Seward Johnson (1930-2020)

Seward Johnson (1930-2020)

Sculptor and public art evangelist Seward Johnson died on March 10, 2020 at his home in Key West, Florida. He was 89. Seward Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, had an enormous impact in his home state of New Jersey and beyond. His popular work appeals to the “everyman” – not people who, as he says, “grew up with art books.” One of his most touching and well known creations is Double Check, the life-like sculpture of a businessman on a bench that survived amid the rubble of 9/11, and that remains as a memorial.

Double Check by Seward Johnson

Seward Johnson’s greatest legacy may be Grounds for Sculpture, a 42-acre art park in Hamilton, New Jersey where his own works mingle with the work of other great artists from around the world in a gorgeously landscaped setting. Over the years State of the Arts has visited Grounds for Sculpture many times: here’s a clip from 2002, where Seward gave a tour of his 3D recreation of Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles. Here’s a playlist of other times we’ve visited the park, often called a “living museum.” 

In 1992, Seward Johnson talked to State of the Arts producer Susan Wallner for a Jersey Arts Podcast. He described the beginnings of Grounds for Sculpture, and how he always tried to incorporate “whimsy” into his work. Most of all, listening to Seward Johnson speak reveals the joyful and creative lover of life and beauty that he was.

“Dreaming of Utopia: Roosevelt, NJ” at Morven Museum & Garden

Jersey Homesteads rendering, 1936, by Louis I. Kahn.

In the 1930s, America was in the midst of the Great Depression, but those dark days spurred a period of reinvention and reinvigoration. President Roosevelt’s New Deal created programs that reached out to workers and new immigrants. Artists were employed to document America and its people, and to ornament the new bridges, parks and buildings that were being constructed.

Planned communities sprang up across the country, including a very special one in the heart of Monmouth County, New Jersey. An exhibition at Morven Museum & Garden, “Dreaming of Utopia: Roosevelt, New Jersey” tells the story of a unique community that continues to thrive today, albeit not as the cooperative farm and factory town it was first envisioned to be.

Originally called Jersey Homesteads, Roosevelt was a town built for recent immigrants; many of which were garment workers. In this ideal cooperative community, they would live and work, making clothing from start to finish. The government-built houses were designed by Alfred Katzner and his assistant – the now revered architect Louis Kahn – who were both enamored with the Bauhaus style. They gave the modest houses high-end architectural elements unusual for the time, such as flat roofs and floor-to-ceiling windows.

However, by 1939, the cooperative had already failed, and the factory closed. This was the end of Jersey Homesteads’ first chapter, but its next chapter is what made the town more than just an historical footnote.

Wives and children of the cooperative farm homesteaders, 1936. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Artists began to move to Jersey Homesteads, renamed Roosevelt to honor the president after his death in 1945. These worldly, creative types appreciated the modern style of the houses, and the progressive nature of the town’s politics. Many had worked as artists or photographers for New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration and the Farm Security Administration. Their politics were progressive, and the town’s history appealed to them. These bohemians found community in Roosevelt, as well as open space for their young families and proximity to New York.

The first artists to discover Roosevelt were Ben and Bernarda Bryson Shahn. Ben Shahn was a rising star, on his way to becoming the most well-known artist in America by the 1940s. Bernarda Bryson Shahn was a writer, illustrator and painter. They arrived in Jersey Homesteads to paint a mural for the community center, which now houses the local elementary school. Their 12 x 45’ fresco mural can still be seen there. It tells the town’s story, from immigrants arriving in America, through the growth of the labor movement, to the founding of the cooperative, where farm and factory would support a decent life for workers.

After the grand experiment was called off in 1939, the government first rented, then sold off the houses. The Shahns were among the first to buy. They told their friends, and by the 1950s, there was a critical mass of artists in town. A new sort of utopia was formed, with artists playing a vital part in the small town (population about 800). Morven’s galleries include a wonderful selection of art by the first generation of artists to call Roosevelt home, including Jacob Landau, Edwin and Louise Rosskam, Elizabeth Dauber, Gregorio Prestopino, Sol Libsohn, and Ben and Bernarda Bryson Shahn.

