Sheila Geisler does not draw, paint, take photos, use clay or aerosol, or do anything to make art, but the curator of the exhibition “Subway to Gallery: The Street Artists” — on view at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton’s Lakeside Gallery until Thursday, November 13 — is willing to take an artistic risk.
The co-organizer — along with husband Carl Geisler — for the Princeton Photography Club (PPC) grins as she stands in the gallery area dedicated by the hospital to showcasing regional visual artists. She is dwarfed by the bold colors of 13 artists — mainly “street writers” — whose images fill the space with a 100-foot wall situated between two wings of the hospital.
“I feel very passionate about (the exhibit). It’s satisfying to make something like this happen and be involved with it. Art is healing, and I wanted to reach out to those who walk through the building when they’re looking for the strength to deal with health issues,” says the former New Yorker and now Princeton-area resident.
The exhibition was born from a number of threads. The first starts with the hospital gallery that opened in May, 2013, thanks to the interest of photographer and cardiologist Ilya Genin, who was planning an exhibition. A member of PPC, Genin knew Geisler as the person who hung the group’s shows at the D&R Greenway (where the PPC meets) and asked her to help hang his show. “That’s when I was approached by the hospital to see if the photo club would handle the exhibitions. The club has 287 members, and we wanted to give the artists the reward of exhibiting. So the photo club has been sponsoring the art. That’s when I started to think about this exhibition,” she says.
“What prompted this current show was that (hospital vice president of marketing) Diane Grillo said, ‘You’re hanging a lot of Princeton Photography Club work and filling the walls, but it’s not my service community. You didn’t think hanging up photos by Princeton photographers was going to bring in the Trenton-Hamilton people?’ So I said that a way you interact with your service community is to interact with them,” says Geisler.
Another thread came through another club member. Ricardo Barros had been working on a multi-year project photographing street “writers” — people who use stylized letters as an expression rather than paint images — in cities along the East Coast. Through that project Barros connected with regional “writers” and befriended nonagenarian Trenton-based photographer Jon Naar, who in 1974 photographed the images for the first book on graffiti art, “The Faith of Graffiti.” When Barros and Naar appeared at a panel discussion a few years ago, the Geislers attended and met Trenton artists Will “Kasso” Condry and Leon Rainbow.
“Carl and I visited ‘Kasso’ at his gallery to initiate this show and develop cooperation with the photo club and find out what he’s doing. He had all these abandoned buildings and parking meters decorated with graffiti. I asked why. He was very transparent with his answer and said that he was trying to bring hope to his streets. I felt touched by this. We’re connected to the Greenway Land Trust, and their goals are the same. I was struck by how close the two cultures were, even though they are silent to one other. Art can bring a conversation to it.”
Geisler says that Rainbow eventually emerged as the coordinator for the current exhibition and reached out to other artists. Then the curator found herself in unknown territory. “Often with our photography exhibitions, I have the whole thing worked out for the walls and essentially story board it. But I didn’t see (all the works) before the exhibit. I had no story board. But Leon said, ‘Trust me.’ And I said, ‘You’ve got it.’ It was a big leap of faith, and I am so glad that I took it.”
Geisler’s face brightens as she says, “It was a little challenging. Unlike photography, there were no jpegs. For advertising, Carl had to come over and photograph to create a brochure. Some paintings were still wet, and it took several hours. This show is different for me for another reason. I feel the need to market it. I really want these guys to sell their work. This is their living. I was asking them to do so much and not get anything back. And so far we’ve sold 10 things, smaller things, but I was really glad. That was important to me.” Included in the sales are three works purchased by the hospital for the pediatric unit.
“This was also a very difficult show to hang,” she says. “The sizes, the colors, the differences in the art styles all have it flow together. It took a long time. I was literally moving things trying to figure out where to place them the day of the hanging. Then I’d come in, see it fresh, and be pleased.”
Not a bad feeling for non-image maker who says, “The closest I ever got to a camera before was the one on my microscope.” Geisler is talking about her background. “I was a research technician and ran two labs. One was the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine on the Bush Campus of Rutgers. I worked there on and off for 22 years. I did HIV and influenza research, very different than what I am doing now.”
Geisler grew up in the Bronx, where her father owned a refrigeration service company and her mother was a housewife. Geisler attended New York City Community College, got married, and began her medical technician career in New York City hospitals. “So I am very sensitive as to how staff interacts with patients, especially if they don’t have that human connection.” Then there was a divorce and life changes. “I was hit by car. I was in a wheel chair for six months. I was 38 and had a metal knee.”
The experiences she says taught her a few things. “I always look at people and think you can never tell what dues they’ve paid. I (also) became aware of how the world appears to people in a wheel chair. So we made the choice to hang the work (at Lakefront Gallery) at different levels,” she says.
Married now for 22 years — the two met by happenstance during a weekend in New York State — and having a combined four children and seven grandchildren, Geisler says that she got involved with the PPC after Carl retired from the hand truck and dolly manufacturing company that he ran in Hoboken. “He had always done photography and wanted to be a photographer. When he retired he had trouble with identity, so I said let’s go to the photography club. Photography became a social life.”
They have been involved with the club for eight years and coordinate quarterly exhibitions, the annual photo club publication, and the monthly meetings that include guest speakers and discussions.
In addition to club and Lakeside Gallery duties, Sheila also organizes workshops and exhibitions at Merwick Care and Rehabilitation’s Millstone River Gallery, where artists and patients hang their works together. “We also started a wall of memories. We exhibit photographs of images that are on the night stands in patients’ rooms. Then we get the patient’s back story from the patient or the family. There was a photo of a ballerina. The woman was 98 years old, and she was a ballerina. It gave the family something to have a conversation about, what the woman had done. You don’t know people’s back stories,” she says.
Connecting what she has just said to “Subway to Gallery,” Geisler says, “The graffiti artists create their images and tell their stories. Their worlds are now. They’re expressing their values as they see them or as they wish they could see them. And I look at their art form outside their world, and I ask them about their back stories. It’s my way of learning about their silent communities. I would never really understand otherwise. The time I spent with them and hanging the show was a real learning experience for me. They’re very dear to work with. They accepted me and my world.”
She was also touched by the support that the artists shared with one another. “There are new graffiti artists that they gave an opportunity to. And Leon was glad that Jon Naar’s work was there. It made me feel that I began to understand their work and what was important to them. I grew up in New York and saw (graffiti) on the subway. I wish I had known to look at it like I do now,” she says.
As the exhibition winds down and a closing party on Monday, November 3, approaches, Geisler says of the effort, “We wanted to bring the communities together, acknowledge and accept each other’s culture, and share something in common — though art.”
From Subway to Gallery, Lakefront Gallery, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, One Hamilton Health Place, Hamilton. On view daily through Thursday, November 13. Closing party Monday, November 3, 2 to 4 p.m. For directions or other hospital information, www.rwjhamilton.org/Pages/Home.aspx.
Besides the artists mentioned above, other artists in the show include Andrew Wilkinson, MEK, UHM, Billy Brown, Gentrifried Prufrock, RAS, PROZE, DEMER, and LANK.