What can you say about a 46-year-old artist who died?

Pigs and Clay, Bells and Fire

Corrections or additions?

Making Room for Jimmy Colavita, 1949-1996

These articles by Pat Summers and Tricia Fagan were published in

U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 7, 1998. All rights reserved.

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What can you say about a 46-year-old artist who died?

"I carried pictures of his work in my car, and anywhere I went

I looked for places that would be good for him to show."

"Of all the artists I know, I responded most strongly to his

work."

"You didn’t need much contact with him just to adore him."

"We’re tryin’ to keep his spirit goin’ here. It’s all so terribly

sad."

To understand the phenomenon of James J. Colavita, the clay sculptor

for whom five retrospective exhibitions and a host of related events

are offered from January through March, is to accept the old-fashioned

concept, so rare today, of a good man who genuinely cared about

others,

who inspired them, and thoughts of whose untimely death brings those

who knew him to the brink of tears, even now. Colavita died, following

a long illness, in May, 1996.

To those who knew him — whether family, friends, students,

colleagues,

or patrons — he was many things, all of them good and most of

them irreplaceable.

Those of us who did not know Jimmy Colavita can get an idea of what’s

going on here perhaps by thinking of the person in our lives who most

affected us for the good — someone we’ll never forget, someone

we still want to impress, and thank, even now.

And if, lacking such a person in our lives, we can’t make the

association,

it may be even more imperative to go and see Colavita’s works —

about 150, but by no means all of them — at the five sites where

they will be on exhibit beginning this month. The retrospective

features

works Colavita created from 1970 to 1996, the year of his death.

"Jim left all this incredible art, we had no idea how much,"

says his widow, Susan Kiley Colavita. With a group of close friends

and relatives, she has spent the months since his death selecting

works for inclusion in the James J. Colavita Retrospective,

identifying

his oeuvre’s key themes, deciding what should be shown where, and

coordinating production of a 64-page catalog with numerous color

reproductions. Unfortunately, she notes, despite the group’s best

efforts,

some of her late husband’s work is "out in the world and we can’t

find

it — because all the records were in Jim’s head." Happily,

though, she describes the list of lenders to the exhibition as

"huge."

And "huge" also describes many of Colavita’s

works, which range from life-size, as in a pig or a goat sculpture,

to wall-size, as with his reliquaries, to bells from 3-1/2 to 9 feet

in height. Whatever he sculpted, "you had to make room for his

work — both emotionally and physically — in your life,"

says one admirer.

From his first encounter during art studies at Trenton State College,

clay was Colavita’s medium of choice. Already familiar with the

materials

of reductive sculpture, he readily adopted clay in an additive mode,

developing a variety of approaches. For instance, his younger brother,

Anthony, talks about how Jim might press a tire on the clay to get

the surface texture he was after. "He understood how fire and

smoke work, and he could pattern pieces with smoke by covering and

uncovering them to get the look he wanted." The series of

white-clay

angels, included in Rider University’s segment of the retrospective

show, exemplify this.

In the simplest terms, Colavita’s main themes were animals, people,

and structures. But that doesn’t begin to suggest the breadth of his

work. A lifelong animal lover and farmer (he and Susan raised goats

and cared for a multitude of other animals for 23 years at the farm

they rented on Cherry Valley Road in Princeton), Colavita memorialized

goats, pigs, chickens, and guinea fowl, among others. The Ellarslie

show will feature an array of animal sculptures — and, unless

a woman astride a pig is more common in your world than mine, these

are not by any means traditionally representational. Mel Leipzig,

Colavita’s faculty colleague and friend at Mercer County Community

College, considers him "one of the great domestic animal artists

of all time."

The first segment of the retrospective show opens at Artworks with

a reception on Sunday, January 11, from 1 to 4 p.m. Artworks features

what Susan Colavita describes as "the yin and the yang" of

Colavita’s work — which includes his fountains, bells, and eggs,

as well as his "tortured pieces."

Mercer County Community College will show the artist’s portraits,

as well as structures that encompass people and animals. This show

includes a retrospective of the artist’s red figure series, and the

sculpture he was working on at the time of his death. On view at the

New Jersey State Museum will be Colavita’s reliquaries, figurative

sculptures incorporating images of life and death, inspired by the

shrines of Italy. These draw on his knowledge of color underglazing

and outdoor smoke firing, as well as the engineering principles

required

to produce and assemble such large works in a small kiln.

