Saturday, September 28, 2013

Activated Alley

Murals and street art pop up like pop-art wildflowers in our urban garden of Jersey City. Art Activates brings the mural to a more narrow and often unseen cranny of our fair city – Alleys. Anne McTernan, Associate Director, Jersey City Arts School, wants to “bring art where it wasn’t before because art improves our quality of life.”

In other words, places you wouldn’t notice now become, she says: “a delight to the eye.”

Website: “Currently Art Activates has successfully focused the engaging power of public art to remediate the embankment alley between Monmouth and Cole Streets in downtown Jersey City.”

Remediate… to remedy, to reverse damage… the embankment runs east/west on 6th street, a vestige of America’s glorious railroad legacy and while the fate of these trestles is still uncertain, they form an alley that is between the stone wall of the embankment and the northern walls of the sheds and garages aligning the perimeters of the backyards of the 5th street buildings, which are residential or otherwise community buildings. These southern walls were the ones remediated with muralizing.

Art elevates, the individual and the society. Art Activates has actually elevated an alley into an inspiring and compelling stroll. When you get a chance, next time you need to get to or from Mammoth to or from Coles and you’re half way between 5th and 6th street, take this alleyway walk, which I have done.

The murals do not have intentional relationships.  The commissioned artists painted their work at different times, their styles and worldviews varied drastically. Nor were any instructions given, other than here is the space, do with it what you will. Art Activates website: “Local artists have been tasked to compose murals inspired by their community and surroundings.”

Yet, while individually each work is compelling, together they produce a cumulative experience – they pleasantly provoke. They also all amuse – much of that amusement may be attributable the unexpected appearance of art in this unlikely, least traversed path of our concrete jungle – but not all, all the works reveal a sense of humor peculiar to each individual artist.

Let’s start the walk on Monmouth and head towards Coles Street.

Mr. Mustart – I don’t believe that’s his birth name – sets a wonderful tone for the activated alley. The colors have a realistic tone – not too bright, not too flat – and the perspective combines realistic details – flapping gulls, eyes, clouds –with abstract expressionism undertones – those clouds drip like protoplasm – or maybe it is protoplasm – the red sky shifts into yellows, blues, black.  The depiction is like a dream, surreal, vivid yet meaning and clarity always slipping away.



As a young child, Matt Cap was left alone by his parents with stacks of Gary Larson and R. Crumb comic books as his only baby sitter. Or so it seems.  His work is hilarious yet touching,  wry observations about the human condition  that utilize an Anthropomorphic world that is familiar and referential.

 A worm in an apple, the apple on stilts, shark in the water, cat in the foreground, seagulls – a trippy day at the edge of the pier. Alley invokes urban, concealed but the embankment alley has ivy climbing on the stone trestle wall, gardens and patches of lawn in the backyard areas; nature doesn’t overwhelm but it is well represented. Nature leads to more nature and Matt Cap’s painting is a window into an alternative nature, one invented by a rich imagination.

The other murals were painting directly on the surface, because of the poor quality of this particular wall, Cap’s diorama was painted on three panels, which were then nailed to the wall.


You see them around, never this size.

Norm Kirby, who has appeared in Dislocations, is an illustrator and sometime street artist, generally known for his minimalist yet emotive squiggles. Here he went nearly maximalist with this vivid and larger than life skunk portrait.  Kirby’s off-kilter feel never detracts from the warmth of his depictions.

 What is surrealism other than juxtaposition that prompts new insights on the part on the viewer. The alleyway images seem to comment on the alley setting, regardless of the focus of the portrayal.

 Skunks are not strangers to the alleyway. Are we seeing the skunk from a fly or ant eye view, as a stinky giant? Maybe it’s as large as its stench.  The other alley murals are colorful and generally more complex. This simple Pepe Le Pew stands in contrast, yet is no less surreal.


The largest mural is this bright, vast pictorial of house cats acting all tribe of the tiger on their branches, cute as cats innately are, yet a distinct atmosphere of menace accompanies these cats – which are larger than life size but not quite Kirby Skunk proportions – it’s like Jungle Book and you know a back yard is a jungle to the stray cat looking for food or feline companionship.

Are we seeing these cats as baby sparrows might when peeking out their nest? The beauty of nature can be deadly any second. Be in awe of the predator,  but make a peep and you may be dinner.

