by Sally Deering
Howard Pyle, the “Father of American Illustration,” was also famous for painting historic murals like “The Landing at Carteret” which hangs in the Essex County Court House in Newark and other works collected by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, the Delaware Art Museum and the Brandywine River Museum. But you don’t have to hop a plane to Frisco or a train to Delaware to see Pyle’s paintings up close. Four murals depicting the history of Hudson County hang in the beautifully restored, Beaux Arts landmark Justice William J. Brennan Court House in Jersey City, where people from all walks of life can view Pyle’s majestic and historic paintings.
Adorning public buildings with historic art by contemporary artists was a popular concept at the Turn-of-the 20th century and Pyle’s murals were hung at the Brennan (then called the Hudson County Court House,) soon after it opened on September 10, 1910 (this is the building’s centennial year.) Pyle’s murals are cherished commodities and respectfully maintained by the Hudson County Cultural & Heritage Affairs Tourism Development office housed on the first floor of the building where the department’s administrator Bill LaRosa and his talented staff – some of whom are artists, performers and writers themselves – carry on Pyle’s legacy:
Every month, the staff transforms the first floor’s Theodore Conrad Rotunda into the Brennan Gallery, a public art space that gives local artists a venue to show their work and the local community a chance to experience art up close and personal. To LaRosa, his staff and the man in charge, Hudson County Executive Thomas DeGise, art is for the people and by the people.
“The arts community is an important and growing part of our population,” DeGise says from his wood-paneled office on the first floor of the court house. “Ten percent of our capital projects go to public art. The Brennan was built 100 years ago and it’s still very beautiful and useful. There’s a lesson there. Do it right and with an eye toward the future.”
And while Pyle, a master artist and illustrator of his time chose to look back in Hudson County’s history as the inspiration for the murals he created, LaRosa and the Cultural Affairs crew concentrate their efforts on artists who create contemporary works in all genres of the visual and performing arts.
“We have some of the greatest murals of the 20th century on our walls,” LaRosa says from his first floor office steps away from the marble-floored rotunda. “Why shouldn’t contemporary artists have the privilege of being seen here? The court house is an ideal location to showcase art work.”
To respect the dignity of the Brennan which is on the National Register of Historic Places, LaRosa and his crew stage the Brennan Gallery with the clever use of portable walls and strategic lighting.
“I remember seeing the gallery when it was completed, it was just beautiful,” LaRosa says. “The paintings were up, the lights were on – the rotunda was made for it.”
Because the court house is a government building, the work is seen by a wide-range of people, from the high-ranking government official to the local citizen on their way to jury duty. Seeing everyday people appreciate the art gives LaRosa great pleasure, he says.
“I’ll see jurors, sheriff’s officers and county employees looking at the art work and that makes me feel good because that’s what it’s designed to do,” LaRosa says. “Art is for everyone. A public building shouldn’t be cut and dry. If it can serve a higher purpose, then why not?”
Looking back to the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Hudson County was home to many art galleries exhibiting local artists’ work, but times changed when storefront galleries became real estate gold. These days, local art galleries are practically nonexistent and many artists look for alternative venues to show their work like restaurants, office buildings, even city halls.
“There are very few galleries in Hudson County because of property values and lack of accessible public spaces,” LaRosa says. “The Brennan Gallery is one of the few.”
This week, the Cultural Affairs team is preparing for a special exhibit for Women’s History Month called “Herstory” curated by Assistant Administrator Eileen Gaughan and Program Development Specialist Meredith Lippman. The show opens March 2nd and runs through March 26th and features black-and-white photographs taken by local women photographers who were asked to go out into the community and photograph other women at work.
“We thought what better way to celebrate Women’s History Month than with an exhibit of women photographing women working in unconventional roles in fields like architecture and mathematics,” Gaughan says. “Who knows a woman better than another woman and who can celebrate women better than her peers?”
For the past two years, the Women’s History Month exhibition has given women artists like So Yoon Lym, a photographer and painter, the opportunity to have their work shown. Prior to having her work chosen for the 2009 show, Lym’s work was picked for the February “African Americana” exhibit.
“For the African-Americana show, the artists had to be of African-American ancestry,” Lym says. “What a revolutionary and contemporary concept – that all Americans are in some way connected to this month and could be through their art work. I have always looked to New York City as the center of the art world and though this is true, it’s great to know that there are venues in Jersey City that showcase and promote contemporary artists.”
Along with professional artists and photographers who exhibit at the Brennan, LaRosa and his staff present shows by senior citizens, teenagers, even patients from a local hospital. Lippman recalls a group show by students at St. Dominic’s Academy, a Catholic High School in Jersey City, who expressed their artistry in a series of painted wooden chairs.
“It was a knockout of an exhibit,” Lippman says.
As Program Development Specialist, Lippman also runs a workshop series to help artists manage their careers. An artist herself, she understands the problems they face trying to handle their careers while creating their art. So, she assembles panels of professionals who discuss important issues like writing artist statements, knowing what museum curators look for when producing shows, copyrights and other matters.
“I email the artist community and ask them, ‘What do you need? Give me an idea of what we can do to help you,'” Lippman says.
Along with the Brennan Gallery, LaRosa and his staff host the Brennan Coffee House, a once-a-month, Friday night hootenanny where the rotunda gets transformed again, this time as an intimate bistro with café tables and chairs. Local folksingers and musicians – some with a national following – perform on a portable stage and the acoustics are just right for folk music. A pet project of County Executive DeGise who’s a real fan of folk legends like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, the coffee house has become a popular night of entertainment for local music lovers and within the historic setting of the court house, songs of protest and peace seem to resound with a deeper meaning.
In September, DeGise will host a special celebration honoring the Brennan’s centennial year. It’s been a hundred years since Pyle’s murals were hung in the court house, but the concept of giving art justice still holds true today through the work of DeGise, LaRosa and the Cultural Affairs staff. Providing a public forum for art exhibitions not only nurtures an ever-growing artist population, it nourishes a community’s quality-of-life.
As County Executive DeGise says, “There’s a lesson there.”
Sally Deering is a freelance writer on art and culture.
For more information, email SallyDeer@gmail.com