One of three brothers — Pasquale, or "Pat," former

Lawrence

Township mayor, and Anthony, familiarly known as "Toj," an

artist and elementary art teacher in the township — James Colavita

was born in Trenton in 1949 and grew up in the Eldridge Park

neighborhood

of Lawrence Township. His father was director of recreation for the

township, and the family shared the home with his paternal

grandparents,

immigrants from Southern Italy, who were also farmers. Early on, the

Colavita boys knew and cared about both farming and animals.

Themes that would hold Jim Colavita’s interest for his lifetime showed

up early, clearly foreshadowing his mature work. Susan Colavita cites

a piece he made as a boy in sixth or seventh grade: "And there

it is: two pigs, eating, with a boy riding on the back of one pig;

and the boy has a hat on and a bird in his hands. These were his

themes

— not just in his art, but in his life."

Colavita attended Notre Dame High School, and in 1972

earned his BA from Trenton State College. Susan Colavita was a high

school classmate; she reports falling in love with Jim while watching

him dance during a school show. Also a Trenton State alumna, she

teaches

elementary art in the Trenton public schools, most often at Franklin

Grammar School.

Who, or what, was James J. Colavita, clay artist, that he left such

a powerful impression on so many people, and whose life has inspired

an unprecedented collaborative retrospective at arts institutions

throughout Mercer County?

At MCCC, where Colavita worked as associate professor of ceramics

and sculpture program for almost 20 years, Mel Leipzig describes him

as "very giving, dynamic, big-hearted, charismatic and immensely

gifted." The MCCC Foundation has established a James J. Colavita

Memorial Scholarship Fund for the fine arts. He was "touched by

genius," says Leipzig, who launches into a mini-lecture about

Colavita’s "extraordinary range" of work, from the

light-hearted

to the sensuous to works "filled with agony." Then, as if

fearing all this might sound too saccharine, Leipzig declares, "He

wasn’t a mush ball! He had a really strong center."

Another friend concurs: "He was a real human being, with nothing

schmaltzy or hokey about him."

As a teacher, Colavita was "vital and enthusiastic," according

to one painting student who took his class for an overview of the

ceramics field. She found him unlike so many other teachers,

"bogged

down in routine." Instead, he was passionate and energetic, and

possessed a great sense of humor. She believes "a person who did

work of this magnitude could have developed an attitude," but

he didn’t.

Still others, although not formally his students, regarded Colavita

as a friend and mentor. One hadn’t seen him for a year or so when

he contacted her about helping hang a big upcoming show. Small wonder

that although she didn’t see him often, he was, and is, "always

in the back of her head." Instead of pursuing New York venues

and sales for his work, "he put his effort into other things —

like life," she recalls.

Leipzig describes "Jimmy" as very social and at the same time

very private. A friend observes: "His passion, love, excitement

got transferred into the clay." And his wife Susan agrees:

"All

Jim’s work was highly emotional, yet as a person, he wasn’t. He was

very guarded about that." The works — often mysterious,

sometimes

surrealistic, sometimes anguished or angry — prove it.

And then, as if all this weren’t enough, there was Colavita’s

"Fire

Art," now become near-legendary happenings that were also called

"the burnings," or, more academically, "collaborative

performance art." This "Fire Art" involved many people

working together to make figures and structures of sticks and straw

and ribbons, then parading, partying, and ceremonially burning them.

What had begun as impromptu celebrations of the solstice or other

special times in the field behind the Colavitas’ farm, grew over time

into larger events, several commissions, and even part of a master’s

thesis.

As Anthony Colavita recalls it, "Whenever they (Susan and Jim)

said we were going to have a burning, that meant we’d have a communal

day working in the field making art. Then in the evening we’d have

a party and we’d burn it."

One "burning" commission was tied in with an exhibition at

Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum, in Cadwalader Park. A ceramic

monkey (symbol of Ellarslie’s earlier incarnation as a monkey house)

encased in a straw sculpture was paraded through the park, accompanied

by stilt walkers, people wearing paper masks, and other processional

elements. The monkey figure was burned inside the straw and,

transformed

by its re-firing, became part of the museum show.

