For Kelly Meyer of Bordentown, a third-grade teacher at St. Anne’s School, in Lawrenceville, the Firehouse Gallery was not just a local art program where her daughters Victoria and Kelsey went for art classes, both during the year and in the summer. Victoria, a freshman at Kean University, took classes with the gallery’s second owner, Eric Gibbons, from ages 7 to 16, and her work with him inspired her to pursue a degree in fine arts, with a career goal of becoming an art therapist.
Back when Victoria was obsessed with dolphins, Meyer says, “he made her think outside the box—if you want to draw dolphins because you love them so much, what are you going to put with the dolphins?”
Gibbons urged his students to expand their work in other dimensions. For example, he asked them to write stories about their artwork, which he then compiled into The Book Of Why: Children Stories by Students of The Firehouse Gallery, which he published through Amazon. He also celebrated his students’ work at art camp by holding a gallery opening that included two pieces from each child.
“He really brought out her artistic talent; I don’t know if she would have done art without him,” Meyer says.
In January, Gibbons is retiring after 26 years from his position as art teacher at Northern Burlington County Regional High School and is moving to to Raleigh, North Carolina, to teach art at a unique magnet school that combines high school and junior college. He placed the gallery, which he has owned since 1994, up for sale in October.
Argentinian native Susana Plotquin, an artist and Spanish teacher living in Wayne, has purchased the Firehouse Gallery as it approaches its 50th anniversary. She will be its third owner and is ready to take on Gibbons’ mantle, but of course with her own twist. The gallery’s first owner was Juanita Crosby, who, after an initial denial of her request to buy the building because she was newly divorced and single woman, had to walk the bank owner across the street to convince him to support her purchase. After Crosby purchased the gallery for $5,000 in 1969, she made it into a hub for creative activities.
For Plotquin, owning the Firehouse Gallery is the realization of daydreams she used to have about what she would do when she retired. “I would like to have a house where I can live upstairs and downstairs have an art-oriented place where I can teach what I know or do exhibits with artists in New Jersey and other places,” she said.
After taking early retirement, Plotquin decided she wanted to move closer to one of her daughters, in a place that was “artistic and historical.” One daughter, who has two children and lives 10 minutes from Bordentown, told her, “Mom, Bordentown is for you.” They started looking at houses, then saw the firehouse and Plotquin thought, “This is exactly what I always dreamed of when I retire.”
Gibbons was born in Toledo, Ohio, then moved several times as his father, a project engineer for Johnson & Johnson, had to supervise the building of new facilities—finally landing in Hopewell at age 10. He graduated from Immaculata High School in Somerville. His mother was a nurse.
Despite coming from a family of artists—his maternal great-grandmother painted until age 102—he was disappointed by his experience in art classes. “It was kind of copycat, and I didn’t like that,” he said. So when he had to choose a major at The College of New Jersey, he initially decided on pre-law. “I could argue pretty good, and I thought I would be a good lawyer,” he said.
But Chris Craig’s class in puppetry at the College of New Jersey changed his career direction. “She saw how I was helping all the other students and asked why I was not in art education,” Gibbons says. When he told her about his own experience in high school art classes, she told him, “That’s not how we teach art anymore.”
‘If everyone walks out with the same little snowman with pipe-cleaner arms, I am a failure as an art teacher.’
The college’s approach to art education was to connect art with content areas like mathematics, science and history. “It wasn’t like an island where kids make cute stuff and leave the room,” Gibbons says. Rather, he adds, art is as important as these other subjects, “because it teaches those sorts of things in a different way.”
“When they are doing portraits with the help of a grid, they are using geometry; when they mix colors, it is revealing information about physics; when students are doing measured drawings, they are calculating things to transfer them over to their canvas; and when they are doing ceramics, they are also learning about chemistry,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons not only connects every lesson to core content in academic subjects, but also “to the student who makes it—each art thing they make is somehow connected to themselves. If everyone walks out with the same little snowman with pipe-cleaner arms, I am a failure as an art teacher.”
In a recent project his students translated the emotional values in their lives into colors and shapes by creating a mobile. “That way they can code their information visually; they don’t have to tell me who’s mean or who’s nice. And because every student is tying to their family, and every family is different, each is unique,” Gibbons says. In this project the students also learn about cantilevers and counterbalancing, which adds an engineering element, and they write down their plans and lists before the project and critique it after it’s done.
Gibbons’s first teaching gig was in Alexandria, Egypt, at the Schutz American School. He had planned to move next to Japan, where he was during his junior year of college, but when a position opened at Northern Burlington, he took it. “I really liked the diversity of the campus—it also pulled from McGuire Air Force Base. I’m not a fan of very homogenous districts. I think it is important for people to get out of their comfort zone just to see the world from a different point of view,” he said.
