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This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was prepared for the January 18, 2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Mixed Media Meets a Marsh
When is the Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh more than a marsh? When it serves as inspiration for the entire 23-member Princeton Artists Alliance (PAA) to create a body of new work, on view in the show, "Marsh Meditations," at the Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Lawrenceville Campus.
The luminous wetlands of the Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh stuns first-time visitors with landscapes and waterscapes worthy of Monet himself. It also provides essential wildlife habitat for rare and endangered species and serves the region through flood and climate tempering, pollutant removal, and groundwater recharge. When PAA members first set foot upon its slender nature trails, the Marsh had been mostly hearsay. Says PAA member Tina Salveson: "I didn’t even know it was there. Nobody knows it’s there." Once the public engages with "Marsh Meditations," this tune will likely be permanently altered.
Privileged to be present at the first day of the installation of the show at the Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb works, I am struck by the breadth, depth, and range of creativity in the art work. Transcendence is the theme of these artworks, as they are larger than life in every sense. Ecologically aware, PAA members cast a cold eye on human depredations within these wetlands. Anita Benarde’s diptych, "Signs of the Marsh," is a cautionary tale that could stand for the entire exhibit. Blending the natural and distressingly unnatural, her "handmade paper with inclusions" reveals fragments of posted notices – "Abbott Farm Historical District, Wildlife Safety Zone, State Park Service, Kayak Trail, Dump" – in among drifting swans and graffiti swirls. This piece – in fact, the entire show – becomes a glorious puzzle like the Marsh itself: the more you look, the more you see.
Curator Kate Somers says both the marsh and these artists are "key area treasures. People just don’t realize what we have." And Somers knows a thing or two about extending the life of exhibits. In 1999 the Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb showcased PAA’s esthetic response to Robert Fagles’s new translation of Homer’s Odyssey. That exhibit has since traveled to the Newark Museum, the College of New Jersey, the Foundation of Hellenic Culture in New York and Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
Botanist Mary Leck, emeritus professor of biology at Rider University, whose life’s work has focused on the marsh, and co-founder of Friends for the Marsh, reveals some dramatic plans for the area. For example, a nature/interpretive center and field station are being developed for a residence adjacent to Roebling Park. The residence was purchased by Mercer County in April, 2004. The county then matched a $250,000 grant, obtained by D&R Greenway Land Trust, from DEP Green Acres. D&R Greenway has received an additional $250,000 grant to fund renovation and program development. The opening is anticipated for spring, 2007.
Leck says of this freshwater tidal wetlands: "What to one person seems a wasteland, to another is habitat, ecosystem, a place to get away from it all." She and her husband, Charles, a Rutgers University ornithologist, took PAA members on Roebling Park treks, then up onto Bordentown bluffs, which 10,000 years ago were the refuge of Lenni Lenapes. In the 1800s, the bluffs were the setting for elegant Empire homes and glittering lives, including Joseph Bonaparte (King of Spain and of Naples) and his son-in-law/nephew, Charles Lucien, with his new family. The latter became internationally renowned as the "father of descriptive ornithology," discovering and naming species in this marsh.
Many of the 23 PAA artists lift off from the Impressionists – in subject, palette, and especially themes: Margaret Kennard Johnson’s artist’s statement in the exhibit catalogue says that all four of her mesh constructions "focus on the active underwater environment." Like Monet’s series of paintings of Rouen’s cathedral, four of Lucy McVicker’s five abstracts celebrate different times of day, and therefore light. Marsha Levin-Rojer’s stunning, evocative watercolor compositions are crafted of squares, like the tesserae of mosaicists.
Not unlike Monet and his series of haystack paintings, Carol Hanson could not keep up with light changes in the marsh. In the catalogue she says she encountered the marsh "in the deep of winter from the high and windy bluff," wanting "to portray the cold beauty of stormy sky with sun trying to shine down." Hanson’s camera could not keep pace with the marsh’s variations. Her brush, however, proves arrestingly effective in dramatic recreations of the marsh’s "Cold, Clouds, Sun," as one painting is titled, and even the invisible wind.
