When Amy Brummer was a child, visiting her grandparents at their Margate, New Jersey, home, she was often told the story of when Paul Robeson came to visit. It had been the 1930s, and Brummer’s mother — then a child herself — was put into a dress to meet the handsome bass singer, actor, and civil rights activist who had been performing in nearby Atlantic City. Brummer’s grandfather had developed an acquaintanceship with the All-American football player when the two were in ROTC together, Brummer recounts. “There was a picture of them in their uniforms in my grandmother’s kitchen.”
With that family story, Brummer became especially interested in the house where Robeson grew up and its ongoing renovation conducted by Princeton architect Kevin Wilkes (of Writers Block and Quark Park fame) for the nonprofit Paul Robeson House of Princeton Foundation.
At the corner of Witherspoon and Green streets, the 1,922-square-foot house is where the actor and singer was born in 1898. His father, the Rev. William Robeson — born a slave — served as minister of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. During renovation of the house, which served as a boarding house in subsequent years, a trolley pass fell to the floor. It had belonged to Paul’s brother, Bill Jr., who attended high school in Trenton during the Jim Crow era. Reputedly the smartest of the Robeson children, Bill — denied admission to Princeton — earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania and an M.D. from Howard University College of Medicine.
“That’s the way spirits work,” says Brummer of the building’s release of the artifact. “They reach out of the grave to influence people a century later. It’s helping to raise the profile of the building and the money needed to renovate it.”
Brummer is doing her part to call attention to the Robeson house. She has arranged for artifacts found in it and photographed by Wendel White to be projected on the Green Street side of the house. It’s part of the exhibit she curated, “Reconstructed History,” on view through Saturday, November 25, at the Arts Council of Princeton — just across the street from the Robeson house, and appropriately named the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts. There will be an artist panel on Saturday, October 21, from 4 to 5 p.m., followed by an opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m.
Photographer White is the current artist-in-residence at the Arts Council, and his photographs will be projected from dusk to 9 p.m. “The exterior projections of the objects serve as a glimpse into the house’s past, while hinting at its future as an exhibition space for Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood history,” says Brummer. The photographs have been made in the style of White’s Manifest project, a portfolio of images of objects, documents, photographs, books, and elements of material culture such as diaries, slave collars, human hair, a drum, and souvenirs, some with great significance and others simply quotidian representations of daily life, from the history of the African American community.
These “seek out the ghosts and resonant memories expressed in various aspects of the material world,” says White, a professor of art at Richard Stockton College known for his landscapes of African-American cultural history, including a series of portraits of black towns in southern New Jersey.
Inside the ACP’s Taplin Gallery is White’s “Schools for the Colored Series,” in which he uses medium format film to capture images of buildings or locations that were designated as such. He scans the image and creates a digital mask indicating where the former building once stood in contrast to what stands there today. The images are then printed digitally in black and white.
White’s images will be accompanied by the work of Annie Hogan, who works with large format negatives, either layering or masking the images to further tell the story; Casey Ruble, who uses a custom-formulated monochromic silver paper as well as colored paper to create collages that depict present-day locations that were once safe houses on the Underground Railroad, or places where riots broke out;
Leslie Sheryll, who uses appropriated tintype portraits of women and families that she has collected over the decades and scans and manipulates them; and Ann LePore, who starts with an analog image from a Portapack film reel shot in her mother’s kitchen during her childhood, and brings to life through projection, darkroom techniques, lithograph platemaking, and handprinting on Plexiglass. The final image is a digital audio/visual projection that layers sound and image on a 3-D foundation in the shape of a dwelling.
“By veiling, masking, superimposing, and peeling back from the original photo, these artists create textured visual narratives that reflect a broader historical complexity in both content and technique,” says Brummer, who first became acquainted with White when she wrote about him as a reporter for the Princeton Packet’s Time Off section in 2003.
