New Jersey Jewish News
Local artists mural at Workmens Circle center celebrates the old days
When Morton Miller, a long-time volunteer and vice president of the foundation board at the New Jersey MultiCare Center of Workmens Circle in Elizabeth, wanted to donate something to a place he had grown to love, he thought, Maybe I could give them two pictures, he told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview.
Miller recounted his initial discussion with center director Marshall Goldberg. Goldberg said, Id love to have a picture of some old things we have a wall.
I said, Ill fill it up. Ill paint you a whole street.
The result which took Miller over a year to complete is a lavishly detailed mural, 36 feet long and six feet high, depicting an imaginary street in Elizabeth as it might have looked in the 1930s. Goldberg, said Miller, had no idea of what was coming, but I envisioned it I knew. I fell right into it.
The mural was dedicated at the center in Elizabeth on Feb. 22.
Miller, 80, and a resident of Monroe Township, also knew that the painting would have a nostalgic appeal for the centers 130 residents and would tap into his own store of memories. He did a preliminary sketch itself six feet long in pencil and checked out books and magazines from the library to get authentic components of the mural, but most of it came from my head, what I remembered. He said he could recall trucks dumping coal into cellars but had to get the actual mechanism of the apparatus from period pictures. I wanted to get reality into it.
From the responses he has received from residents and visitors, what Miller depicted is very real to them. One woman in the home, Miller said with delight, swears she lived on that street. These things existed but maybe not on one street. I made it a microcosm.
Miller has included the striped pole in front of the barbershop, a trolley car full of people, the produce truck that used to deliver vegetables when he was a boy growing up in Elizabeth, and a movie house whose marquee advertises Ronald Coleman in Lost Horizon. Theres also an Army-Navy store, a kosher butcher, a tobacco store, and a pool hall. People remember this, he said, and I try to get people involved.
Cora Manzo, development director of the center, has watched the work in progress and noted how many residents pass by and say, That reminds me of where I lived. She herself is charmed by the evocation of an earlier era, especially the people hanging out on fire escapes. I grew up in downtown Manhattan, and hes caught the flavor of everything, she said.
Miller, a chemist in my former life and always an artist, has been drawing since I was a kid. He served in the army in World War II and studied Japanese at the University of Chicago with 100 fellow soldiers. I was art editor of the magazine we published the Geisha Gazette, he recalled, adding, Ive always drawn pictures for friends. But to produce the seven large murals he has completed in the last few years required new techniques. He works with acrylic rather than oil because it dries fast and he can paint on top of it. He uses regular latex wall paint, the white in half-gallon containers, the colors in tubes and jars. He mixes and blends not on a palette but in large containers.
In his efforts to create three-dimensional art apart from his murals, however, he has had to invent a kind of painting never done before, an approach he calls transpective. As is usual for him these days, he paints on a large canvas, usually six feet in length. By stretching raised plastic layers over the original canvas and painting different but related scenes on each layer, he invites the viewer to see a single work from many perspectives.
Millers monumental painting for the Workmens Circle MultiCare Center encompasses many of his favorite themes perspective, memory, and history and brings full circle a family tradition: His father painted an ornamental ceiling at the Labor Lyceum in downtown Elizabeth, the original meeting place in the 1920s of the Workmens Circle.
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