Ever since Ben Shahn came to Roosevelt, N.J., to paint his famous mural in the small town’s public school, the town has been a hub for artists.
Roosevelt would be just another tree-lined New Jersey suburb if it weren’t for Shahn and his artist wife, Bernarda Bryson Shahn. When they arrived in 1937, the town was known as Jersey Homesteads, a cooperative farming community made up of Jewish garment workers. Shahn, who had previously worked with Diego Rivera on the Rockefeller Center mural, received a commission from the Farmland Security Administration to paint the mural that depicts the passage of European Jews through Ellis Island, and their escape from New York’s dark tenements and sweatshops, led by Albert Einstein, to cooperative farms and a factory out in the country.
After the farming experiment failed, many of the Shahns’ artist friends came to live in the Bauhaus homes designed by Louis Kahn, and the town of less than two square miles became a different kind of utopia. Former chair of Pratt Institute’s Fine Arts department Jacob Landau; painter Gregorio Prestopino; wood engraver Stefan Martin; photographers Edwin and Louise Rosskam; and others were among the artists drawn to this community. Soon writers, musicians and poets helped Roosevelt gain its well-deserved reputation as an artists’ colony.
Artists of Roosevelt, an exhibit at the New Jersey State Museum through May 25, shows how Roosevelt continues to flourish as an artist community today, and how these artists continue to have an impact on art in America. Featuring works drawn from the museum’s collections, as well as loans from several of the artists, galleries and artists’ estates, the exhibition includes works by Jacob Landau, Bill Leech, Sol Libsohn, Stefan Martin, Gregorio Prestopino, Ani Rosskam, Edwin Rosskam, Louise Rosskam, Ben Shahn, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, Jonathan Shahn and Leonid Siveriver.
In 1945, Ben Shahn had the idea to build a monument to the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although Shahn was unable to raise enough money at that time, in 1960, on the eve of the borough’s 25th anniversary, a new Roosevelt Memorial Committee was formed which was able, through fundraising and donated labor, to create a memorial to the man who was seen as the town’s inspiration. Sculptor Jonathan Shahn – son of Ben and Bernarda — created a bust of the president.
The State Museum’s Curator of Fine Art Margaret O’Reilly says of the exhibition, “Roosevelt has been such a laboratory for ideas – visual, literary, musical, social, political – since its founding as Jersey Homesteads. It is wonderful to introduce to or remind New Jerseyans of the significance of this vibrant arts community and the contributions of both the historic and contemporary artists to our shared visual dialogue.”
Ani (Anita) Rosskam, the daughter of photographers Edwin and Louise Rosskam, grew up in Roosevelt and moved away when she was 16, then returned again when in her 30s. “I thought it was perfectly normal to have artists, writers and musicians be part of life in a community of friends and neighbors,” she says. “It wasn’t until I moved away that I found out how lucky I was to include all these people among my friends…it made sense to move back to Roosevelt, an hour outside of the major art centers of New York and Philadelphia and where it was possible to be in the countryside and be part of a small community.”
Rosskam’s work, “Roosevelt Party,” was made when she was only 18, in 1970. A group of hip-looking clay figures are whooping it up. A woman in a sequined dress appears to be singing, a couple is seated and appears to be in a heated discussion about politics, and another couple smooches while seated on a sofa.
Says artist Bill Leech: “I married Ani in the 80s and was introduced to the community of Roosevelt at that time. People were so open and warm, and the artist community was very inspiring.
“I knew I wanted to be near New York and it seemed like a great place to live,” continues Leech. “We built our studios in Roosevelt where we have remained, raised our son and continue making art all these years later.”
Jonathan Shahn, the son of Ben and Bernarda Bryson Shahn, moved to Roosevelt with his family when he was an infant. As a child, he liked to draw and make art with all the art supplies he was surrounded with, although he admits he didn’t understand what an artist was until he was much older.
“I knew that that was what my parents were. Also many of their friends in Roosevelt and in other places were artists, too. All of these people liked to draw. Some years later, in 1955, I went away from Roosevelt to go to college. After two years, I stopped college and went to art school. Then I didn’t live in Roosevelt again until 1979, although I visited there often. It seemed that there were many more artists living there, but I only met a few of them. During that time, I seemed to have become an artist too. After a while — many years still later — I even said I was an artist when people asked me ‘what do you do.’
He adds “When I was young, soon after the end of the war, some new people — artists and writers — moved into Roosevelt. Some of these already knew people in Roosevelt. Many of their children turned to this kind of work and grew up to be artists, writers, musicians.”
Shahn, who had an exhibit at Grounds For Sculpture last year, is known for his figurative sculpture in wood, on which he draws and paints, as well as works in bronze and drawings.
Ukrainian-born and Israel-raised sculptor Leonid Siveriver moved to Roosevelt in the 1990s, completing the circle of Jewish immigrants to the town. Siveriver studied marble carving in Italy and came to the U.S. to continue studying bronze casting at the Johnson Atelier Technical School in Mercerville, N.J. He teaches sculpture at Mercer County Community College, ceramics at the Lawrenceville School, and is married to artist Amy Medford, with whom he lives in Roosevelt.
“It was serendipity that brought us to Roosevelt,” he says. “We chose to live in Roosevelt because of its openness and support for working artists. I also feel a personal connection to Roosevelt and its origins as a community of immigrants.My wife and I have lived and worked in Roosevelt for over 20 years. Our commitment to our community, particularly in the arts, has been central to our way of living.”
Artists of Roosevelt is on view at the New Jersey State Museum through May 25.
The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.