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The Rowan University Art Gallery and Museum in South Jersey will soon open an exhibit of hundreds of small paintings depicting nostalgic places that no longer exist
Artist Ellen Harvey began her Disappointed Tourist project 5 years ago.
“They kind of look like those old postcards that were sort of printed in black and white and then hand-colored sometimes,” she said.
All of the paintings have names and dates on them. The dates are all when those places were destroyed, she said.
“So it’s a room full of almost painted postcards of places you can’t go,” Harvey said. Harvey embarked on this project in 2019, when she began inviting people from around the world to send her suggestions of places they would like to visit, but they only exist in their memories..
She said The Disappointed Tourist collection includes submissions from 40 countries.
“There are lots of, of course, happy childhood memories and places people wish they could have gone, and then of course very sad and traumatic stories as well,” she said.
Gary Marino, 72, of Newfield, New Jersey, had suggested painting the Vineland Speedway because he has fond memories of going there with his father in the 1950s. The Speedway closed in 1967.
He said he was shocked when he found out Harvey had painted it.
“It made me feel like I was there at the time, back when I was young, it’s a feeling of remembrance, the good old days,” he said.
Marino, who works at Rowan University, said he got a sneak peek at the exhibit being assembled.
“I could spend hours in there, every painting looks like a personal postcard,” he said.
Harvey, who is now a resident of New York City, said she began working on The Disappointed Tourist at a time when many people felt divided and isolated.
Harvey said the project gained momentum at the start of the pandemic.
“I began to wonder what is it about the physical world that people love, what do they miss, where would they like to be able to go, that’s what I was thinking,” she said. “I wanted to make an art project that was incredibly welcoming to everyone, and that kind of took seriously the fact that we all feel nostalgic for things, but we all have very different nostalgic stories.”
Mary Salvante, the curator and director of the Rowan University Art Gallery and Museum, said paintings of nine now non-existent New Jersey locations have been added to the show.
“We hope the visitor might consider these concepts being put forward in unexpected ways, but also perhaps to see themselves in those narratives,” she said. “We are a contemporary art gallery so we are always looking at contemporary artists from the lens of social issues really.”
Salvante hopes when people look at the exhibit “it will elevate their appreciation of the issues that the artists are expressing, but also appreciation for contemporary art in general.”
Harvey is still taking suggestions for her subject. If you want to submit an idea, you can go to the project website and write a short description of a specific location that’s no longer there, and share why you believe it’s important and why you miss it.
“Maybe you think it’s historically important, maybe it’s personally important, maybe you just think it’s beautiful or it’s interesting, maybe it’s a place that meant a lot to your family,” she said.
Harvey said when she starts painting, she reaches out to the person who submitted the idea, discussing her vision of what they’ve put forth, and then she sends them a picture once the painting is completed.
“It’s really about provoking human connection,” she said. “People tend to talk to other people when they’re looking at a painting, it’s designed to make people tell stories.”
How long will this continue?
She said there are no specific plans to end the project.
But “looking only at things that have been destroyed is a little sad,” she said. “Every time I think I’m done some new exciting thing comes in and then I think oh, that is so interesting.”
She noted we live in a world with a lot of change and things are being destroyed all the time.
“We need more spaces where people can come together and talk to each other, and think about what’s important to us as people,” she said.
Harvey has created exhibits all over the world, including in Philadelphia in 2015 when she presented a Metal Painting exhibition at the Barnes Foundation.
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