Jeff Stewart is an inferno whose fire is fueled daily by his determination to become who and what he is supposed to be while helping Trenton to fulfill its own destiny. A lifelong lover of movies and photography, he is too humble to call himself a filmmaker, he says, because he makes his living chiefly through his job in facilities and capital planning at Rutgers University.
Yet over the past 10 years he has been instrumental in prodding the city of Trenton into becoming a place where experimental movies can draw an audience, and fledgling directors from Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other points outside the Garden State can come to get their feet wet and create.
The proof? It’s called Art All Night, a 24-hour extravaganza of art, music, film, food, fashion, and creative energy that last year attracted 25,000 people to support the likes of filmmaker Stewart and other creative artists. The event drew 1,200 submissions from all ages and mediums, Stewart points out. This year the non-stop action runs from Saturday, June 18, through Sunday, June 19, from 3 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Kids from Trenton’s South Walter Avenue aren’t supposed to go that route in some people’s minds, but Stewart, who, at 36, now lives in the city’s Mill Hill neighborhood, has surrounded himself with a coterie of friends who are turning the state capital into a destination for arts and culture literally rising from its streets.
He is a believer in Trenton’s future and willing to invest the time and focus needed to make it happen. His position as head of Art All Night’s board of directors puts him in the forefront of the wildly successful venture held for the past 10 years at the historic Roebling Wire Works, 675 South Clinton Avenue. An amalgam of music, art, film, crafts, and performance, it affords upcoming artists a place to not only display their work but also to sell it. Brimming with volunteers, it is an audacious, 24-hour-effort in a city anxious for resurrection.
Stewart does have a word or two of caution: “Be prepared to have your mind opened if you are from Trenton. This is seeing what Trenton used to be like.”
“It’s been held for 10 years and no problems,” Stewart proudly points out while sitting in the quiet Mill Hill Saloon on a weekday afternoon. “It’s a place where you can buy a painting or a piece of sculpture. We have interactive events and attract everyone from grade-schoolers up to world class artists.
“We have a world-class food court and we’re doing our own iron pour again. (Artworks needed $7,000 to stage the dramatic highlight of the event and exceeded its goal with $10,000.) “This year we’re even going to have food trucks in the parking lot. There’s no admission,” he says, “but we ask people to donate what they can, even if it’s only $1. And we can use volunteers too. So just let us know if you have time to help.”
Born in Trenton, Stewart moved from one town to another growing up, from Wrightstown, Bordentown, and Manhattan and, in 2001, to Mill Hill. He attended Northern Burlington Regional High School and studied at New York University and Temple University for degrees in filmmaking and creative writing.
He describes himself as “a child of the ’80s” who inherited a love of movies from his late father, Otis, who gave him an old VHS camera when Jeff was two. It inspired him to become a filmmaker and, he adds, “I’ve never been without one since.”
“I was raised as much by television and movies as I was by my parents,” he says, preferring not to discuss his family further. But before he established himself as founder of A Different Path Films, Stewart took an assortment of jobs, including one as a janitor at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, comic book writer, professional photographer, and a radio show host.
Right now he’s up to his neck in Art All Night preparations, serving as something of a ringmaster in the midst of three stages, 50-plus musical groups, live mural painting, and 20 food trucks expected at the event.
Having grown up the city, Stewart knows what longtime residents miss and fear. Much of the beauty of the downtown is lost in a swirl of crumbling housing and dangerous streets that empty after State House workers go home. He’s not oblivious to the hard truths, just eager to point out that there is a viable arts community ready and able to turn things around, either through street art or events like the Pork Roll Festival, Art All Night, and the Cinema Thursdays he ran for two years ending in January at Trenton Social on South Broad Street.
Unofficially, it was the only “theater” open in Trenton at the time, and its mixture of independent, locally made, and hipster movies in the same room as an active bar presented a challenge.
Now Stewart shows the same type of non-conformist films at Artworks, Downtown Trenton’s visual arts center at 19 Everett Alley, on the third Friday of every month. “That’s much more my speed,” he explains.
Stewart’s own contribution to this year’s Art All Night will be the movie “Out All Night,” a collaboration by Stewart and nine different directors about 24 hours in the life of an Uber driver. It consists of 10 different scenes varying from 10 to 15 minutes in length and done in 10 different genres — With the genres selected at random. Stewart is doing the first scene as film noir and the last in documentary style. Others include a sci-fi scene in a car wash and a bank robbery in a reality show format.
“Other than giving them those instructions, each director can do what he wants,” Stewart says.
Last year Stewart blasted into Art All Night with his own version of the classic John Belushi-Dan Aykroyd comedy “Ghostbusters.”
He is candid about how hard it is to make a movie in a city that isn’t that isn’t New York or Los Angeles. And the biggest challenge is always the same — money.
“The mayor is very supportive of what we are doing. The police don’t hassle you when you’re filming a movie here. And the people are great,” he says. “But I’ve run three unsuccessful Kickstarter campaigns, and it’s hard to get money for a movie.”
“With the technology now, you can make movies anywhere. The days of (successful North Jersey “Clerks “director) Kevin Smith are over. The next Kevin Smith is going to have his own YouTube channel.”
Stewart is currently roaming the streets of Trenton and Croydon, Pennsylvania, filming a new movie. He has learned to work with supportive friends and thrives on the friendly interest of neighborhood people curious about his work.
He filmed a drama with a zombie element called “The Reunion” in Trenton, Hamilton, Ewing, and Lawrence. When Stewart finished filming, the cast and crew scrambled back to their regular jobs. They got some of their cast from Craigslist.
One of the cast members, Joseph Gannascoli, appeared on “The Sopranos” as the character Vito, who was killed for being gay. The director spent $30,000 and two years filming along with his Northern Burlington Regional High School friend, Chris Kaczor, who remains an important collaborator. But the film never had commercial release.
Newly appointed executive director of Artworks, Lauren Otis, has nothing but praise and high expectations for the creative event and what it has become in its 10 years of existence. “Art All Night has given thousands of artists and visitors an exciting, fun, creative, and safe experience in Trenton, and is largely responsible for changing outside perceptions of the city for the better. Art All Day [the November 12 open studio and creative space tour of the city] then opened the public’s eyes to the artists and creativity spread throughout the city, cementing Trenton’s reputation as an arts capital.”
In celebration there will be a spring gala at the Trenton Country Club on Friday, June 10, acknowledging to the city’s “arts-driven revival.” The fundraising event will celebrate both Art All Night’s tenth anniversary and the fifth anniversary of Art All Day. Proceeds will support Artworks programs, which depend on grants and donations. Tickets can be purchased by visiting the Artworks website.
Art All Night, Roebling Wire Works building, 675 South Clinton Avenue, adjacent to the Roebling Market, Trenton. Saturday, June 18, 3 p.m. through, Sunday, June 19, 3 p.m. Donation requested. www.artworkstrenton.org/artallnight.