The Making of

The Making of “Vladimir Feltsman—Journey From Home”

By Amber Edwards, Director/Producer

I met the concert pianist Vladimir Feltsman in May of 1990 in the course of producing a State of the Arts feature. At the time, his notoriety as a Soviet refusenik nearly eclipsed his fame as a classical virtuoso. A year later, he contacted me with an irresistible offer: travel to the USSR and make a documentary about his first performance in his homeland since his arrival in the USA in 1987. The concert was being organized by a brash independent impresario, Boris Rozin, as a poke in the eye to the Soviet Ministry of Culture — which had officially silenced Feltsman for eight years before he was allowed to emigrate.

The concert was to take place in the legendary Moscow Conservatory in October of 1991, which happened to be just two months before the Soviet Union would collapse. It was a period of extraordinary deprivation for the Soviet citizenry, with shortages of everything from food to clothing to petrol to cigarettes. Whenever people saw a line form they joined it—in desperate need of anything that was briefly available for purchase.

Impresario Rozin had arranged my lodging (I was housed in one of those enormous spaceship-like concrete slab hotels, where I enjoyed the scrutiny of a scowling babushka “hall matron” who searched my room daily,) meals, transportation, a translator, and a Soviet camera crew. I merely had to provide the videotape stock. I stepped off the plane in Moscow lugging two suitcases filled with one-hundred spanking new BetaSP tapes, the state-of-the-art broadcast format of the 1990s.

Producer Amber Edwards, now of Hudson West Productions

Feltsman’s return was a big enough story that CBS sent a “Sunday Morning” producer and two-person crew, who were friendly and professional and regarded my Soviet crew with considerable bemusement—as did I. I had been issued eight people: a van driver, two “Lamp Man” (lighting;) two “Microphone Man” (audio;) my translator Andrey; an unsmiling woman “monitor” (my KGB minder;) and my skilled cameraman, Alexi, who practiced every shot before he turned on the camera, to save videotape. (He had never seen so many brand new Sony cassettes and regarded each one as precious.)

When I questioned why multiple people were doing identical jobs, my translator Andrey explained that each crew member had his own piece of equipment which could not be shared. So Microphone Man #1 operated a boom mic and nothing else, and Microphone Man #2 was in charge of the lavaliere mic and nothing else. Every morning, the Microphone Men would ask me if I would be needing any audio today. “Da,” I would nod. “When?” “All day.” (It was, after all, a documentary about a musician, making audio a significant element.) When I asked Andrey about this (the same queries also came from the Lamp Men—#1 in charge of standing lights, #2 in charge of handheld— Andrey informed me that in the USSR it was customary for all workers to take several hours off during the workday in order to stand in line for shoes or sausages.

Granting my crew no free time for shopping, I filmed Feltsman all over Moscow for six days prior to the concert: at home with his parents, visiting the family dacha, being interviewed on Soviet State TV, shopping on the Arbat, giving master classes. Because I had no tape deck to review the footage we shot every day, I made Boris promise that he would personally take the tapes to a TV studio every night and watch and listen to every single one, to be sure we had gotten what we thought we had.

The morning after the big concert (which was recorded and broadcast live on Soviet State television), Boris came to me in a panic.

“Camera is broken,” he said.

“Well, we’ll have to rent another one for today,” I replied.

“No, camera has been broken. Since yesterday.”

“During the concert?”

I was now the one in a panic.

Boris had been too exhausted to check the tapes from the previous night, which would have revealed the problem in time to act. But the problem was all mine now. The big event I had traveled to capture had not been captured.

But, I realized, it had—by the CBS crew, who kindly offered to share their footage once their story had aired, and by the Soviet TV station, which Boris successfully bribed to turn over their master tapes to me.

My luggage now filled with precious cassettes and my mind reeling from my week in Moscow, I flew home on what would be the very last Pan Am Airlines international flight from Paris before it ceased operations and declared bankruptcy. For some reason I will never know, I was upgraded to first class.

Can we ever predict the end of the era that we are living in?