“Dreaming of Utopia” gallery installation view, Morven Museum & Garden, Princeton, NJ

Musicians and writers lived there as well, and the curators have included fascinating anecdotes and objects to tell their stories, including a reading nook with original editions by Roosevelt authors and illustrators. The label to “Woodwind Quintet” (1951), an ink drawing by Robert Emmett Mueller, quotes the artist, musician, and MIT-educated engineer: “Roosevelt was like one big open house in those days. You’d go somewhere to listen to folk music, then you would go to someone’s house for dinner, then to another house for a discussion on art.”

The entrance to “Dreaming of Utopia” at Morven features a large-scale reproduction of the Shahns’ mural. Also on display are Otto Wester’s futuristic aluminum doors created for the community center, which depict the field and factory workers of Jersey Homesteads and, in the distance, the skyscrapers of a city. The exhibition’s engaging wall panels give the town’s history, illustrated by photographs of the first settlers, houses being built, workers on the job, and more. Objects on display include an original handwritten receipt for $500, the amount a prospective settler had to put down to reserve a place in the new town.

The galleries include work by Roosevelt artists up through the 2010s. Of special note are two busts, or “heads” by sculptor Jonathan Shahn, who has lived in Roosevelt since he was a year or two old. The first greets visitors at the entrance to the show; it’s a replica of an enormous head of Franklin D. Roosevelt located in a park near the Roosevelt school. It became the first public memorial to the president in the United States when it was dedicated in 1962, in a ceremony attended by Eleanor Roosevelt.

Plaster Study for Head of Martin Luther King Jr. by Jonathan Shahn, 2004

The second, placed in the final gallery of Morven’s exhibition, is a plaster study of the head of Martin Luther King, Jr., created by Shahn in preparation for a Civil Rights Memorial in Jersey City. The final sculpture was commissioned by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Transit Arts Committee, and dedicated in 2004.

“Dreaming of Utopia” is an ambitious, unusual exhibition. It features not a single artistic style or medium, but a diverse community of artists, connected by their experience of living and working in Roosevelt. It was conceived and orchestrated by Elizabeth Allan, Morven Museum’s deputy director and curator, and Ilene Dube, writer and guest curator. Dube first became familiar with Roosevelt and its community of artists in the 1990s, when she was an editorial director at “Time Off.”

“I was just fascinated by the fact that subsequent generations of artists were continuing to this day,” says Dube. She was inspired to make a short film, “Generations of Artists: Roosevelt, NJ,” and, ultimately, to guest curate the exhibition now at Morven.

The opening of “Dreaming of Utopia” was a homecoming for Rooseveltians who have moved on, and a steady stream of locals are visiting to see the history of their town and its artists honored. But the meaning of a place like Roosevelt speaks to a wider audience. Not only were many of the artists well known, even famous in their day, but Roosevelt was founded on an ethic that intertwined labor, art, and social responsibility.

“What I find so exciting,” says Dube, “is that the issues that concerned the artists working in Roosevelt back in the 1930s are still so relevant today — civil rights, economic equality, immigration, labor issues and fair pay, the right to free speech, and women’s reproductive rights.” In today’s polarized world, many artists are returning to social and political themes. “Dreaming of Utopia: Roosevelt, New Jersey” serves as a history lesson about a place where another path was taken, and where progressive politics, art, music, and the value of a simple life continue to flourish.

Jersey Homesteads Mural by Ben & Bernarda Shahn, 1937-38. Photo: Ricardo Barros, 2019.

To find out more about Roosevelt’s history and its artists, “Dreaming of Utopia: Roosevelt, New Jersey” at Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton is a first stop. The exhibition is on view through May 10, 2020. Next, visit the Roosevelt Arts Project for upcoming community events, concerts, and tours.

Mary McDonnell stars in Gloria: A Life! Watch the story here.

For Mary, it’s a reunion of sorts with the playwright, Emily Mann. Mary and Emily first worked together in 1980, and have been fast friends ever since.

Listen to an extended version of the State of the Arts interview with playwright Emily Mann in this edition of the Jersey Arts Podcast.

