Newark's Local & Historic Artwork
In A Dream I Saw A City Invincible, wrote Walt Whitman. For artists like myself who engage with archives, there is a real danger in lingering so deeply near the past that one unmoors from the present. It's also been said that dealing with the recent past tends to be more challenging than the apparently malleable, long-time-ago-time. As someone who makes pictures using large format film, with a view camera (high technology of the late 19th century) stamped manufactured "East Germany," I can't help but love old pictures of Newark that can be found all over the Internet. But I love them precisely because I love the present and am working actively within it. I scrapped my prior plans for this column after one recent night here in Newark that I know is going to be seen as historic later.
So I say, are you with me now?
I can't hear you, are you with me now?
I still can't hear you, are you with me NOW?
It's 2015, it's a new year.
And if what I heard and saw and felt in the first Mayor's meeting with Newark Artists is any indication, the dream is not a dream. It's as real as we can make it. There were hundreds of us, gathered in council chambers, surrounded on all sides by the framed painted portraits of past councilpeople stretching back decades. There's a moment where the quality of the brushstrokes seems to change, I've been meaning to investigate who the artist(s) commissioned is. But I didn't look much at those paintings that night. City Hall is not a sterile space: ceaseless use and adaptive reuse make for evocative rooms like the chambers, cavernous gilt ceilings dim like a cathedral with a few bright hot lights set up in a kind of permanent provisionalism for the recordings of meetings by digital video. Artists of every age and temperament were there packing the pews. I saw people I see every day and people I haven't seen in years.
Our mayor spoke rivetingly. He laid it out, our challenge. Now perhaps I should pause to say how extraordinary and wonderful it is for a city leader to specifically convene artists, to recognize the power of what we do and challenge us to make the city an even better and more interesting place. This is not common...someone in the back said...I've been waiting for this moment for so long. But even the youngest among us knew how exciting it all was. The language used was both visionary and utilitarian, a call for self-determination and new ideas. Many of us stayed up all night after the meeting. No one could sleep. We were instead, dreaming.
The next day I (blearily) walked over to local artist and architect Anker West's 19th Ceramics In a Hard Place exhibit, an annual sale and open house in the Dietze Building. West's unique artistic practice yields a wide range of objects including but by no means limited to graceful vases and functional items like bowls to small-scale models of threatened or demolished architectural sites, primarily 19th century factory buildings. Some of my favorites are plates painted with highly specific urban scenes of Newark life, including the Ironbound, the Pulaski by water, and many others. Each has the year carefully painted or etched on, in addition to being dateable based on details like the make of cars and changes in urban skyline, and as a group they comprise an idiosyncratic, and valuable codex of Newark's past and present. As we all gathered and toasted with fresh, strong (!) coquito (Puerto Rican eggnog), I thought about the careful brushstrokes in indigo glaze, the fierce heat of the kiln, the process of making something that lasts, that is of use not just today but tomorrow.
If you're reading this and it's cold and grey, come by Market Street and visit Sunil Garg's ongoing public art installation. It's most vibrant at night, when the complex programs Garg wrote to control an array of lights makes them pulse in every color shade you can imagine, casting neon shadows. The interval of the lights spells out I LOVE NEWARK in Morse code. The invincible city isn't some sloganeering rhetoric. And it isn't a dream either, nothing so fragile. It's a message that brings us together to make of 2015 what we want to it to be, something lasting and beautiful.
Evonne M. Davis and Emma Wilcox are working artists and cofounders of Gallery Aferro, a Newark alternative arts nonprofit. Begun in 2003, Gallery Aferro offers exhibitions featuring local, national and international artists, a wide range of public events, a year-round studio residency program, educational offerings, group tours, a publication line, a gift shop and public art initiatives.