“There were a lot of reasons I found Wendel’s work compelling — subject, form, tone — but from a photography nerd standpoint, a detail that stood out in our conversation was how he was using a large format (four-by-five) camera with film, then digitizing the images and printing them in black and white with a color printer that had been tricked out to use a dozen or so shades of black ink. When I saw Wendel’s ‘Schools for the Colored Series’ many years later, the evolution of that hybridization came across so authentically and elegantly, a deft straddling of the space between analog and digital, documentary and abstract.”
Brummer was also drawn to the subject matter, in light of the ACP’s mission to explore pressing social and political issues, and because the organization’s building once served as the black Y “in a town that was marked by segregation, the outlines of which are still etched into the streetscapes of today,” she says. “Princeton’s own former ‘Colored School’ is right around the corner on Quarry Street, currently serving as luxury apartments in a space once restricted to those who had limited choices about what neighborhoods they could inhabit.”
With this exhibit she wanted to show where photography is today. “These artists give you a nice look at how photography has limitless boundaries and endless potential,” she says. “The artists in ‘Reconstructed History’ transform documentary images by obscuring the primary data through layers of process both analog and digital.”
“Reconstructed History” is sponsored by the Berenson Fund for Darkroom Photography, which serves to promote and expand the ACP’s photography department and offers a yearly scholarship for a student to take three semesters of photography classes. The fund is named for Bruce Berenson, who ran the council’s photography program for more than 20 years and helped take its darkroom from little more than a utility closet with a sink to a renovated new darkroom, renewing its commitment to photography. Berenson, who was Brummer’s partner, died in 2010, at the age of 54, and Brummer founded the Bruce Berenson Fund for Darkroom Photography at the Arts Council.
“We wanted to support programming, to continue to raise funds and have more classes, and get the word out on classes,” says Brummer, who met Berenson in 2000 when she took a class with him. The two began dating in 2003 and moved to Trenton’s Island neighborhood in 2004, where they lived until his death.
“It is important to me that the exhibit, for all its richness of context, also provides a satisfying overview of tools, techniques, materials, and processes. It is a snapshot of where photography is today — richly layered and distinct, with endless potential for new visions.”
When she is not curating, Brummer is COO of PTPVentures, providing business management and consulting services to clients in the entertainment, apparel, finance, and data industries, a business she runs with her husband, Patrick Thompson.
Born in Seoul to a Korean mother and American serviceman, she was adopted at 11 months old and grew up on Long Island and in Mendham. Her father was an executive for AT&T and her mother was active on the school board and PTA and volunteered at the library. She earned a bachelor’s degree in art history from Colgate University in 1992, then studied at Peter Kump’s Culinary School.
She made the transition from art history to culinary arts, she says, because when studying American folk art it gave her a new perspective on food and an avenue in which she could tie her creative interests with cultural history and the nascent local food movement. She worked in the cheesemaking program at Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville, and later as in-house chef at Glenmede Trust on Chamber Street in Princeton.
She worked as an arts reporter for Time Off from 2002 to 2004, and continued on as a freelance restaurant reviewer, and then in marketing and other small projects for the ACP. She was marketing manager for the Trenton Downtown Association from 2004 to 2006, where she ran Patriot’s Week. Back at ACP in 2011 she curated an exhibit in honor of Berenson.
“Through Bruce I learned about large format photography and process, the intellectual qualities in making execution and darkroom choices, how to manipulate your tools and know when you’re finished. People are interested in revisiting historic processes using digital tools to make it more practical or archival.”
Reconstructed History, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street Princeton, through November 25. Opening reception, Saturday, October 21, 5 to 7 p.m.; Artist Panel 4 to 5 p.m.
Wendel White, ACP Fall 2017 Artist in residence, “Manifest,” in partnership with the Paul Robeson House, projections on Paul Robeson House (dusk to 9 p.m.), October 21 through November 25.
Artist Talk on November 9, 7 p.m., Solley Theater Lobby. 609-924-8777 or artscouncilofprinceton.org.