Trenton’s City Museum contains cultural treasures for the few who will find It

Even in winter, Trenton’s Cadwalader Park is still magnificent. Designed by Father of American Landscape Architecture Frederick Law Olmsted and situated along the Delaware & Raritan Canal, trees surround a bronze monument of Brooklyn Bridge designer John A. Roebling, still seated where he was in 1908. And at the park’s center is Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum.

But during a recent visit there were a scant two cars and a ranger parked in the 100-acre green space. The museum is only open between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. to see PAPER WORK: Exploring the Many Ways Artists Use Paper in Their Work.

Housed in a former Italianate mansion, Ellarslie is once again without a director. Since 1889, the former villa has been a museum, a restaurant, an ice cream parlor, a monkey house and, beginning in 1978, a museum again. On the National Register of Historic Places, Ellarslie is owned and maintained by the City of Trenton, which ran out of money to pay a director two years ago.

The sole employee of the museum was busy making preparations for the holiday boutique, an annual fundraising event. On that particular day, a horned deer could be seen outside cowering in a corner of the building. Could it be Prancer?

When he saw me looking, Prancer made eye contact while chewing his cud. The museum employee explained that the deer had been there a few weeks earlier, suffering from a wound, but had wandered off, possibly to die. The city employee was pleasantly surprised to see him return. Both times he’d phoned the animal rescue officer but to no avail.

“Perhaps you should feed him,” I suggested. “They like hosta. And daylilies.”

At least the deer still consider the park a nice place to visit.

On exhibit

PAPER WORK: Exploring the Many Ways Artists Use Paper in Their Work features more than 50 artists from the Philadelphia-New Jersey region, including artists from Trenton’s A-TEAM and SAGE Coalition.

“We usually think of paper as a means by which we convey a message,” say curators Elise Mannella and Gabriel Romeu.  “Artists have traditionally used paper for sketching out ideas, recording in a journal, and for disseminating images, often copies: a vehicle rather than a final work of art.”

In the latter half of the 20th century, add the curators, artists explored paper as a medium in and of itself and have since pushed the traditional boundaries through the use of collage, mixed media, alternative photo processes and sculpture, as well as through the innovative use of water-based paints and drawing implements that explore narratives, portraiture, and abstraction in fresh ways. “Rather than a disposable commodity, paper has become intrinsic to the artistic process without the pretense of the canvas,” they write.

It is a busy show, with works hung all over, but there are several worth highlighting. The most expensive work in the show, points out the museum employee, is also the largest. “Insomnious Nights – The Woolworth Building!” by Paul Ching-Bor – looks, up close, like an floor-to ceiling pulpy sheet covered with bluish gray. Stand back about 15 feet and suddenly the Woolworth Building, that icon of Gothic architecture, comes into view, shrouded by a haze, doubly exposed, but almost photorealistic. It is an amazing trick to the eye.

The Chinese-born artist studied at Gouanzgau Fine Art University and the Jing De Zhen Ceramic Institute before moving to Australia where he focused on watercolor. In 1990 he received a scholarship sponsored by Mercedes Benz to study art in New York. “The structures, arches and bridges immediately inspired me, and particularly suited my limited color palette,” said Ching-Bor. “My favorite colors are black and white, and I found I was able to tackle New York subjects in a very free way that, in the early stages, suggests abstract painting.”

Ching-Bor uses the heaviest and largest papers he can find, and lays down the fundamental part of the painting as the structure of the work. He glazes and splashes paint on the paper until the image disappears. When it dries, “the image bounces back,” he said.

Joy Kreves’ “Brain Birth” incorporates handmade paper, ceramic, moss and dried plant material. On a mat of moss are two spheres of white pulp – a Mama and a baby? – that have been opened, as if by the birthing process. Ceramic brains are inside, like the yolks, or chicks, of eggs. “I like to work with a variety of materials, which I feel more realistically reflects our experience of our surroundings,” she said.

Another intriguing work, “Bugs,” by Maria Lupo, looks like an ancient scroll with hieroglyphs made of insects and crustaceans. A sculptor and registered art therapist, as well as a recipient of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts fellowship award, Lupo says “Bugs” is about mark making “to form images and clusters of symbols to convey meaning and feeling.”

Paper maker Rocco Scary gives us “Meet Me Under the Lemon,” a three-dimensional carousel, and “Orange Street,” a red brick building with detailed windows and fire escapes.

“The subject matter which I am interested is embedded in the idea of ‘place’ as a reservoir for memory and the connectedness which deems it unforgettable,” he says in an artist statement. “The house that one grew up in, the corner deli, the old movie theater, the amusement park, the grammar school building, that favorite street corner — these places play a significant role in a society’s daily functions, places where memories are created, shared, relived and stored. They can define a society as a whole, and in the same instance add to an individual sense of self.”

So, too, does a beautiful old gem of a museum play a significant role in being a refuge for shared memories, and works on paper, when properly stored and cared for, are significant ways to create, share and store a society’s sense of self. Unfortunately, due to Trenton politics, corruption, and financial ruin, too few people will see the paper works in this underfunded museum.  


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.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal