Monthly Archives: April 2011

So Yoon Lym, Anthony, 2011, acrylic on paper, 22 x 30 inches

After eight years of photographing the hairstyles worn by the boys and girls walking through the hallways in John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, New Jersey, artist So Yoon Lym began to paint them. (The hairstyles, not the students’ faces.) She paints what she sees, employing an aerial perspective to portray her models. We see the complex geometry of the braids, and her meticulous portraits exude a religious gravitas. I recently caught up with So Yoon Lym to discus her life and work.

Hi So Yoon. Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?

I was born in Seoul, Korea, but lived in Uganda and Kenya for 7 years.  My parents were both surgeons working in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin.  We came to live in northern New Jersey when I was 7.

That is such a difficult question to answer:  “Who are you and what do you do?”  I am still not completely sure who I am.  Through painting, I think I find out who I am.  I’ve done many things over the years, but right now I am trying to be a full-time artist.

When did you begin to paint and draw?

Growing up, art had always been my favorite subject in school.  And I was lucky to have been able to take art every year that I was in elementary, middle and high school.  During my junior year in high school, when I was 15 and told my parents that I wanted to go to an art college, they encouraged me to go to France for the summer to participate in the Parsons Pre-College to Dordogne and Paris two-week Painting and Drawing program.  Following the Parsons program, I stayed on in Paris for a week and then went to Normandy for another two weeks to study traditional sumie painting with one of Korea’s greatest painter, Ung No Lee.  My parents helped arrange all this for me.  I will always be grateful to my parents for their encouragement and support in my interest to be a painter.  To this day, all my artwork hangs in their house, in every single room and hallway.

I got my BFA in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design and my MFA in Painting from Columbia University.  After Columbia, I worked as a textile colorist and designer in New York City for 7 years.  I then became an art educator in Paterson, New Jersey for 9 years until I was laid off last year in June 2010.

So Yoon Lym, Jhonathan, 2010, acrylic on paper, 22 x 30 inches

How does painting enable you to learn more about who are you are and what you do? Is it the act of painting which provides this uncovering or is it the end result? Do the insights hit you like a thunderbolt from the sky or do they reveal themselves slowly, overtime?

I have always wanted to be the kind of artist that can just start sketching, drawing or painting anytime and anywhere.  It still takes me a really long time to mentally prepare to sketch, draw or paint.  This is what the whole process of grinding one’s ink in sumie painting is about.  I have to straighten up my surroundings and clear all the physical as well as mental clutter.

I think the learning more about who I am is really about coming back to what I already know about myself, which is something I forget from time to time.  By that, I mean that I love being quiet and working on whatever it is I am working on and not looking for or chasing things, events, opportunities or people.  This might sound odd, but even after 30 years of painting, I still can’t believe when I am just about to put the last brush stokes down on a painting.  After I finish a painting, I always step back, take a huge breath, and feel grateful that I am able to see something I’ve made.  I think a lot about painting even when I am not actually painting so, I would say that all my insights about what I want to work on come slowly over time.

I love your Dreamtime series. I first saw the work online and then had the opportunity to see a selection of the paintings in the Hair exhibition at the Jersey City Museum. Tell us about the series. What is it, and why is it important?

I started photographically documenting hair and braid patterns and hairstyles I saw on students from 2001 until 2010 at John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, New Jersey where I had worked as a full time art educator.  But I didn’t begin painting this hair and braid pattern series until the summer of 2008.

The hair and braid pattern paintings didn’t become titled, The Dreamtime until 2010.  The Dreamtime was the title for my Paterson Museum solo exhibition in October-November 2010.

I wanted a title that would reference many different layers of meaning to what I felt the hair and braid pattern paintings were about.  The Dreamtime is a reference to the Dreamtime of pre-colonial aboriginal Australia.

These paintings are important, at least for me, because they were all based on actual hair and braid patterns as worn by actual students that I knew at Kennedy High School.  When you ask why are they important, I can’t say why and if they would be important to the viewer and to which viewer.

