By Pam Hersh
Like a good neighbor, the Arts Council of Princeton is there – to re-phrase a certain insurance company slogan. During these past 13 months, the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP), located only a block from my apartment, has been a great neighbor to me – and to thousands of others – by providing invaluable assurance that smiling (albeit behind a mask) is still possible. And key to this assurance policy has been a wall, not a border wall of concrete and electronics to keep people out, but rather an outdoor picture wall of artistic design and inspiring messaging to draw people in.
Although the entire arts council staff deserves a standing ovation, I would like to focus on ACP’s Artistic Director Maria Evans, who for 20 years has been a valued member of the arts council staff and for the past year has been the primary force behind leaving artistic gifts of whimsy and encouragement on Princeton’s streets. With a master’s degree in fine arts, Maria started at the arts council as an office support assistant and instructor; she soon was promoted to administrative jobs (gallery manager, community arts manager), and since 2010, she has been serving as artistic director, a position that allowed her to spread the joy of art to a much larger classroom – the entire community.
The most recent manifestation of Maria’s public art talent are outdoor wall murals and the new exhibit at Dohm Alley. They are pandemic-safe arts treasures that have created and continue to create a much needed buzz of optimism.
When the world shut down in March 2020, Maria and ACP’s Marketing Manager Melissa Kuscin put on their thinking caps and masks and brainstormed how to reach the community in times when no one was supposed to be actually reaching anyone. “In April of 2020, we started the mask project Sew Many Masks. We invited the community to pick up mask-making supplies at the arts council, make the masks, and then the completed masks were made available at the arts council – free of charge,” said Maria.
“Melissa and I felt the need to do more, something bold and positive and uplifting and outside. We were moved by the Black Lives Matter movement – the signs, the posters and most of all the street art that emerged from the awful circumstances of the death of George Floyd. A public art mural, we concluded, would fit our goals,” said Maria, who reached out to then Mayor Liz Lempert for help, because of the mayor’s commitment to public art in Princeton. After looking around town for a big unencumbered surface, “we came up with the perfect location, the Spring Street wall/façade on the Village Silver building on the corner of Witherspoon and Spring Street,” said Maria.
She reached out to Michael Gale, vice president of real estate operations for Genesis Investment Properties, the owners of the Village Silver building with the perfect wall.
“Mr. Gale loved the idea, the Princeton Public Art Committee on which I serve approved the project, and we did our first public mural as ‘Stronger Together,’ the message that we thought was most appropriate for the times. Lisa Walsh, an enormously talented artist, muralist, a set designer at McCarter, and volunteer at the Arts Council, helped with the design and implementation of this message,” said Maria.
Keith Colman of Hamilton Building Supply donated all the Masonite for the job. The building surface was unsuitable for painting, and the arts council had to build a frame and Masonite surface. Hamilton Building Supply also donates materials for the Parklet program, also Maria’s bailiwick, a project of creating cozy outdoor seating in front of a local retailer, who sponsors the space. In the past, a parklet has been at Small World Coffee and Jazam’s, and this year a parklet was just installed at Chez Alice on Palmer Square.
The next mural that wowed everyone was “VOTE” – that became “VOTED” after the election. In the POW and POP style of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, the VOTE mural wowed everyone.
The current public art mural is “Love Local” in support of the buy-local movement in the downtown. Since this was painted in the winter, the challenge was to find a day for painting it that was not bitterly cold. The next mural is about to be launched and will reflect spring themes of new life and hope, said Maria.
The walls of Dohm Alley (off of Nassau Street between Starbucks and the former Landau’s shop) are the stage for a brand new public art exhibition that was installed last week and will remain in place through October. Although under the auspices of Maria, the creative force behind this project is the 2021 Anne Reeves Arts Council of Princeton Artist-in-Residence Robin Resch, who is a fine art photographer.
Robin loves the idea of using Nassau Street’s Dohm Alley as the setting for the photographic exhibition, titled “Taking Pause,” because the name is also a desired reaction, for residents and other visitors to the space to take a pause to view her collaborative visual meditation. The art is about the subjects of the photographs – and also the viewers of the photographs – reflecting on objects that are personally essential and irreplaceable to them. The exhibition is based on a three-level approach: the image of the person; the object that the individual selected; and a personal statement about the object.
“The project definitely is in response to the challenges of this year and the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Maria.
And my response to this Dohm Alley exhibition and to the mural project is simply “thanks, arts council, for being my neighbor.”