“Gloria: A Life” Headlines Emily Mann’s Last Season at the McCarter

First published September 3, 2019 by Discover Jersey Arts.

Emily Mann is a triple threat: an award-winning playwright known for her “theater of testimony,” a sought-after director, and the artistic director of one of America’s preeminent regional theaters, the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey. She is stepping down as artistic director after the 2019-2020 season, her 30th at the McCarter. In this special edition of the Jersey Arts Podcast, producer Susan Wallner talks with Mann about her career, her future projects, and her final season, which begins with her play “Gloria: A Life” starring Mary McDonnell (“Dances with Wolves,” “Battlestar Galactica”). Mann and McDonnell have worked together since 1980, when both won Obies for Mann’s play “Execution of Justice” on Broadway. “Gloria: A Life” features the story of the iconic feminist Gloria Steinem, and first ran last season at the Daryl Roth Theatre in New York. McCarter’s new production, directed by Diane Paulus, runs September 6 – October 6, 2019.   Listen to the podcast here

2019 Mid-Atlantic Emmy Nominations!

State of the Arts has been nominated for three 2019 Mid-Atlantic Emmys!

Winners will be announced on September 28, 2019. In the meantime, check out our nominated features.

State of The Arts: Painter Tyler Ballon, Folk Duo Jackson Pines, Trompe L’Oeil Artist Gary Erbe, and Photographer Erik James Montgomery”- PCK Media
Susan Wallner, Series Producer
Eric Schultz, Series Producer
Robert Szuter, Producer
Joseph Conlon, Director of Photography

Artist Tyler Ballon interprets Biblical themes with images grounded in African American life today. Folk duo Jackson Pines plays songs about life on the road and at home in the Jersey Pine Barrens. We catch them in performance at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park. Nutley painter Gary Erbe works in the ancient tradition of “tricking the eye.” And, photographer Erik James Montgomery instructs at-risk youth in Camden in the craft of professional photography.


“State of The Arts: The Montclair Show”- PCK Media, LLC

Eric Schultz, Producer/Director
Susan Wallner, Producer/Director
Joseph Conlon, Director of Photography
Robert Szuter, Producer/Director

Join State of the Arts as we explore Montclair’s cosmopolitan and diverse cultural scene. The Montclair Film Festival takes the town by storm every April with world-class screenings, but has grown in just a few years into a year-round cultural force. Montclair has been known as an artists’ colony since famed landscape painter George Inness settled there in the 1890s, preserving its beautiful views for future generations. State of the Arts visits the Montclair Art Museum to find out more more about Inness, and see the work of 21st century landscape painter Kay WalkingStick. We visit her studio, and meet longtime Montclair resident, the innovative jazz musician and composer Oliver Lake. He also writes poetry and paints, seeing it all as integral to his musical career. Plus, a visit to Jazz House Kids where young people learn jazz from luminaries, including jazz superstar, Christian McBride.


“Ember & World War I”- PCK Media, LLC, a State of the Arts feature

Eric Schultz, Producer/Director

The New Jersey-based chamber choir Ember uses music to explore social issues. Recently, they tackled race relations in America after black soldiers returned from the battlefields of WWI.

The Atlantic City Show

By: Mae Eli Kellert

State of the Arts has dedicated special episodes entirely to iconic New Jersey cities like Trenton, Montclair, and Princeton – now, it’s Atlantic City’s turn.

This historic boardwalk town is home to an emerging home-grown arts scene – poets such as Joel Dias-Porter, who writes and makes his living at Atlantic City’s famous poker tables, and Emari Digiorgio, who hosts poetry readings at the Noyes Arts Garage in Atlantic City, are two of our past features from this creative city. Plus, we’ve dived into the epic history of Boardwalk Empire. Now, State of the Arts is back at the shore, just in time for 48 Blocks and more.

Mural being created at 48 Blocks AC

48 Blocks is a yearly celebration of the arts in Atlantic City – encompassing 48 blocks, 48 projects, 48 hours. Every June, the community comes together to share murals, public arts projects, live performances, and even yoga. The program is organized by the Atlantic City Arts Foundation in partnership with Stockton University.

