Passaic artist ‘communes’ thrive, show off fruits of their labor with open house
WHAT: Third Annual Open Studio Tour.
WHEN: 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday.
HOW MUCH: Free admission.
Artists can live without fame. They can even – arguably – live without money.
But one thing artists can’t live without is other artists.
Two artist “communes” in Passaic, NP Artist Studios LLC and The Coat Factory Ceramics Studio, have thrived for reasons that were articulated 69 years ago by writer George Orwell. “Philosophers, writers, artists, even scientists, not only need encouragement and an audience, they need constant stimulation from other people,” Orwell wrote. “[Otherwise] the creative faculties dry up.”
Art, Orwell said, withers away when artists are forbidden to socialize. He was writing about the dictatorships of World War II, but the same thing can happen to any artist, at any time, who becomes isolated.
Maybe that’s one reason so many artists have beaten a path to an old four-story red brick factory building on Monroe Street — which sister and brother Suzanne and Dan Russo have transformed into twin artistic beehives that collectively house some 20 painters, photographers, sculptors, fashion designers, jewelry makers and ceramic artists.
These creative types are looking for stimulation, interaction, a sounding board. That — and low rents.
“I really wanted to have a bunch of people working together, bouncing their ideas off each other,” says Dan Russo, a Saddle River resident. “If you’re by yourself, it’s easy to become stagnant. In this situation, hopefully you get a little bit of the competitive attitude. You push each other a little more.”
You can see the fruits of their collective labors on Saturday, when the studios open their doors for their third annual Open Studio Tour.
Visitors can mill around the individual artists’ cubicles and purchase pieces from the twoPassaic studios as well as from another NP Artists Studio, in Prospect Park, that Suzanne Russo also runs (some proceeds go to Smile, a Passaic charity that provides social services to the urban poor). They can get their portraits done on the spot by resident painter Seth Ruggles Hiler or photographer Mike Reilly. And of course they can get their nosh on – though not with the clichéd wine and cheese, Suzanne Russo promises.
“That’s too obvious,” she says. “I’ve actually got these plastic martini cups to fill with candy, popcorn – all kinds of snacks. It’ll kind of encourage people to walk around, wander and mingle, and not just stuff themselves.”
Guests to the 100-year-old building – it used to be a coat factory — will see exposed pipes and vents, 16-foot-high ceilings and the wood and Sheetrock partitions that divide the 22 cubicles on the second floor. These the artists rent, at prices ranging from $200 to $800 a month – which entitles them to work there at any hour, crash when necessary and do everything but actually move in.
People like Belleville‘s Ibrahim Ahmed, who makes mixed-media pieces of cloth and paint. “For an artist, if you’re part of a community, it helps,” Ahmed says. “You’re able to exchange ideas, engage in conversation.”
Or Weehawken’s Heather L. Johnson, who does embroidered images of motorcycle parts on linen-based burlap. “I really want to be around artists,” she says. “For several years, I worked out of a dedicated room in my apartment. I got a little starved for shop talk, if you will.”
The Russos got into all of this more or less by accident. They grew up in Saddle River — Suzanne now lives in Washington Township — and cultivated different muses. Dan got into ceramics. Suzanne took up photography, sculpture and painting (her desolate landscape, called “Desolate” – not all modern art is ambiguous – can be seen in the studio common area).
But when she graduated with a master’s in studio fine art from Montclair State University in 2008, she found herself missing all of the creative give-and-take.
That’s when she got the idea for what she calls “artist communities”: first Prospect Park, in 2008, and then Passaic in 2010. She leases the space whole, then sublets it piecemeal to her tenants. Her brother began doing the same thing with his third-floor ceramics studio, Coat Factory Ceramics, this year. “I really am here for everybody in the place,” Suzanne Russo says. “I’m an artist, and the setup is different because of that.”
She and her brother aren’t alone. Old industrial towns, with their disused warehouses and factories, have always been ripe for the picking by artists and bohemians. Another old mill inPassaic was transformed, in 1994, into Streets Studios, a similar communal space for bands and musicians.
The big old buildings, with their metal columns, high ceilings and vast open spaces (NP Studios in Passaic has 9,000 square feet), can be lots of fun to work in. Though maybe a little creepy at night, Suzanne Russo says.
“There’s a lot of spooking each other out,” she says. “In this old warehouse, there’s a lot of noise. If I hear someone coming, I’ll hide behind the wall and scare them.”