So Yoon Lym, Quay, 2010, acrylic on paper, 22 x 30 inches

I see these paintings as portraiture. However, you chose to utilize an aerial perspective, opting not to portray the model’s face or body. What led you to this decision?

I chose an aerial perspective for several reasons.  I was taking pictures of students while I was employed as an educator at a public school.  For legal reasons, I wanted to obscure students’ faces.  I had thought that these hair and braid patterns were like fingerprints and wanted to present a painting series of designs, patterns and symbols seen from a vantage point that would not readily identify these paintings as ‘portraiture’.  I also decided that painting from an aerial perspective would highlight and showcase the hair and braid patterns in the most abstract and contemporary way.

Your aerial portraits present men and women who wear cornrows, a traditional style of braiding hair close to the scalp. Each portrait presents a single model, who has a different pattern of braiding. The hair is braided in parallel rows, complex geometric patterns, swirls, zigzags, and curves. The depiction is objective, detached, and clinical. When you present the series in its entirety, it is reminiscent of botanical illustrations. Did you have this approach in mind when you began the series?

The hair and braid patterns originated with the wearer.  And I want to point out that they are really of young adults, teenagers for the most part.  This is where the second layer of meaning to the dreamtime comes in.  Having experienced life as a teenager in an American public suburban high school and then having worked as an educator in an American public urban high school, I recognized that this was a “dream-time”, an unreal time period of learning, as if what is taught within school is all real and true.

The hair and braid patterns I painted from reference photographs were chance photographs.  They were taken because I was attracted to and interested in the design that the wearer already had, without my interference or decision-making.  And so, I feel that I am finding that which already exists in nature, much like how Karl Blossfeldt documented botanical plant life through his microscopic photographs.

I have a great love of things that are handmade, handcrafted and all natural.  All these hair and braid patterns were handcrafted and designed by women and girls that the wearers knew and not necessarily done in a commercial hair salon.  There were many hair and braid patterns that I saw that I did not choose to document or paint.  Every work of art is in some way a personal self-portrait, whatever the nature of the artwork.  Each work of art is the sum total collection of decisions and aesthetic choices of a particular artist.  So, in this way, I don’t feel that the depiction is objective, detached or clinical.

So Yoon Lym, Jonathan, 2010, acrylic on paper, 22 x 30 inches

The cornrow patterns are as beautiful and intricate as the markings on butterfly wings. Actually, the grid arrangement of these portraits reminded me of the placement of preserved butterflies within glass collector cases. Does that association resonate with you? Do you feel that your subjects endangered in some way?

The hair and braid pattern paintings are a documentation of a moment in the time span of the wearer’s life.  It is a passing glimpse into the part of the whole of the infinite range and variety of hair and braid pattern design possibility. These hair and braid patterns exist as designs that are chosen and often altered by the wearer depending on their cranial structure, length and quality of hair, personal design preference, craftsmanship of the braider, etc.  There were many students who dramatically altered their hair such as getting a close-cropped haircut, never to wear a hair and braid pattern again, at least in high school.  I don’t understand that question about the subjects being endangered in some way.  Hair design and hair styling will continue as it has continued from the beginning of time.

The grid arrangement you are referring to is from the brochure/poster layout that I had commissioned by Everythingstudio in NYC.  The printed brochure/poster, which included text by Rocio Aranda-Alvarado was meant to serve several functions.  It was the text accompaniment for The Dreamtime exhibition, an instant portfolio, a collection and archive of the paintings in this series as well as an art poster.

The braids have a presence, physicality, and weight. As soon as I saw your paintings, I wanted to sink my teeth into them as if they were plump ropes of licorice. Is there a particular response you are hoping to provoke in the viewer? Or is it about something else?

