Trenton’s industrial buildings capture artist’s attention

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

Kate Graves opens her kitchen door to a garden of earthly delights. Orange trumpet vine cascades along the doorframe. There’s a rusted metal sofa and various of her sculptures on pedestals. Two fig trees bear fruit, a tomato grows wild, and off in the distance one glimpses the EZPass signs at the toll plaza on the Pennsylvania side of the U.S. 1 bridge. This combination of wild natural world and the hard edges of an industrial city is present in Graves’ artwork, as seen in Trenton: A Post Industrial Survey, on view at the Gallery at Chapin School through Sept. 27.

“My artwork is informed by the natural and built environments,” says Graves, whose creations range in materials from the hard to the soft: iron, bronze, watercolors and quilts. “Trenton has amazing buildings and factories, even before the Roeblings manufactured what our country is built on.”

From the front of her Morrisville, Pa., home one sees the river, the capital city and the Trenton Makes Bridge, all lit up at night. At the same time, her front porch could be in a cabin in the Adirondacks, with three kayaks – she makes frequent trips along the Delaware, right in her front yard. A squawk is heard – it’s Ivan, the crested Amazon parrot. The green plumed pet, native to the jungle, is voicing a welcome from the kitchen.

The native of Santa Barbara, Calif., came to Trenton to work as an apprentice at the former Johnson Atelier Technical Institute and School of Sculpture in Mercerville. Then residing in Mill Hill, Graves would bicycle to the casting and fabrication facility. Her careful eye took in all of the city, from its architecture to its industrial heritage. Soon she moved across the river for the best view of Trenton.

Graves veers to another favorite topic: The sturgeon – a sort of Wooly Mammoth of the water – is at risk of extinction. The Delaware is home to a genetically distinct population of Atlantic sturgeon, one now seriously compromised by 19th-century caviar harvesting and pollution from heavy industry along the river, according to Graves.

She hopes to bring back the sturgeon by raising awareness through sculpture. Her 10-foot sturgeon is based on a taxidermy in the archives of the New Jersey State Museum. She has also created 10-inch sturgeon in bronze, stainless steel, plaster and resin, and two cast iron sturgeon have been “returned to the river,” in a sort of guerilla art project. “I would like to return a 10-footer,” she admits.

But back to those factory buildings, hulking shells of former industry, rendered in a flowing watery medium. Her interest began when she worked on her “Zero Tolerance Area” series, intricately detailed Victorian-era houses sculpted in metal.

“I would see those signs while riding my bike and didn’t know what it meant,” she says. Areas designated Zero Tolerance incur the maximum penalty for any illegal activity.

Graves’ mother was a miniaturist who made tiny pictures from embroidery floss, 500 knots per three square inches, as well as doll houses. “I’m making big bronze doll houses you can’t get inside,” says Graves.

More recently, Graves and her friend Suzanne Dinger visited the sites and painted en plein air. All the paintings were produced on site from direct observation. Compared to the plein air artists who experience cold weather and snow to capture the experience on their canvases, Graves spent many hours “in the silent presence of these cathedrals of industry, documenting buildings held in the flux of unseen forces.”

The buildings have air handlers on top, like little houses, from which air circulates. Other appended structures to the red brick factory buildings are water towers – echoing Graves’ bronze doll houses. Having rejected the Andalusian Moorish architecture of Santa Barbara – “It doesn’t exist in the world but is made a recognizable hybrid, an almost cinematic architecture” – she is trying to create her own architecture, based on remelting detritus.

Again, the natural world juxtaposes with the hard edges, as leafy vines find their way up the sides of the buildings. “When the factory is abandoned or the house is torn down, people who recognize them in my work remember them, allowing them in this way to live on.” She hopes her artwork will lead to a deeper appreciation for what endures.

“These buildings aren’t scary or ugly – they’re beautiful. All the noise and machinery that hummed through – they’re at rest, waiting for what comes next.”


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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