Curator comes full circle

This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger.

With Victorian porches set with rocking chairs, Pennington’s South Main Street evokes a gentler era. Walk up the red steps to one of those porches and through an ornately painted front door to get to the Veridian Gallery.

Dana Koeppel is the third generation of her family to run a gallery here. The December-January exhibit includes large color photographs of Italy, Cape May, and antique cars by Jack Koeppel.

“It’s my father’s 60th birthday, and I thought the best way to celebrate would be to have a show of his work,” says Dana. A 2007 Rutgers graduate, the art history major took the “Grand Tour” of Italy with her father in the summer of 2006.

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“For Christmas that year he gave me a portfolio of the places we’d visited, and I thought he had an eye and a talent,” says Dana. “I started encouraging him to share them with others.”

“She was my tour guide, and I enjoyed seeing it through her eyes, and all that she’d learned,” says Jack. Up until then, taking photographs had been a hobby, but Venice had an effect on the curator and art handler, turning him into an artist. He attended a workshop at Maine Media in Rockport where “I learned to take control the camera, spending up to 15 minutes to set up a picture.”

“After all these years doing this with other people, it’s a big step for me to put my creativity out there,” he says. “It’s a side of me that people haven’t seen.”

Jack returned to Venice two years later with his other daughter, Sara, and wife, Meg, for five days, and then again this past fall for a full month. “I wandered the streets and alleys and would spend hours just looking up at the ceilings of churches,” he says. “Usually I love mountains and nature, but here, I fell in love with the architecture and the magic. If I arrive at the pearly gates and am asked to describe heaven, I will describe Venice.”

Koeppel, who has spent his career curating and transporting and hanging the work of artists in the Princeton region, was forced to take early retirement in 2010 because of an untreatable form of muscular dystrophy and a spinal problem. These days, he walks with the help of a cane. “I have a lot of free time, but the one thing I can still do is travel,” he says.

“I wanted to indulge myself in the mood, the history, and the ambience of Venice. I rented a small apartment in a quiet area – the only other time I’d experienced such quiet was in a canyon in Colorado – and I’d wake up every morning and realize I was in Venice.”

The one-time preparator at the New Jersey State Museum explored the art museums and was fascinated to see the works of Titian, Tintoretto and Bellini in the places where they were created. “I used my camera as my eye to see these up close.” Some are printed in sepia tone on Arches paper to look timeless, as if they may have been photographed 100 years ago, or yesterday.

Koeppel has fond memories growing up in this gallery. His father, George Koeppel, opened it in 1964. “Pennington was a small town, and there would be shows of local artists with Friday night openings, Saturday art classes and ‘happenings’ like poetry readings.”

George Koeppel sold the original Queenstown Gallery in 1972, and when Jack graduated from high school that year, he opened Eye for Art on Spring Street in Princeton, bringing some of the Queenstown Gallery artists. He also got to know members of a Princeton women’s printmaking circle that included Jane Teller, Judith K. Brodsky and Marie Sturken, among others. Next door was the Princeton Gallery of Fine Art, run by Barry Snyder. “Theirs were nationally known and ours were local artists. I was deeply influenced by how Barry hung a show.”

Four years later, Koeppel fulfilled a childhood dream to work at the State Museum under curator Zoltan Buki. “We had an exhibition of the Photo Secessionists, and I got to handle works by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen as a young man,” he recounts. It was also when he learned that photography could be fine art.

Another four years went by, and a family friend called to see if Koeppel would be interested in buying back the Queenstown Gallery and running it as partners. “In 1981 I had the opportunity to continue the family tradition begun in the ’60s. When I called my father in Maine to get his opinion, he took all of five seconds to say ‘take it.'”

Throughout his career, Koeppel has had a business moving art for major art institutions in the Princeton area – the former Gallery at Bristol Myers-Squibb, Morven, the Old Barracks, Rider University and Princeton University are some. His van has transported the work of Impressionists Monet and Manet, among others, from collectors to exhibitions.

Koeppel continued to exhibit local artists until 2005, then moved on to serve as curator of the gallery at D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Johnson Education Center in Princeton. “I enjoyed working with (President) Linda Mead and artists to create something that would make people think about the environment and preserving the land,” he says. “I liked the interaction with artists and the public, and seeing people in the gallery get excited by local artists.”

When his health began to deteriorate in 2010, he left the Greenway. “If I couldn’t do it to my high standards, I didn’t want to do it,” he says.

This past summer, with his van outfitted to live out of it, Koeppel traveled across the country for six weeks, visiting all the national parks and historic sites on his list, as well as the hometowns of his childhood heroes: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Abraham Lincoln. “I always wanted to take a ride on a river boat on the Mississippi, and I ended up piloting the River Boat Mark Twain. It was a dinner cruise, and when dinner was over, I went out onto the deck and the captain invited me up to the pilot house. We started chatting, and 10 minutes later he stepped away from the big wheel and said ‘Take it.’ He ate his dinner while I was in ecstasy.”

A Closer Look: Photographs by Jack Koeppel is on view at the Veridian Gallery, 43 South Main St., Pennington, Dec. 7 through Feb. 9.

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.

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