Trenton Museum Society board member David Bosted has an affinity for what he calls “art that you wear.” In the mid-1980s he joined the Princeton Rug Society, a textiles art and culture group, and learned to appreciate “the range of art that was brought into the world through textiles.”
Then in 1993 Bosted, who has law and public policy degrees and worked with the New Jersey Division of State & Regional Planning, began a two-year contract assignment in Micronesia. He considered that experience transformative. “What a revolution that was for me to see how they have a completely different artistic idea of how they wear their clothing,” says Bosted. “If anything matches, that’s a fashion failure. It’s like Hawaii, exponential.”
After returning to the United States, Bosted began taking interest in people and cultures that channeled their artistic visions into how they dressed. He came to favor African textiles. The patterns and prints had inherent meaning, bypassing naked utilitarianism for clothing that made a statement.
By 2013, his second year on the board of the society that provides support for the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie Mansion in Trenton, he had collected enough African clothing and jewelry to put on a small exhibit. So, when the society’s exhibitions committee sought ideas, Bosted along with fellow board member Joseph Longino, offered to do just that. And thus the seeds were sown for “More Than A Rug,” opening on Saturday, March 9, at the Trenton City Museum.
Bosted is clear on what kind of response he hopes for. “Many people many may have heard of raiffai or kente cloth, but may not have a chance to see some good examples. Some people may get a chance to say, ‘oh that’s what they look like,’” he says. The textiles and patterns are much brighter, bolder, and generally less repetitive than what is found in contemporary American fashion.
Bosted hopes the exhibit will encourage self-education. “The Trenton City Museum has provided this opportunity to learn about traditional African textiles,” he says. “And that is a fairly rare opportunity because the originals of these vintage traditional textiles are seldom seen, especially assembled as a group.”
Since textiles are not especially expensive to collect or study, Bosted says, “So maybe this exhibit will inspire some young people to learn more about traditional handmade African textiles, perhaps to start down that path to assemble their own study collection!”
During the early phase of the exhibition planning, the Pennington-based Longino — an avid art fan, art collector, and a principal at the investment banking firm Sandler O’Neill and Partners — gave suggestions and brainstormed along with Bosted. Eventually, he realized that he had more to offer than bright ideas.
Longino thought of a South American tapestry weaver whose cotton and silk creations would complement Bosted’s textile theme, He also thought of the work of a Chinese painter whose work was in a Princeton gallery, and two sculptors whose work he had purchased in Hopewell.
With Bosted’s blessing, Longino invited the artists to display their works alongside with the African textiles.
Conceptually, the exhibit speaks not to particular time periods or themes, but in layers that reflect or reject the spirit and physical makeup of Bosted’s African textiles. Aside from Bosted’s collection, the exhibit features the four other artists, all whom live, work, and have pieces displayed elsewhere within 25 miles of Ellarslie Museum.
Bosted’s collection sits in Ellarslie’s Malloy gallery. Longino’s nuanced textiles, paintings, and tapestries, all grounded in cultures carried from ancestors past, line the walls of the other museum spaces. The floors are filled with abstract sculptures that speak more to the artists’ individual muse of the moment.
A collection of 6.5’x36” cotton and silk tapestries by Guatemalan weaver Armando Sosa favor Bosted’s collection more than any other pieces in the exhibit. Sosa grew up in Salcaia, Guatemala, a place where men used to earn their living weaving tapestries. “It’s like going back to my past,” he says of creating each tapestry in his Hopewell studio.
Following tradition, the color schemes of each tapestry appear bright and festive, sometimes in gradients. Intricate patterns and small, symbolic characters look as if they had been carefully considered. They are woven into the fabric with awe-inspiring detail.
A student of his art, Sosa has traveled across the United States and Europe to study tapestries of various origins. He sometimes blends cultures in his pieces. The tapestries may be rooted, or mostly consists of, his Mayan ancestry or an alternative culture. In the middle or throughout any given piece he may add minute reflections of Asian culture, European tradition, his country, or his childhood in contrast. The deviations are often so small that an observer may not notice if they aren’t searching. It takes Sosa about 100 hours to complete a single tapestry.
The late Princeton-based artist I-Hsuing Ju’s rice paper brush paintings are just as detailed. Yet, as in the Chinese tradition, they are realist odes to the power and serenity of nature, as opposed to Sosa’s more symbolic odes to the history of man. The pieces usually display expansive landscapes in which man feels small or nonexistent.
