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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.
"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
"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
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
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,
or patrons — he was many things, all of them good and most of
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
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
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,
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
some of her late husband’s work is "out in the world and we can’t
it — because all the records were in Jim’s head." Happily,
though, she describes the list of lenders to the exhibition as
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
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
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
to produce and assemble such large works in a small kiln.
One of three brothers — Pasquale, or "Pat," former
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
of Lawrence Township. His father was director of recreation for the
township, and the family shared the home with his paternal
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
— 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
elementary art in the Trenton public schools, most often at Franklin
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
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,
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
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:
Jim’s work was highly emotional, yet as a person, he wasn’t. He was
very guarded about that." The works — often mysterious,
surrealistic, sometimes anguished or angry — prove it.
And then, as if all this weren’t enough, there was Colavita’s
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
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,
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
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
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
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
All in all, this three-month Colavita retrospective festival is
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
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
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.
Professionally, Jimmy Colavita was a sculptor who worked
in clay and painted with fire. In reality, he was a bard, a poet
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
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
prizes had generated all sorts of amazing costumes. The energy in
the room grew until just before the final judging was announced.
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!"
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
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
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
violent and original in your work — Gustave Flaubert
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,
"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
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
in his intimate local circle. Instead, he embraced what many would
consider mundane or imponderable, and gave it expression through his
Another "regular and orderly" aspect of his life was in his
role as art instructor, particularly in his years as associate
of ceramics and sculpture at Mercer Community College. People who
have studied with him have called him inspiring, committed,
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
of the Trenton Artists’ Workshop Association (TAWA), and an early
active member of the Princeton Art Association.
they enjoy. — Samuel Butler
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
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
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
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
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
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
us still. I only met him once — yet I feel I knew him well.
— Tricia Fagan
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.
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.
City Museum, 319 East State Street, Cadwalader Park, Trenton,
Opening reception for the show that continues to March 1. Free.
January 16, 7 to 9 p.m.
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.
County College, Communications Center, Second Floor, West Windsor,
609-586-4800. Opening reception for the show that continues to
26. Free. Wednesday, January 21, 5 to 7:30 p.m.
19 Everett Alley, Trenton, 609-394-9436. "Resources for Artists
in Central New Jersey," a panel discussion moderated by Mel
MCCC faculty, in conjunction with the retrospective shows. Free.
January 25, 1 p.m.
Gallery, Lawrenceville, 609-896-5168. Opening reception for the
show that continues to March 8. Free. Thursday, February 5, 5 to
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.
Alley, Trenton, 609-394-9436. Workshop in "The Making of
Art," in collaboration with the Eldridge Park Artists. Sunday,
February 15, 1 to 5 p.m.
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
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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