by Laura Damon-Moore

The Newark Public Library in Newark, New Jersey hosted two exhibitions this winter that highlighted local talent and showcased holdings in the Library’s Special Collections Division.

BBoys and Butterflies: The Stencil Art of Jerry Gant features a collection of original stencils created by the artist between 2001 and 2011, and spray-painted images on cloth created from them specifically for the present exhibition. While Gant’s art has been shown extensively in galleries, museums, and other institutions, the present exhibition is the first to focus exclusively on his stencil work.

Jerry Gant stencil installation.

Installation view of stencil projects by Jerry Gant. On view at the Newark Public Library.

To many Newark residents and visitors, the art of Jerry Gant may may be more familiar than his name. A master of many media, from textile and clothing design, to metal sculpture, woodcarving, wall murals, and even spoken word, Gant has been a fixture of the Newark Art Scene for decades. In the words of fellow artist, Kevin Blythe Sampson:

“If Newark were to look for an artist that most represents it, it would be Jerry Gant. … No artist in this city has had a more visible presence or impact on the people of Newark.”

BBoys and Butterflies is a collaborative project between Jerry Gant and Jared Ash, Special Collection Division. It is presented in conjunction with the exhibition, For Decoration and Agitation: An Exhibition of Stencil and Pochoir Books and Art, which is on view in the Third Floor Gallery, Main Library, November 16–January 21.

For Decoration and Agitation: An Exhibition of Stencil and Pochoir Books and Art explores the use of stencils by artists around the world in creating and coloring prints and illustrations, from the late nineteenth century to the present day. The exhibition features work by 60 artists and is drawn almost entirely from the holdings of the Library’s Special Collections Division. Major areas represented in the exhibition include book and journal illustration (children’s literature, fine press, and fashion design), hand-made paper, fine art prints, artists’ books, and broadsides.

Detail of plate from Papillons.

Emile-Allain Seguy (French, 1877-1951). Detail of plate 18 from Papillons (Butterflies), a portfolio of 20 collotype and color pochoir plates, showing 81 butterflies and 16 decorative compostions. Paris: Tolmer, 1925. Library purchase, 1926.

The term pochoir, which means “stencil” in French, generally refers to a practice of applying color to black and white printed images, by using short, stubby brushes, gouache or watercolor paint, and a series of stencils. Pochoir is a labor-intensive, “fine stencil” process, generally involving 20 to 30 individual stencils for a single image, and occasionally up to as many as 250. Offering a vibrancy and vitality not achievable through mechanical color printing processes, pochoir flourished between 1910 and 1935, and was embraced eagerly by artists associated with Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Cubism.

The exhibition features a wide range of works, a sampling of which includes: original late 19th–century Japanese stencils used for textile designs; propaganda posters created by Vladimir Mayakovsky and Ivan Maliutin in 1920 for the Russian Telegraph Agency in Moscow; Cubist and Surrealist prints and illustrated books by Albert Gleizes, Henri Matisse, and Joán Miró; sumptuous Art Deco fashion books, journals, and design portfolios illustrated or designed by Georges Barbier, Paul Iribe, Georges Lepape, Émile-Allain Séguy, and M.P. Verneuil; and a limited-edition, vinyl, anthropomorphic can of spray paint designed by Shepard Fairey.

The exhibitions are supplemented by two programs, both of which are free and open to the public. The first, “An Evening with Jerry Gant,” includes a screening of the documentary, Bulletproof Ambition: the Art and Courage of Jerry Gant by Jerry Gant and Timothy Brown (Brown70Films, 2009, 29 min), followed by a discussion with the artist.

The second is a hands-on stencil workshop for all ages, which the library hosted on December 17. Librarian Jared Ash shared some photos from the workshop, in which attendees made their own stencil designs.

Jerry Gant hosts a stencil workshop at the Newark Public Library.

Jerry Gant hosts a stencil workshop at the Newark Public Library. Photo courtesy of Jared Ash and the Newark Public Library.

Participants in the stencil workshop at the Newark Public Library.

Participants in the stencil workshop at the Newark Public Library. Photo courtesy of Jared Ash and the Newark Public Library.

Projects at the stencil workshop, hosted by Jerry Gant and the Newark Public Library.

Project materials at the stencil workshop, hosted by Jerry Gant and the Newark Public Library. Photo courtesy of Jared Ash and the Newark Public Library.

The Library as Incubator Project had some questions for curator and Special Collections librarian Jared Ash, about the Newark Public Library and its relationship with artists in the community.

Where did the idea for this pairing of exhibitions come from?  Who approached who?

An Evening with Jerry Gant at the Newark Public Library

“An Evening with Jerry Gant” at the Newark Public Library. Photo by Marcia Sandmeyer Wilson.

