It’s a bright winter afternoon and Mercer County Community College Gallery director Alice Thompson is busy interacting with regional artists picking up their artwork and helping Thompson get ready for 2021 exhibitions.
“It’s a staged pickup,” she says under her mask, demonstrating that she, the gallery, and the college are following Centers for Disease Control protocols.
In addition to covering the mouth and nose, those precautions include timed visits, providing contact information, coming through security, and using hand sanitizer.
“We’re trying to keep safe, yet provide access to art,” she says.
She is also trying to continue momentum at the gallery on the second floor of the Communications Center building on the West Windsor campus and is in preparation for the first show of 2021, an exhibition of work by the Hamilton-based regional painter Leni Paquet-Morante, “Puddle Architecture.” It runs through March 11.
“We will have a fully online show,” says Thompson, a former long-time West Windsor resident.
She adds that she is working with the college’s marketing and public relations office directors and designers to create a virtual gallery in order to provide online visitors the sense of walking through the gallery.
Actual visiting is also being considered, but, says Thompson, “that changes as the virus changes” and suggests checking website updates at this time.
Paquet-Morante conducted a virtual artist talk that can be seen below.
“We tend to book two years ahead,” she says about gallery planning and direction. “Some things had to change because of COVID, but the calendar starts with a faculty show. There are two shows a year of professional artists from New York and Philadelphia, and a show celebrating artist from Mercer County.”
Of the latter, she says after the 2020 season “fell apart, we decided people needed art and pulled off the show.”
She says a quick note sent out to artists and placed on various gallery and social media sites resulted in 87 digital submissions.
And while it was a success, she says submissions were reduced from the normal 180 that she had observed since becoming the gallery’s part-time director in 2018.
“I came here from public school administration and teaching,” Thompson says.
After deciding on a professional change for personal and professional reasons, Thompson, who has a bachelor of arts in elementary education from the University of South Florida and a master’s degree in school administration from Rutgers University, says she came to MCCC in the summer of 2015 “on a fact-finding mission and was so impressed I signed up for classes” in the college’s associate of fine arts program.
She says then-gallery director and fine arts faculty member Lukas Kelly recognized her abilities and “mentored me for the job and mentored me for the first year. (He) was instrumental in helping me obtain the position.”
About her background, she says, “I grew up in Union County. My mother finished college when we were children and was a teacher. My father was the retired fire chief for the city of Linden.” She adds later that he had also been a glazer.
She says her parents took her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center when she was young, and that after starting her career in Florida, she, “like most people who grew up in a metropolitan area,” got bored and along with her Iowa-born husband returned to New Jersey and settled in West Windsor.
After working in several schools and even taking a position in England, Thompson says they returned and bought a house in Chesterfield while she worked first a Hunterdon County school district and then Burlington City.
“Art had been lurking in the background for a very long time,” the past high school art student says of her choice. “When you think of job security and art making and what is good for you, there is a paradigm shift, a recognition that you don’t have an infinite amount of time on earth.”
“I love this,” she says in front of a sign-in sheet on a table at the gallery entrance. “I love curatorial work, and administration is not new to me. It is how the art fits together and how the pieces come together and how I chose to examine them and listen to them and how they interact and play off one another together. I find it fascinating.”
She says her involvement in the arts was from necessity. “When I worked in the south, there weren’t specific art teachers, so any art the children had come from me. I always worked to integrate the subject areas as best as I could — art and math work together nicely. I always integrated art with the subject matter.”
As an example, she says she introduced her American history students to the Western Expansion by creating a Conestoga wagon and replicating the life of the settlers, including cooking over an open fire, using tin plates, and making clothes.
“They had an experience with math, science, and nutrition manifested through that wagon,” she says.
Married for 25 years to a Hopewell Valley school business administrator, she says her husband has been calling her an artist for years and that she has been focusing on three dimensional works, including a sculpture included in a recent Stockton University exhibition thematically organized around the concept of grief. She says the two triangular prisms were “constructed from windows from my childhood home.”
Another work is one MCCC purchased while she was taking classes, a pop art work of a giant hamburger. “I went to Burger King and bought a Whopper,” she says of her planning for the work she says brought her “full circle. I had worked at a Burger King. It was my first job, besides delivering newspapers.”
Asked about artwork and approaches she finds inspiring, Thompson says her favorite sculptor is Dylan Lewis, an Australian working in metal. In addition to being drawn to his raw images of animals, she is attracted to Lewis’ “process from clay renderings to small versions of what he is going to make into a large outdoor sculpture.”
She also mentions contemporary Polish artist Agnes Grochulska, whose portraits Thompson discovered on Instagram and was attracted to her colors, layering of images, and emotion.
Then she says, “My favorite painting is a Joan of Arc hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art — it is in the impressionist area and has Joan of Arc receiving visions. It was during one of those trips to the Met but with just my mother. It was the most beautiful thing I saw — it struck me.”
Returning to her own work, she says, “I’m on my own journey of my own art making — is it sculpture or painting or is it something else?”
In addition to operating the gallery, Thompson has her own academic tutoring business, Hyacinth Girl Creation. “I named the business that because a college friend used to call me that. There is a Winter Hours song with that title.
“(It) is a registered LLC and provides academic support in reading, writing, and mathematics, K through 8. It started in 2015. My neighbor asked if I could help her son, and another mom asked me. Now I’m busy five days a week, 4 to 8 p.m.”
With evening work providing her the flexibility to manage the gallery, Thompson says her curating “isn’t about pleasing my own aesthetics — it is bringing artists to students and Mercer County.”
That includes emerging contemporary artists.
“I watched Professor Kelly closely,” she says about making choices. “I accompanied him on studio visits. I stated going to the open studio tours in Philadelphia and Brooklyn and to view work and see how this might fit together with this. I look to see what artists are posting on Instagram. I look to see what contemporary artists are doing.”
She says she got interested in Paquet-Morante’s artwork after viewing her work at a recent show. “I thought it was really interesting and asked if I could have a studio visit.”
Looking back at lessons learned over the past few years, Thompson says she is “astounded by the amount of math — ruler math involved in hanging a show” and that despite the misconceptions regarding artists, “precision and business management comes together for (an artist) to be successful.”
She also points out that “art is work” and says, “Somehow, even as an adult, I had this notion that artists just went into their respective studios and ‘created’ art. In my mind, it was spontaneous and fluid, effortless even. I had no idea of the process of artmaking and truly the amount of work and craftsmanship involved to bring an idea to fruition. When I came to Mercer, I was just going to take a class or two, and perhaps work toward my New Jersey Art Teacher Certification. I became so involved with the processes surrounding the making of art, and of what I was learning, I stayed on to complete the AFA degree.”
Then, looking ahead, she says despite the challenges related to a changing era, personnel needs beyond the volunteer gallery staffing, and operating budgets, she is optimistic. She mentions the hope for new gallery lighting, the continuation and strengthening of digital exhibitions, and returning to physical exhibitions with weekend hours.
But for now, she says, “We’re very flexible and will open and close when the virus tells us.”
Now, another artist has arrived and helps Thompson clear the gallery and prepare for a new year.
The MCCC Gallery is located on the second floor of the Communications Building on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road.
The exhibition “Puddle Architecture,” featuring the work of Paquet-Morante, is scheduled to open virtually and be on view through March 11.