Art Sweeping the Oranges, Part Three: Dan Fenelon’s Cosmic Doodling

Dan Fenelon’s mural in Spiotta Park. Credit: Dan Fenelon.

Larger-than-life artist and designer Dan Fenelon can’t be placed into a simple category. He paints public art and fine art, large and small, solo and interactive, clothing and home design. And more.

What is for sure—whether in a museum, on an exterior building wall, lining a school hallway, or enlivening a pair of yoga tights—Fenelon wants to put a smile on your face. 

If he can’t evoke a smile, nothing can.

Fenelon’s murals — more than 30 of them nationwide — are alive with energy, humor, wit, color, symbolism, and allusions. His components are one part comic book (Fenelon started drawing them as a five-year-old), one part Book of Kells, one part Pop, one part Expressionism, one part tribal, one part street art, one part cosmic doodling raised to the Nth degree, and all parts Fenelon imagination and joy.

Also, all parts hip.

Starting in the aughts, Fenelon’s anthropomorphic celestial objects, strange gods, mythic creatures, chimeras, musical symbols and Ab/Fab patterns have been marching from the Valley north to the Montclair Art Museum and public library, east to Newark and west to Morristown and beyond.

His exuberance has invaded south to the heart of South Orange Village where a big band of cool jazz cats jam in a pedestrian walkway and a giant Mayan sun beats down on a reimagined village park.

Fenelon’s world is more alive than ours. Maybe the best description is transformational.

Here’s how the area public art started. In 2010, the celebrated Luna Stage Theater Company was relocating from Montclair into adjacent, renovated buildings at 555 Valley Road, West Orange in the new Valley Arts District. The late Susan Borg, West Orange’s then-director of planning and development, tapped Fenelon to work his magic at what would become a small arts complex that is now also home to the all-volunteer West Orange Arts Center. Devoted to public art, Borg had earlier brought the international artist Cow Parade to the township. 

Fenelon’s Luna Moon. Credit: Darren Tobia.

Fenelon had recently painted the rear outside wall of the nearby (now-shuttered) Arts Unbound Gallery in Orange. Now, Fenelon stepped into a cherry picker to paint the 30-foot-high north wall of the new complex.

His 2010, 20’x30’ Luna Moon vibrates with color and forms. Under that Man in the Luna Moon two outstretched hands and arms, the masks of comedy and tragedy, piano keys, a saxophone, the Valley Arts District trademark fedora, plus lots of squiggles and doodles trumpet the possibilities of the dramatic, visual, and musical arts.

And, what colors! That blue!!

South Orange followed a few years later. The village had been reimagining itself as an arts hub bookended by the 2006 South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) in the Village Center and Seton Hall University’s long established arts programming farther east on South Orange Avenue. 

Fenelon got a call from Bob Zuckerman, an art-loving village trustee, to enhance the pedestrian walkway linking the village’s town center with the Sloan Street parking lot. Flush with grant money from Main Street, New Jersey and donations from local music event profits, the alleyway had already seen new landscaping and hardscaping and a new name, Music Walk.

“I thought about South Orange and its many street concerts and the many jazz giants who perform and live in the Oranges,” Fenelon said.

Fenelon painted a septet of Jazz-Alley Cats on 4’x8’ marine grade plywood panels. The cats were such a hit that Fenelon was brought back to expand the ensemble to a big band with five more panels on the opposite east wall.

The second time out, there was one species alteration. “I was checking on the condition of the panels,” Fenelon said, ‘And I overheard a man walking his dog saying, ‘What, no dogs…?’ So, I painted a jazz dog. I decided to make him the drummer. My friends agreed, ‘Yeah man, dogs are definitely the drummer.’”

Perfect cat-it-tude. Perfect jazz-a-tude. (I know both and well.)

The final mural on this whirlwind Fenelon tour is a short walk east up the hill of South Orange Avenue to Spiotta Park where the reimagined pocket park—since 2018 an in-season venue for Downtown After Sundown music performances—excites with his 18’x8’ The Spirit of Spiotta.

Again, acrylic paint on marine grade plywood, Spirit celebrates South Orange. 

Fenelon explains. “The Village wanted a depiction of South Orange and its commitment to  diversity and to the arts, its green spaces, its proximity to NYC, and more.” Fenelon winks at them all with the signature South Orange Village Hall tower, a rainbow banner, a patch of forest, a nod to a distant NYC skyline, and a benevolent over-spirit all under a Mayan sun. Two big goldfinches, New Jersey’s state bird, fly by. 

Let’s listen in to some of what Dan Fenelon has to say.

Arts Beat: Dan, let’s start with those jazz cats. Any particular visual inspiration?

DF: Yes. I didn’t want to do specific jazz artists. I was inspired by the 1940s and 1950s jazz album covers by graphic designer Jim Solar. But with my contemporary take and a vivid color palette. I want my works to pop, to change moods.

AB: Just where I wanted to go next. Your colors! When I spoke with artist Adam Gustavson for last month’s Arts Beat he said, “Dan’s colors are a swirling adventure.” Are they! I love the way you have a multitude of colors in any one piece, and it just works. And that blue. I would recognize that blue as yours anywhere.

DF: My color choices are often inspired by the colors of Indian mandalas. I see my work as a spiritual book for the present. I want my art to create the same positive energy and meditative power the mandalas create. 

AB: Aha, transforming a universe of suffering to one of joy … But, please, tell me more about that blue.

DF: After my formal art education, I worked in graphic art and printing. Cyan is the green/blue color used in printing with yellow, magenta, and black to create any color on the spectrum. I adapted these colors into painting. Yes, it’s the signature look of much of my public work.

AB: There we have it, Arts Beat’s three installment tour of five must-see murals throughout all of the Oranges. Grab the kids and Auntie Lil or Uncle Bill and set off on an exploration. To experience Fenelon in the round, it’s only a short drive west on South Orange Avenue to the South Mountain Reservation’s Wildflower Sculpture Park where five Fenelon biomorphs hold court. To fully understand Fenelon’s art, don’t miss his’s current one-man show in Montclair where he digs deeper into the cosmic, the mythic, the Jungian.

See and learn more on Dan Fenelon’s website. Fenelon and his wife, Kadie Dempsey, collaborate in bringing interactive public art events to local communities with their Core Creative Placemaking service.

Fenelon’s one-man show at Gallery 491, 491 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, New Jersey runs through July 28, 2023. Bonus: his indoor murals populate hallways in many public schools. A favorite is at Heywood Avenue School in Orange. What would my 1950s teachers have thought?

Jazz Cats. Credit: Dan Fenelon.

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