Art House Productions Goes Virtual

 

Susan Wallner: Virtual Drag Bingo, a clip of which is included in the podcast above, is a weekly, usually sold out, online event at Art House Productions in Jersey City. It’s pure escapist entertainment. I’m Susan Wallner for the Jersey Arts Podcast, and joining me today is the Executive Director of Art House Productions, Meredith Burns. Welcome, Meredith.

Meredith Burns: Hi Susan, thanks for having me.

SW: Art House Productions has an amazing online lineup, and I want to hear more about some of your other events like the Virtual Story Slam, the interactive online comedy that you do on Saturday nights… But first, tell me about Virtual Drag Bingo and what makes it special, especially right now.

MB: Well, when COVID-19 first really hit us and we realized that we would have to adapt majorly—that our doors would shut and we all started working from home—we pretty quickly thought of this idea for a game. Harmonica Sunbeam, who cohosts the event with me, she and I had been speaking for a long time about bringing drag bingo to Art House, but it just never came to fruition. So, I said to her, well, what about bringing it virtually? And she agreed, and we kind of worked through the details and did a couple of test runs and started marketing it, and we were shocked that it sold out so fast. And the first couple of games we were really just figuring out what the vibe and the structure of the event would be, but it was still fun. I think the goal, the intention, was always just to get people connected virtually, get them laughing, distract them for an hour, and really make sure that it had that live, interactive quality to it. And I think that’s what has been successful about it, you know? People, they like seeing other people when they come to play bingo. We do this survey after every event and surprisingly—or, I guess, not surprisingly—one of the top three reasons people say that they come onto bingo is to meet new people.

Harmonica Sunbeam and Meredith Burns

SW: I’m assuming this is on Zoom?

MB: This is all on Zoom.

SW: You can have side chats, I guess, and you see the same people, maybe, every week?

MB: Well, that’s been part of it. So now every week is great, because it’s so far followed this trend: we have a very strong group of returning “customers,” is what I call them, and then we have a lot of newbies. So it has this really fun feel and I really try and sort of call out—not in any negative way, in a positive way—I try and call out the people that are coming back to us, so it feels like this familiar thing. It feels like you’re coming to this house party of someone that you know, and even if you’re a newbie, it kind of feels like, oh, there’s some kind of culture here that I’m getting to be a part of. And I think that’s fun.

SW: And you sent me a YouTube clip that Art House had posted of one of the winners and it was especially touching. Can you just tell me about that?

MB: Yes! So, in the beginning of the first round of bingo—we play four rounds of bingo every week—the first three rounds are regular bingo rounds, and there are prizes after all of them, but they are gift certificates of free boards at the following week, and the final round is a cash prize, and that’s sort of a cover all: you have to fill every space on the board. So, everyone is obviously looking forward to that last round, but in the first round, we do a thing where if you’re one space away, you type, “Yes Queen,” into the chat bar, and we unmute you, so that when you finally get bingo, you can say bingo out loud—because that’s obviously part of the fun of bingo, is cheering the word bingo. So, Lena, she received a “Yes Queen” in the first round, and all of a sudden I heard someone in the background of her screen saying, “This is a COVID survivor, this is a COVID survivor!” So we spotlighted her video and her son actually said, “You know, she beat the virus.” And so everyone was clapping for her, and it was a really nice moment, and we kept moving. But then, sure enough, she won the final round.

SW: Wow.

MB: It was just kind of perfect. And we do this thing now after the final round where we ask the winner to give a speech, and it’s kind of silly, but of course here it became kind of poignant. She didn’t want to give the speech but her son did, and he just said, “You know, we lost my father a couple of weeks ago, and my mom had the virus as well, and she came through with flying colors. And my nephew or my niece recommended that we play this to sort of have a bit of fun and take our minds off of what’s happening to the family. And this has just been incredible.”

SW: Especially as she lost her husband, and here she is inside, and she looked quite elderly actually, and probably loves to play bingo in general…

MB: Yeah, it was really sweet. It was very touching and there were probably eighty-something people on that night, and in Zoom there are these panels—it almost looks like the panels of Brady Brunch (laughs), where you just kind of scroll through the panels—and just everyone was crying. Everyone was wiping away tears. It was just a really lovely moment and that really drove home the importance of escapism and fun. You know, a seemingly silly thing like Drag Bingo has brought a lot of meaning to people’s lives, and I’m really proud of that.