This mural is a co-production by Thomas Carlson and Blair Urban, the only duet in the series.



The passage after the backyard jungle world of house cats, but before  a day-glo Eden is sudden  abstract explosion of bolts and colors. The lush, Matisse-esque hues are now gone, as are the nature reference. It’s a burst of static, refreshing and energizing, pulsating with the shock of transition within this mural universe.  The obvious reference is Keith Haring, but the nod to the master is only a starting point for this neo-psychedelic, abrupt reminder that we are not in a natural habitat, we are in an urban alley, but one now catching chromatic lighting on the wall.


Then we come to a caddy-corner mural of love where we encounter refuges from the Yellow Submarine.  Sex is the nature in man – so said Camille Paglia ( man meaning human kind) Given the context of the Embankment alley, the impulse encouraged is for men and women to act naturally.

An Adam and Eve with no apple eating to mar their healthy lust and the only fig leaf is Love – not the emotion, the word – hilariously V covers the man’s (meaning the guy) naughty bits, creaking a funny sight-gag (V for Viagra). In the corner, an eye drips tears – I  wonder if they’re tears of joy of this cheerful celebration of heterosexuality or just the tears of sorrow that romantic love even in that joyfully erotic stage can never avoid or maybe this degree of dazzle is so intense you cannot see these colors for without your eyes tearing up.

I love the exaggerations of the human form – the man’s biceps have biceps, the woman’s rump seem to jiggle like dual beach balls (the cheeks have heart tattoos) – the impossible augmentations make us laugh at the physical imperfection we all have. The cartoon-like figures mix the most apparent influences – a marriage of R. Crumb and Monty Python-era Terry Gilliam at which Peter Max presided.  This wall’s exterior – perpendicular to other murals in the embankment alley  gallery – seems to have needed patching up over the years, creating an uneven texture of plywood, cinderblock and bricks. As you look at the vibrant and upbeat images, this rough under-surface – as imperfect as our bodies – you wonder if this happy, romantic nudity may not be entirely free of the rot to which our humanity  and our emotions are often equally prone.  Allegories aside, if there was any wall in need of beautification, this may have been in.



 Dazzling neon lemon, lime, tangerine and other citrusy shades  gives way to a  more natural and lush primitivism African, Mayan and Keith Haring radiate together in this abstract collage dominated by what could be a mask or a face emblazoned on a Zulu shield. This swatch of expressionism transitions us from the neon Eden to an aboriginal reality, dark and passionate,   luring us away from the pastel placidness of an imagined ideal to a more emotive truth, the heart of darkness civilization will never fully conceal. What is the nature of that heart – what is the source of that darkness? – why Captain Kurtz, nature itself and our true selves are closer to that nature than our plastic western society dares to admit, although primitive cultures find that very same nature to be a cause for respect, fear and revelry.
Beginning with the  Bruno Nadalin abstract collage of primitive-inspired images, this last section of the Embankment Alley mural decorates the walls of All Iron Works,  leading welder and provider of metallurgy art in Jersey City.


When visiting the Embankment Alley murals, make sure to check other All Iron Works sculpture exhibiton Coles.

 Then the eye, against a yellow as the sun field, with green vines and red flowers, particularly ornate petals,  sprouting along the perimeter. Art watching you as you look at the art.  A side entrance to Iron Works separates the primitive but the all-seeing eye of father sky.

The flowery vines flow along the cinderblock of this workshop, connecting to a single flower – simple portrayal, a lone image just like the skunk (which is third from the start and this is third before the end) – and the yellow of the petals echo the yellow atmosphere within which the all-seeing eye of father sky hovers.

The eye, against a yellow as the sun field, with green vines and red flowers, particularly ornate petals,  sprouting along the perimeter. Art watching you as you look at the art.  A side entrance to Iron Works separates the primitive but the all-seeing eye of father sky. The flowery vines flow along the cinderblock of this workshop, connecting to a single flower – simple portrayal, a lone image just like the skunk (which is third from the start and this is third before the end) – and the yellow of the petals echo the yellow atmosphere in which the all-seeing eye of father sky floats.