Painting for me is a spiritual practice.  The act of disciplining my mind and quieting my thoughts while painting gives me direction in the larger scheme of life.  I don’t really think about the viewer when I make art, which is not to say that I don’t have a vision in mind of what I would like to achieve with a series.  As I have gotten older, I see that the appreciation and also response to art is very much a subjective experience.  I don’t think it is healthy to have expectations as far as how people will respond to your work.  I think this has parallels to daily life, and not having expectations with events and/or with people. This is something that I have to re-learn daily and painting helps me to do this.

With this particular hair and braid pattern series, I envision that the viewer will see the hair and braid pattern paintings the way I do.  The quiet and bowing heads are like heads in meditation or benediction.  There is no race identification, but a recognition and eternal connection to humanity and timeless nature.  That is what I understand to be the pre-colonial aboriginal Australian way of life and their belief of The Dreamtime, before the Aborigines were colonized, subjugated, defined and viewed from the outside.  A passage that I think of often in life and while I paint is from the William Blake poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

So Yoon Lym, William, 2010, acrylic on paper, 22 x 30 inches

From Cold Crush Brothers to Eric B and Rakim, Eazy E to Snoop, hip-hop artists have worn cornrows since the genre’s inception. What is your relationship to the art, music, and culture of hip-hop?

I feel that there is something overly trendy and commercial in relating cornrows to the culture of hip-hop.  I view the hair and braid patterns more along the lines of crafts in a global sense.  It is every culture’s love of pattern, design and of making things.  Cornrow braiding has been documented on Greek and Roman art from 490-485 BC, while the modern origins of cornrow braiding originated in West Africa and pre-dates contemporary hip hop and rap music.

Hair braiding and cornrow braiding exists around the world for many as a daily beauty ritual much in the way women and men all over the world and throughout time have tended to and styled their hair.  But in this country, it also has a history that spans the beginning of slavery to the Black Pride Movement and onward to a hairstyle, that today is most closely associated to urban American music, style and culture.  The voices coming from rap and hip-hop in America have re-directed meaning and re-contextualized how cornrow braiding is perceived and understood.

I believe that when stylistically related elements in art and music are presented together, insightful observations can be made on commerce, contemporary trends and interests as well as on ‘culture’ at large, although this is not necessarily an interest of mine with this particular painting series.

Who are the subjects portrayed in the series? How did you get them to sit for you? What was the relationship between artist and model?

Some were students of mine, some were friends of students that I would allow to hang out in the art room and some were students that I saw in the hallways.  I just simply asked students if I could take their picture and they allowed me to do so.  Since I was always either teaching or prepping for a class, I had to take these pictures often within the span of a minute as I didn’t want to take time away from what I was supposed to be in school for: teaching art, not collecting reference material for personal art projects.  Plus, I was always concerned about being questioned by administration, so I tried to be as quick and discreet as possible.

So Yoon Lym, Thinking Beyond the Pattern, Gallery Korea

I am curious about the models’ reactions to your work. What do they think of it?

As far as subject matter, they have seen it all and more.  My hair and braid pattern paintings, imagery-wise were not that unusual to them.  They lived it and saw it everyday and everywhere in their daily lives.  Most people automatically think that my students would be extremely interested in my artwork.  Aside from the naturalistic or detailed quality of the hair and braid pattern paintings that they may have had some interest in, the paintings themselves were not anything “new” to them.  They are pretty straightforward as paintings in composition and technique.  They are what they are.  It is only in one’s imagination that they might become more.

What is next for you?

I would like to paint 10 more of these 22” x 30”, acrylic on paper braid pattern paintings then close this series.  I am currently doing research, organizational and preparation work now for a new body of work that I have been thinking of working on for the last 15 years years.

Now that I am not teaching full time, I will be able to build this body of work both as a recent Lower East Side Printshop Keyholder resident and in May-June when I go to the Vermont Studio Center on a full fellowship award.  But, I would like to continue to exhibit my hair and braid pattern series that I am calling The Dreamtime.  I will have a solo exhibition of these paintings at the Target Gallery in the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, VA this August-September 2011.  And will have another solo exhibition of this hair and braid pattern series next year in April 2012 at the Hall of Fame Gallery at Bronx Community College in Bronx, NY.

