The A-Team is finishing up its latest event in Princeton — an exhibition of “Music Inspired Art” currently in the McCarter Theater lobby as part of the Princeton Festival and its production of “Nixon in China,” concluding June 30.
The area’s most noted group of “outsider artists,” the A-Team is both humble in that it started at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) and grand in its connection to the human spirit — especially the soul of artist and A-Team co-founder Shorty Rose.
“It’s a man fishing in a boat,” says Rose, pointing to one of his paintings on the wall of a conference room at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen.
It’s a Tuesday and that means there’s more on the menu than food at the Escher Street facility.
Tuesdays are when the A-Team’s community of artists has been coming together since 2001 to create and share in the soup kitchen’s multi-purpose room.
The artists are self-taught and work in a wide variety of media, including paint, pencil and ink, pastel, collage, and found-object construction. Their studio space and basic supplies are provided by the soup kitchen. Other donations come from artists who have a surplus of materials and from galleries or framers. While the group is housed within a social organization, their day-to-day activities are determined by the artists themselves.
Yet ask anyone in the group of these self-defined “outsider” artists how this phenomenon came about and Rose’s name is quickly mentioned
But for Rose, he’s interested in talking about something else.
“I can relate to a man on a boat,” he says, looking back at both his painting and his own personal journey on life’s uncertain currents.
“I founded the A-Team with my sister Rose — who died — and Frankie Mack, who left Trenton but still sends pictures in,” says Rose, age 65. “When I got out of prison, my sister invited me to the soup kitchen. I got three meals of day and a job dishwashing. I studied here and got my GED. The kitchen saved me. I’ve been out (of prison) for 18 years. I’m not going back.”
Rose says he prefers not to talk about the circumstances that landed him in Rahway State Prison when he was in his 30s. Instead he wants to talk about art and how it fills his mind and soul.
“My mother knew how to draw, and my grandmother knew how to draw and was a knitter. My uncle drew. I say that’s where it came from,” he says. And while he abandoned thoughts of art in his early teens, he got reconnected in prison when another inmate showed him how to craft objects from found objects. “I learned making picture frames out of cigarette packs,” he says.
“When I hit the street and saw all the colors, it started — my mind was creating something every day. When I got myself down to the soup kitchen I made my things out of everything I could find.” He also made jewelry boxes out of the ever present cigarette packs.
With a sense of art and a need for community, Rose, his sister, and Mack found themselves organizing with people who were taking an art class offered at the kitchen and turning it into a community with an identity. “We came up different names (for the group). We wrote the names down and put them in a bag. Whatever name came out would be the name. And it was the A-Team. We weren’t trying to take the name from the TV show.”
Rose’s reasons for helping to create the project are both personal and social. “Art is keeping me out of the jail. It’s keeping me out off the street and out of trouble. I had to change my ways. You’ve got to have something to fall back on. Trenton is not the way it’s supposed to be. I was born and raised Trenton — South Trenton on Lamberton Street. I’ve seen Trenton flip a million times. We’ve got nothing here anymore. There’s nothing for the kids to go to anymore. They’re taking about the kids getting in trouble — so make something.”
Herman Rose says the name “Shorty” came about because, in addition to his physical stature, “Everyone in South Trenton got a nickname.” He adds that he was brought up with his mother but through his construction worker father he got jobs such as landscaping and picking potatoes in Burlington County.
An accident caused a physical disability that resulted in limited work opportunities. Rose said he eventually dropped out of school and ended up in prison. “When I was up there (in Rahway), I went to every program. I wanted to do everything right. I wanted to go out with nothing on my head. I wound up doing 12 years. I’m not going back for anyone,” he says.
One way to assure that is to keep the A-Team alive and visible — for both himself and others.
“If it wasn’t for the A-Team a lot of people would have nothing to do, just come in and eat. When we put the pictures on the walls, it makes the people feel good. It makes them feel like they’re at an art gallery. People love it. People can’t afford pictures, but they see them. They may see them in their dreams.
“It also makes people who pass through the door look in (at the A-Team). They see we’re open to the public and don’t turn anyone away. I say, ‘Don’t just look, but come on in and show what you can do. Bring your talents here. Let people see your work.’”
The seeing goes beyond the walls of the soup kitchen and Trenton. A-Team art has been shown in exhibitions at Artworks, Grounds For Sculpture, ongoing exhibitions at the Princeton Historical Society’s Updike Farm, and in private galleries.
Dion Hitchings, a nationally exhibiting visual artist, art director, and owner of Outsider Art Gallery in Milford, New Jersey, exhibits A-Team artists and said in a past interview, “I have a choice of artists from around the world, but I choose to have them because I think they have a unique body of work and some of the artists are remarkable. Each artist has his or her own world. They are untaught, so they had to make up their own world. They have made up their own universes.”
The art of A-Team member Charles Smith is an example. The artist creates intricate and colorful universes where machines and natural objects fill the canvas. A fe years ago the work attracted the attention of an anonymous New York City artist who donated money for the A-Team to create a limited edition of Smith’s work. The 30-page book — with 25 images — is fittingly called “Creating Worlds.”
Rose, who lives alone in a West State Street apartment, says involvement in the A-Team is simple. “(Potential members) have to bring in some work or make some work. They have to tell others what they want to do for themselves and what they want to do for the A-Team. We volunteer once a month at ARC and help the Rescue Mission, too.”
Providing his own testimony for what he will do for the team and what he does for himself, Rose says, “I love for people to do the art. It makes them feel so good. I tell them just keep doing what you’re doing. When I come down here, I don’t think about the street. I think about one place. Being here and doing things for the A-Team. I don’t talk about my work; I talk about everyone’s work.”
Yet Rose knows his work is important in more ways than just putting images on a wall: he stopped smoking and drinking in order to use what little money he has to purchase art supplies. “I love my art. I don’t like to copy. I love (to paint) animals, birds. I love my animals. It’s my style, nobody else’s.”
Over the past few years there has been a new chapter of the A-Team called the Trenton Community A-Team. While the original and loosely managed project continues at TASK, the newer one is a nonprofit operating out a converted carriage house at 51 North Stockton Street. The building is owned by the community development nonprofit Isles and located in the city’s designated Creek to Canal Arts District — roughly bordered by Perry and East State streets and Route 1 and the D&R Canal.
Managed by a board of directors who use the building for exhibition and workshop space, it is uncharted waters for the Rose and the A-Team.
But Rose has faced difficult waters before and says, “I’ll be there to do things with the kids and bring people in. If you do the right thing for people and keep yourself going, it makes people feel good. You have to bring that stuff out there to Trenton. It makes Trenton be something. You can make this place better than it is right now. I just hope it goes the way it goes.”
Nixon in China, Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Sunday, June 30, 3 p.m., $45 to $150 and student rush half-price (ID required). A-Team artwork is on view in the lobby. For more information, go to www.princetonfestival.org or buy tickets through McCarter Theater: www.mccarter.org.