Recent newspaper headlines have not been kind to Trenton. The FBI investigation of Trenton Mayor Tony Mack is due to go to a federal grand jury that could lead to a possible indictment. After a mid-July raid of his home and office, the FBI seeks evidence of bribery, extortion, fraud, money laundering, and drug dealing linked to the Mack administration.
Under the Mack administration, safety in the city was undermined when 100 police officers were let go. Then there was the toilet paper shortage that made Trenton a laughing stock in national news last winter.
But in its heyday, Trenton had more than 50 pottery manufacturers and was an industrial powerhouse, churning out cigars, bridges and wire rope for elevators and cable cars. Magnificent homes were built along the Delaware and in Cadwalader Heights, Mill Hill, Glen Afton, Hiltonia and other neighborhoods. But Trenton fell on hard times during urban flight, and has been struggling to make its comeback ever since.
At the forefront of the city’s efforts to revitalize are the arts organizations that make their home in Trenton: Passage Theater, Artworks, the New Jersey State Museum and the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie continue to “make what Trenton should be making,” says playwright and Trenton Artists Workshop Association founding member Dan Aubrey. “We’re trying to build a community of people who care. The city didn’t do it, we did.”
Trenton Makes, the Trenton Artists Workshop Association’s summer exhibit at Ellarslie (which continues with an artists’ discussion on Sunday, August 19), is the first exhibit held in the museum since Ellarslie Director Brian Hill’s position was axed by Mack last fall, due to budget cuts. (The museum’s annual juried Ellarslie Open was downsized this year to a fundraising event to help hire Bob Sands as part-time director.)
Visiting the former mansion in Cadwalader Park a few weeks ago, I noticed a banner strung under a model of the Trenton Makes Bridge connecting the stone pillars at the entrance, proclaiming the name of Trenton Mayor Tony Mack. Huh?
The sign and mock bridge turn out to be just another scandal of Mack’s administration. The $17,000 sign will be removed because approvals were never sought from the Landmarks Commission. Cadwalader Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park design team Olmsted and Vaux, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Walking up the front path to the 1848 Italianate villa, which became a museum in the 1970s after a stint as a monkey house, I noticed the garden hasn’t been as well tended as when the museum had a full-time director, an assistant and a custodian. Although it lacks the magical air of better times, Ellarslie still has vestiges of its glory days.
Inside the museum, Sands greets me and explains how he had been an intern when Hill was still at the helm, then served as interim director. Commuting an hour from Glassboro, Sands also directs the Trent House part time. He appears happy to be here and says he loves the work.
Former director Hill, now working at a museum in Alabama, was known for the quality of his installations, and would be happy to see the tradition continued. Trenton’s new generation of artists — influenced by graffiti and including Leon Rainbow and Will Kasso — are represented in Trenton Makes as well as 92-year-old Jon Naar, who photographs graffiti and has written a book on it. He has captured Rainbow at work, arms filled with spray cans.
Rainbow’s graffitied letters of the show’s title in the entry leads a viewer to the mathematically conceived optical effects of Andrew Werth’s “Creation,” and next to that, William B. Hogan’s Tahiti-esque painting of a dancing figure and a hot tropical flower in bloom.
In the Tom Malloy Gallery, photographs by Aubrey Kauffman, Lizz Wells, and Josh Brilliant evoke an urban wasteland. Large walls of gray cinderblock, fences that block the light and white lines on black asphalt find poetic interplay in the photographs by Kauffman. In a series “I’m So Tired,” Wells finds sleeping people, possibly homeless, and silkscreens the white images on black canvas. Brilliant finds a plane landed in the woods, its door ajar, and an RV alone in a field — these are about last trips.
In the main gallery, Elizabeth Aubrey’s softened cityscape, with houses that almost look like Hobbit huts, is paired with Marina Ahun’s photorealistic oil painting of a bridge connecting two glass buildings, reflecting each other in wavy lines.
Storyteller, curator and artist Rebecca Kelly, who recently moved from Ringoes to New York City, has created an altered book, “The Wooden Bowl,” opened to an illustration of three men with the Himalayas in the background, the caption reading “The idle young men of the village made fun of her.” The “her” character has risen from the page, carrying weights of justice in her hands, and on the facing page a tree made of the book’s paper has risen, with hands reaching eerily out of all its branches.
Painter Joe Kazimierczyk reminds us that although we are in the capital city, we are surrounded by trees, parks and rivers in “Raritan River Crossing.”
There is so much color, texture, and form here, from Judy Tobie’s handmade paper “Mother Night,” a ganglion of spiky ovules nested within each other, to Susan Kubota’s “Two Idol Sisters,” made from slivers of wooden debris painted gold, scarified and outfitted with facial features; from Fran Mollett’s “Trifle for Thanksgiving” in a glass dish atop a red tablecloth under a pink lampshade against a blue wall with white louvred shades, to Donna Payton’s universe of toy figures — art critic Gerard Haggerty, who served as juror, picked well.
