It’s unofficially official: Bruce Springsteen has taken over Princeton.
On the west side of town on Stockton Street, the Morven Museum & Garden continues the exhibition “Bruce Springsteen: A Photographic Journey,” on view through May 21. Created by the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and featuring 42 works by six professional concert photographers (including Springsteen’s sister, Pam), the show in the historic former home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence (Richard Stockton) is a big NJ tribute to an NJ superstar — one who has evoked the sights, sounds, and sense of the state in compilations such as “Welcome to Asbury Park,” in songs like “Jersey Girls,” and even appeared on TV to sing a satirical song about Governor Christie and the George Washington Bridge.
It doesn’t get more Jersey than this. Or does it?
Head east on Nassau Street and there’s another Springsteen tribute, one smaller in scope but equally in tune with the musician’s state and time. It’s a larger-than-life sculpture of the singer/songwriter at Gary Fowler’s Gulf Station, 271 Nassau Street — one of the places that the young Springsteen may have stopped at in the 1970s to tank-up his car during his early years of performing in Princeton for college audiences.
The new Springsteen sculpture — titled “SEA SEA Rider: A Jersey Legend” — shows the music legend holding a guitar while literally being wrapped by the Jersey shoreline — thanks to a seashell jeweled cloak. It actually takes over for a Springsteen bust that has been counting cars over the past few years — just like the replica Springsteen sculpture does on the corner of Alexander and Faculty roads. Both are called “Bruce Springsteen, Soulful Humanitarian.”
All three are by Stephen Zorochin. He’s another Jersey-spirited artist — one with a Richard Stockton-like streak of independence and a Springsteen sense of place.
Zorochin — who will be presiding over a formal gas station dedication of the statue on Sunday, April 30, an unofficial feature of Communiversity — may be known to many for his “gallery on wheels.” That is his Ford pickup frequently sporting larger-than-life figures, like last year’s karate fighter.
“People see it, and they light up,” the sculptor said in an interview last year. “It’s art that engages people,” he says. He shares more during a recent visit to his workshop off Alexander Road and to the back of his pickup — I mean gallery.
A 1970 graduate of Princeton High School, Zorochin says he got the art bug when his house-cleaning mom toted home a stack of Art News magazines given to her by one of her clients.
He also talks about a time visiting his grandparents in the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania. “I was 8 years old and held a piece of coal and wanted to do something with it. I put my initials on it.”
Zorochin says he went to the School of Visual Art in New York City and the Museum School of the Fine Arts in Boston but didn’t get anything out of it — too much emphasis on theory and not enough practice.
He left school, landed back in Princeton, and worked as a truck driver — but with little direction and no art in the flatbed.
His Princeton University boiler room worker dad was not an art appreciator and brought up his son’s interest in art with a few Princeton basketball-coach pals during their regular get-togethers at Andy’s Tavern (now Soonja’s). They suggested he talk to Joe Brown, the university’s art teacher, sculptor in residence, and a former boxer now known for his representational sculptures. Brown liked the kid’s spirit and said “send him over.”
“I was trying to fit in someplace,” Zorochin says. “What Brown taught me was to work with my hands. It was very important to me to experience the accomplishing of something, whether it worked or failed, because I was able to fix it with my hands. That boasted my self-confidence. And to see a professional sculptor create something and then market it was great for me. And it happened in my own town!”
Brown memorialized athletes. Zorochin, in turn, found another muse: firefighters. He even joined a volunteer fire department to get closer to the truth. “Firefighting is a kind of religion to us. I think the best firefighters are the ones who let that old excitement and wonder live on while at the same time accepting the responsibility for their work,” he says.
In many ways, he is also talking about his own art.
Married for 42 years and the father of a 40-year-old daughter who studied art history, Zorochin says he is always a full-time artist, even if he is physically placing trees and plants as part of his landscaping business. Being physically engaged was something that Brown emphasized, saying that to be a good boxer one had to be willing to get hit.
The approach works. Zorochin’s resume includes a monument to Captain John T. Dempster at the Mercer County Fire Training Center in Lawrenceville, various bronze commemorative plaques and awards, and crosses for the Princeton University Chapel.
And while he has exhibited at the New Jersey State Museum and Trenton City Museum, he says he is more interested in discovering opportunities outside the traditional art world. Like his Princeton roadside depictions of Springsteen.
A former garage band musician and singer for Princeton Pro Musica, Zorochin says the Springsteen works started when he heard about an art show about Asbury Park and thought “what could be better than Springsteen?” And the head was created.
The initial reaction wasn’t exactly humane. “Do you know how many fights I’ve had over this?” Zorochin says standing next to his truck and pointing to the Faculty Road “Humanitarian” Springsteen. “A group at the Stone Pony (the Asbury Park club connected to Springsteen) wanted to bang it up.”
The digital world had a different response, and the work went viral. So much so that it appeared on the front page of a London newspaper and in the “Rock Atlas USA: The Musical Landscape of America.”
Local reaction to his work has been decidedly upbeat about his road exhibits, with parents telling him how much their family was excited about seeing his art. “You don’t hear that with a museum exhibition,” he says.
And what does Springsteen say? “Bruce doesn’t say anything. He’s cool,” says Zorochin.
And why wouldn’t he be? He’s the boss of the town.
Bruce Springsteen: A Photographic Journey, Morven Museum and Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Through Sunday, May 14. $10. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.
Springsteen Unveiling, Gary Fowler’s Gulf Station, 271 Nassau Street, Princeton, Sunday, April 30, 1 p.m. Includes a demonstration on how the Bruce Springsteen head was made.