By Pam Hersh
In the current phase of social isolation life, I became particularly nostalgic for social mingling, when I walked past Small World (the smaller one on Nassau Street) on Memorial Day weekend. I saw a crowd of people awkwardly trying not to hang out near one another, as they were taking advantage of Small World’s “contactless” ordering/paying and no seating.
I gazed at the sterile scene, closed my eyes, and suddenly pictured the vibrant congeniality of Small World in 2020 BC (before COVID). I saw Princeton University Professor John Horton Conway and his eclectic group of buddies at 7 a.m. sitting at a small table inside Small World. They were laughing, pontificating, joking, solving the world’s problems, and happy to be in each other’s company.
It was an easy picture for me to conjure up. I had witnessed the Conway morning gathering myself, but maybe even more searing on my psyche was the award-winning oil painting by Princeton artist Ryan Stark Lilienthal, who had captured the image of John Conway and his Small World neighborhood bonding ritual.
The painting, titled “Small World Coffee,” was particularly poignant, because Conway, known as the “Magical Genius of Math,” just died a few weeks ago – a loss that coincided with the loss of the simple but exhilarating joy of getting together over a cup of coffee.
Dr. Conway made profound contributions to number theory, coding theory, probability theory, topology, algebra and more — and created brilliant games from it all. His extraordinary life ended on Saturday, April 11, when he died of the coronavirus in a New Brunswick nursing home. But in my brain, his most profound contribution among all of his world-renowned academic accomplishments was his celebration of friendship. His little morning gathering consisted of neighborhood residents of all different economic and professional backgrounds, but with one shared quality – a passion for humanity, community, and gabbing.
Ryan, who lives with his family around the corner from the Small World Coffee gathering spot, loves his “Tree Street” community and finds great joy in translating the ambience onto canvas. The paintings, he said, use soft colors, light, and shadows, transparency and opacity and tell stories in their own way as evocative as the stories told by Dr. Conway and his friends.
In the artist’s statement on his webpage, Ryan captured in words why his art – depicting daily rituals, casual routines and the ordinary – is so meaningful to me these days when memories of camaraderie and community are washing over me.
“In my recent work I explore what it means to have a sense of home and to know more intimately what I see and experience every day. My subjects are my neighbors, and what I portray is my neighborhood. In painting them I’ve come to appreciate an ephemeral landscape that lies within. Early on, my vision had been held hostage to the line separating one object from another. But life is not thus constrained. Rather than line, my work now lingers on shape, color, light and shadow. Distinctions remain, but separations are softened. Each moment I render, even those that are still, slip into life’s flow,” he said.
Art critic and nationally known photographer Ricardo Barros further expounded on the particular appeal of Ryan’s “community” paintings. “Ryan Lilienthal … holds his footing in the space he inhabits. Rather than retell what we already know about … Princeton, he focuses on the quiet, more intimate landscape of daily experience. Daily rituals – casual routines so familiar that we are often blind to them, and customs that grow ever more precious with the passage of time – are this painter’s subject.
“Ryan’s paintings are instants vividly seen. In many ways, they are unremarkable events excerpted from life. They depict moments of poignancy. His paintings show us an array of unassuming gestures and interactions we later realize constitute meaning in personal experience,” Mr. Barros said.
Ryan’s models never posed in a studio, just interacted with Ryan who etched the images and mood in his mind’s eye. “When John came to Small World in the morning, he was always wearing T-shirts that were math jokes. He and the others talked about everything, mundane, political and trivial. He even set me straight about my name. I thought Lilienthal meant Lily of the Valley. He told me that Lilienthal means Valley of the Lilies.”
Known for years as an immigration attorney, Ryan now practices law only “tangentially,” in order to spend most of his time working as an artist. He is inspired by his family (wife attorney Rachel Stark, and three sons); community (he was a former Princeton Borough Council person and ongoing community activist for a variety of social causes); and, of course, his neighborhood’s personalities like John Conway, who found fun in the most intellectually challenging topics.
Ryan, perhaps inspired by this fun/challenging juxtaposition, has been working on mixed media creations literally and figuratively drawn from a national conversation around the Mueller report. For the first artwork in the planned series, he cut up 36 pages of the report and painted on top of the pieces of paper to reflect visually the themes of opaqueness and transparency so prevalent in the words of the report. Each of the four pieces is a metaphor for different aspects of the report and the controversy around it.
COVID, for the time being, has thwarted exhibitions of any of Ryan’s works. I truly look forward to when I not only can attend exhibits, but also have a conversation about them over a cup of coffee at Small World, which, by the way, should give Ryan’s Small World Coffee picture a permanent home. It would make a great conversation piece.