Capping their joint studies toward MFAs at Brooklyn College in 1986,

brothers Jim and Anthony Colavita produced a small burning event in

the quad there. Wherever it occurred, the fire art, which Anthony

amazingly describes as "a sideline," variously involved

ritual,

pageantry, universal symbols, and huge shadow puppets behind screens,

illuminated by firelight.

Leipzig marvels at Colavita’s "extraordinary charisma" here,

too. "He was capable of working with lots of people and inspiring

them to put on these performances." A documentary film about the

burnings, compiled from videos and still photographs kept by friends,

will be shown at both the Ellarslie and Rider University exhibits.

The James J. Colavita Retrospective, including its accompanying

catalog,

is being financed in large part by the proceeds from an independent

fundraising effort launched in April, 1997. From an auction of art

donated by scores of admiring friends and artists, and from cash

donations,

Leipzig estimates that about $35,000 was realized. The Mercer County

Cultural and Heritage Commission also provided welcome grant money.

Together, this remarkably positive response allowed retrospective

planners to forge ahead with their ambitious plan for a comprehensive

retrospective.

All in all, this three-month Colavita retrospective festival is

primarily

a family-and-friends affair. Susan Colavita says about 20 people close

to Jim wrote about him, then her father, a professional writer, meshed

their evocations into a "powerful, appreciative" essay that

constitutes the catalog’s central text. To give an idea of the

artist’s

prolific output and his great range, pictures of Colavita’s works

— many taken by another MCCC colleague, photographer Louis Draper

— get heavy emphasis, included even in the chronology that

concludes

the book.

Rounding out the James J. Colavita Retrospective effort are a series

of related events that include symposia on the arts in education and

on writers and art; a panel discussion on central New Jersey resources

for artists; a workshop on ceremonial art; a commemorative walk; and

a sculpture installation.

What can you say about a 46-year-old artist who died? That he and

his work were loved.

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Pigs and Clay, Bells and Fire

Professionally, Jimmy Colavita was a sculptor who worked

in clay and painted with fire. In reality, he was a bard, a poet

storyteller,

who could mold the joys, anguish, and humor of the human experience

into forms that were at once magnificent and unsettling. Although

I met him only once — shortly before his death in May, 1996 —

Colavita was already an almost mythic art figure to me. Over a period

of nine years, his mere existence has continued to color my

experience,

and has also provided me with a fine puzzle: how can all this describe

a single man?

After moving to Trenton in the 1980s, one of my early social outings

was to a gala Halloween bash at the relatively new Hyatt Regency in

Princeton. It was a spectacular party, and the promise of some

impressive

prizes had generated all sorts of amazing costumes. The energy in

the room grew until just before the final judging was announced.

Suddenly

there was a commotion to my left, and then one of those curious calms

occurred that stilled the crowd in a moment of collective amazement.

Making its way regally into the center of the room was a serene parade

of massively over-sized bulldogs in elegant Victorian garb. There

were lord bulldogs, and lady bulldogs, and bulldogs on stilts. For

a moment the whole room simply watched — and then that moment

passed, the bulldogs dissolving into the crowd. Some months later,

when describing the event to a friend, she said immediately, "Oh

yeah. That was the Clark Kent Troupe — that’s Jimmy Colavita!"

I like pushing the form, over-reaching, going a little too

far, just on the edge, sometimes getting your fingers burned. It’s

good to do that. — Gay Talese

Much of what I know about Jimmy Colavita comes from

his work. His "Bell," in the 1992 New Jersey Arts Annual

Crafts

exhibition at the New Jersey State Museum, offered me one of those

rare, breath-taking moments of pure presence. Towards the end of the

show, I turned the corner and came face to face with this piece that

was at once enormous and serene, a clay bell on a massive, hewn wooden

beam with an air that was personal, organic, and grand. It existed

as solidly as an ancient oak. Its spirit was arresting and embracing.

A museum staffer passing by stopped and noted: "It’s wonderful,

isn’t it? That’s Jimmy Colavita."

His work contained a signature that I eventually came to recognize.

