By Dan Aubrey and Susan Van Dongen
‘Trenton has the history and the art to attract visitors” was the message stated loud and clear during the recent unveiling of new mural in downtown Trenton.
While the event featured remarks by Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, and civic and business leaders, the strongest speaker was the mural itself, “After the Crossing.”
The 25 feet wide and 15 feet tall work by New Jersey artist Illia Barger painstakingly captures scenes from one of Trenton’s most historic moments: George Washington’s first battle with Hessian soldiers on December 26, 1776, the morning after the historic crossing of the Delaware River.
“The medium of murals is a great way to teach the history of a location,” says Barger, “especially using local people as the models. It all becomes more real to them and they’re able to imagine what took place right here on the streets of Trenton 240 years ago.”
“After the Crossing” is located at 111 East Hanover Street on a building owned by the First Presbyterian Church of Trenton, where soldiers killed in the battle are buried.
It is a companion piece to another Barger mural, “The Winds of Change,” a 2006 work depicting the July 8, 1776, Trenton public reading of the Declaration of Independence, the first outside of Philadelphia. That mural — 60 feet wide and 30 feet tall — is located at 23 South Warren Street, approximately four blocks away.
Both projects were developed through the Trenton Downtown Association with public and private support.
Richard Paterson, director of the Old Barracks Museum, the historic site where the Hessian soldiers were quartered, notes in a statement that Barger’s murals “are creating a graphic monument to Trenton’s Revolutionary soul. One of the most recognizable battles of the Revolutionary War took place right here in downtown Trenton.” Paterson also served as a model for both murals.
Other regional Barger murals include the 2011 “Growth” at Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell, the 2012 “Continuum” on the side of the Terra Momo Bread Company in Princeton; and the 2015 restoration of the scenic murals at the Stockton Inn, originally painted in the late 1920s and early 1930s by historic Bucks County artists Robert Alexander Darrah (RAD) Miller and Robert A. Hogue.
“After the Crossing” has been a work in progress over the past year and included the artist at work during last December’s Patriots Week, when she could be seen painting at the TDA’s pop-up art space on East State Street and at the New Jersey State Museum.
The artist also spent time researching both the history of the battle and locating artifacts and images to support her image. She also expanded her technique: rather than paint directly to a surface she painted on parachute cloth that was later affixed to a wall, an approach used by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.
“The TDA wanted two different things: they wanted me to do a performance painting for people to watch, which was fine, but they also wanted a historically accurate mural,” she says. “One process is fast and one is slow, so I said to them that we needed to work these two things out and come up with a solution. I suggested that if I could get started (on the central image), that would be a big help. Then, if I did not get the mural done, I could continue to work on it either in my studio or at an art studio space in Trenton throughout the winter, and finish in time for it to go up in May.”
When Barger presented her design to the TDA, it included the Colonial-style mirror with radiating spires that would focus the eye as well as organize the images.
“My drawings and paintings tend to have a radiant quality to them,” she says. “So naturally there’s a sense of radiance to this central design, which I presented in November to the historians at the TDA. The dynamic design here, the essential theme, is a Colonial mirror with an eagle on it. The spires don’t mean anything, except to help chapter the other scenes,” Barger says, pointing to the different sketched sections of the mural that hang on the wall of her studio.
For the live painting sessions, Barger says, the mirror was already completed in order to organize the various scenes, including Washington’s infantry advancing on Trenton, the Continental army’s artillery readying the cannons to barrage the enemy forces, the Hessians retreating toward a nearby apple orchard, and the death of Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rahl, who commanded the brigade of Hessian soldiers that garrisoned Trenton — and is buried at the church.
Barger has envisioned Rahl, mortally wounded but resting at the home of the Potts family, well-to-do Quaker residents whose house was in the midst of fighting. As has been depicted in paintings, Washington visits the dying colonel, and Barger has included this historic meeting in her design.