MudGirls Studio artists at work at a kiln in AC

Plus, meet the women of MudGirls Studios. Making art, after all, is a fulfilling and powerful way to support both your community and yourself.  Designer Dorrie Papademetriou founded MudGirls to provide jobs for women in need, and to give them the chance to learn the art of ceramics. Now, the MudGirls are selling their beautiful pottery, as well as creating tile installations at places such as Stockton University and the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. To support this non-profit program, be sure to check out their store.

Created by MudGirls Studios

Up next is photographer Brian Rose, whose works juxtapose the different neighborhoods of Atlantic City’s 48 blocks. In particular, he captures the oversize presence of the casinos, exploring the lasting effects of Donald Trump’s failed businesses on the shore city. To hear more from the artist’s perspective, head over to Brian Rose’s blog, where he documented his experience filming with State of the Arts.

Photograph by Brian Rose

Next, Chicken Bone Beach Jazz honors the city’s African American history, performing jazz concerts right on the beach. Their name references the historical segregation of Atlantic City’s beaches – now, they present jazz concerts on this world famous shore, showing that jazz is “more than just musical entertainment; it is a progressive, gathering force of inclusion.”  2019 marks the 20th annual Jazz on the Beach series, which holds jazz concerts on Thursdays throughout the summer. Plus, they perform at the historic Claridge Hotel during the rest of the year.

Photograph by Brian Rose

Finally, on this special episode, meet Ralph E. Hunter, Sr., the founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey at the Noyes Arts Garage. An avid collector, his apartment had been known as “The Museum” – nowadays, his important permanent collection of objects, art, and artifacts is available to be seen, discussed, and studied – along with rotating exhibitions by local artists, focusing on themes of civil rights, history, culture, and more. The museum has two locations, found in Newtonville and in Atlantic City.

Don’t miss this special episode, premiering at the following airtimes:

Wed, 6/26 @ 8:30 pm
Sat, 6/29 @ 7:30 pm
Thurs, 7/4 @ 11:30 pm
Sun, 6/30 @ 12:30 pm
Mon, 7/1 @ 10:30 am & 3:30 pm
Wed, 7/3 @ 10:00 am & 3:00 pm
Tues, 7/2 @ 2:00 pm

Remembering Toshiko (1922 – 2011)

In the early 1990s, when I was still a production assistant at State of the Arts, I had the idea to do a half-hour documentary about Toshiko Takaezu, the internationally known ceramic artist who was then still teaching at Princeton University.  I went to propose the project to Toshiko at her studio/home in Quakertown, New Jersey. It is an old farmhouse that she transformed over the years into a sprawling complex, surrounded by gardens, huge bronze “forests” and her signature  bells. She waved from the kitchen window to go on in, she was on the phone and would be right with me. I walked inside and just stood there among the George Nakashima furniture and a huge loom with one of her weavings on it. She walked in shortly and started by pointing to my feet, exclaiming – I had walked in with my shoes on!  Not done in her house.

No matter. Over the next couple of years, I got to know her through days spent videotaping her at work, talking to her, to others about her, and spending lots of time trying to shoot her art in a way that would convey some of its power. At one point, Toshiko said that I must go to Hawaii with her, as that was where she had first become an artist. I somehow convinced a tourism council and others to cover the costs, and I flew out to meet her one January. She greeted me at the airport with a fragrant lei, and we began about 5 days of traveling to sites that had influenced her. Some of these – such as the “Devastation Forest” in Volcanoes National Park – Toshiko herself had not been to in years. I worked with a crew from Hawaii Public TV to shoot her walking in these surreal landscapes, and talking about how they had shaped her sense of beauty. One morning we woke up very early and caught a perfect sunrise over Haleakala

Toshiko died yesterday, in Hawaii with her family. She was blunt in her opinions, full of laughter, and really fun to be around. On the trip I took to Hawaii, we shared a room, and it was liking having a dorm mate who likes to talk when the lights are out. But the thing I will remember most about Toshiko was her sense of timing. It’s how I ended the documentary I did about her, Toshiko Takaezu: Portrait of an Artist. She’s sitting on her steps, shelling some large purple beans from her garden, and you hear her say:


“Isis” by Toshiko Takaezu

“You know, there is always such as thing as timing. And if you let yourself, allow yourself to work on timing, you really get it. I know when to change – something tells me you should go away and study.  And something tells you, you know, it’s a good thing to teach…. Even do my own work, it’s timing that you know it’s the right time to do.”