SW: So, Art House Productions has a lot of parts. I mean, in real life… You have a gallery, you have a theatre, you do lots of different kinds of events. You’re also planning on moving in the next year or so to a bigger, more centrally located space in Jersey City. What are some of your programs and how have they transitioned online?

Virtual Drag Bingo

MB: Well, I would say we have created new programs for our online audiences. In normal times, we present theatre, we have a visual arts gallery, like you said… we have a comedy fest, we have an INKubator New Play Festival, which is a year-long residency of playwrights, and then it culminates in a New Play Fest reading in the spring… we have a modern dance festival… we present different arts groups locally and throughout New Jersey and New York… So, there’s a lot happening, and not all of that can be translated well in the virtual space. The longer this is happening, I do think that the performing arts unfortunately will be the last thing to really reopen, so I really think that the longer we are in this situation, who knows what we’ll innovate, but for the time being, Drag Bingo, Virtual Story Slam, which is a partnership with No Dominion Theatre Co here in Jersey City—it’s essentially just that: if you’ve ever seen anything like The Moth, it’s hearing stories based on a theme on Zoom—and then we do have stand-up comedy on Saturday nights, which is, again, very interactive and I think different than how some groups are doing it. Especially now that the comics, eight weeks in, are very comfortable with Zoom—they’ve all been doing a lot of Zoom stand-up shows—and so, they know how to spotlight folks, which means essentially everyone’s screen gets filled with the same image, so they’ve been doing hilarious crowd work on Zoom.

SW: Really? That’s cool.

MB: It’s really cool. So our comedy program is directly translating onto Zoom, and we are bringing our comedy festival online in July, because we’re so comfortable now with what’s happening Saturday nights with stand-up, we feel it’s going to be a relatively easy lift to translate that.

SW: In a way it seems like it could even be expanding Art House Productions’ footprint outside of Jersey City.

MB: Yeah, I think it is! I mean, we got a shout-out on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he’s doing a thing now where essentially he is shouting out different virtual events across the country, so that was very fun for us. But, every week now, since that shout-out, we’ve had more and more people from different parts of the country. So it definitely is broadening our reach and it’s definitely expanding our programming. I mean, we’re really trying to take this in two week to four week chunks, but, depending on what happens, even when we go back to live performance we might continue with some of the virtual programming because part of Art House’s mission is accessibility, and we’re finding that this is really making arts programming accessible to people with disabilities in a different way, to elderly people who might not be mobile enough to leave the house or not want to, or people with mental health issues who might not want to leave the house. This is really expanding programming to them, and that’s very exciting for us.

SW: I was reading that you have an original digital crowd-sourced community poem, with the theme of “Life in the Pandemic and Beyond: Quarantine, Devastation, and Hope for the Future.” I hadn’t seen anything else like this around, and I’ve been looking at a lot of different organizations and what they’re doing online. Why don’t you tell me just a little bit about this, because it sounds both ambitious and sort of very unusual?

MB: Yeah, so, the idea was really to figure out a way to connect Jersey City artists and also to harken back to Art House’s roots. What’s interesting is that we were founded shortly after 9/11, so we were really founded in the midst of a really difficult time, for our country of course but specifically for Jersey City, given our proximity, and given how many people from Jersey City were lost in that tragedy. The first event at Art House was an open mic of poets, so we thought, you know, here we are again, experiencing similar anxieties, and how can we harken back to our poetry roots? There’s still such a huge contingency of poets in Jersey City, so how can we activate them? So this idea was kind of just brainstormed, well, what if it’s a community poem? What would that look like? And we quickly realized that we’d need someone to sort of be the curator of that poem, so we reached out to Rashad Wright, who is the Poet Laureate of Jersey City, and we kind of worked out the structure with him. We’ve also expanded it to all of New Jersey—any poet or interested party living in New Jersey can submit a poem up to eleven lines, and then they have to give permission for Rashad to pick and choose whatever lines he wants to then create this final community poem. And so, Rashad has created this poem—it’s beautiful, it’s a very long, substantial poem, and so we have our final poem, and now the next phase of this is we’re going to ask for video submissions of performers, again, anyone who’s interested in recording a few stanzas of the poem, and then we’re going to cut that together in a video project that’ll be shared, and also we’re going to create a PDF of all of the poems that were submitted and then the final poem.