Brothers and Sisters:

_gaia needs your help! It is time to dig deep. Many generous folks have already pledged their support to New News is Old News*. Please join them on Kickstarter and help _gaia complete this unique project, support the Wonder Women residency, fund the Cyprus workshop, and related exhibitions. Help them get to $8,000 by May 14.

Nicosia, Cyprus

–>_gaia only has a few weeks left. Do not delay – they need you!

Kickstarter page:

Join _gaia for the New News Is Old News exhibition on May 7th, 6-9pm at Aferro Gallery ( and post, tweet, promote their project!

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* _gaia’s current residency program, New News Is Old News, is tackling the concept of real time media and the ramifications of our evolving relationship with news. It is co-curated by Doris Cacoilo and Maya Joseph-Goteiner.

New News Is Old News | Wonder Women residency | group shot

Margaret Murphy | Courtesy of Jersey Journal

Margaret Murphy was born in Baltimore, MD. She is a painter, curator, and professor.

Margaret earned her BS from Towson State University; and she earned her MFA in Painting from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in 1992.

Margaret’s work is in the collection of Deutsche Bank, Jersey City Museum, Hudson County Community College Foundation, Hunterdon Museum of Art, The Brodsky Center at Rutgers University, and numerous private collections. She now resides in Jersey City, NJ.

Margaret, I’m intrigued with the way you juggle your professional life. You are a visual artist with gallery representation; you curate and organize exhibitions. You also teach art on a collegiate level. I think you’re a great role model for a lot of artists who want to follow a diverse practice. So, I’m curious about some of the realities of that. For this profile, I want to concentrate on your experience as an artist. What do you do, and why?

I paint and make art because its how I process the observations and questions I have about life. I also enjoy the “craft” of art making. I like working with my hands. Painting has always been the medium of choice for me, creating illusions and being in the world of ideas feels right for what I speak about in my work.

Why? That has changed over the years. I was one of those kids who always got positive feedback about my drawings and paintings. I knew early on that I wanted to work in a creative field. As I matured I realized that my interests would best be expressed through painting.

MARGARET MURPHY. American Family Triptych, 2008.

You have a successful career: gallery representation, numerous awards, and critical recognition. What’s your secret?

“No secret, just hard work.”

Being a professional artist is a lot like being a small time business owner. How do you manage your career, and what skills do you need?

That is a good point. To be a successful artist it helps to have a good business sense. You have to be organized because you have to juggle many hats. I spend months painting then take a few months just to market the work (send out grant applications, apply for residencies, shows etc.) On top of that you have to make money so you teach, curate -whatever works best for you.

What’s your favorite part of being an artist?

“My favorite part is making the work. When you are in the studio and in a zone its great- the ideas flow, the process is exciting. I also enjoy always learning new things.”

What’s your least favorite part of being an artist?

Not being in control of your career. You are ready to work non stop but if the opportunities are not there that can be frustrating. Also the lean economic lifestyle can be difficult. An artist needs financial backing to work.

MARGARET MURPHY. Mother and Child, 2007.

What three pieces of advice would you give to an artist just starting out their career?

“Hmm, first – make good work. I think younger artist can come out of school now with too much of a business sense and not enough willingness to experiment and take risks with their work.

Second, try and connect with likeminded people and take charge. Curate shows, start a blog, be part of an art collective… You need to take the reigns of your own career and not wait for other people to give you opportunities.

Third, be patient. Work hard. Help others.”

You hail from Baltimore—home of John Waters, Anne Tyler, and The Wire. What’s the deal with Baltimore, and why does it inspire such great art?

I love Baltimore! Its quirky, charming and has a real sense of its own culture. It’s about crabs, orioles (and now Ravens), Edgar Allen Poe, John Waters…its great. I think it’s the whole Mason Dixon Line thing. It’s a little bit southern and a little bit east coast, it’s a nice combination. It doesn’t take itself too serious either. It’s a safe place to find your voice as an artist.