The last few times I saw Toshiko, she was taking care of the work she had made over her prolific career. She was making sure pieces were going places they would be taken care of, and seen. She gave me one of her large ceramic spheres, cracked so that it was perhaps unsellable, but great because you could leave it outside! Toshiko had stopped working on her art, but she never lost her sense of timing. She had a sense of the greater whole that didn’t let her down.

Working on that piece was one of the best things that’s happened to me here at NJN. Strangely, I had scheduled it to air this very week: it’s running on NJN2 through tomorrow. We hadn’t aired it in a long time – after all, it is almost 20 years old – but for some reason, the timing seemed right.

This blog post originally appeared on the website for NJN, New Jersey’s public television network, which closed in June 2011.

State of the Arts joins ALL ARTS

By: Mae Kellert

State of the Arts has joined ALL ARTS, a new streaming platform and online news source dedicated to arts and culture!

This new media service pledges to “enrich lives through the transformative power of art by providing a free, multi-platform portal for the arts, accessible to everyone, everywhere.” Truly, they are definitely accessible: you can find ALL ARTS on TV in the greater New York area, and you can also stream full programs 24/7 on your television, smartphone, tablet, Apple TV, Roku, or Amazon Fire TV via their free app.

Airing weekly on Mondays at 10:30 am and 3:30 pm and Wednesdays at 10 am and 3 pm, State of the Arts is excited to join the ALL ARTS community, which highlights visual arts, dance, film, music, theatre, and literary arts. ALL ARTS is also a news source, with articles being shared on their Twitter, Facebook, and blog. Plus, they have a thorough weekly newsletter that you can subscribe to on their website. While exploring their site, be sure to check out their full original programming, featuring documentaries on dance, music, theatre, and more.

ALL ARTS is powered by Public Media and produced by WLIW, a WNET affiliate. With these additional airtimes, State of the Arts is now airing five days a week:

Saturdays @ 7:30 pm on NJTV

Sundays @ 11:00 am on WHYY, @ 12:30 pm on WNET Thirteen

Mondays @ 10:30 am & 3:30 pm on ALL ARTS

Wednesdays @ 10:00 am & 3:00 pm on ALL ARTS

Thursdays @ 11:30 pm on NJTV

Plus, you can watch our features online here on our website, or over on our YouTube.

Kevin Sampson: Solo Exhibitions In New Jersey and Beyond

By Susan Wallner for
originally published: 10/9/2018

“I’m a Civil Rights baby. I grew up laying across picket lines and blocking traffic.” Artist Kevin Sampson’s father, Stephen, was a well-known Civil Rights leader in New Jersey, and he instilled a commitment to community that his son still honors.

Community, politics and the spiritual intertwine in all of Sampson’s art, from his found-object sculptures, to his public art and murals. And right now is a good time to see Sampson’s work, with solo exhibitions at the Visual Arts Center of New JerseyExpress Newark and at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.

Kevin Sampson: Solo Exhibitions In New Jersey and Beyond

The playful, almost naive surfaces of Sampson’s sculptures are immediately involving: there’s a game in identifying fragments and parts such as cowrie shells, bicycle chains, Mardi Gras beads or old toys. But soon, you begin to notice greater depths, and often darker meanings.

He began making sculpture in the 1980s after his cousin died in the AIDS epidemic. Sampson gathered objects from her backyard and assembled them into a memorial – the first of many monuments he’s made since then.

“Engine Company 107 New York” honors the Sept. 11 firemen; it’s made of old fuses, pieces of wood painted to look like matches, a radio and piano keys arranged in an almost organ-like manner.

