On the front lawn of Princeton’s Nassau Presbyterian Church there is a large banner that reads: “Refugees are welcome here.” It’s a sentiment both current and historic. For example, Princeton’s most famous refugee, Albert Einstein, found solace here in 1932, leaving Germany with the rise of the Nazi party and anti-Semitism and accepting a post at the Institute for Advanced Study. “In this small university town the chaotic voices of human strife barely penetrate,” he wrote to a friend, “I am almost ashamed to be living in such peace while all the rest struggle and suffer.”
For Ryan Stark Lilienthal, a contemporary artist and immigration lawyer, Einstein’s words define who he is. As a painter, he finds beauty and inspiration within two blocks of his home; as an immigration attorney, he sees the daily struggles of his clients.
In the aptly named “Being Home,” his exhibit on view through March 1 in the Gallery at the Program in Gender & Sexuality Studies, 113 Dickinson Hall on the Princeton University campus, these two worlds collide in his painting “Tear Sheet.”
The work depicts one of his clients and his young daughter. In the painting, Lilienthal explores the use of printed materials, such as headlines ripped from a page of newspaper as a contextual canvas, and plays with transparency and opacity inherent in different oil paints. For this evocative and powerful piece, he painted over a newspaper article about former Republican presidential candidate and current Florida Senator Marco Rubio and his shifting position on immigration during his recent presidential run.
“You can see the impact on a family in the context of a cold-hearted national policy,” Lilienthal says. “It’s particularly painful when you have a politician, like Rubio, who had supported immigrants and then turned against them.”
The father is rendered in transparent oil paint so the viewer can see the figure but can also read the words of the newspaper. While the father wrestles with the shifting ground beneath him and feels Rubio’s glare, the daughter is painted opaquely and conveys the sense of moving happily along the surface, oblivious to what’s at stake.
“What we are seeing with this administration is a direct assault on the experience of immigrants feeling at home in the United States,” says Lilienthal, who earned his JD from Brooklyn Law School and has an office on Mapleton Road in Kingston.
He believes there is an intent to undermine multi-cultural communities through the self-deportation program endorsed by various politicians. “Essentially this would make life so miserable for immigrants that they would choose to voluntarily return to their home country rather than face government enforcement to deport them.”
In response to the recent executive orders on immigration, Lilienthal says, “Princeton is creating a welcoming community where immigrants are embraced and community members are encouraged to support one another. This sense of caring and community is a form of resistance against an agenda designed to tear people apart.”
For Lilienthal, who comes from a family of refugees, this sense of place is deeply rooted. His paternal grandparents fled Vienna during the 1938 Nazi annexation of Austria, and his maternal grandparents were able to escape from Berlin to the United States.
“When you come from a family of refugees, where the fabric has been pulled apart, to being in a place where the fabric has been woven together again … that, to me, is home,” he says.
Home and belonging are the themes of his work as an artist. He admits that his work is essentially the same scene. The space he paints is within the two blocks of the home in Princeton’s tree street neighborhood off Nassau Street that shares with his wife, Rachel Stark, and their three sons.
“This is my ‘Cheers,’” he says, referring to the classic TV sitcom. “It’s the place where everyone knows my name, and I know theirs.”
His friend, photographer Ricardo Barros, says, “Ryan focuses on the quiet, more intimate landscape of daily existence. Daily rituals — casual routines so familiar that we are often blind to them — and customs that grow more precious with the passage of time.”
“Small World Coffee,” another painting in the exhibit, plays with the bright morning sun and the shadow it casts through the window into the interior of the popular Nassau Street cafe. The work earned the T. Anthony Pollner Van Gogh Award for Best in Show at the Ellarslie Museum “Open 33” show last spring.
In 1991 Lilienthal received his bachelor’s degree in religion from Tufts University, where he was able to take classes in drawing, painting, and sculpting at the Boston Museum of Art. He also was an apprentice with abstract painter Siri Berg, whose work is part of the permanent collection of the Guggenheim and numerous private collections.
He grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, where his father was vice president of a mining company and later went into management consulting. His mother was a genetic counselor, but her true calling was to be an artist. If Lilienthal’s mother significantly inspired his artistic interests, his father influenced his commitment to community service. This dedication to civic duty also permeates with his wife’s parents, Albert and Ellen Stark, long-time pillars of the Princeton community.
America is a nation of immigrants and Lilienthal feels the profound loss of being unable to trace his family back to one country because of the constant movement. This sense of longing has been his lifelong mission — to seek understanding and compassion to extend understanding and compassion to other people — to imagine oneself in the shoes of others.
Coming from a family that was displaced and torn apart by the Nazis, Lilienthal sees his duty as a second-generation Holocaust survivor to be involved and engaged in his community. Currently he chairs Einstein’s Alley Immigration and Employment Task Force and co-chairs the American Jewish Committee-New Jersey Immigration Task Force. His also serves on the advisory board of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund. In addition, he is a former member of the Princeton Joint Consolidation/Shared Services Commission and a former councilman of Princeton Borough.
“Maybe our parents were too afraid to discuss certain issues with their parents because of the trauma they suffered,” he explains, “and so it’s our duty, the next generation’s responsibility, to have those tough conversations to address the shadows of the past that still, to this day, have a lingering presence.”
Lilienthal recalls that his grandmother often talked about her 18 cousins who were scattered around the world and other relatives who were murdered during the Holocaust. The focus of those lost was always her uncle, Theodor Israel, his wife, and son, who lived in the German village of Lautertal-Elmshausen. They experienced the Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) pogroms against Jews, their property, and their synagogues in Germany and Austria, and they disappeared in the Nazi deportation initiated by the Final Solution announcement in January, 1942.
In searching for answers, Lilienthal found himself embraced by the residents of Lautertal on two subsequent visits to Germany.
He was also amazed to learn that this little town that has no Jews holds an annual Kristallnacht commemoration. So in 2013, to mark the 75th anniversary, the residents of Lautertal conducted a joint Kristallnacht commemoration via Skype with an audience at Rider University, organized by the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust and Genocide Education.
This light and dark is a common thread that connects Lilienthal to his family, to his clients, and the atrocities and loss committed during the Holocaust.
“I am always looking to see how in the right light, the ordinary transforms into a work of beauty,” he says. “The sense of community I’ve come to value are people who reach out to each other, who are willing to embrace a stranger and accept them as family. I find that to be true every day in Princeton and I experienced it with my newly found friends in Germany.”
Lilienthal found light in his family’s history through his grandfather’s stamp collection, which had been stored away and not opened for years. When thousands and thousands of stamps were revealed, in a completely disheveled collection that dates back to 1920, he once again found a sense of home: a commemorative stamp of Nassau Hall.
Being Home, Gallery at the Program in Gender & Sexuality Studies, 113 Dickinson Hall, Princeton University, Washington Road at the intersection with Williams Street. Through Wednesday, March 1, Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free. For more information on the program, go to gss.princeton.edu. More information on the artist can be found at www.ryanlilienthal.com.