By Elizabeth Johnson
Taking a quick break from last Thursday’s business concerns Ellen Shaughnessey, Jamie Cabreza and I sped down to Frenchtown, NJ: women on a mission to see art. Loose plans mixed with a nice dose of chance circumstances unveiled the epicenter of the Frenchtown art scene: 10 Bridge Street. Here a handful of hardy, innovative artists are dug in and prospering in this quaint Delaware River town of 1500 or so.
John Schmidtberger opened John Schmidtberger Fine Art gallery three years ago. He has built a stable of painters plus one furniture maker; all commute from Philadelphia, Upper Black Eddy, Easton or New Jersey. Lately sales and foot traffic are booming. Local graphic narrative artist Shannon O’Connell is helping out at the gallery and John is so inspired by the current show of Dick De Groot’s paintings that he’s extending it through August.
We arrived at the same time as Dick De Groot and followed him and his trusty sidekick into the gallery. I soon learned more about the 93-year-old Dutch, Hunterdon County-based artist who held his fluffy, golden, sharp-toothed pomeranian Charlie tucked under his arm. De Groot was surrounded by more than 50 of his paintings here – most of which have been created in the last two years. Dick spoke of memory, dreams of distinct places, and his attraction to the void as being important factors in his work.
He works without a pallet and squeezes paint onto a brush, painting and mixing directly on the canvas. The works refer back to the Surrealists (especially Giorgio de Chirico), the Fauves, and 60s Flower Power paintings. Boisterous but alien landscapes feature lonely buildings, factories, and cars that seem to be animated by Dick’s personality and witty titles. “Holdout” is the piece Schmidberger could not resist buying – lights are gleaming, as ‘progress’ looms.
Observing these works is like a keyhole into Dick’s dreams; these potent subjects sport odd details like images reflected on glass, contrast of scale or experiencing wind or moonlight. There are no other people in Dick’s work, or evidence that others exist. This pushes each story to the point of being unnerving, since we do after all feel to be part of the dream. He masterfully pits our trust in the familiar against his own gifted, risk-taking imagination by recreating how dreams work and feel.
Around the corner of 10 Bridge Street we dipped into far Outsider Folk Art Gallery, as owner/artist Dion Hitchings finished a new artwork upstairs. Carefully curated and brimming with art from multiple artists, the gallery entertains and energizes visitors using color, pattern and mythic stories since opening in 2010. We pulled ourselves away before impulse buying took over, I can’t be trusted with an open wallet on an empty stomach. I now rest assured knowing that between the Outsider Art Gallery and Modern Love, a mid-century style shop around the corner, all my Birthday gift needs are covered.
After a quick Lovin’ Oven re-fuel, we followed the buzz to Rich Cahill’s Tattoo Studio at 10 Bridge Street. As he worked the perfect final touches onto Bob Factor’s upper arm, we studied his precise drawings and designs that hang on the wall. Rich specializes in traditional Japanese style tattoos, and regularly travels to New York and around the world to broaden or ply his trade. Next stop? London Tattoo Convention, this September. Rich asked if we needed to see the ‘secret space?’… of course we did.
So the four of us hopped into Ellen’s car (thank you for free parking Frenchtown!) and drove to a mysterious, secret and “fun protecting” location: proof that spontaneous, underground art adventures flourish even in small hamlets. Once inside, Rich showed us the roofless, Moon Base graffiti art gallery featuring works by Mike Cuhn, Chaz Hampton, Chris Hartford and himself.
Sometimes world-class tattoo artists need a break from their tiny art windows; this calls for a spray-cation! Temporary paintings sprawl over the walls, and Rich explained that their dark edges blend with the sky at night, magnifying the impression, and creating (I imagine) an effect similar to viewing cave paintings at Lascaux. He also designs tattoo machines on the premises, near a vintage car he’s restoring. It’s a platinum-status, DIY, groovy non-disclosed destination and Rich is planning to host another spraycation soon – check Tripadvisor.
As we drove over the Frenchtown Bridge on the way back to Easton, I imagined our getaway to be like a single dollop of farm fresh cream on a chilled silver spoon. Though I love jamming through 50 galleries in New York City in a single day, chancing upon such unexpected quality, brevity and variety in just three hours in Frenchtown was definitely satisfying.