The “USS Harriet Tubman” has the shape of a Civil War-era ship, adorned with old ropes, chains and bullets, as well as what look like pearls and coins. Sampson made the ship as a tribute to the anti-slavery activist, one of his childhood heroes.

Kevin Sampson: Solo Exhibitions In New Jersey and Beyond

Sampson is always working, whether in his studio in the Ironbound section of Newark, in his friend’s woodworking shop or on location. For his solo exhibition at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, he painted a mural on site, working with his friend and fellow Newark artist, Kevin Darmanie. The mural intermixes political images and phrases with science fiction-like energy transference and a mutated figure of Lady Liberty coming to pieces.

The show’s title, “Black and Blue,” is referenced in the mural, along with the phrases “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” on either side of the energy transference. Both movements have deep meaning for Sampson, as an African American who was on the police force for 18 years before retiring to pursue art full time.

In addition to the mural, the exhibition includes found-object sculptures, drawings and a recent series of porcelain sculptures responding to the Black and Blue Lives Matter movements. “Black and Blue,” in the main gallery of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, runs until January 27, 2019.

Sampson has a smaller solo exhibition running “in conversation” with “Black and Blue” at the Box Gallery at Express Newark, one of the Paul Robeson Galleries of Rutgers University-Newark. Titled “Olde Soul,” it features rarely seen drawings, sketches, early sculptures and ephemera from the artist’s studio. The exhibition runs through February 23, 2019, with an opening reception on October 18.

Sampson is often described as a “self taught” or “outlier” artist, more for the style of his work than anything else. Not only did he study at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art, Kean College and the Art Students League, he also trained to be a composite sketch artist while with the Scotch Plains Police.

In Sampson’s opinion, people “change things into their own cultural language so that they can understand it.” It’s one way of understanding his art, which emerges from a found-object artistic tradition found all over the world, from the folk artists of Haiti to culturally mainstream artists such as Picasso and Man Ray. For Sampson, the objects he chooses to use in his work make it richer because they bring with them their own histories: “It’s about attaching yourself to one’s community,” he says, “it’s about a sense of place and memory.”

Kevin Sampson: Solo Exhibitions In New Jersey and Beyond

Sampson’s art is powerful because it works on so many levels, and connects with so many people. For those traveling through Connecticut anytime soon, it’s worth planning a stop to see Kevin’s third solo exhibition up right now, “Monument Man: Kevin Sampson in Residence,” at the Mystic Seaport Museum through the Spring of 2019. Mystic Seaport is featuring a wide selection of his ships, including the “USS Harriet Tubman,” the “USS Alligator 2” and the life-size “USS Kye Kye Kule,” which he constructed while in residence at the Seaport for three weeks in the summer of 2018.

Visit one of Kevin Sampson’s current exhibitions or follow his lively posts on Facebook to find out what else is happening in this busy artist’s life. Watch the recent State of the Arts profile of Kevin Sampson at Mystic Seaport here.

In Production: Nelson Baez, Bomba Master

By: Mae Eli Kellert

What is Bomba?

Pronounced “BOAM-ba,” this Afro-Puerto Rican genre of music and dance is lively, full of movement and rhythm, and best described, in the words of Bomba Master Nelson Baez, as a conversation between a drummer and a dancer: “The dancer is literally playing that drum through their body.” Bomba is completely unchoreographed – the drummer must predict intuitively what the dancer will do. Nowadays, drummers and dancers often perform onstage, but Nelson prefers to think of the experience of Bomba in its traditional setting: a circle amongst actively participating spectators. “As the people get inspired,” he says, “one would come into the center of the circle.” This intricate relationship between the dancer and the lead drum, or subidor, is enveloped by other drummers, singing voices, and the movements of the spectators, resulting in a beautiful and impressive artistic experience. In August, State of the Arts captured Nelson’s group Cimarrones in a live performance at the Sixth Annual Latino Festival of Hightstown-East Windsor, a showcase of the diverse artistic traditions of New Jersey’s Latinos communities.