There was always the story-telling element, even when the figure was

its own story. There was always a mystery, a question waiting to be

discovered, and there was always a deeply felt spirituality. Still,

the work evolved, and the changing aspects of the artist and his

experience

were distilled for us to read.

At the "Baseball" exhibit at Ellarslie Museum last year, his

wonderful piece, "Go Figure," made people laugh out loud with

its benign hog sitting atop a baseball. A text inscribed on the clay

base confided that the artist’s father had always wanted his sons

to play baseball, but they didn’t. His "Inferno" works were

far more dark and disturbing, but, again, so accessible that it was

impossible to stay completely distant from their agony.

His later allegorical works I found almost more disturbing since they

were so completely and nakedly personal. At one exhibit, I watched

as many people repeated my own actions — standing and staring

at the intricate "Listening To All You Ever Said" for some

time, brows furrowed, hands involuntarily grasping coats over their

hearts, as they read the heartbreak in the piece. Still, Colavita

was a generous artist — there was usually the inference of humor

and the potential for transformation. There was always a tenderness

behind the intensity, a wistfulness beneath the sharp-edged

truth-telling.

Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be

violent and original in your work — Gustave Flaubert

A friend teaching in the Trenton Public Schools, hearing that

I was looking for an art instructor to do some work with children,

called me with a name: Susan Kiley, an art teacher in Trenton. She

could not recommend this woman highly enough. "She’s a wonderful

artist, and she’s done amazing things with children over the years.

She and her husband live on a farm in Princeton. He’s an artist, too.

You must know him. His name is Jimmy Colavita."

One of the remarkable things about the Colavita "myth," moving

through the years, was that although he was presented as a prolific,

sometimes driven, artist, he was also always mentioned in the context

of a larger, very down-to-earth, life. He had grown up on a farm in

Lawrence, with his two brothers, his parents, and his grandparents

— and the many different farm animals that his family and nearby

neighbors raised. Family always appeared to be the central base from

which he worked, and his love of animals, so evident in his work,

was legendary.

"Jim really loved the animals, especially the goats, I think,"

his wife, Susan, says. "He gave names to each one of them. The

amazing thing about him was that he took care of the farm and the

farm animals with the same drive and intensity as he did his art.

Every single day he would be out there feeding, grooming, and taking

care of each one. The farm and that part of his life was just as

important

to him as his art."

Someone recently asked me why this man and his work are not yet better

known. It isn’t clear whether some innate modesty prevented him from

making more of a splash at a younger age. It is very evident, though,

that here is a man who made his choices with great deliberateness,

and that he had chosen to focus his life in Mercer County, New Jersey.

When he was 19 years old, Colavita chose to leave the Pennsylvania

School of Fine Arts, and the scholarship he had been offered, because

everything that was important to him was back home. He completed his

degree at Trenton State College.

Rainer Maria Rilke once noted that, "If your everyday life seems

poor to you, do not accuse it, accuse yourself, tell yourself you

are not poet enough to summon up its riches…" It does not appear

that Jimmy ever regretted the decisions that kept him living and

working

in his intimate local circle. Instead, he embraced what many would

consider mundane or imponderable, and gave it expression through his

art.

Another "regular and orderly" aspect of his life was in his

role as art instructor, particularly in his years as associate

professor

of ceramics and sculpture at Mercer Community College. People who

have studied with him have called him inspiring, committed,

challenging,

supportive. His approach to teaching appears to have been as intrinsic

and organic to his nature as the rest of his life.

Though his work often demanded long hours of intensely concentrated

solitude, Jimmy found time to get involved with many artists’ groups,

both formally and informally. I heard about him early on as a

co-founder

of the Trenton Artists’ Workshop Association (TAWA), and an early

active member of the Princeton Art Association.

People are always good company when they are doing what

they enjoy. — Samuel Butler

One other part of the Colavita myth seems important to share:

Jimmy Colavita played with fire — and he invited others to play

with him. Creating ritual celebrations with friends and family seems

to have been an almost instinctive act for him. By the early 1980s,

he and Susan were hosting "field burnings" on their Sundry

Farm as a way to greet the New Year. As the years went on, guests

often helped to construct the massive fire sculptures and intricate

ceremonies that accompanied each burning, but Anne Demarais, a friend

who acted as an informal historian of the events, notes that Jim

"was

the only essential element" of these gatherings.

