A uniquely New Jersey art event is set for this Saturday and Sunday, May 4 and 5, when the Roosevelt Arts Project launches a two-day commemoration of its 25th anniversary. It is also a celebration of the borough’s 76 years of arts and history.
Roosevelt — originally called Jersey Homesteads — was a planned cooperative community established during the Depression by the federal government as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal.
From its start the community was different. Industry, farming, and retail sales were to be its core enterprises. New York based Jewish garment workers were its settlers. The combination of English Garden City design and Bauhaus architecture created the streets and houses. That effort included the young Louis Kahn, one of the major architects of the second half of the 20th century.
What was not planned but has been more successful than the original industry was the presence of artists and arts-making. It is a tradition that endures today and makes the town of approximately 350 homes a rarity in New Jersey. Its history, architecture, and public art work has put the entire town on the National Register of Historic Places.
The arts presence started in 1937 when prominent painter Ben Shahn was commissioned by the government to create his first major mural in the town’s school. Shahn was an American realist who incorporated themes of social issues into his work. He was influenced by the famous Mexican painter and mural artist Diego Rivera, and worked with Rivera on the controversial Rockefeller Center mural, “Man at the Crossroads.” Rivera included an image of communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and clashed with the unhappy Nelson Rockefeller, who paid the artist for the mural and then destroyed it.
Shahn’s wife, respected American artist Bernarda Bryson, joined him in the creation of the massive work that combines tales of immigration and the creation of the community to the Haggadah, a Jewish narrative of slavery, deliverance, and redemption. It also features prominent individuals of the era, including Albert Einstein, who publicly supported the establishment of the community.
Shahn and Bryson’s decision to settle in the community in 1939 attracted other artists, including esteemed visual artist and former chair of the Pratt Institute’s fine arts department Jacob Landau, painter Gregorio Prestopino, his wife artist Liz Dauber, graphic artist David Stone Martin, his son and wood engraver Stefan Martin, and numerous others.
The community’s name change reflects the community’s attachment to the ideals of President Roosevelt, who died in 1945. A sculpture memorial had been planned but waited until 1960 when Jonathan Shahn — son of Ben Shahn and Bryson — created the large outdoor bust of that president.
While art has always been a part of the community, the Roosevelt Arts Project got its start with a push from Bryson, Landau, and others, and has engaged artists working in a variety of disciplines and approaches.
That promises to be demonstrated this weekend with activities taking place in and near the Roosevelt Public School, where an art exhibition features more than 40 artists from Roosevelt’s past and present, including famous historic figures already mentioned to young emerging artists. The exhibition may be viewed from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.
Noon and 3 p.m.: Public talks on the famous Shahn Murals.
1 and 3:30 p.m.: Poetry readings featuring David Herrstrom, Judith McNally, David Keller, and others
1:45 p.m.: Concerts featuring David Brahinsky, Paul Prestopino, Nancy Hamilton, and friends.
2 p.m.: Artist Barbara Atwood conducts an art session for children
4 p.m.: Chris Martin concert.
4 to 6 p.m.: Costume making session will help individuals prepare for the Sound/Light Parade.
8:30 p.m.: Sound/Light Parade.
11 a.m.: Barbara Atwood’s arts projects for children
Noon and 2 p.m.: Poetry readings
12:30 p.m.: Concert featuring Chris Martin.
1 p.m.: Concert featuring Brahinsky, Prestopino, and Hamilton.
1:30 p.m.: Shahn Mural talk.
3 p.m. Pianist Alan Mallach performs works by Roosevelt-based composers Mark Zuckerman, Brad Graton, and Laurie Altman. Held at 12 Pine Drive.
All events are free and open to the public, and light refreshments will be available. For a full schedule of events or for background information on the Roosevelt Arts Project and its place in New Jersey culture and history, visit music.columbia.edu/Roosevelt or call 609-918-0757 or 609-647-3635.