no man’s land. I saw that artists can gentrify places and be the first step in seeing cities coming back. Soho is the standard. Greenpoint, Brooklyn, became what it is now. That’s what I say to people in Trenton. Remember what Northern Liberties (in Philadelphia) was 25 years ago? We have an incredible creative foundation, and perhaps it will attract other people, and, in our lifetime, perhaps Trenton will become a fascinating city.”
Otis looks out the window of the building that he purchased from another artist nearly two years ago, and says, “We love being here because it’s a different part of a city. It’s a neighborhood with families. Trenton is a city of neighborhoods. It’s a city of incredibly hard-working and decent people, and that’s forgotten. That’s what public art is about. You see something and it makes you think. It ties in to Art All Day. It’s not all bad news. There is some fascinating, creative stuff going on in Trenton, and it is only going to get better.”
But for now, it is time to get ready.
Art All Day. Saturday, November 9, various tours and events throughout city, noon to 5 p.m., reception 5 to 8 p.m.; self-guided tours begin at Artworks, 19 Everett Alley, Trenton. Gallery exhibitions, studio visits, and reception free. Trolley Tours, $10 suggested donations. Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market, $4 admission. New Jersey State Museum, $5 suggested admission. artworkstrenton.org.
Art All Day Events:
Noon to 5 p.m.: Studios and creative spaces open to the public, trolleys continuously operating along designated art route (pick up trolleys at Artworks or anywhere along the route).
Noon to 8 p.m.: Artworks main gallery open to the public, featuring Artists of Art All Day group show.
Noon to 3 p.m.: Wills Kins special Art All Day bike tours (bring your own bike) continuous all afternoon.
Live painting at multiple AAD sites:
Nationally known painter Mel Leipzig at New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street.
Graffiti artists Mek and Lank at the Roebling Wire Works, 675 South Clinton Avenue (site of the Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market).
Artist Will Kasso at 219 Hanover Street.
Artist Leon Rainbow at 202 East Canal Street.
Noon to 5 p.m. AbOminOg aluminum scratch mold workshop and molten pour at 2 Pearl Street ($40, $20 for children under 15).
Noon to 2 p.m. Poet Marion Deutsche Cohen reads from the new book “Still the End,” Classics Books, 4 West Lafayette Street.
1:30 p.m.: Trenton’s Roebling legacy tour conducted by Roebling author and historian Clifford Zink (meet at Art All Day table at entrance to Roebling Wire Works building).
2 p.m.: Special public art trolley tour narrated by Trenton art historian and U.S. 1 arts editor Dan Aubrey (meet in Artworks parking lot).
2 p.m.: NJ State Museum curator of fine art Margaret O’Reilly leads a gallery walk through museum galleries housing “American Perspectives: The Fine Art Collection.”
5 to 8 p.m.: Art All Day reception at Artworks
8 to 10 p.m.: World premier of “True Story” by EM Lewis, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street. $20 for AAD attendees.