MARGARET MURPHY. girl down, 2010.

If Baltimore and Jersey City were to get into a pillow fight, whose side would you fight on, and why?

“I am a Jersey City girl now. This is home. I think what I like about JC is that is has a little bit of Baltimore in it – just closer to NY!”

What’s next for you?

We’ll see. I am working on a new body of work at PS122 in Manhattan. I do have a solo show coming up at Pentimenti Gallery in May. Also, my work will be included in a catalogue of 100 Mid Atlantic artists that will be published by Schiffer Publishing.

The original post may be found here.

Fourth Street Art and Music Festival

Mac2: Return of the Cheese is a food fundraiser in support of 4th Street Arts Annual Art and Music Festival in Downtown Jersey City. The fundraiser is also an opportunity for the culinary inclined to compete against your fellow restaurants or residents for the title of “Best Mac & Cheese in Chilltown.” I recently caught up with Marc Caterina, Sophie Penkrat, and Anne McTernan, of 4th Street Arts, to discuss the comfort food smackdown. The event will be on Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. at 190 Christopher Columbus Drive. There is a $5 entrance fee.

Q: Who are you, and what is your role in 4th Street Art and Music Festival? For those who are not familiar with Fourth Street, what is it, and why is it the most exciting event in the city?

A: Marc Caterina, I am the Director of 4th Street Arts. Sophie Penkrat, I am the 4th Street Arts Publicist and Artist/Vendor Coordinator via Not Yo’ Mama Affairs, and I am Anne McTernan, the Fundraising Coordinator & Street Design Team.

The 4th Street Art & Music Festival is an annual event that takes place in tandem with the ProArts Artists’ Studio Tour. For the seventh year in a row, the Festival will feature live bands, live art installations and demos, art for sale and more. What really makes the 4th Street Art and Music Festival so great is that it brings JC residents together with several aspects of the town’s vast creative community in one place. Together, we collaborate on and celebrate the art, the music, the food, the interaction, the imagination, and the all the awesome folks who live here. Not to mention that the beer is cheap! There really is something for every one of all ages too.

Q: What is Mac2: Return of the Cheese, and why should everyone in Jersey City and beyond-even those people from Brooklyn and Queens-come support this event?

A: Last September, Marc, Sophie and Anne decided to put on a last push fundraiser to collect funds for the Festival by throwing the Mac & Cheese Bake-Off. We hosted the event at Gallery 58 on Coles Street with roughly ten contestants (restaurants and individuals). People came out in droves – and HUNGRY! We thought it was a fluke and didn’t plan to host a second event, but due to numerous e-mails, phone calls and smoke signals, we ended up throwing a Chili Cook-Off last spring (with HUNDREDS of attendees). So, now we are hosting our third food-based fundraising event! Who knew everyone here loves a good culinary competition?

So, let’s face it, cheese is delicious, and for just 5 bucks folks can come on out for a great community event. Nowhere else will you get restaurants and individuals from all over the city cooking their most innovative versions of cheesy goodness. At the event, you can expect to sample at least 15 different versions of America’s fave comfort food while getting down to tunes by local DJs. Plus, Sam Adams will be featuring their beer lovers’ choice event where tasters will be able to vote on their favorite brewski-one of which will be the Sam Adams official fall brew.

Attendees can gather around at the family style table to discuss their favorite M&C’s of the day and vote for the People’s Choice in both the individual and restaurant categories. Plus, a panel of three judges will taste and judge “Top Chef” style. They often bring up the final contestants to defend their dishes – making for quite a nail biting apex to the whole event. All winners get a custom illustrated plaque drawn by a local artist. We use a different artist each time, this year’s contributor being Matt Caputo. In addition, we award a variety of other prizes donated by local retailers and publications. Lastly, we select very special Golden Spoon winners, but we don’t want to give those categories away just yet. There are three, and they are open to everyone slingin’ the cheese!

