Art Sweeping the Oranges: Gustavson’s Gateway Mural at Highland Avenue Station

Adam Gustavson's Gateway Mural, 2019, at Highland Avenue Station. Credit: Adam Gustavson.

Last time out, Arts Beat looked at Tom Nussbaum’s 2,000-square-foot abstraction, East Orange Boogie WoogieNow, travel south to Highland Avenue Station in Orange. There, the artist, author, prolific illustrator, social satirist/punster, educator and professional blues guitarist Adam Gustavson’s narrative Gateway Mural will stop you in your tracks. 

Gustavson is a master draftsman and colorist with keen powers of observation, insight, and imagination. Foremost, he is a superb visual storyteller. His 16’x34’ Gateway Mural (2019) has a compelling story to tell.

Descend the outdoor concrete stairs from the elevated tracks on the station’s eastbound side. You won’t be alone. Accompanying you on the south wall of the stairwell are 10 larger-than-life riders just off the train. They grow in size and impact as they near street level.

Who are these people? Where are they going? Where are they coming from? I want to sit down and hear about their lives, their families, their work, their burdens, their joys. 

Like a crowned monarch on a foreign stamp, each is shown in profile from the chest up. Each is crowned, too, not with jewels but with headwear that is one entry into the story Gustavson tells.

We need to sidetrack to some history here: If the automobile came to reign supreme during the 20th century, the railroads wielded the scepter in the 19th and through the first decades of the 20th. You could jump aboard a passenger train in the Oranges and travel the Phoebe Snow to Chicago (in 1963 a teenage me took one of its last runs as far as Binghampton, NY).

Freight trains that delivered the Orange Valleys’ manufactures nationwide long chugged on these tracks, too. Chief among the products were hats. Between the mid-1800s to early 1920s, five million hats were produced in our local “Hat Capitol of The World.” Some manufacturers are known today — Stetson. Others — The No-Name Hat Company — are forgotten.  

In the 1920s, freight and long-distance passenger trains increasingly gave way to the commuter trains that had already been transforming swaths of the four Oranges into bedroom communities.

Fast forward to the turn of our 21st century. HANDs (established 1986), an Orange-based community revitalization not-for-profit serving East Orange and Orange, turned its attention to the Valley. Nineteen years later, Valley Arts, also a not-for-profit, was founded. The Valley Arts District (VAD) was born. It’s a 15 block area straddling the Orange and West Orange border that is now home to repurposed buildings housing Luna Stage Theater (its mural is among the final stops in this three-part Arts Beat series), art galleries, and artist living/work spaces. In 2017, HANDs and VAD put out a call for proposals for a mural to enhance the northern entry to the Valley Arts District. 

Gustavson with his mural. Credit: Adam Gustavson.Enter Adam Gustavason, his wife Denise Gustavson, also a trained artist, and their family. They are among the many folks in the arts now living in or near to the rejuvenated neighborhood. Gustavson had strong ideas about what he wanted and didn’t want to see in the neighborhood. “It’s near where I live and work, and Highland is my local station,” Gustavson said.

He answered the call with the winning proposal. 

“The sponsors wanted a family-friendly, approachable mural. I proposed a mural about the people who’ve been living and working and making it a neighborhood for the past 100 years,” Gustavson said. “I wanted to pay respect to the district’s industrial past, yes, but especially to pay respect to the community.”

“I wanted these people to be seen.”

Seen they are in a parade of gloriously behatted, turbaned, capped and scarved men and women. There is a bowler, a fedora, a feathered and brimmed cloche, a cap, a hat befitting a wedding guest, a turban, a Rasta cap, a gele or duka, a hijad and a dapper Panama. 

The mural also tips its hat to the area’s hat-making past. The abstracted, hieroglyphic-like background is inspired by the pages of an old Stetson catalogue.

But the deeper story is in the hats as emblem — as signifier — of who each person is. It is homage to the community’s diversity.

There are evocations of the past. Adjacent to the top three stairs near the platform are three figures whose hats tell us they are visitors from the late 1800s to 1920s. Like an old photograph, these three are painted in sepia tones against a sepia background. 

Descend another few steps and there is a transitional figure, a youth in the timeless, tweed cap that once signified working class status and or youth. He partially steps into our times. Then, the  background explodes into a striking orange, still against Gustavson’s interpretation of old catalogue pages. A vivid red, generously brimmed and bowed hat partially obscures the face of its wearer, a matron on her way to church? A spectrum of colors follows, especially on the Pan-African Rasta cap and the vivid blue jacket of an older, Cuban gentleman in that white Panama. 

It’s bold, it’s bright, it’s fearless and it makes for fabulous viewing, both driving by and stopping to look. 

Arts Beat: Did you use models?

AG:  None of these portraits are archetypes. They are humans with their own stories. I sketch while I ride the train—I’ve captured thousands of people in hundreds of sketch books.

Arts Beat: The mural is actually on affixed panels. Why panels? How did you match the seams?

AG: I knew from the start the mural would be on panels. NJ Transit would not allow painting directly onto the structure’s historic concrete surfaces. I had to be artist, mathematician and chemist. Mathematics entered into planning the composition so that the most forgiving segments of the painting would fall on the seams connecting the panels.

Arts Beat: Chemist? What are the challenges of outdoor art in general and this project specifically?

AG: As painters, we are taught don’t leave a painting outside, don’t  expose it to sunlight, don’t touch it, don’t let the works get wet. Outdoor, public art upends all the rules. It’s going to be outside, exposed to sunlight, get rained on, be touched. Chemistry entered into my researching the surfaces, paint, and ultraviolet and other protective finishes to withstand the rigors of the outdoor environment. Chemistry reentered when I invented a process of transferring the design onto the panels. I created my own paint-by-numbers. Then both my wife Denise and I executed the final work.

Arts Beat: I love your bold use of color—the juxtapositions, the use of deeper and lighter values to move the eye…

AG: My colors have a job to do. They’re not on an adventure. I hide color in unexpected places, too.

Arts Beat: Gateway Mural commands you to stop in your day, to look, to ask questions,  to enter the mural’s world then to emerge understanding your world differently, more fully.

Gustavson’s Maplewood train station mural. Credit: Adam Gustavson.

See for yourself: If you have kids in your life, bring them along so they can clamber up and down the stairs in this voyage through time, place, cultures, and bravura art-making. 

Gateway Mural led to two other Gustavson area mural delights: One, a frieze of engaging baby animals at play through the four seasons is on the upper façade of Playhouse Pre-School, 88 Franklin Avenue, West Orange. In Gustavson’s The Tunnelers some louche underground critters hang around on the underpass at the Maplewood Train Station. Two wear hats.

Learn more of Adam’s process from proposal to completion in photographs and explanations on Gustavson’s website. Don’t miss samples of his extraordinary book illustrations and his sly catalogue of very witty, punning images. Gustavson currently teaches art at Rowan University and since 2014 at his and Denise Gustavson’s Renaissance Art Studio in Millburn, NJ.

Read the other stories in this series:

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