Nelson Baez, left, leading a Bomba workshop

“The New Jersey State Council of the Arts was really instrumental in my development,” says Nelson Baez, who trained under Tito Cepeda and Mickey Sierra. Nelson is now a master himself, and is training two apprentices through the NJSCA Folk Arts Program, as well as teaching large workshops at a yearly summer camp for 75 students aged 10-16 years old. An upcoming feature on State of the Arts offers a glimpse at the intricate training behind Bomba through a conversation with Isnard “Izzy” Mil-Merced, one of Nelson’s early workshop participants who came back ten years later to train as his apprentice. Immense skill is required to master not only the detailed and varied drumming rhythms and techniques, but also the intuitive side of communicating with a dancer while on the subidor.

Nelson Baez and his apprentices, Edwin Estremera and Isnard “Izzy” Mil-Merced

As Izzy muses, “You can definitely feel the history within each song, within each rhythm, within each dance step.” To hear more about the transformative power of the music and why Nelson Baez’s hairs stand up just talking about Bomba, watch our upcoming episode on State of the Arts’ new season, premiering Wednesday, 10/3 and Saturday, 10/6 at 7:30 pm, repeating Thursday, 10/11 at 11:30 pm on NJTV. The episode airs on WHYY Sunday, 10/7 at 11 am.

State of the Arts goes to Greece

View of Athens, Greece

Here at State of the Arts, we go “on location with the most creative people in New Jersey.”  Recently, however, we went to Athens, Greece to meet Byzantine iconographer and artist George Kordis.  George created the large wall painting in the Constantelos Hellenic Collection and Reading Room at the Bjork Library at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey.

George Kordis, Byzantine Iconographer & Artist

George Kordis is a master painter and iconographer in the Byzantine tradition.  He mixes his own egg tempera paints from egg yolk, a bit of egg white, essential oil, and white wine or vinegar.  For over 40 years, he has created sacred paintings, often right on the walls of Greek Orthodox churches.  He also teaches Byzantine art.  It’s a style rooted in a religious tradition reaching back to at least the 14th and 15th centuries.  George also creates secular works, based on stories from myth and other Greek themes.

Constantelos Hellenic Collection and Reading Room Mural by George Kordis

Stockton University has a renowned Greek studies program. One of its early founders was Demetrios J. Constantelos (1927-2017), Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies, Emeritus.  The mural by George Kordis in the Constantelos Hellenic Reading Room honors his legacy.  It features Greek figures from ancient to modern times, posed alongside a river flowing from Mount Olympus.  The water of tradition and knowledge connects past and present: from the ancient philosophers Socrates and Plato, through the important Greek Orthodox leader Saint Basil, to the 20th century artists, singer Maria Callas and poet C.P. Cavafy.

(L-R) Producers Lisa Honaker and Pantelia Bairaktaris with Stockton University’s former Assistant Dean of Art and Humanities Nancy Messina, artist George Kordis, and Athens-based crew Argyris Theos and Christos Daskalothanasis in the church painted by George Kordis in Vouliagmeni

So how did we swing this international story?  Last November, Stockton’s Dean of Arts and Humanities Lisa Honaker was in Greece to attend a conference, and Stockton’s Associate Director of Research and Sponsored Projects Pantelia Bairaktaris was in her native Greece on a family trip.  As members of the State of the Arts advisory team, they took on the role of producers for this story!  With an Athens-based camera crew, Lisa and Pantelia visited George in his studio, where he gave a demonstration and told them more about his art.  That same day, they went on a field trip to Panagia Phaneromeni, an Orthodox church built in 2010 in Vouliagmeni, a seaside suburb of Athens.  George Kordis created the extensive wall murals for this modern Byzantine church over a period of two years.  They are truly the work of a modern master.

Panagia Phaneromeni dome painting by George Kordis

Finally, State of the Arts went with our New Jersey-based crew to see the mural in Stockton University’s Constantelos Reading Room.  While there, we met Tom Papademetriou, Professor of History and the Executive Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Hellenic Studies, and Amy Papalexandrou, Assistant Professor of Art History.

A Byzantine Artist is featured on the State of the Arts episode premiering Sunday, May 27, 2018 on WHYY at 11 am and on NJTV at 8 pm.  Shortly afterwards, we’ll have a link to it here. 


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