Q: Please discuss some of the logistics, planning, and coordination needed to pull off the fundraiser?

A: This will be our third “cook-off” style event, so the recipe is pretty well seasoned (no pun intended). All we have to do is send out a call for competitors and folks eat up the opportunity to get on board to show off their skills. This year, we are lucky to have Del Forno Realty donate a raw space at 190 Christopher Columbus Drive for the venue. This leaves a nice blank palette for us to set up the contestants and tasters in perfect flow to keep folks moving, tasting, and grooving all at once.

On the day of the event, you don’t even realize the engineering we have put in behind the scenes because it all seems like a fun, effortless foody party. The three of us have worked really well together in the past, and now we have a fourth member who just joined our food fundraising team, Jenn Shetsen.

We’ve been lucky, in that it’s been pretty seamless. We sorta form like Voltron. Basically, we break down the responsibilities so that a few of us look for contestants, others for sponsors, and the other folks nail down the pre- and day-of logistics. Thank stars for e-mail though – we must have four or five conversations in a day sometimes!

Q: This is a lot of work. Do you get paid for your time, energy, and expertise? And if you do not get paid, why do it?

A: No, none of us are paid, and trust us, it’s not always a walk in the park. I guess the reason we do it is because we have a great community in Jersey City and we love to see it thrive. Arts offer a great way for folks to come together, share their talents and enjoy the amazing things people can create and do – often in their own spare time. 4th Street does well because there are so many people in this town who have different resources and talents that can be tapped into. Everyone ends up shining like a superstar at our events because people try hard to make each affair memorable and the very best that it can be.

Q: In your opinion, what is contribution these food fundraisers bring to the city, community, and cultural landscape of the metropolitan area?

A: They are delicious and fun! These events are a great opportunity for restaurants to market themselves and for individual chefs to show off their aptitude. For all we know, there could be a hidden Bobby Flay in the group. The restaurants are also from all over the city, so it gives folks from one neighborhood the opportunity to try out the grub of a place on the other side of town. Culturally, these events offer folks who are adept in the culinary arts to shine. Visual art and music have a few outlets here – but nowhere really can folks with a knack for food share, beyond the occasional dinner party and whatnot.

Q: The people of Jersey City have flocked to your two previous food fundraisers. What sparked this love connection?

A: Food is universal and a $5 entry fee at the door is a pretty inexpensive Sunday lunch.

Q: Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. This is the second mac and cheese fundraiser. How will this one differ from the first, and what do you hope to accomplish? Have you set a fundraising goal?

A: There will be more contestants in a bigger space this time around. We also have the DJ team of DJ Mayor McCheese and DJ White Cheddar ready to spin records until your cheesy heads are content! Any funds raised for the festival will be considered a success, and if everyone has a good time, then we have met our goal and feel accomplished.

Q: Who are the contestants, and what was the criterion for inclusion in the competition?

A: We have a variety of restaurants and individuals participating, with no criteria for inclusion at all. If you think you can cook, bring it! Some of our current restaurants include Delenio, White Star, 9C, Made with Love, Lamp Post and LITM. Come on out to see who else is in.

Q: As of now, who are the favored competitors and who are the dark horses?

A: Too hard to say. We had sleeper cells in the previous competitions, so we can’t rule anyone out. People in this town know how to cook!

Q: Who are the judges, what criteria will they use to critique the mac and cheese?

A: Our judging panel includes Pete Genovese of The Star Ledger, Laryssa Wirstiuk of Jersey City Independent and NEW magazine, and Jersey City Ward E Councilman Steve Fulop. They will be judging in the following categories: Taste, Texture, Originality, and Overall Cheese Factor.

Q: In your opinion, what recipe-what cheese, what noodle-will separate the winner from the loser, and why?

A: Balance. The most delicious will probably win. Other than that, there’s no formula for victory. Last year’s winner of the Best Individual and Judges Category was an Indian spin on the old favorite, including spinach and curry powder. It’s anyone’s game.

