‘It’s in the hearts and minds of the residents, and those who participate in the studio tours, concerts and other events that keep the traditions alive,” says writer and filmmaker (and U.S. 1 freelancer) Ilene Dube about the town she celebrates in film “Generations of Artists: Roosevelt, NJ.” It is having its world premiere as part of the New Jersey International Film Festival at Rutgers in New Brunswick on Sunday, June 11.
The 20-minute documentary looks at the Monmouth County town developed as one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal projects to address the Great Depression. And while the community was initially settled by New York-based Jewish garment workers, art put it on the map and in New Jersey history.
Originally called Jersey Homesteads — and later named to honor the president who created it — the plan was lofty: get unemployed workers active in mixed industry, farming, and retail.
Ideal too was the overall community design that coupled a green, self-sustaining “Garden City” ground plan with the modern and efficient Bauhaus architecture housing.
In a development that would have given the town an artistic edge from the start, the project involved the young architect Louis Kahn, whose 1957 breakthrough design for the Trenton Jewish Community Center’s bath house would make him one of the most influential architects of the 20th century.
Yet the town’s unanticipated transformation from a stalled workers’ center to a successful arts community began in 1937 with the arrival of prominent American artist Ben Shahn to paint a wall-sized mural in the town’s school.
That Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural with politically and socially charged scenes of early 20th century America generated attention in its day and continues to attract visitors to the town of approximately 900 residents.
Shahn was taken with the community’s ideals, and when he and his artist-wife, Bernarda Bryson, made the move from Manhattan to the small rural enclave in 1939, other established artists soon followed. Among those now synonymous with arts in Roosevelt are painter and illustrator Jacob Landau, painter Gregorio Prestopino, artist Liz Dauber (Prestopino’s wife), graphic artist David Stone Martin, photographers Edwin and Louise Rosskam, and others.
Many of the artists also were parents to children who became artists in their own right. That includes the late wood-engraver and printmaker Stefan Martin, active painter and muralist Ani Rosskam, musician Paul Prestopino, and prominent American sculptor Jonathan Shahn.
Dube — a former Time Off editor for the Princeton Packet, active area freelance writer, and a communications manager for the D&R Greenway Land Trust — says she first learned about Roosevelt and its idealistic origins in 1987. That is when she, her husband, Princeton Charter School science and math teacher Mark Schlawin, and their two small children moved from Stamford, Connecticut, to Princeton Junction to raise a family in a more open environment. It was also the same year Bernarda Bryson Shahn and other artists started the Roosevelt Arts Project, and Dube was attracted by the events and began reading about the community’s history.
“I became fascinated with the town,” she says, after a visit to write about an artist’s studio. “It was like a fantasy place from an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone,’ an alternate universe where everyone got along, the streets were rural and pleasant, and the arts and architecture made it rich.”
Dube began working on the film three years ago while working on another project, the multi-venue exhibition “Concentric Circles of Influence: Celebrating Central New Jersey at the Forefront of Creative Activity.”
“Concentric Circles” examined how central New Jersey became a hotbed for creative energy and “played an important role in American cultural life of the last century,” wrote Dube and co-curator Kate Somers. The exhibitions also included the premiere of Dube’s short documentary film “The Birth of an Art Community,” featuring interviews with the creators of the Princeton-based Queenstown Press: Judy Brodsky, Turdy Glucksberg, Margaret and Lonni Sue Johnson, Marie Sturken, and others. It was screened at the Arts Council of Princeton and the Nassau Film Festival.
While known for her writing on and involvement with the arts in central New Jersey, the Brooklyn-raised Dube studied psychology and media studies at SUNY Buffalo and cinematography and film and video production at New York University. She also has a master’s degree in human resources counseling from the University of Bridgeport.
Dube, via e-mail, says her involvement in filmmaking is not new. “I studied filmmaking in college with (experimental filmmaker) Paul Sharits . . . I also studied film criticism with (prominent editor, essayist, social critic, and film critic for Esquire Magazine) Dwight MacDonald — he gave me an A++ on everything and wrote a wonderful recommendation letter that got me into the NYU MFA film program, though I never went because I couldn’t afford to.
“Instead I took a summer-long certificate program at New York University. What I learned was that unless you had an uncle who could bankroll the project, it was impossible to make a film.” However several years later she made a short film on a behavior therapy practice while she was obtaining her master’s degree.
While her work as the cultural editor at Time Out restricted her time, she says film returned when she left the paper and created an arts blog, the Artful Blogger. Then, she says, Princeton-area photographer Tasha O’Neill “introduced me to the Flip camera and its easy-to-use editing program. I started recording videos to supplement blog posts.” She says she continued the practice while working at Michener Art Museum and the D&R Greenway, where she made shorts for the organization website.
Then, she adds, “In 2012, while writing for WHYY Newsworks, I took their documentary production class and learned to use better equipment. When the class ended I hooked up with Princeton Community TV, where I continued taking classes and learned to use Final Cut Pro X editing.”
It was when she completed “The Birth of an Art Community” that she knew she wanted to make a film about Roosevelt and its artists. “I’ve always been interested in utopias. Also, my paternal grandfather lived on a farm in New Jersey. I never was able to get much information about it — he died before I was born — but I imagined he lived in a farming community like Roosevelt, one with Jewish immigrants who weren’t especially good farmers.”
She says the film took a long time and included attending many Roosevelt art events and recording and editing sessions with visual artists Jonathan Shahn, Ani Rosskam, and Bill Leach; poets David Herrstrom and Judith McNally; music artists Paul Prestopino and members of the Roosevelt String Band; and New Jersey State Museum Director Margaret O’Reilly. The film’s title, she adds, comes from prominent area artist Mel Leipzig, who mentioned the idea of a “generations of artists” to her while he was painting her into a group painting of writers and editors at U.S. 1.
Dube puts her recent work into personal perspective by referring to her parents — both of whom recently died — and says, “My father, a career Bell Telephone man, took pride in his inventions. He dabbled in filmmaking, photography, and cartooning, and could fix just about anything. My mother plied her artistic abilities into fashion illustration and interior decorating, and sewed all our clothes when we were young.
“When my father was dying he was wondering if Stanley, his cousin, was still alive, so I Googled him and learned that he worked with Louis Kahn on the Trenton Bath House — he’s a footnote in Susan Solomon’s book about the bath house. So with that ancestral link to Kahn, and my grandfather’s mysterious New Jersey farming upbringing, the Roosevelt community really resonates for me.”
Generations of Artists: Roosevelt, NJ, New Jersey International Film Festival, Voorhees Hall Room 105, 71 Hamilton Street, Rutgers University. Sunday, June 11, 7 p.m. $9 to $12. Free pre-show Jimmy John’s sandwiches and free parking in Rutgers University lots. 848-932-8482 or www.njfilmfest.com.
Additional screenings: Roosevelt Arts Project at Borough Hall, 33 North Rochdale Avenue, Roosevelt, Saturday, June 24, 8 p.m., www.rooseveltartsproject.org.
West Windsor Arts Council, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction, accompanied by a presentation with two Roosevelt bands and a conversation between artists Mel Leipzig and Jonathon Shahn. Saturday, July 15, 7:30 p.m. www.westwindsorarts.org.