View the trailer here.
“Generations of Artists: Roosevelt, NJ” is a 20-minute documentary that paints a portrait of a central New Jersey community that, for three generations, has been a creative and cultural haven.
Ever since Rockefeller Center mural painter Ben Shahn was invited by the Works Progress Administration to create a mural in Jersey Homesteads (renamed Roosevelt in 1945), N.J., this rural village has become a haven for potters, painters, poets, playwrights and musicians. “Generations of Artists” visits with the artists who continue to make Roosevelt their home nearly a century after the town’s founding.
Roosevelt was created as a model—some even considered it a utopian—community. Nestled in fields and woods and surrounded by a greenbelt including the Assunpink Wildlife Refuge and preserved farmland and open space, Roosevelt—smaller than two square miles—includes a Borough Hall, a Post Office, a deli, a public school and a Ben Shahn mural. Residents enjoy a rural lifestyle with easy access to New York, Philadelphia and Princeton.
Throughout the year, the Roosevelt Arts Project produces performances at Borough Hall, everything from ukulele concerts and poetry readings to a Latin festival or an evening of NextGen electronic music. A few blocks away, Assifa Space is a home-based art gallery, and regularly scheduled studio sales draw visitors who come to buy ceramics or weavings from local artisans. The roots of the arts in Roosevelt go back to the mid 20th century. Originally named Jersey Homesteads, Roosevelt was established by the New Deal Resettlement Administration in 1937 as a place where Jewish garment workers could escape city tenements to breathe fresh air, farm cooperatively, operate a cooperatively-owned garment factory and shop in a cooperative store.
The design for Jersey Homesteads was inspired by utopian thinker Ebenezer Howard, whose “Garden City” movement influenced modern city designs around a central park. Jersey Homestead’s flat-roofed buildings, designed by German émigré architect Alfred Kastner and his young assistant Louis Kahn, were influenced by the Bauhaus movement and built on half-acre lots that backed onto communal green spaces and woods.
Ben Shahn, who worked with Diego Rivera on the Rockefeller Center mural, and was one of the most popular artists of the 1930s—his work appeared on the covers of Time and Fortune magazines, as well as in the Museum of Modern Art—was brought in by the Works Progress Administration to create a mural about the founding of Roosevelt. The now famous work, in the public school, depicts the immigrant experience, the growth of the trade union movement and finally the exodus from New York’s dark tenements and sweatshops to the light-filled homes, cooperative factory and farms in the country.
The original dream of a manufacturing and farming utopia soon fizzled but Shahn and his wife, artist Bernarda Bryson Shahn, liked the town so much, they decided to stay. Shahn was soon followed by other artists who settled in the town’s cinderblock one-story houses. One of those artists was Jacob Landau. Landau lived in a cinderblock house and had his studio in a geodesic dome, modeled on the ideas of Buckminster Fuller. Other artists who moved to Roosevelt included painter Gregorio Prestopino, graphic artist David Stone Martin and his son, wood engraver Stefan Martin; crime novelist Benjamin Appel; and photographers Sol Libsohn and Edwin and Louise Rosskam.
Today, Jonathan Shahn, son of Ben and Bernarda and an important contemporary sculptor, works in a studio in one corner of the former manufacturing site. In the town’s center is a large bronze head Shahn made of FDR, for whom the town was named, facing a park and amphitheater. The village has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places for its underlying vision, its cluster plan and for the Bauhaus-influenced houses.
With 900 residents, Roosevelt still has its share of farms, including a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm, a contemporary version of cooperative farming. The Roosevelt Arts Project, founded by a group of artists led by Bernarda Bryson Shahn and Jacob Landau in 1986 and led today by poet and professor David Herrstrom, presents arts events not only in Borough Hall, the public school and Assifa Space, but even in the community’s woods.
In the words of New Jersey State Museum Director Margaret O’Reilly, “These artists and writers continue the tradition of innovation and passionate commitment to their practice exhibited by the first generation of Roosevelt artists.”
“It is most fitting and exciting that ‘Generations of Artists: Roosevelt, NJ’ coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Roosevelt Arts Project,” says Herrstrom. “Dedicated to sharing the work of local artists with the larger community as well as fostering collaboration among artists, RAP has been vitally instrumental in furthering the Roosevelt tradition.”
About the director:
An award-winning print and online journalist, Ilene Dube covers the arts of central New Jersey. Her artwork has been exhibited and won awards in regional exhibitions and her short stories and essays have been published in literary journals. “Generations of Artists” is part of a series of films Dube is producing on artist communities in the greater Princeton area. An earlier film, “Queenston Press: Birth of an Art Community,” was about a women’s printmaking collective in Princeton beginning in the 1960s and ’70s and screened during exhibitions she co-organized at the Historical Society of Princeton and Arts Council of Princeton.
“Ever since my first trip to Roosevelt, to write about the artist Jacob Landau, I have been enchanted by this utopia-like hamlet,” says Dube. “The architecture, the history, the woodland trails and the people have drawn me back time and again.”