Q: Everyone knows that mac and cheese is a potent natural aphrodisiac. What measures have you taken to moderate the crowds reactions?

A: It is? That’s weird.

Q: This question concerns the audience, the competitors, and the members of Fourth Street. How many toilets will be onsite? If I recall, the chili cook-off had one toilet, and that’s a gamble in my opinion.

A: There were two at Parlay for the Chili Cook-Off. Mac2: Return of the Cheese will have a single toilet. Pasta and cheese typically has the opposite effect on the digestive tract, so I think we’ll be fine.

Q: Let’s move on to our fair city. Fate brought me to Jersey City. What brought you?

A: Marc – My family is originally from Hoboken/Jersey City, and that, coupled with the convenience factor got me back to JC. I had friends that already lived here, and it was a lot more appealing than Hoboken or Brooklyn.

Sophie – A native New Yorker who grew up on the border of Jersey – the only thing that brought me to the other side was cheap gas and no retail tax. I then attended Rutgers as pretty much the only out-of-stater on campus. After six years in New Brunswick, the big city called – that being Jersey City. I moved here not knowing a soul or a neighborhood yet instantly fell in love and started to learn as many random facts about this town as possible. Whatya wanna know? Bam! I’m here just about 11 years, and no end in sight.

Anne – After finishing undergrad and working for a few years in South Jersey, I migrated back up north to pursue my masters at NJIT in Newark. Being that JC is in the heart of a golden metropolitan triangle, it was only logical for me to pick here to live. Little did I realize it was going to be such an awesome place to reside. It has all the familiarity of a small town with all the amenities of a big city – been here 5 years and I’m lovin’ it.

Q: Last question. What is your favorite restaurant? Who has the best jukebox, and where can you find a decent cup of coffee?

A: Being that you’re asking three of us – are you expecting a throw down? But seriously, we can’t play favorites when it comes to the restaurants and coffee shops in town – especially since a few of us work at local eateries and would like to be paid next week. We’ll just say we prefer the independently owned places over the chains. (Hands down! I haven’t eaten at a fast food restaurant in more than 10 years – true story! [Sophie here]). And jukebox? Come awn! You’re asking one the kings of vinyl (Cooter won’t admit this .¤.¤. so that’s why Anne and I are inserting this comment.)? So, best jukebox has to go to the DJ’s that play records. That’s not a jukebox at all, we know.

Original post may be found here.

Bob Leach | Photo: Jonathan Fitzgerald

The HBO series Boardwalk Empire has brought the topic of Prohibition back into our living rooms, with its chronicle of the life and times of the criminal underworld in Atlantic City during the 1920s, a time in America when booze was illegal and money was to be made.

The story features the larger than life characters we have all come to know through popular entertainment: Al Capone, Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein, and Lucky Luciano — even Jersey City mayor Frank Hague gets his due. The opulent world, as seen through the creators of Boardwalk Empire, is replete with money, power, and showgirls — a time of bootlegging, rum-running, prostitution and Tommy-gun shootouts.

Jersey City historian Bob Leach has another take on the era. It’s a more humble view that hits closer to home, and it is one he will recount in his latest program, Jersey City Speakeasies. Leach replaces the extreme brutality and extravagance of Boardwalk Empire with stories of family restaurants, fraternal lodges and union halls.

For the record, Leach has not seen the show, but his sources tell him its description of Prohibition in Jersey City, and more specifically, of Hague, aren’t exactly accurate.

“I do not own a TV and have never seen [it]. But people like it and I won’t ruin a good story for anybody,” he says. “It has been widely reported that their depiction of Frank [Hague] is way off.”

The HBO series depicts Hague, played by actor Chris Mulkey, as a liquor-swilling whoremonger and brutal man. In the fourth episode, a twentysomething redhead is perched on his lap, with one hand draped around his neck and the other hand on his crotch.

“What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?” Hague asks. “Nothing. She’s already been told … twice.”