Not everyone, however, was enchanted with the visits to the marsh. Photographer Bill Vandever returned four or five times: "The light was wrong; nothing really grabbed me." Then, suddenly, landscape, background, foreground and light, he says, "all electrified me." The result is a persuasive photo-montage that echoes French playwright Jean Giraudoux’s climactic line in his watery masterpiece, "Ondine" (1939): "a little mosaic of living things."
On installation day, I watch as Rajie Cook, a former graphic designer who once worked on BMS annual reports, forms his "Sylvan Soliloquy" in situ at the top of the gallery stairs. He describes the massive slice of hollow log as a "womb…this is all about life and death." I watch as he painstakingly arranges severed branches within that circle, stopping every once in awhile to dust the pedestal. "It’s alive," he muses. "It sheds." At the end, Cook, known mostly for work inspired by Cornell boxes, crowned the chopped logs with a bird’s nest holding a doll’s head. Every cycle in the marsh resides within that wood.
One by one, as though from an archaeologist’s refuse heap, I see Shellie Jacobson’s raku clay artifacts emerge from bubble wrap, in the reverent hands of curator Somers. Like the marsh itself, these organic forms simultaneously evoke fragility and strength. Jacobson’s vest, like a sportsman’s, is called "Primal Vestment" and is crafted of curling papery strips that ripple as viewers pass the iconic garment. Each curl reveals "greened" photographs of the river birch that inspired her in these wetlands. A book, touchable with gloves, opens to totems and pictographs, which whisper Lenape names.
In an interview at the gallery PAA founder Charles McVicker, apologizes for his swan scenes. "Corny," he calls the serene canvases. "Tchaikovsky and all." Swans were McVicker’s first marsh experience. He says he never recovered and cannot get over discovering "such grace, and in the heart of Trenton!" These canvases reveal a single swan as monarch; the pair – deities – glint on water like Danae’s gold. McVicker remarks on "the marsh’s elemental quality. We have to preserve areas like this – they serve an essential part of our humanity."
Ecology is never far from PAA’s consciousness. Photographer Clem Fiori may be the most consistently and politically active in preserving wild nature. His photographic eye relentlessly reveals human intrusions against green life. His video installation, from his "Forest Details and Views" series, recreates a marsh canoe excursion with Mary Leck a full decade ago.
Artists Pat Martin and Tina Salveson were moved to a unique collaboration of beauty conjoined with ugliness. On excursions to Duck Island they found flood debris had joined decades of human artifacts, – from squashed Coke cans to a doll’s grasping arm. Six separate resin pieces, studded with natural and foreign marsh mementos, are fused into one arresting sculpture, "The Wetlands, 2005." In an interview at the gallery Salveson says she hopes it urges viewers to "come to a place where land is ruled by water." Martin adds: "Get over here, clean up this place – students, scouts. Do a good deed, and be outdoors in all that beauty!"
The marsh’s serious industrial history triggered Harry Naar’s somber pen and ink evocation, "Remnants of the Brick Factory." This scene pulses with an array of lives – animal, vegetable, mineral, even liquid.
Other PAA members were moved by the long-ago Native American presence. Hetty Baiz created her mixed-media interpretations to honor "what is missing – the original inhabitants. Lenapes believed that everything in nature has a `manetu,’ a spirit being." In her research Baiz discovered, then recreated in towering form, a series of manetus.
Botanist Mary Leck says "Marsh Mediations" is very significant for this area: "The exhibit showcases the marsh in a special way in a special setting. At the BMS gallery, the circle of awareness can broaden, creating ripples outward, as the marsh is seen by many for the first time. The marsh is part of the nation’s natural heritage, implicit in its designation as the Abbott Farm National Historic Landmark and as a New Jersey Natural Heritage Priority Site.