One of the final, and perhaps most quietly splendid, testimonies to

the man and the artist that was James J. Colavita came in response

to his death in May, 1996. People who had known him, as well as people

who had only known of him, felt the loss deeply. Crowds packed his

funeral. For most of us, that outpouring of love, in itself, would

have been enough of an affirmation for a life well lived. But for

those who loved Jimmy Colavita, his death required a passage, a

transformation.

This "From the Fire" retrospective exhibition is the result

of that transformation from grief back to life. Hundreds of artists

donated works of art for the auction that raised money for this

exhibit.

Friends, family, and artists have voluntarily spent thousands of hours

working with Susan Kiley, Anthony (Toj) Colavita, Mel Leipzig, and

others to bring together the hundreds of pieces that will be on

display.

In a spirit of collaboration not often seen among arts venues, five

major regional arts institutions are simultaneously presenting this

exhibition. It is a rare spirit who can generate this type of energy

and love.

Jimmy Colavita embraced his life and lived it well. Towards the end,

though pain and exhaustion became constant companions, he continued

the path that he had started on 46 years before, and had climbed:

@POETRY = …so far,

Through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,

Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars — Dante

He has left his work and his spirit behind to touch and instruct

us still. I only met him once — yet I feel I knew him well.

— Tricia Fagan

James J. Colavita Retrospective, Artworks, 19

Everett

Alley, Trenton, 609-394-9436. Opening reception for the first of five

area exhibitions celebrating the life and work of the late sculptor.

Each show highlights a different facet of his career. Show continues

to February 28. Free. Sunday, January 11, 1 to 4 p.m.

James J. Colavita Retrospective, Gallery at Mercer

County College, Communications Center, Second Floor, West Windsor,

609-586-4800. First day for the MCCC show that continues to February

26. Free. Wednesday, January 14, 11 a.m.

James J. Colavita Retrospective, Ellarslie, Trenton

City Museum, 319 East State Street, Cadwalader Park, Trenton,

609-989-3632.

Opening reception for the show that continues to March 1. Free.

Friday,

January 16, 7 to 9 p.m.

James J. Colavita Retrospective, New Jersey State

Museum,

205 West State Street, Trenton, 609-292-6464. Opening reception for

the show that continues to March 15. Call to RSVP. Free. Sunday,

January 18, 5 to 7:30 p.m.

James J. Colavita Retrospective, Gallery at Mercer

County College, Communications Center, Second Floor, West Windsor,

609-586-4800. Opening reception for the show that continues to

February

26. Free. Wednesday, January 21, 5 to 7:30 p.m.

James J. Colavita Retrospective Panel, Artworks,

19 Everett Alley, Trenton, 609-394-9436. "Resources for Artists

in Central New Jersey," a panel discussion moderated by Mel

Leipzig,

MCCC faculty, in conjunction with the retrospective shows. Free.

Sunday,

January 25, 1 p.m.

James J. Colavita Retrospective, Rider University Art

Gallery, Lawrenceville, 609-896-5168. Opening reception for the

show that continues to March 8. Free. Thursday, February 5, 5 to

7 p.m.

Artists Commemorate James J. Colavita, Riverrun

Gallery,

287 South Main Street, Lambertville, 609-397-3349. Opening reception

for a group show honoring the artist that continues to March 7. Free.

Saturday, February 7, 6 to 9 p.m.

Colavita Retrospective Workshop, Artworks, 19

Everett

Alley, Trenton, 609-394-9436. Workshop in "The Making of

Ceremonial

Art," in collaboration with the Eldridge Park Artists. Sunday,

February 15, 1 to 5 p.m.

Colavita Retrospective Symposium, Gallery at Mercer

County College, Kelsey Theater, 609-586-4800. "The Importance

of the Arts in Education: Problems and Solutions," coordinated

by Mel Leipzig, MCCC, and Carol Belt, arts education consultant. To

register call extension 3353. Saturday, February 21, 10 a.m. to

2 p.m.

James Colavita Retrospective Walk, Artworks, 19

Everett Alley, Trenton, 609-394-9436. Ceremonial walk from Artworks

to Mill Hill Park. Free. Sunday, February 22, 4 p.m.


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