Leach says imagery like this falls into line with other pop-cultural takes on the era.

“Our sense of Prohibition has been shaped by Al Capone movies. My stories are local Jersey City tales — I tell about the ‘mom and pop’ Italian restaurants that made red wine in the cellar, like Pipi’s on Orchard Street,” Leach says. “But there are Capone-style places too, like the Sip and Summit at Journal Square [where people] entered via a phone booth from a cigar store next door.”

Leach has been telling stories about Jersey City for decades, but is just turning his attention to Prohibition now. He was born in 1937, four years after the repeal of Prohibition, and remembers his family talking about it.

“The so-called ‘dry years’ and speakeasies were often a nostalgic subject of conversation around the supper table,” he says, adding that the popularity of Boardwalk Empire has, in part, influenced his decision to start talking about the era.

“Since the premiere of a certain cable-TV show, I am getting lots of calls on the subject,” he says. “Now I will tell the old stories I heard as a boy.”

Leach says that his talk will include a “bona-fide Tommy-gun shooting.” The Tommy gun, officially known as the Thompson submachine gun, was the favored weapon of law enforcement and criminals during Prohibition. Its appeal ranged from Eliot Ness to Bonnie and Clyde.

“There were a few Tommy-gun murders in Hudson County, but not in Jersey City” he explains. “Mayor Hague would not permit it. My story will cover at least one murder — over the border in Hoboken in 1930.”

What more can the audience expect to hear?

“My stories are always described as colorful — but my stories are informative as well,” Leach says. “For example, I will explain how pharmacies legally sold whiskey. There will be a Q&A, in which I will answer the serious questions.”

The pairing between Leach and the cemetery may seem strange at first. But his relationship to the cemetery goes back to his childhood.

“When I was young and took roving walks around Jersey City, I often stopped in the graveyard to sit and relax and daydream. It was a lovely, ramshackle garden and every headstone was an imagined story,” he says. “I bought a grave plot there over 20 years ago.”

Eileen Markenstein, the president of the cemetery, is thrilled to host Leach.

“No one tells ‘old Jersey City’ stories like Mr. Leach,” she says. “He is Jersey City’s legendary storyteller.”

The audience can expect Irish songs and Guinness too. Markenstein has arranged for singer-songwriter Greg Greg to entertain following Leach’s participation in the program.

“Greg Greg is a ‘Jersey City son,’ born and raised, and has performed for free at many of our other events, including rock concerts, Earth Day events, and our ‘History Rocks’ event,” she says. “His grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents are buried at the cemetery.”

Jersey City Speakeasies is not only about a good time; it’s also a fundraiser for the ongoing restoration of the historic cemetery.

“It is imperative that we hold fundraising events to continue operating and preserving the very special and historic cemetery,” Markenstein says. “We are an ancient burial ground filled with beautiful monuments, 200-year-old trees adorned with English ivy, various wild animals, and ancient wildflowers. We have an amazing labyrinth of underground crypts and tunnels just waiting to be further explored and studied.”

The cemetery, which huddles into the Palisade on Newark Avenue, is becoming an attractive venue for art, music, and culture in Jersey City. In the past two years, it has has hosted more than 20 cultural events, including art exhibitions, live music, walking tours, historical lectures, children’s activities — even Revolutionary War re-enactments.

Why this sudden interest in the cemetery, which only a few years ago lay abandoned? For Markenstein, the answer is simple.

“We are doing something amazing … and everyone wants to help,” she says. “We have welcomed the local art and music communities with a very unique place to show their art and play their music. Our historic Gatekeeper House gallery is a beautiful place to showcase our talented local artists and authors, and they in turn help us survive.”

With the recent loss of the Jersey City Museum and continued problems with the city’s entertainment ordinance, artists and musicians need venues more than ever.

“We are becoming a real cultural center for Jersey City’s thriving artist community,” Markenstein says. “We love them all for donating their time and talent to our events.”

Original post may be found here.