In the final room, we see a conversation between Mel Leipzig –– considered one of the state’s finest living painters –– and fellow artists Harry Naar and Jon Naar. Leipzig paints Harry in a triptych with his wife and two adult sons, and Jon in a diptych, surrounded by his photographs of Andy Warhol and Josef Albers, with whom Leipzig studied at Yale. It was a difficult time for Leipzig, a dyed-in-the-wool realist coming of age at the dawn of Abstract Expressionism. Painting Albers as a black-and-white photograph must have been divine retribution for Leipzig, who refuses to paint from photographs, only from life.
In Leipzig’s canvas we see Jon Naar with his camera, tripod and photographs, hung on the yellow wall behind him and on a table of books propped open. There’s a view outside the window, recognizable as the area behind the Mill Hill Playhouse. The other panel is the view outside another window, framed by the sill and a sliver of the yellow wall – we see the Assunpink Creek rushing by, as well as brick row houses. “Jon came from England to live in Mill Hill, so I wanted to show the neighborhood,” says Leipzig, a long-time Trenton resident.
The 77-year-old painter is a master at telling a person’s story through the elements of their environment, be it messy stuff exploding out of drawers, paint dribbled on an easel (he likes to paint artists, as well as architects), or papers tucked neatly in shelves. In Harry’s studio, Leipzig reproduces his canvases –– intricately drawn woods, with snarls and tangles of branches — using Harry’s pen to do so.
In Leipzig’s realist portrayals, life becomes art, but in this gallery, art becomes life. Some of the photographs of Jon Naar, the drawings of Harry Naar and the film posters of Harry’s son, Aaron, appear on the opposite walls. Jon Naar’s photographs of the shadows cast by children on swings onto a wooden trailer look like the flying monkeys in the wizard of Oz. An etching by Harry Naar of an intricately detailed woods, as well as an ink drawing of shells on a windowsill overlooking an intricate woodsy scene, show how “Harry has really found something he can call his own,” says Leipzig.
When I caught up with him by phone, Leipzig was painting Napi’s restaurant in Provincetown. “It’s an unbelievably beautiful restaurant,” he says. He’s working on several paintings at once: his daughter Francesca on the beach, a family with their grandchildren, and a woman with a horse — the first horse Leipzig has ever painted.
Since retiring from teaching painting at Mercer County Community College in spring, Leipzig’s schedule has grown busier. On Thursday nights in June, he could be seen at Settimo Cielo on East Front Street in Trenton, painting a triptych of the Italian restaurant. One panel includes Margaret O’Reilly, curator of fine arts at the New Jersey State Museum, who often joins him there.
In his iconic white van, Leipzig’s home-away-from-home studio, he transports supplies as well as paintings. He often wears a white lab coat that has become a multi-colored dream coat. He wants to paint as much as he can, so he paints whomever he is visiting. Painting people is how he relates to them; it’s how he processes his life.
Leipzig left home July 9 to go to the East Hampton, New York, home of Audrey Flack and spent three days painting the artist, her sculpture, and her husband, who had never been painted before.
Next it was off to Colchester, Connecticut, to paint the architect Tom Smith, the son of former Leipzig student Graziella Smith, and his wife and son. “I have no concept of how to get to these places,” he said, admitting he took a wrong turn and arrived at Smith’s home at 2 a.m.
A few days later, Leipzig left for Cape Cod, where he spends a month every summer. And while he’s there to visit with his five grandchildren and children, he’s not digging sand tunnels, sun bathing, or eating quahog ice cream — he’s painting. “My grandkids don’t want their grandfather around that much,” he says.
With him in that van are several works in progress: a painting of artist-curator-educator-philanthropist Judy Brodsky and her husband, author Michael Curtis; Congressman Rush Holt and his wife, physician Margaret Lancefield; and son Josh, a tattoo artist.
When Aubrey saw Leipzig’s painting of Jon Naar, he knew it would be the focal point of Trenton Makes, about building community with others artists working in the region.
Trenton Artists Workshop Association has been organizing summer exhibits at Ellarslie for about 30 years, says organizer and TAWA founding member Dan Aubrey. So this year he wanted to do something a little more, and Trenton Makes has a second exhibit at the Prince Gallery in New York.
Trenton Makes, Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. Through Saturday, September 1. Mel Leipzig and Harry and Jon Naar will present a talk about their relationship, collaboration, and interaction Sunday, August 19, from 1 to 4 p.m. Leipzig will resume work on his painting at Settimo Cielo on Thursday, August 16 — everyone is invited to watch him paint and eat. 609-989-3632 or www.ellarslie.org.