Emilio Florentine

No mere floral portraiture this. A moment is captured. The roots of the flower dangle towards the bottom of the image, the petals while not quite wilting are starting to shed. This flower was just picked  so we can appreciate its beauty with all our senses but the act of picking the flower has killed it. Death will now come soon to this flower, but it is not yet dead. It is here for us, it is here for art. But momentarily freezing beauty is not the only purpose of the artist here, the moment of mortality also captured (in the Japanese tradition, chrysanthemums, which this flower resembles, are sent to the funerals of suicides). Beauty may always be in the eye of the beholder but beholding that beauty is the first step towards the death of that same beauty.



More flowers – roses this time, or so they seem, more romantic and humor. A two head Dalmatian surrounded by this rose embellished dream. Cerberus guarding the gates of hell – the hell being the spark-spewing torches of the blacksmith on the other side of the wall – but this hell is not hell at all, it’s a childlike world of fun and love. Another distortion of nature – instead of the river Styx and brimstone, we get a verdant background, and a loyal dog happy and yapping, tongue lapping out of his snout and wagging his tale as the rose garden blossoms.

This may not be a two headed dog at all (there are also two sets of front paws). There’s a heart medallion dangling off his collar and the heart is broken in two. The dog may be looking in both directions, looking at Monmouth and back at Coles, wondering which master to follow. The couple who own him have broken up, custody is being decided. Who wants him more? Who loves him more now that their love is gone. Are there still tears? Are they still shouting? Or has all the fighting ended, the breaking of hearts accepted, and now it’s time to decide who loves the loyal companion animal most. He doesn’t really understand what is happening, why the heart on his neck is broken and why his owners are not enjoying the rose garden like they did last summer. He doesn’t know who will take him, who he loves most or the fact this will be the last time he gets to play among the roses.

Maybe he’s Cerberus after all,  guarding the hell he will soon find himself in.

An iron Age (it may be bronze age, but I need iron for the rest of this metaphor to work) chariot, heading towards the street, completes the embankment stroll, reflecting the All Iron Works early stage of technology. Written history begins, western civilization has the illusion of taming nature. Our journey through our primal past ebbs away, we are only a few feet and millennia away from that pinnacle of the western world, New Jersey, Jersey City, Coles Street. Athena? Aphrodite? Diana? Is she fleeing Cerberus (does this mean Hades got the dog?)

The blacks and white and a green just as dark as night dominate, a stark contrast to the brightness of the opening expressionist work on Monmouth and the lush and neon tones we see as we headed towards this nexus of nature and man’s domination by domesticating horses and inventing the wheel and soon combining those two events into the chariot, a Helen of Troy to leads us – to war or to peace or to prosperity or just back to Coles Street.

At the end of our Embankment Alley journey, we follow the warrior goddess in her chariot and bring back to the city the secrets art has taught us,  and just like ourselves, our city will never be the same again.

Take the shortcut and give yourself over to the wonder.


A new Alley project is starting near 3rd street. The first step is to clear the alley of debris. Get involved. Get Activated. Bring art to where it has not been before. Find out how, contact Anne or visit Art Activates Website.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Tobacco-Free Four Years

Mementos from my past: N.J. Blue Comment N-scale model railroad locomotive and passenger car,  Statuette commemorating my first holy communion, Elvis Presley Statuette I bought on my first business trip, to Las Vegas, Poetry Award Trophy I received in 8th grade, a bottle of Pernod whose story is way too personal for me to ever tell you, and in an ashtray stolen from a Hilton Hotel, my last pack of Parliaments, still unopened.

I don’t know why, keeping this unopened pack in this ashtray  keeps me from smoking. Maybe sometimes I contemplate opening it, or maybe there will be some personal crisis justifying a smoke, which hasn’t happened but maybe having the possibility gives me a sense of security that keeps me from smoking.

 I take the picture of my last pack every once in a while, especially on this day. I plan to be buried or cremated with it.

Tobacco-free four years today!

Cigarettes I miss you and will love you always. I have never and will never ask anyone to stop smoking or put out their cigarette. I love the way smoking looks and I love smelling smoldering tobacco. Anti-smoking laws are fascism. However, I am glad and thankful not to be addicted to nicotine and that is the God’s honest truth. Unlike many ex-smokers, I can not have the occasional cigarette or smoke only while I’m on vacation.  One is too many and three packs are not enough. I loved to smoke; I had to smoke.  I still have the love, but I am glad I don’t have that physical need. I no longer have to smoke.