While planning sections of the mural, Barger called upon real people to model for her, as she has done before. She preps for the mural scenes by posing models in assorted light situations and then takes numerous digital photos and even digital video for documentation.
For the scene with Rahl and Washington at the Potts home, she was unable to find models to her exact liking to represent Mr. and Mrs. Potts, the Quaker husband and wife who took in the injured Hessian officer. So she and her boyfriend, Duggan Millard, dressed up in Colonial garb and had someone else take photos of them at the scene.
As for Hessians and early Americans portrayed in the mural, Barger relied on the living history facilitators and re-enactors at the Old Barracks in Trenton to supply the faces and figures of the soldiers. Several especially fervent re-enactors shared the intricate details of the Hessian uniforms, down to the buttons, breastplates, and trim.
Further discussions were had about hats, boots, weapons, miscellaneous gear, and even facial hair. “(The re-enactors) really know their stuff and they love to talk about it,” Barger says.
In all, there are 11 five-by-five-foot panels that comprise the mural, which was another huge endeavor for Barger, 55, who lives a stone’s throw from the Delaware River in Byram, just north of Stockton.
Barger says she grew up a few miles across the river from her current abode, in Carversville, Pennsylvania, where her artistic and musically inclined parents purchased and renovated an 18th-century stone grist mill.
The studio and Barger’s adjacent living space are simple but alive with artwork. A visitor sees a stone birdbath and sculpture by her stone mason brother, Jason, on the property, numerous works by her painter-musician mother, Lilias, on the walls; a bear-gargoyle by her father — the famed sculptor Raymond Barger — looks out over the entrance to her studio, seemingly as a guard or totem.
Barger went to Bennington College in Vermont on a full scholarship, built up an impressive portfolio of drawings, and was subsequently accepted into Cooper Union in Manhattan, where she earned a B.F.A. in 1985.
For about 15 years after graduation, Barger ran a highly successful business painting decorative finishes, making ordinary surfaces resemble elegant stone or wood. She earned an international reputation for her skills.
The commissions to paint murals started to come in the early 1990s, with works for, among other venues, hotels in Philadelphia, as well as “Titian’s Mistress” and “Peaceable Kingdom” for the Hamilton Grill Room in Lambertville. All the while, Barger was continuously participating in group and solo exhibitions in central New Jersey, Bucks County, and New York.
Her contacts in Trenton had been thinking about the current mural project for years, having fallen in love with Barger’s “Winds of Change.”
“The TDA came to me about the project. There had been talk of another mural over the years,” Barger says. “’Winds of Change’ has stood the test of time.” The people in the TDA “love it, and they liked the details of the history. So they were totally open and receptive to this new project.”
“As for getting the models (through the re-enactors), I went down to the Old Barracks, and knew all these guys from the previous mural,” she says, pointing to the different body language and facial expressions of the models in the photos she took. Her favorite might be the re-enactor exaggerating Rahl’s death scene. Barger smiles as she recalls his over-acting. “They were having so much fun doing this,” she says. “They were all just great about this, and I couldn’t have done it without them.”
During her Patriot’s Week painting marathon, Barger added two contemporary onlookers into the composition: civic activist Algernon Ward and Nathaniel Donald, a third-grader enchanted with the process.
“It is vital that our children know why they should be proud of Trenton,” says Ward, who leads a group of Trenton-based re-enactors that bring attention to the role of African American soldiers in the Revolutionary War and other U.S. conflicts. “In our nation’s Ten Crucial Days, Trentonians did not quit, and we’ve been sending our sons and daughters into the world with the same ‘don’t quit’ fortitude ever since then.”
Ward and Donald can be at street level on the lower left of the wall. Barger says with the two watching, the work speaks to the past, the present, and the future of Trenton.
“After the Crossing,” 111 East Hanover Street. In addition to the TDA, sponsors and supporters includes the New Jersey Historical Commission, NJM Insurance Group, Wells Fargo, Thomas Edison State University, and Mercer County Division of Culture and Heritage.