I began noticing Jerry’s work around Newark in late 2006, soon after I began working at NPL; first, his spray painted, street art pieces on walls and utility boxes in blighted areas around the city, then in galleries, in the form of metal and wooden sculptures and assemblages. Over the next year or two, I kept seeing and reading about the work that Jerry was producing with Newark youth through various community organizations, art initiatives, and public art commissions. By the time I met Jerry in person, I was already trying to figure out how to feature or include his work in an exhibition at NPL.

I had been intending to curate an exhibition of stencil and pochoir printed books and prints from the Library’s special collections for a few years, when Jerry posted images of some of his stencils on Facebook. I arranged a visit to his studio, with the intention of acquiring a few representative stencil prints for the exhibition and the library’s fine prints collection. Once I saw how technically masterful, how extensive in number, and how quintessentially “Newark” Jerry’s stencil works are, I realized that limiting ourselves to only a few examples would be a great disservice to both Jerry and the public.

By chance, nothing had been scheduled for the library’s fourth floor gallery during the time of the exhibition. It just made sense to offer the space to Jerry, an experienced curator and installation artist in his own right, to present his work in conjunction with the larger stencil and pochoir exhibition, which would be installed in the gallery just below.

An Evening with Jerry Gant at the Newark Public Library.

“An Evening with Jerry Gant” at the Newark Public Library. Photo by Marcia Sandmeyer Wilson.

Has the library hosted complementary exhibitions like this in the past? Are they difficult to coordinate?

Art exhibitions have been an intrinsic part of Newark Public Library’s history for more than a century. We have 3 exhibition galleries in the Main Library, in which we present between 8 and 10 exhibitions a year (down from 12 to 14 a year, due to reductions in staff and funding).

From approximately 1904 or 1905 through the early 1990s, the Library regularly hosted talks and exhibitions of work by contemporary Newark and New Jersey artists. Unfortunately, those activities seem to have faded out sometime in the 1990s, following a major re-organization of Library operations, in which the Library’s various divisions, including the nationally-acclaimed Art and Music Division, were dissolved in favor of a more generalized structure.

An Evening with Jerry Gant at the Newark Public Library.

“An Evening with Jerry Gant” at the Newark Public Library. Photo by Marcia Sandmeyer Wilson.

For at least the past decade, the Library’s exhibition policy has frowned on solo, contemporary art exhibitions, especially of work not owned by the library, in favor of exhibiting and promoting works from our own collections. Since we lack any kind of digital collection management / access software, and between 90 and 95 percent of the 40,000+ books and prints in Special Collections are not in the library’s online catalog, exhibitions have been the primary means through which the Library has publicized our own holdings.

Over the past 2 years, inviting guest curators and artist-curators into the exhibition process has become increasingly necessary. In addition to being tremendously rewarding endeavors, especially in terms of community engagement and attracting new audiences, they have provided a welcome reprieve for librarians and curators like myself, who have had their own overall responsibilities tripled in the past year (due to reductions in staff), and have ever-dwindling time to prepare exhibitions on a level that the material and the public deserves. Without collaboration from guest curators and contemporary artists, the alternative that we are increasingly facing at NPL is empty gallery walls and exhibition cases.

An Evening with Jerry Gant at the Newark Public Library.

An Evening with Jerry Gant at the Newark Public Library. Photo by Marcia Sandmeyer Wilson.

On a broader level, does the library offer any special services for local artists (workshops, special appointments, etc.)?

Most artists are astounded by the extent to which my colleagues and I act as “information concierges,” eager to help them discover material that may help them on a technical, inspirational, vocational, or even financial level. The library has a Web guide for art-related resources, which includes a section on opportunities for artists, and keeps artists and other creative professionals very much in mind when selecting new acquisitions for the circulating and reference collections.

Since I arrived at NPL, I have been trying to encourage an “artists respond to the collections” kind of program, and have been further inspired by how successful and mutually beneficial (to artists and libraries) similar initiatives have been at other public libraries with special collections. While I’m sure there are other examples, those that have been particularly motivating to me are Jessica Pigza’s Handmade Crafternoon program at the New York Public Library, and collaborative projects that Richard Ring established between the Special Collections Department at the Providence Public Library and the community art space, AS220: Rediscovered – The Glass Negative Project, and Occasional Nuggets from the Rare & Special Collections of the Providence Public Library, a series of publications that includes reflections on the collections by artists and graphic designers, and features letterpress covers printed by the AS220 Community Print Shop.

We are constantly encouraging and inviting artists to visit the collections, especially ones who are involved in mentoring and teaching. Artists who do visit are never sorry, and always wind up kicking themselves for not coming sooner, either by themselves or with students. The degree of direct, intimate, tactile connection that we permit the general public to original prints and books, unobstructed by plexiglass or velvet robes, is truly a rarity.

For additional information about the exhibition or programs, please call 973-733-7745 (Special Collections Division), or email jash@npl.org. To see the full galleries from the exhibition and events mentioned in this feature, please visit the Special Collections Division Flickr sets here and here. Follow the Newark Public Library’s Special Collections Division on Facebook and via their website.

All content on this page is copyright of the featured artist/library.

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