 If I can quit, anyone can, but I had no choice. Four years ago today I exhaled the delectable fumes of my last cigarette as I passed through the glass emergency room doors of Liberty Medical. I smoked on the way to my heart attack. Like I said, I miss smoking, but I do not miss being addicted.

I think about how I almost died  four years ago today and all the things I would have missed or not have written or books I would not have read and most of all, all the friends and family I wouldn’t have hung out with and I honestly admit, that is way better than smoking… most of the time.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

All About A New All

I missed the first couple of songs and a ballad seemed not quite sustained and then the drummer rips into this fiery drum solo, a jungle conga type circular rhythm that steadily burns, gaining more and more  momentum, until Sylvanna Joyce and the Moment explode with a surprising fury, and they absolutely rock the joint, the joint being Barrow Street, which was about a third of the way down All About Downtown, a neighborhood festival hosted by the quasi governmental agency in charge of Downtown Improvement, held on this year’s autumnal equinox.

I wrote about this event last year. When I went to the old post, I noticed some pictures of the band so I must have heard them, but I made no mention of them in the writing. Gee, what a difference a year makes.

Joyce & company play what they term gypsy rock, which is a pretty apt description of their turbo-charged zest that forms original aural allegiances between show-tunes, jazz, Queen and jam-band. While prone to intricate noodling, the band was stop-on-a-dime tight and ready to burst into rave-ups that were a pure delight and utterly thrilling.  Their rock was theatrical, had a carnival feel. Anybody remember the Sensational Alex Harvey Band? The set took off, inducing foot tapping, clapping and dancing to which no one in earshot was immune.  The moment found their moment, the band energizing the swelling crowd, whose numbers including not just the “hipster” (we really need a better term) but the mom and dads and toddlers and the local cadre of, well, winos and street folks. 


There was potential for trouble but the wino crew, we see them every day and they were not doing anything different than everyone else, hanging out at the neighborhood fair and digging the band. They’re not that numerous, and their public displays of intoxication are rarely loud or violent, and even then only with each other. They are more annoyance than nuisance. They are facts of urban life, just like more parents and offspring  and the subsequent increase in daycare centers and healthier choices in the supermarkets and bodegas. The near-do-wells were outnumbered by the un-intimidated well-to-dos, creating a microcosm of gentrification. Those who do not leave are overwhelmed.  Night may tell a different story but in the light of day, the future was here yet even those clinging to their past life on our repaved sidewalks enjoyed the music, like everyone else there.
I’ve lived here 20 years and the street people (talk about needing a better term) have always been here. What wasn’t here then are the live bands we can dance to in the street at a local fair where you can see friends and neighbors and participate in the pastime every human enjoys – hanging out undisturbed.
My love for autumn would be absolute except for the inescapable fact that summer is gone. The Autumnal Equinox is when the length of night equals the length of day and the length of day will now get shorter every day until December. All About Downtown was a communal farewell to season, amplified by the overly cool late Summer that has made everyone unpack their jackets out of mothballs a month earlier than is usual.  

 Tomorrow go pumpkin shopping, begin making those thanksgiving planning phone calls and start griping about how Christmas will be here before you know it. Tomorrow begin to wonder when the 2013 Sandy or Irene will hit. Today let’s give our good bye glance to the tattoos and skin, the arms and cleavage, and  navels we will not see and you will not display for another six long months.

Today – in Jersey City – it was like an extra-inning, late season baseball game – clocks un-tick and summer is trapped within our collective moment.  

I was able to catch Mayor Fullop giving out a proclamation to two of leaders, who mentioned that maybe we can do this more times a year, meaning block off Newark Avenue, the main thoroughfare of our fair city, from traffic for a day and let pedestrians stroll in a danger-free zone (pedestrians are at risk while walking in Jersey City, where the lack of signage and street lights and general indifference to traffic violations is a genuine public safety issue whose awareness of is picking up steam). I say, how about every weekend?  How about next year more blocks of Newark being closed off? Head west young fair.

Actually, that is one of the fun thing about these street fairs, what you see everyday is suddenly transformed. I probably walk Newark Avenue every day, most days more than once too and instead of the usual and mundane, it’s a street bazaar of goods and food and music and rides for the kids. The routine is banished for an afternoon. Everybody is here to relax, mosey and chat... s'up?

