This article was originally published in the June 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
Bruce Toth has been thinking about the middle of June all winter.
Not only does the third week in June just about launch summer, but for more than a decade it has been the occasion for Art All Night.
And since the event’s start in 2007, Toth has been a core part of the spirited extravaganza that calls itself “24 Hours of Community, Creativity, and Inspiration.”
It’s ‘round the clock making and exhibiting art, all kinds of live and interactive demonstrations, dancing, dozens of musical acts on numerous stages, children’s activities, great food and drink, a film festival, and especially, community connection.
This year Art All Night (AAN) begins Saturday, June 16, at 3 p.m. and runs through the night and into Sunday, June 17, wrapping up at 3 p.m.
Produced by nonprofit Artworks Trenton, the free festivities take place at Historic Roebling Wire Works on South Clinton Avenue in Trenton.
Toth, a Levittown, Pennsylvania, resident, has been with AAN since it was held at the smaller Artworks building.
According to AAN’s planning committee chair, Joseph Kuzemka, “Bruce has been with AAN since year one when it was held at Artworks and, aside from myself, is the only original member left from that year. He’s headed up our curating team since year one when it was just 300-plus pieces. Now he heads up a team that hangs over 1,500 pieces per year.”
The crowd has grown exponentially, too, from maybe 1,500 people to some 20,000, and Toth says the number may be closer to 30,000.
“It was this little thing when we first got started, and it was really hard to get volunteers at first,” Toth says. “We begged people to volunteer, we begged vendors for food, for folks to do the interactive events, and now there’s a waiting list for everything from food to bands.”
“I was in charge of intake and registration (which we did by hand, with paper and pen), hanging the work, as well as building the exhibit space and panels for the work to hang on,” Toth says. “It all had to be put up a week ahead of time, and taken down within three days of the event. So it was very hands-on, even with just 300 pieces.”
“I am no longer part of the registration since it’s all done via computer, but I still handle the hanging and display, as well as the placing of smaller sculpture, and I still have a big part in setting up the panels for the art,” he says.
Working side-by-side with Addison Vincent, the curator for Artworks, Toth has a core crew of six to eight people who have been with him for about five years, as well as volunteers working alongside the crew.
“I oversee the team, they know what’s expected, so I trust them to just do the work,” he says. “If it wasn’t for the volunteers, I wouldn’t be able to do this. I also have to thank Addison, who helps me make a lot of decisions.”
“I’ve had to relinquish some responsibilities, since AAN has gotten so big, and I’ve grown older,” says Toth, 61. “I used to stay for the whole 24 hours, but Father Time has caught up with me.”
He explains that he and the crew begin receiving art on the Friday night before the event starts, hanging and placing pieces until about midnight, then again Saturday morning and midday, working against the clock so the doors of the Roebling Wire Works can open at 3 p.m. Saturday.
Since the beginning of AAN all kinds of art from an array of media has been welcome. This includes painting, drawing, collage and mixed-media, photography, video and film, sculpture, ceramics, woodwork and furniture-making, electronic installations, bike making and welding, and probably a few things they haven’t thought of.
Each artist is allowed to submit one work, and there is no fee for submission.
All are invited to contribute as well, and that means everyone from an ambitious child with a crayon drawing or finger painting to seasoned professionals. Toth says even sculptor and Grounds For Sculpture founder J. Seward Johnson contributed a work one year.
“It was a bronze piece probably worth about $150,000, and it was great because right nearby were drawings by kids, things that had been on their mom’s refrigerator door,” says Toth.
“Any form of art is acceptable as long as it’s not pornography or racially offensive,” Toth says, adding that few if any works have been rejected or censored over the years. He recalls one installation of a phone booth lined with foam rubber breasts that got the green light, as well as a full-sized, anatomically correct wax human model. No problem.
Even though the Roebling Wire Works is a huge place, Toth says it gets filled almost from floor to ceiling, and AAN may even be on the verge of outgrowing the space.
In addition to the exhibits, live demonstrations and interactive events go on at AAN throughout its 24-hour span, everything from graffiti artists creating on a huge piece of canvas, to circus professionals from the area walking a high wire, to iron pours, to barbers and hairdressers cutting hair.
“We can never anticipate what’s going to happen,” Toth says.
Toth is happy to report that, even with thousands of people hanging out all hours of the night, there have been only a handful of security problems over the years.
“We’ve never had a major problem, even at 3 o’clock in the morning,” he says, pausing to thank the Trenton police department as well as numerous individuals who volunteer to cover security at AAN.
Toth says it was through his friend Giancarla (J.C.) Macaluso and her involvement with Trenton Artists’ Workshop Association (TAWA) that he first learned about AAN.