The hope is that this is kind of a time capsule. We’re calling it the Jersey City Community Poem because although we have expanded who’s able to participate—everyone who’s a resident of New Jersey is eligible—but we do feel like Jersey City is Jersey City, so I still think it’s going to both represent the city well and, you know, also speak to New Jersey and be more inclusionary. But yeah, so that’s the idea, and so far, so good! We’ll see how the final video project comes out. We’re trying to really engage on a lot of different levels. So while we have these live, ticketed events, we also have a lot of content that’s coming out—we send out a weekly e-blast on Mondays and there’s a different thing for every day of the week, and a lot of that is content-driven. We have artist profiles, we have different archival footage that we’re putting out, we have this community poem, we also have a visual arts competition, submissions just closed for that and we had a 150 visual arts submissions, which is kind of amazing.

SW: Wow, 150 different artists who submitted?

MB: 150 different artists.

SW: Wow.

MB: Which is about 100 more than I thought were going to submit, so it’s really great. There is a cash prize for that one, so perhaps that was the incentive, and that’s the idea: we’re trying to support our artists in as many creative ways as possible, given our limitations and given the situation right now. We are trying to sustain. We are really working hard to do what we can and to provide resources and to provide paid opportunities where we can. Our rule of thumb has been that if it’s a ticketed event where audiences are paying, we are paying our artist to be performers of that event. So far so good, and we’ve been able to remain solvent, but of course the future is very unknown and uncertain.

SW: Thank you so much Meredith, it’s been really nice talking to you, and good luck.

MB: Thank you Susan, I appreciate it.

SW: That was Meredith Burns of Art House Productions in Jersey City. You can find out more about their offerings at arthouseproductions.org and more about all of the arts in New Jersey at jerseyarts.com. I’m Susan Wallner for the Jersey Arts Podcast.

Socially Distant Art—An Interview with Wendel White

June 1, 2020
By: Mae Eli Kellert
Image: Intestine, male, African descent, 1849 cholera. Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians Philadelphia. Part of Wendel White‘s Manifest portfolio.

While social distance measures remain necessary, artists, writers, performers, and musicians continue to create in New Jersey. During this blog series, State of the Arts is reaching out to New Jersey creators to share their thoughts on art-making during lockdown.

Hear from photographer and educator Wendel White, who has been featured multiple times throughout the years on State of the Arts. A longtime enthusiast of sharing his work through virtual platforms, Wendel discusses how he’s been creating and sharing during the pandemic, highlighting the power of accessibility through both onsite and online media.

Has the pandemic and social distancing impacted your artistic process, or, thematically, your work?

There have been several impacts at various points throughout my practice. Two exhibitions scheduled for spring and summer were cancelled, though one is attempting to reschedule.

One of my spring exhibitions (a group show) is up and the dates have been extended but the gallery is not open. There was an opening reception just about one week before everything in NY shut down. The gallery has created a great virtual exhibition online.

I was involved in creating a VR version of a student exhibition and while not the same, it was at least helpful to have something that could be experienced in VR as an exhibition.

Unfortunately, I intended to use this time (before the pandemic) to begin work on a new project. I am not yet ready to discuss the project (it might not materialize), but it would have involved quite a bit of direct interaction with other people. Though obviously not ideal for these times, I will return to the idea in the future.

Meanwhile, I am editing and revising existing work, especially around the practice of medicine. Before the pandemic (during 2019) I was fortunate to have access to the collection at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Many of the images have taken on new meaning in the context of the pandemic.

Although it was disappointing when exhibitions were cancelled, one, a large survey of landscape photography, is going forward with plans for a book publication of the work planned for the exhibition. I don’t know yet whether the project will materialize, but the editors were interested in a recent and a much earlier piece. I was very happy to have this time to return to images in my earlier work.