Gibbons had lived for a year on the outskirts of Bordentown, in the Park Apartments, entirely unaware that “there was a city. I thought Bordentown was an area,” he says. But one day he had to mail a rent check or be penalized, so he walked to the post office in town and saw the “for sale” sign in the window of the Firehouse Gallery.
When he bought the gallery, he performed about $100,000 worth of renovations. “It didn’t have a kitchen and didn’t have a living room—the kinds of things that make it a home. Juanita was quite a bohemian and made it work with a hot plate; I felt like I needed it to be little more traditional,” Gibbons says.
Gibbons split the space that housed the fire trucks into two rooms, one a private studio and the other a teaching space. “I ran art exhibits, classes, poetry, and music events, and even an opera event,” he says. “I tried to do things like that for the community.” When he saw after the 2008 stock market crash that people were not so interested in buying art, he says, “we changed our tactics and focused more on classes and publishing.” As he became recognized for his approach to art education—uniting art with both academic content areas and students’ personal experiences—he began writing books and launched Firehouse Publications with his partner, Tim Lin.
The gallery’s studio has given Gibbons a place to create his own paintings, which have been exhibited nationally and internationally. He has also published art education books, a blog followed by 14,000 art teachers, and several children’s books whose titles begin If Picasso Went…
Now, having finished the requisite 25 years in his district, he will retire with pension and health benefits, moving to a warmer climate and a special position at Vernon Malone College and Career Academy. “They want me there to experiment with more of my art lessons, and this idea of integration of core content.” Students have to declare a major—in areas ranging from air conditioning and heating repair to biopharmaceuticals, geographic information systems, and simulation and game development—during their junior year in high school.
“They are going to give me freedom to do a lot more experimentation with my lessons and share what I’m doing with the rest of the school,” Gibbons says. Their success, in the context of the city’s failing urban schools, have brought in visitors from other schools “to see why they are succeeding so well.”
Plotquin grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where her father worked as an accountant and her mother in a health insurance company.
Plotquin is an experimenter. “I move around a lot and try different things,” she says, and her life attests to her exploration of different paths, both in art and career.
At 6 she started playing recorder, and by 16 was playing Renaissance and Baroque music for an audience. Early on she earned her living as a musician and a music teacher. When she moved in 1990 to Wanaque with her ex-husband and two daughters, who were then 5 and 8, she continued playing the recorder and performing, and she also wrote and published instrumental arrangements of Latin American music.
“Then I decided I wanted to change careers; I wanted to do something in business,” Plotquin says. For the next seven years she did international channel marketing to resellers for different technology companies, but 9/11 put an end to that.
She was ready to change direction again, in part the effect of having worked around the corner from the World Trade Center, but more because she was looking for something more satisfied. “Even though I was doing well [in business], I wanted to do something of service. It wasn’t fulfilling for me, and I decided to stop working for a little while to think,” she says.
She started painting mailboxes for sale and repairing and refinishing wooden furniture. But, she says, “after a year I had to do something because my money was running out.”
After working for a couple months at a shelter for abused women, she decided to go back to teaching, but this time Spanish instead of music. So she got a master’s degree in teaching Spanish and taught for 17 years in the Parsippany school district.
But, she says, “I never abandoned my artistic side,” and in free moments after work and on weekends, “I tried different techniques with different materials,” usually involving wood and painting.
Very interested in cultural artifacts and indigenous people from Latin America, she travels to different countries “to visit, to know people there, to do research, then I come back and do my art.”
In Antigua, Guatemala, she met indigenous weavers and asked one of the women to teach her how to weave. “She taught me a little, and I loved it,” Plotquin says. “Then I went home and bought my own loom, and I started weaving.” Often she integrates tree branches into her woven work, “just to have a fusion of different Latin American cultures and nature, to integrate nature with the weaving,” she explains. Then an artist who saw her work told her, “You need to show this,” and found her a place to exhibit her weaving in Montclair.
Her next inspiration came on a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where she saw people painting alebrijes, brightly colored, detailed paintings of fantastical creatures. She bought unfinished wooden animals and painted her own, also experimenting with painting alebrijes on a chair.
Now in the process of selling her house in Wayne, she is only at the idea stage about her plans for the Firehouse Gallery. A “holistic artist,” Plotquin is also involved in meditation, and she foresees a “mix between meditation, music, and art,” with “classes and exhibitions.” She is also thinking about a summer art camp.