Three years. The irony is that the Mayor gave a similar proclamation to “The Feast” nary a month ago for being around a century or so. All About Downtown has been around only three years. But this event earned it – 30,000 people came last year  and this is way bigger than last year an organizer told me – it was by far – and by far I mean by hundreds of attendees – I’ve attended since living here. Beginning in May and going through September, there’s a lot of street fairs in Jersey City, more than one a weekend it seems. Some are better than others and establishing a new one is not easy, the competition is fierce. To have this one come this far in such a brief time, to noticeably and significantly improve each year, says a lot about the creativity and commitment of the organizers. DIY, collaboration, an original thought or two and an insistence on the pragmatic and the artistic.  Maybe All About Downtown is somehow actually all about downtown.


30,000 – Jersey City – pop: 250,000 – you do the math, what other event gets that kind of percentage, or what other event gets that many from outside town or the neighborhood. And, 30,000 is last year and there were much more people than last year, a lot more.

The children’s section was expanded, and packed. What a wonderful change this has been, the increase in families with children, a new generation raising a newer generation. I’m an intellectual bohemian type I guess, have hedonistic leanings,  but children tend to spread joy and ignoring  or not appreciating the feeling of joy is the unearned cynics of the poser.  Also, kids bring out the best behavior of most adults (and not necessarily their parents all the time!) When kids are around, people make things cleaner, and they are more polite and act with more consideration. Seems every year, the inflatable amusement parks – the bouncy rides – expand. The entire block in front of the old firehouse had this amazing and wonderful inflatable choo-choo train, like one of them hamster habitrail mazes – except in this train the passengers are moving. There was also a non-inflatable train ride.

At the center of All About Downtown were children, hundreds of children with their parents and guardians having the last summer afternoon of the year – and when you’re that age, every year is pivotal. Clean, safe, fun – away from the TV and what not – how much of the enjoyable vibe can be attributed to the youngest amongst us? Otherwise, All About was just an off-beat flea market with beer vendors.

There was a register to vote tent. In October there is yet another election, a special one for Senate. Still no sign of Buono support anywhere by our Democratic city, alas. What was cool though was a guy in this tent busy painting a portrait of the street fair, art imitating a depiction of life. Jersey City, where art, like voting, is a considered a civic responsibility and a right.



Under a rainbow of canopies, the vendors were a mix of crafts, clothes and food, the latter being mainly local eateries with limited offerings, a great way to make some extra cash and promote  their restaurants. There seemed to be fewer corporate sponsors with vendors, but maybe appearance was more important than the factual. Still, there was a nice, local feel. A respite from the 6th Borough marketing mania Jersey City has been inspiring of late, especially by the private/public organizations who organized this event.  I can’t say I like the name, all about seems to be lazy slang that rankles the English major within.  All of what this place is was not represented, only cheerful and mild commerce. But then, who gets to define all. Experience the nice day and a collective good vibe in a place we call home. I wonder how much we have in common, besides (often inexplicably) loving Jersey City and you know, that is actually quite a lot. The place you live – the place you pass the time and endure the burden of mortality – encompasses an ever-increasing portion of your personal identity. We have to love Jersey City – who else will? Who else can?


Last year when the music ended at Barrow Street, a drum circle began that marched to grove street and where planned-impromptu drum circle erupted. As Slyvann Joyce and the Moment were still playing, the drum march started and there was a wild clash and meshing as the All About Downtown had a sudden cross purposes – if we stay for this raucous conclusion of an extraordinary hot set we miss the funky drum circle – alas, we missed only the opening beats or so, the overlap no longer than 10 minutes or so – but this was a different planning (although the Barrow Street stage was running late) at work. The event was shorter by a couplathree hours than last year’s, the drum circle less extended – although this year the drummers got to use the stage, adding a rocking flautist.  Turns out, the reason for the abbreviation this year is the approximately $10,000 required for the police and fire marshals state laws require for these events, especially when alcohol is served. I missed the drumming into darkness, but I had some things to do anyway. I may never get enough summer but I satisfied my street fair needs. Still, I stayed until the last thump and before then, children danced, adults danced. Hula hoops were gyrated. Hands were clapping.  Congas, bongos, whistles, tambourines, cowbells… the flute… noise being made, a rhythm shared, a beat advanced and in that moment summer felt forever.