Mt. Zion Cemetery, Wendel White

Do you have any advice for artists who are being impacted by the pandemic?

I doubt that I have any great advice for other artists—I am also struggling to be productive right now. However, I have found that the time to think and review past work is incredibly helpful and I anticipate that this investment in reflection will also reap rewards. Certainly for some artists this can be a very productive time to create new works. Working during the pandemic and making imagery about the pandemic experience will be of great importance in the future.

A glimpse at Wendel’s workspace

Share your thoughts on the artistic community in New Jersey—how can the arts not only survive or adapt within the pandemic and lockdown, but also bring the community together?

I hope that the NJ arts institutions and communities will use this time to share information and access to the arts in new ways. I have been attending various webinar lectures and in many ways, I have had access to more presentations than normal. We should have as many artists lectures and curator led tours of collections around the state as possible. This could be a great opportunity to show off the arts in NJ in new ways to broader audiences. If there has been a “silver lining” it is that I have seen so many more arts programs around NJ—virtual poetry reading, artists lectures, interviews and of course the amazing repository of NJ artists within the State of the Arts video archives. The pandemic has allowed me more time and enthusiasm to engage with the “virtual” arts community around the state and the entire planet.

Does the experience of sharing your art virtually or remotely these days change your relationship with your audience at all?

The first web site of my work went on-line twenty-five years ago and during that time my work has been present in the on-line community, continuously. There has always been a traditional web site as well as other technologies and platforms. My web site was referenced in books about media on the web as early as 1996 (Multimedia Producers Bible) and in a recent history of social media (Social Media Archeology and Poetics, 2016, MIT Press) by Judy Malloy. Malloy was specifically concerned with the early on-line arts community known as “Arts Wire” (1990’s) and the various member projects.

Skull Inscribed ‘Negro,’ Mütter Museum, part of Wendel White’s Manifest portfolio

I cannot imagine my work and career without the ability to provide remote access to my projects. In 2003 Matt Mirapaul wrote about the Black Towns site for the NYTimes—“But few photographers have embraced the Web to the extent that Mr. White has. Many sites are devoted to documentary, but they rarely amount to more than a slide show…With its mix of media, the new Black Towns site is an impressionistic experience.”

Although I am not producing on-line works (intended only for that space) I have always embraced the network as a place to allow direct access to my work and on a good day, it has enabled many wonderful conversations.

Follow Wendel White on Instagram and Twitter, and find his online portfolios at wendelwhite.com. See his group exhibition Visions 1020 at KENKELEBA HOUSE virtually through June 27, 2020.

To hear more from the artist, take a look at our past features with Wendel:

Socially Distant Art—An Interview with Jedediah Morfit

May 29, 2020
By: Mae Eli Kellert
Image: Gills: Grow A Pair, 2019, Mixed media, 8.5 x 9 x 33” by Jedediah Morfit

While social distance measures remain necessary, artists, writers, performers, and musicians continue to create in New Jersey. State of the Arts catches up with sculptor Jedediah Morfit, who we also visited at his Collingswood studio in this 2012 feature. Currently, he’s got an exhibition at Paradigm Gallery + Studio in Philadelphia—but this time, the opening reception will be held online, and the gallery is also presenting a 3D virtual version of his exhibition.

Has social distancing impacted your artistic process, or, thematically, your work?

This is all pretty new, and I was working on my exhibition right up to the moment I dropped off the work, so I had that momentum working for me. Now, I don’t know. In general, after the work for a show is delivered I immediately start oscillating between wanting to take a break and wanting to start something new. That probably won’t change.

A look at Jed Morfit’s process—starting with foam armature, Jed added clay, created a waste mold, and finally went in and carved the resulting bust. You can see this piece in his solo exhibition at Paradigm. Source: Instagram.

Do you have any advice for artists who are being impacted by the pandemic?

I would point them to this headline from The Onion: “Man Not Sure Why He Thought Most Psychologically Taxing Situation Of His Life Would Be The Thing To Make Him Productive”.