The paintings, like Sosa’s work, are grounded in an art form specific to his heritage. They also give slight nods to worldly experiences expressed through a blend of styles and intricate, barely-there details. Ju’s 1989 painting, “Winter in the Mountain,” for example, shows the edge of a sparsely treed cliff overlooking a range of snow-covered forestry and mountains. It’s a traditional bow to the calm equilibrium of nature. If you look closely, you’ll see two figures perched at the edge of the mountain under a tree, dressed in American clothing, a wink at Ju’s tenure teaching at Washington & Lee during the time the painting was created.
Longino chose New Hope-based John McDevitt’s three dimensional steel sculptures to contrast Sosa’s and Ju’s more figurative work, while complimenting Sosa’s color scheme with what he calls a “kind of rusted patina.”
Technically, McDevitt’s pieces begin and end with steel circles that are manipulated, textured, and welded together in copper-tone and black cohesive wholes. His iconic style, McDevitt says, is “a circle within a circle within a split.”
Some of his work — tall four-sided slabs with or without a single hole — feel static. Many of his pieces, however, embody continuity and feel amorphous. Steel curdles, surfaces boil and crater, frequencies and wavelengths swirl, working thoughts take shape, and figures have no end. It is as if he melted the metal down to nature’s theories and welded them together into culminations that explain depth, dimension, and the universe by defying them.
When his pieces literally split circles, one imagines slicing through inter-dimensional portals, eyes, and tunnels. The split declares the steel structure’s otherworldly mechanics inoperable. What once seemed to facilitate motion in place becomes entirely still. Yet, it has the potential to move between worlds again, if only the split were filled and this “thing” were fixed.
Hopewell Township-based Ayami Ayoama’s stone sculptures are both, at once, less abstract but more individually inspired and less pre-defined than McDevitt’s. Indeed, she says she prefers not to put her own specific design into the pieces, but rather attempts to “feel the stones” and “make them speak,” etching out their individual characters as she gives shape to the stones.
The pieces don’t just feel personal. They are.
“When I came to this country (from Japan) I couldn’t speak English at all. While working on the stone at school I had really a lot of isolation from the world,” says Ayoama. “When working on the stone, I’m discovering how to have a good conversation with that material, although it doesn’t actually have any voice.”
Today, though Ayoama regularly converses in English, she still sees English language as a barrier to full, inhibited expression. Art, she says is her alternative voice.
“I have a lot to say,” says Ayoama. “But it doesn’t come out easily. That’s probably why I need a stone to speak.”
Ayoama’s latest publicly displayed pieces seem to show a preference for smoothing full and partial symmetries out of large portions of white marble and granite. They feel calm and inviting as might a pond or river. They project power without being pompous, as might the Roman dignitary and humble warrior who, by instinct, protects and empowers before he seeks to claim.
Ayoama has also worked with smaller bronze, onyx, and limestone pieces in the past, and was even a painter before she moved into sculpting. For the first time, at the coming “More Than A Rug” exhibit, she will display pieces she created with nothing more than a chisel, file, and polishing stone. Those were the tools of her trade when she began sculpting. All her publicly displayed works, until now, were made using power tools.
The exhibit, a result of planning meets serendipity, conveys a sense of continuity and balance through contrast. Bosted’s collection is colorful, potentially even royal, but practical, with designs that have specific meaning for whomever may choose to flaunt them.
For two men with limited practice in throwing such exhibitions, Longino and Bosted have covered quite a bit of conceptual territory in a relatively small space. One might assume the two had perhaps come across each other in the local art circles some time before, and already knew they shared common notions and kindred spirits. But, Longino clarifies, they only had begun speaking recently; two board member meetings before the idea “More Than A Rug” came to fruition. Things clicked from there.
“We hit it off pretty well,” Longino says. “There’s not much history there. Just two collectors from the Trenton Museum Society coming together to make this collection.” And a whole lot of world between the two of them.
More Than A Rug, Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. Chinese painting lecture by Grace Ju Miller on Sunday, April 7, 2 p.m. Opening reception, Saturday, March 9, 7 to 9 p.m. On view through Friday, April 19. Gallery Talk: David Bosted on African Textiles, Sunday, March 24, 2 p.m. Events are free. 609-989-3632 or www.ellarslie.org.