“Paint every day no matter what!!! Or perish.”
That scribbled note is among a collection of artifacts that sets the tone for Memories of Russell, the title of this year’s Art in the Atrium show in Morristown.
The words were scribbled by the late Russell Aldo Murray, a Newark artist and teacher who helped launch Art in the Atrium 19 years ago as a showcase for African-American artists. The present edition, which opened Friday in the Morris County Administration and Records Building and runs through March 11, features an explosion of talent from three dozen black painters, sculptors and quilters.
It’s an amazing legacy.
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Russell was “energetic, intelligent, artistic, clever, kind and generous of spirit. I really miss him,” said Montclair artist Janet Taylor Pickett, whose impressionist-inspired acrylic paintings are for sale at the exhibition.
Janet credited Russell, who died in his sleep of a heart attack at age 59 in September 2009, with helping create a “really democratic” show that gives emerging artists a chance to be seen alongside more established names.
Exhibitions like Art in the Atrium are invaluable for cultivating a market for African American artists, said Ivory Herbert, a retired corporate executive who serves on the show’s board.
“It’s just in recent years that a significant number of black people have gained a real appreciation for art, and started supporting it,” he said. “People have really fallen in love with it,” and look forward to the show.
“It’s a nice blend, a lot of good work,” said Morristown attorney Charles Craig, who serves on the board with his wife Victoria and their daughters, Lauren and Simone.
‘ART CHOSE ME’
One of the rising talents on display is Anthony E. Boone, 39. He’s got some eye-popping glow-in-the-dark abstract paintings that suggest the far reaches of our galaxy. Which is a long way from his day job as a freight train conductor.
Anthony took up painting in 2005; he had no choice in the matter.
“Art chose me,” said the Montclair resident. “When I started I was kind of innocent. I wanted art in my home, but couldn’t afford to purchase any. So I made my own.”
When someone compared his works to Jackson Pollock, Anthony had to do some quick research. He quickly became a fan of the legendary abstract expressionist. “He was so raw,” Anthony said. Eventually, word of Anthony’s artistry got around the freight yard; a superintendent has commissioned some paintings. That’s just the beginning, no doubt.
Spanning four floors, the Atrium show spotlights many artists who discovered their passion circuitously.
Ceaphas Stubbs, an abstract painter at Rutgers, briefly tried to follow his sister’s footsteps in the sciences, according to their dad, Dan Stubbs of Newark. Yet art was in the young man’s blood since the age of five, when he intuitively grasped perspective in his drawings of angled picket fences. The father knew right then: “This guy’s an artist.”
Somewhere during her graphic arts studies, Anyta Thomas of Philadelphia discovered an unusual medium: Aluminum screens. She turns them into elaborate and colorful sculptures, which she sells through three representatives across the country. She also runs workshops for kids.
“Think outside the box,” Anyta advises young artists. “Don’t let anyone keep you in one styling. Experiment. That’s what life is about. Come up with your own unique fingerprint. You’ll be happier.”
Bisa Butler of South Orange started as a painter but switched to quilting when her daughters were born, so they would not be exposed to toxic paints. Her quilts are intricate mixed-media homages to pop icons such as Diana Ross and Josephine Baker.
“I like the textures of fiber, wood and glass,” said Bisa, who teaches art at American History High School in Newark.
Bisa tries to convey to her students that art is accessible. That message is shared by Lauren Craig, a board director of the show who also serves as executive director of the Russell Aldo Murray Gallery in Newark.
“I think art is approachable,” Lauren said. “It’s not just for stiff and stuffy galleries. You can live with it, and it can be a part of everyone’s life.”
Prices at the show range from about $175 to $10,000. Lauren’s sister, accountant Simone Craig, said she hopes visitors realize that “art is something worth investing in, an asset.”
Along those lines, Dennis Forbes, author of Studios and Workspaces of Black American Artists, gave an entertaining primer on art collecting. His advice: Do some research, collect what you love…and buy on layaway.
“Collecting is fun!” Dennis told listeners who packed the Morris County freeholder room. One of them asked when art collecting crosses the line and becomes hoarding.
Everybody roared at Dennis’ solution:
“You need a bigger house.”
‘AS GOOD AS IT GETS’
The collector in question was Warren Murray, and his collection is assorted works and personal effects of his late brother, Russell Aldo Murray.
Warren, an artist from Piscataway, assembled some of Russell’s belongings–old shoes, glasses, boyhood photos, journals and the scribbled “keep painting” exhortation–into a shrine he calls R.A.M., on the Atrium’s second floor.
Russell taught at Newark’s West Side High School. He was passionate about his art, unflappable, and had an uncanny knack for showing up at dinner time…then disappearing, according to Warren.
Warren shares his late brother’s zest for life. He brought two lovely guests to Friday’s opening, introducing one as his ex-wife and the other as his “future ex-wife.”
When asked if they have compared notes on Warren, the ladies burst into laughter and declared in unison:
“His life’s an open book!”
Warren said his big brother is not really gone.
“He comes and visits me,” the artist said. “He’s having a good time.”
That was Russell Aldo Murray’s message.
“He said, ‘Don’t give me flowers at my funeral,'” Warren recounted. “‘Enjoy now. This is as good as it gets for us.'”
Visiting hours for Art in the Atrium are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 10 Court St. in Morristown. Exhibit tours may be arranged by calling (973) 540-0615. A public parking deck is in the same building, accessible from Schuyler Place. This year’s show is sponsored by the Arts Council of the Morris Area and the African American Fund of New Jersey.