Share your thoughts on the artistic community in New Jersey—how can the arts not only survive or adapt within the pandemic and lockdown, but also bring the community together?  

I know that the right answer is probably to sound a hopeful note about the relationship between the power of art and the strength of community, but I just don’t know. Communities and the arts will adapt, for sure, but adaptation doesn’t necessarily mean trading strength for strength. Adaptation (particularly adaptation as a result of radical environmental changes) comes at a cost.

Artists and creative arts organizations have been extremely generous in putting a lot of great content online during this crisis, and we’ve all benefitted from seeing a lot of great performances for free, but that’s not a sustainable model. Somehow the community is going to have to find ways (and be willing) to not only enjoy the arts in this time of crisis, but sustain them. My worry is that we, as an audience, have come to accept the notion that we have to pay for content from major corporations who have the capacity to create profitable platforms, like Disney+, but continue to expect that independently produced content can and should be free. My worry is that the pandemic will serve to solidify those expectations. My hope is that it does the opposite.

Does the experience of sharing your art virtually these days change your relationship with your audience at all? 

My exhibition Adapting To Change will open online through Paradigm Gallery on Friday, May 29th. As sad as I am to not have an in-person opening, the technology we will be using will actually make this exhibition much more accessible than it would have been otherwise. People who would never have been able to get to Philly to see the show will not only be able to see all of the pieces individually in 3D, but see how each piece relates to the other in the space. It’s not the same as being there, but it’s much, much better than not seeing it at all.

Beyond that, and this probably too big a question to tackle here, I think websites like Instagram, Artsy, and Patreon have changed the relationship between artist and audience fundamentally. These platforms allow (and maybe force?) artists to be attuned to the audience and, by extension, the marketplace, on a moment to moment level. I’m not prepared to say whether that’s good or bad, but that kind of feedback cannot help but influence the work.

Follow Jed Morfit on Instagram and Twitter, and check out his online portfolio at jedediahmorfit.com. See his solo exhibition Adapting to Change at Paradigm Gallery in Philadelphia through June 27, 2020.

To hear more from the artist, take a look at our 2012 feature.

Ode to Joy

By: Eric Schultz

December 17th this year is Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Musicians and music lovers around the world are celebrating. We’d like to share our own PBS program featuring the great composer’s Symphony No. 9, Ode to Joy.

The production is one example of how a short State of the Arts feature inspired and grew into a full-length PBS special.

In this case, it started back in 2007 when we produced a feature about the Scheide Library at Princeton University. We spent several days filming in the special room the Princeton University Library had created for Bill Scheide’s rare book and manuscript collection. It is one of the most extraordinary collections in the world. There are early printed Bibles, including a Guttenberg, a first printing of the Declaration of Independence, hand-written musical scores by Bach, Mozart, Schubert and, yes, Beethoven, and countless other treasures. I learned that William H. Scheide’s own life was equally amazing and it became clear there was far more to the story than we could capture in a 10-minute feature.

Several years later, when Princeton University hosted a 100th birthday celebration for Bill Scheide, we seized the moment. The Vienna Chamber Orchestra, the Westminster Choir, and renowned soloists performed the 9th Symphony with Mark Laycock conducting. We filmed the concert for PBS and created a concert documentary that both features the Symphony and tells about William Scheide’s extraordinary life.

We were thrilled to have John Lithgow agree to narrate the program. During our recording session, John fondly recalled hearing William Scheide conduct the Bach Aria Group at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. John’s father, Arthur Washington Lithgow III, was the theatre’s artistic director. John was a teenager and a classical music lover. As you will see in our program, the Bach Aria Group was just one of Bill Scheide’s amazing accomplishments.

Beethoven wrote the Symphony No. 9 toward the end of his life. He was completely deaf, in miserable health, and completely forlorn in love. And yet, he wove the text of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” into the final movement and created one of the most uplifting and hopeful pieces of music ever written. It’s worth revisiting during these particularly challenging times.

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.

ARTS PROGRAM/SPECIAL
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.

 

MAGAZINE PROGRAM/SPECIAL
“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.

 

HISTORIC/CULTURAL– PROGRAM FEATURE/SEGMENT
“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.

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