Ruane Miller’s work, the nacreous "April’s Sanctum," is accompanied in the catalogue not by an artist’s statement but by Thoreau: "I enter a swamp as a sacred place – a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow of nature." The Thoreau quote continues, echoing the ecological concerns of most PAA artists: "A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it."
"Marsh Meditations," Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Route 206, Lawrenceville. On view through Sunday, March 26. 609-252-6275. For more information on and directions to the Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh visit www.marsh-friends.org.
Gallery hours: Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; weekends, 1 to 5 p.m. Closed Monday, February 20.
[Possible sidebar] ACCESS POINTS FOR HAMILTON – TRENTON MARSH:
Advice: buy a Mercer County map! > When canoeing or kayaking, take care in tidal areas; currents may be fast and forceful and the water deeper than it seems. > Don’t forget to check for ticks that can be active any time of the year. Care should be also taken to prevent mosquitoes from biting. > Please walk on trails. The marsh is a fragile resource. Trampled plants may not recover. > For information about field trips, guides, trails, maps, and more: www.marsh-friends.org > Be mindful that this natural area is located in an urban setting. Use caution when visiting. > Report any suspicious behavior to the Hamilton Police (609-581-4000). Don’t leave your camera lying about.
Spring Lake – Watson Woods (flat &well-marked trails)
From Interstate 295: Exit Interstate 295 at Arena Drive. Turn right onto Woodside Avenue from Arena Drive Follow Woodside to South Broad Street Turn right onto South Broad Street.
To: Spring lake: Follow South Broad to Sewell Avenue Turn left onto Sewell Avenue and follow to end. Turn left on dirt road into Roebling Park and down the hill to Spring Lake
To: Watson House and Woods: Follow South Broad St. to West Park Ave. Turn left onto West Park Avenue and follow to Westcott Avenue. Turn left onto Westcott Avenue and then right into Roebling Park. The Watson House is in the corner. Follow road down the hill and to left for parking and Watson Woods picnic area and trail.
To: Bordentown Bluffs: From I 295 take Arena Drive exit, turn right onto Woodside Ave.
Take Woodside Ave. to S. Broad. Turn left onto South Broad St. At fork, bear right onto Rte. 206 South. About 0.6 mi past Crosswicks Creek, turn right onto Glen Ave., turn immediately left onto Orchard Ave. At end of street is the trail. (DO NOT block mailboxes or driveways. Please do not park in turn around).
To: Bordentown – Northern Community Park: From Rt. 206 north from Bordentown, take right onto Groveville Road. Turn left into park. The trail is to the left and down the hill from the building.
To: Duck Island constructed Wetland: Take NJ 29 to Lamberton Road exit, turn left onto Lamberton Road. Drive to the end. Park in the parking area past the Mobil oil tank farm. Facing south, to the right is a short trail out to the Delaware River. To the left the trail follows the east edge of the constructed wetland eventually to the navigational beacon on the Delaware River.
To: Railroad tracks and Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park: There is a pedestrian bridge across Crosswicks creek at Bordentown. If entering Bordentown via Rt. 206 and Park Street turn right onto Farnsworth Ave. Drive down the hill and park at the bottom. (There is a small parking area outside the fence). (Once you walk across Crosswicks Creek, you can see part of the D & R Canal on the left).
Crosswicks Creek and Delaware River by canoe / kayak:
1. Trenton boat launch: Lamberton Avenue. (Take NJ 29 south to Lamberton Rd. exit; at end of long ramp, turn right onto Lamberton Rd). Boat launch is on the left.
2. Bordentown Beach: From 1195, take Rt. 206 south to Park St. Take Park St. into Bordentown, continue down hill to the banks of Crosswicks Creek.
There is one canoe livery in Bordentown: Paint Island Canoe and Kayak (609-324-8200).
An aesthetic cooperative, PAA was founded in 1989 by Charles McVicker.
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