Art Sweeping the Oranges: East Orange Boogie Woogie

Nussbaum's East Orange Boogie Boogie. Credit: Tom Nussbaum.

It’s spectacular!” Artist and archivist Kathleen Heron, the collection manager for East Orange’s Pink Dragon Artist Syndicate, is talking about the 2,000-square-f00t outdoor mural stopping traffic on the Garden State Parkway. “All that color on top of white; It’s different from most murals,” Heron said.

Heron has her finger firmly on the pulse of this exciting public art work. But let’s back up and first talk about the why, how, and when of East Orange Boogie Woogie. 

The Garden State Parkway. Credit: Tom Nussbaum.

The 1950s construction of the Garden State Parkway bifurcated many New Jersey neighborhoods, leaving some long-lasting scars in its wake. Starting in 2017, Linda Street, the can-do, visionary founder and director of Pink Dragon, metaphorically moved a lot of earth to bring this visual proclamation of local pride to thousands of motorists daily. An early step was her visit to renowned artist and sculptor Tom Nussbaum’s studio on Franklin Street in East Orange’s historic Manufacturers Village complex. 

Street asked if he would reconceptualize his three dimension East Orange Boogie Woogie, a 47x64x1 inch acrylic on steel wall sculpture (2015) into one dimension — that is into paint on a flat surface. The surface was the outside wall of an abandoned building. That meant the composition would grow from inches to feet. A lot of feet.  

With over 40 large-scale sculptural installations nationwide, Nussbaum was no stranger to massive outdoor art. 

He was all in. “I created the original East Orange Boogie Woogie to celebrate the vitality and energy of East Orange. I live and work here. It’s my community. That’s why I incorporated East Orange into the titles of both the 2015 wall sculpture and the mural,” Nussbaum said in a recent lengthy conversation. He also assured this giant iteration had a highly visible “East Orange” top and center as part of the mural’s design. The title is repeated within a painted placard that cites the mural’s full credentials.

East Orange Mayor Ted R. Green and Councilman Christopher Awe, longtime advocates of community art, would be all in, too.

To realize a work of this size and scope took months and months of Ms. Street and the City Of East Orange clearing many roadblocks, including funding. Producer Street assembled an ace three-man team of East Orange-based mural painters — Steve Green of Blackbird Arts and Design, Malcolm Rolling and Matthew Purefoy — to execute the piece.

Arts Beat asked Nussbaum to talk about how this collaborative process worked.

“I did the master drawing, lead wall artist Steve made a grid pattern, and Steve, Malcolm and Matthew put an enlarged grid on the wall. It’s a method long used by billboard painters before the advent of large-scale printing,” Nussbaum said. 

Using house and spray paints, the muralists deftly wielded big brushes and rollers. A cherry-picker held them aloft. Nussbaum was hands-on during the four months that the team labored, from overseeing the mixing of the paint colors to adjusting his composition as the work progressed. 

“This was truly a community-based, collective effort,” Nussbaum said. 

The results? Nussbaum, whose personal playlist includes Bach and Coltrane, has orchestrated a masterful, balanced composition in POW! primary colors — red, yellow and blue — against those expanses of white. 

It’s a fantastical, abstracted vision of the resistors, capacitors, transistors on the circuit boards that drive our lives, be they within a computer or audio equipment. (Here, a grateful nod to my husband, a jazz musician given to repairing his own gear.)

It’s intriguing. It’s playful. It’s joyful. It feels alive.

It has soul.

It’s great viewed both from the passing southbound car, and with some neck craning, great viewed from the sidewalk. The varied color combinations of the linked, repeated elements dancing across the wall just might have you breaking into a celebration dance of your own. 

Mondrian’s Boogie Woogie. Credit: MoMA.

Both the sculpture, now in a private collection, and the mural, very much public, pulse with energy and movement. They also reverberate with Nussbaum’s homage to Piet Mondrian’s 1942-1943 Broadway Boogie Woogie, a purely abstract painting that has long called The Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan its home. (The émigré Dutch artist was honoring both the lights, movement, and energy of his adopted city and a rhythmic, popular piano style of his era.) 

Mondrian’s famed work is a must-see, attracting visitors from worldwide. East Orange Boogie Woogie is a must-see, too. Here’s predicting that motorists turn off at GSP Exit 145 to take a closer look at the vital art scene in East Orange and all the Oranges.

Visit Tom Nussbaum’s website for a closer look at the mural and the mural-painting team at work. Spend some time with photographs of his other works and installations. Create a tour of your own. Kids will love it! Nussbaum has a one-man show, “Step Right Up” at the Brassworks Gallery in nearby Montclair opening March 16. The gallery at 105 Grove Street is within a reclaimed 1930 industrial building, adapted for mixed use.

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