“She volunteered and convinced me to volunteer, too,” he says. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a try.’”
Macaluso was the first of his original hangers, and she has continued to do most of the AAN shows throughout the years. He also has help from his lady friend, Hamilton resident Cathy Pietras, and her daughter, Paula. They are two more of his main hangers. “They’re my backbone,” Toth says.
Particularly inspired by graffiti and tattoo artists, Toth himself got involved in creativity through his participation in AAN.
“Not too many people know this, but I did pin striping for a few years,” he says.
This is also called line art, creating fine, decorative artwork, for cars, motorcycle, bikes — all kinds of things.
‘At Art All Night we take everything by all kinds of artists. It gives them exposure they wouldn’t get elsewhere.’
Toth says that it was a couple of Trenton’s most celebrated artists, Kasso and Leon Rainbow, who were responsible for getting the graffiti community involved in AAN.
“They were the two who pushed it most,” Toth says. “To help get people in we did custom t-shirts for AAN. You’d go to the silk screening booth and they would make a t-shirt right on the spot. Kasso did one, Leon did one. Even I did one. I also still have the original green volunteer’s t-shirt and everyone is envious.”
The passion for making and supporting artists and their work might seem like a stark contrast to Toth’s regular job operating a jackhammer and doing other road construction tasks as a laborer in Local 172, the New Jersey Laborers Union. (He is now semi-retired after a truck hit him, causing serious neck and back injuries.)
However, Toth says he has been making art in some way, shape, or form since his childhood. “As long as I can remember, I’ve been drawing, painting, lettering, hand carving, sculpting, anything to keep my hands busy.”
His father was in the U.S. Navy and stationed in Cuba, so Toth was born in U.S. Naval Hospital Guantanamo Bay. Later in life Toth would join the navy, too, serving as an aviation boatswain’s mate on aircraft carriers.
“I was working with the catapults and arresting gear on deck, helping land planes on the carriers; it was a little scary,” he says nonchalantly.
Toth’s father left the navy and moved the family to Trenton, where he found work as a union laborer. Toth’s mother was a stay-at-home mom, raising numerous brothers and sisters.
He recalls going to elementary and middle school in Trenton, with fond memories of being part of the school yearbook team at “Junior 4” (Trenton Junior High School 4).
“I was part of the art crew for the yearbook in 1970, in fact, I did the centerfold,” Toth says.
He later lived in Hamilton and attended Steinert High School, joining the service after graduating in 1975.
For a period of time in his childhood, Toth says his family situation was disrupted, and he and his siblings were sent to the former St. Michael’s Orphanage in Hopewell.
“I have no regrets about that, though, being in the orphanage was a really good thing for me,” he says. “St. Michael’s was run by nuns, and they taught values, faith, and believing in something. They helped me to look on the brighter side and not worry about the sad things I had been exposed to.”
“It was a valuable experience, and it made me what I am today,” he adds. When St. Michael’s closed Toth and his six siblings went back to live with his mother and their stepfather.
Perhaps growing up in a large family and then being onboard a navy ship has helped Toth remain calm about coordinating his crew and finishing everything else that needs to be done before the AAN festivities can open.
Through AAN Toth has become enthusiastically involved with Artworks as well. He is a member of the events committee, assists in setting up exhibits, helps arrange the food and beverage for Artworks events, answers questions, etc.
“AAN is still my prime thing, though,” he says. “It keeps me in touch with all the artists, and it’s also helped provide opportunities to get involved with other art groups, too.”
In addition to being a totally enjoyable 24 hours of art, music, and food, AAN showcases the positive side of Trenton and its creative community, pushing back against the city’s sometimes downbeat reputation.
AAN is also an excellent opportunity for up-and-coming artists to network with other creative types, as well as private collectors and gallery owners.
“I know that people from New York come to look at art and buy pieces,” Toth says. “Also, if they don’t buy, they have a way to get in touch with the artists and look at their other work. Every piece has a gallery tag on it with, the name of the piece, the medium, the price, and the artist’s name and contact information.”
“There’s a lot of politics in art,” Toth says. “Most gallery exhibits are juried, and it’s the jury that deems whether a piece of art can go into a show. That’s why most artists can’t get their work into a gallery.”
“At AAN we take everything by all kinds of artists,” he says. “AAN gives them exposure they wouldn’t get elsewhere.”
Art All Night, Historic Roebling Wire Works, 675 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton. Saturday, June 16, 3 p.m. through Sunday, June 17, 3 p.m. Free. For more information visit artallnighttrenton.org.