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Calling All Artists
A flourish of networking for Maplewood and South Orange writers, visual and performing artists.
by Maria Morrison Heningburg

Exciting things are happening. The South Orange and Maplewood Artists’ Network, aka SOMA ART NET is a wonderful new community-based organization, encompassing the true spirit of our tovns the Artists’ Network is run entirely by volunteers. A networking group SOMA ART NET brings together people in the arts; writers, musicians, actors, painters. sculptors. photographers. artists of all disciples. This group is inspiring to its members and greatly benefits our community.

How the Artists’ Network came to be....

Local residents active in the arts felt a need for a “network”. These people knew they were living in the midst of other artists but many had not connected with each other. And artists need other artists. Not following 9 to 5 schedules, some felt out of sync with their neighbors. Isolated as a result, they felt disconnected from the arts and sought the inspiration of others artists. While New York City is only a quick train ride away they sought camaraderie in their own backyard. Frank Gordon, a musician and longtime Maplewood resident, could relate to this. He and his wife, Yoshiko Gordon, a textile designer/artist, went as far as researching artists’ networking groups in other US communities.

Judy Levy, a watercolorist and Ellen Greenfield a Newark Museum docent. both work on the marketing committee of the South Orange and Maplewood Community Coalition on Race. They realized that an overwhelming number of the respondents to their information packets were professionals in the arts. Barbara Heisler Williams, the executive director, added that of the incoming calls to their organization inquiring about Maplewood and South Orange, the largest definable group of people making these calls is artists. Initially they thought that an Artists group could be used as a means of attracting and welcoming more artists, writers am1d musicians to the two towns. When they contacted local residents connected to the arts they found that there was a need and desire for an informal forum to share ideas with fellow artists. As Judy Wukitsch, the director of the Gallery of South Orange at the Baird pointed out, the cultural events in our communities attracts artists. The exceptional quality of these events draws people here from all over the tristate area and here people can attend a local cultural event every night of the week.

A mailing went out “calling all writers, visual and performing artists to attend a brainstorming session to share ideas, inspirations, processes and resources.” One of the goals of the initial gathering was to “recognize the vast creative talent living within our two communities.” With approximately 70 invitations sent out, the response was overwhelming. The first meeting of the Artists’ Network in December 1998 drew about 65 enthusiastic people. This meeting was very productive, lively and successful by all accounts.

The sponsor of the first meeting was Barbara Heisler Williams. She sees the group as galvanizing and energizing the artists and arts in the community. Through various outlets she hopes that the group will foster continued appreciation and respect for the creative spirit that exists within our towns. The history of volunteerism and civic pride play a pivotal role in this group. One objective of SOMA ART NET is to strengthen the presence of the arts in the community by initiating additional art oriented projects.

At the second meeting which took place at the Baird Community Center in January, people were invited to network further and explore areas of interest that had been contributed at the first meeting by breaking up into smaller groups. Suggested topics for exploration were the establishment of a community artists’ space for art shows, readings and performances. art rotation in public spaces and a search for shared studio/rehearsal space. Another idea was to sponsor an artists’ studio tour like the successful tours that exist in Hoboken and Jersey City; and yet another great idea was the development of a local cable TV highlighting local talent. Many of these ideas are in development.

Joanne Rafferty of Maplewood, an abstract painter and member of the Artists’ Network, especially enjoyed breaking up into a smaller focusgroup. Her group is made up of other female visual artists, and they now meet regularly. The group shares ideas and interests; another aspect of the group is critiquing each others work. Joanne Rafferty found this to be a great experience, with the insights contributed by the other artists to be very valuable. Another member of this group is Fran Wilner. Fran is a multitalented visual artist and teacher with a very hands on approach to her art. She shares Joanne’s enthusiasm for their group, as does Dot Ganek, a watercolorist and silversmith. Dot has been a member of a female artists, group in the past and believes that it is exciting and inspiring for artists, even artists who utilize different mediums, to connect with each other.

Claire Simon is a member of another small group comprised of female visual artists. Again, she can only praise the benefits of her group. She is also involved with the new local access program Meet the Artist. The show is in production at the recently established SOMA ART COM cable TV studio in Columbia High School.

Visual artists Lennie Pierro and Susan Maypeck, along with about a dozen others, niake up the group that is actively seeking a venue to use as studio space. In the ideal situation this space would large enough to include a common gallery and performance space. Both currently rent space in another town and would much prefer being closer to home. They have met with a local realtor but have not yet found the space. Their options are open; renting, leasing or purchasing a building are all possibilities. Lennie stated that in other locales it is easier to find affordable space, especially in underused public spaces. Being a grassroots group without a patron, they are patiently exploring potential sites.

In March the third meeting of the Artists’ Network was held at the Renaissance Gallery to a standing-room-only crowd. For the first time, invited guests addressed the group. The featured speakers were Bill Calabrese, South Orange Village President, who discussed his town’s new Arts Center and Deborah Lyons, the program manager of the Springfield Avenue Partnership who spoke about the possibility of artist space on Springfield Avenue. Other topics that evening were First Night 2000, Actor’s Equity possibilities, using Creative Expressions for rehearsal space, and the future web site.

SOMA ART NET is still in its developmental stages, but it is experiencing an energetic start, and already it is an asset to the comniunity. With over 150 people currently on the mailing list, the Artists’ Network is more than thriving; as Ellen Greenfield put it “It has taken on a life of its own”, and it is flourishing as a forum for interaction. At press time the next formal meeting has not yet been scheduled, but is sure to be listed on the home page for SOMA ART NET: http://community.nj.com/cc/artists_network.

As a network for people in all areas of the arts SOMA ART NET welcomes new members. To be placed on the mailing list for future meetings and events contact Ellen Greenfield at 973-763-2536 or at ellengnj@aol.com or Judy Levy at 378-9624.

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