Wildness in our Midst

THIS time of year, New Jerseyans take to the hills of Vermont to drink in the fall foliage, or experience the silence of a region blanketed by snow. Gerald Lubeck makes the trip in reverse. 

The New Jersey native who has lived for many years in the Green Mountain state has recently returned to set up his easel in the Sourland Mountains. Together with his friend Al Barker, a forestry educator-turned-artist who lives in Bordentown, Mr. Lubeck creates landscape miniatures, capturing the seasons at such familiar places as Howell Farm.

Along with more than a dozen other artists, their work is on view in Wildness in Our Midst, a Sourland art exhibition on view at the D&R Greenway’s Marie Matthews Gallery through December.

Surrounded by Hopewell, Lambertville, Hillsborough and Montgomery, the Sourland Mountains are the largest contiguous forest in central New Jersey. Thus named because the land was not suitable for farming (or because of the sorrel-colored soil, or because the original German immigrants were said to have come from the Sauerlands — take your pick from the three prevailing theories), the area remains relatively undeveloped.

Before Emancipation, a number of African-American families came to the Sourlands, according to information about the region in the exhibit. The Sourlands’ enormous boulders may have served as shelters and signposts for runaway slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad.

During this time, peach farming developed as an important cash drop. “Minnietown was a thriving African-American community in the late 1800s. Its residents were hired to weave peach baskets for the peach orchards and may have labored in the tile and pottery works that operated on the mountain,” according to exhibition materials. 

In the 19th century, the Sourland Mountain was a valuable source of lumber supplying New York Harbor’s shipbuilding industry. Belgian paving blocks cut from the mountain’s diabase rock formed the streets and sidewalks of New York City.

Playwrights Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw, aviator Charles Lindbergh, patriot John Hart (signer of the Declaration of Independence), and the painter George Bellows all lived in the Sourlands, as do spotted salamander, pileated woodpecker, bobcat, wood turtle, barred owl, bobolink, Cooper’s hawk, grasshopper sparrow, savannah sparrow, upland sandpiper and the scarlet tanager. Today the mountain acts as a watershed for surrounding communities, while at the same time providing recreational opportunities to central New Jersey.

Joe Kazimierczyk (aka Joe Kaz) lives in the Sourlands, near Neshanic Station, and paints en plein air the land he is familiar with — the majority of his paintings are done within a few miles of where he lives. Mr. Kaz explores the back roads by bicycle, painting scenes along his favorite cycling routes.

”Painting small just works better for me,” he writes on his website. “One of the main reasons is that I can carry all of my supplies including some 8-by-10-inch panels all in a small knapsack, and walk for miles to find my painting locations.”

”Amwell Valley Clouds” is the view from his mailbox and was painted from his house. With altostratus clouds against a pale blue sky and rolling fields of greenery, it looks out across Amwell Valley toward the Watchung Mountains.

”Saint John on the Mountain must be back there on the horizon somewhere,” he says.

In “Stony Brook Boulders,” rocks dot a stream that is illuminated by golden sunshine washing in the distance, reflecting in its surface. Those who have hiked in the Sourlands are familiar with this scene and have hopped from rock to rock.

Why are some green places rich with life and intricacy, others degraded and lacking diversity? “Much has to do with the slow development of ecological niches,” says one of the text panels. “Generalist species can aggressively colonize any disturbed place in the landscape in a matter of months, but only time renders wild, native diversity on the canvas of the land.”

And only time renders the egg tempera paintings of Jeff Gola — each canvas can take six months to layer the pigment. When it takes that long to make a work of art, you are in a way preserving the land, as he does with his Sourlands series.

”From my earliest memories, I have always been drawn to the rural landscape,” he writes in his artist statement. “Having grown up on a farm, I have always had a strong interest in observing… the cycle of the seasons, the changing skies and the weather it portends, the constant presence of the natural processes of life, decay and rebirth, and the fading remnants of distant history and past lives… The gradual building of form and the patient exploration of every surface nuance that is involved in tempera painting requires a meditative and reflective approach, one that I feel enables me to examine personal memories and feelings that these subjects evoke in me.”

Silvere Boureau literally put himself into his painting “Sourlands Pool” — he painted it with his feet in the water, according to Carolyn Edelmann, arts and education associate at the Greenway.

Lucy Graves McVicker, who ordinarily works in watercolor and oils, has turned to encaustic for some of the works in this show. “The Sourlands are very close to us and we live in and around them and loved them,” she says. “During the 10 years or so that we lived on our small plot of 3 acres, we enjoyed our proximity to some wonderful views. Our trips on East Mountain Road brought about my husband’s painting, ‘The Sandy Road,’ a path we saw there, leading into the Preserve.”

Charles McVicker’s “The Sandy Road,” also on view here, meanders through a very wide landscape, where the leaves are just beginning to turn. According to Ms. Edelmann, at one time the World Trade Center could be seen from here on a clear day.

The D&R Greenway, in its efforts to preserve lands, creates maps and gives them to artists who in turn preserve the land in their work. “We want to get the artistic community aware and to immortalize it,” Ms. Edelmann says.

The Greenway staff has spent a great amount of time in the Sourlands, and so it is appropriate that their artwork is part of this show as well. Naturalist Bill Rawlyk, director of land acquisition, is a third-generation farmer who has preserved his land, according to Ms. Edelmann. When he’s not growing organic vegetables or replenishing endangered species from his vernal ponds, he makes photographs, such as “Snake Eyes,” a close-up of a green critter on a leaf. 

John S. Watson Jr., vice president of the Greenway, has photographed “From Field to Forest to Heaven.” Curator Jack Koeppel has paired this with Mr. Kazimierczyk’s “Amwell Valley Clouds” because of their similarity.

”That image is along Cider Mill Road in East Amwell Township, Hunterdon County, looking south toward the Sourlands in the background,” says Mr. Watson, a Lawrenceville resident who grew up in Ewing.

”Photography has been a hobby of mine off and on over the past 20 years,” says Mr. Watson, who retired from the Department of Environmental Protection after a 30-year career, ending as deputy commissioner, before joining the Greenway in April. “I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to have been able to see much of New Jersey’s outdoor splendor.”

There is so much to explore in the Sourlands, he adds. “I’ve been learning… how to best manage the lands we own in order to maximize productivity of wildlife.”

Wildness In our Midst is on view at the D&R Greenway’s Marie L. Matthews Galleries of the Johnson Education Center, 1 Preservation Place, Princeton, through December. Hours: Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m-4 p.m. 609-924-4646; www.drgreenway.org

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