Arts & Entertainment

Music Fests Jam into South Jersey

Courtesy of Beardfest

Over the past decade, South Jersey has become fertile ground for a burgeoning music festival scene with a mindful vibe. On weekends throughout the warmer months, music lovers of all ages—plus crafters, artisans, holistic healers and more—join musical performers at these cultural events that are more than just concerts. For many performers and attendees, they’re communal experiences.

“They bring like-minded people together,” says Jeremy Savo, singer/guitarist of the band Out of the Beardspace and co-founder/co-director of Beardfest, an annual festival in Hammonton.

“A lot of bands and different artistic collaborations have been spawned at the festival. Bands meet and put on shows together,” says Savo. “An artist meets a band and ends up doing their cover art. People in the yoga community meet and collaborate outside the festival. It’s a place that stimulates a lot of creative activity.”

The oldest of these gatherings, the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, has grown to more than 5,000 attendees a year since launching five decades ago. Most of the South Jersey festivals are much smaller. Camp Jam in the Pines and the Electric Halloween festivals each host up to 1,000 attendees each year. Two of the festivals—the South Jersey Wine & Music Festival and the Suburban Sensi Family Gathering—are new this year.

The festivals tend to be clustered in South Jersey, in large part because of the availability of affordable, festival-friendly spaces. “We’re in the middle of the Pine Barrens,” says Lori Dean-Gibson, one of the organizers of the 20-year-old Camp Jam in the Pines held at Paradise Lakes Campground in Hammonton. Paradise Lakes is home to three of this year’s festivals; Southwind Vineyard in Millville— which discontinued winery operations last year—will host two. These secluded, rural venues are ideal for some of the festival daytime activities, such as morning yoga or environmental-awareness workshops.

Discovering new artists is another festival perk. The bands, a mix of local South Jersey/Philadelphia artists and national touring acts, perform a variety of genres, including jam music, psychedelic rock, folk, bluegrass, jazz and electro house.

All this creative activity comes at a fraction of the cost of major music festivals. Even with the cost of camping included, none run more than $130 for the weekend, and many permit you to bring your own food and drinks into the festival grounds. You may never choose to leave New Jersey to attend a music festival again.

Here’s a look at this year’s festival lineup:

Camp Jam in the Pines

May 16–19
Paradise Lakes Campground, 500 Paradise Drive, Hammonton

Performers: Philthy, Dynamo, Swift Technique, Phillybloco, Gooch and the Motion and others. Special entertainment: Young-artist workshop, face painting, morning yoga, drum circle, fire spinning, tie-dye workshop. Cost, including camping: adults $60-$130; teens 12-16, $35-95; 11 and under free. For more info and tickets, click here.

Courtesy of Appel Farm Arts & Music Center

Appel Farm presents South Jersey Arts & Music Fest

June 1–2
Appel Farm Arts & Music Campus, 457 Shirley Road, Elmer

Performers: Southern Culture on the Skids, Gina Chavez, Williams Honor, Hymn for Her and others. Special entertainment: Arts Camp Pop-Up for kids, music, visual art, dance, STEAM, art of winemaking and more. Cost: single-day $25; two-day $40; two-day plus camping $60; 13 and under free. For more info and tickets, click here.


June 13–15
Paradise Lakes Campground, 500 Paradise Drive, Hammonton

Performers: Out of the Beardspace, the New Deal, Too Many Zooz, Anomalie, the Main Squeeze and others. Special entertainment: Music, art, movement classes, yoga, environmental awareness and more. Cost: general admission, including camping, $130; 12 and under free. For more info and tickets, including VIP and other packages, click here.

South Jersey Wine & Music Festival

June 29–30
Unexpected Farm, 1394 Piney Hollow Road, Newfield

Performers: Stealing Savannah and No Relation Band. Special entertainment: Pony rides, local wine sampling from Bellview Winery and DiMatteo Vineyards. Cost: single-day $30; two-day, including camping, $45; designated driver $15; 18 and under free. For more info and tickets, click here.

Sensi Family Gathering Music & Arts Festival

July 19–20
Southwind Vineyard, 385 Lebanon Road, Millville

Performers: Suburban Sensi, Mephiskapheles, Karina Rykman Experiment, Cheezy & the Crackers, Jah People and others. Special entertainment: Art installations, games, acoustic performances in the campgrounds and more. Cost: two-day, including camping, $75. For more info and tickets, click here.

The Jugband’s Endless Summer Fest

August 8–11
Paradise Lakes Campground, 500 Paradise Drive, Hammonton

Performers: The Jugband, Kount Funkula and the P-Funk Outlawz, Montoj, Badd Kitt and others. Special entertainment: Live band performance Thursday night during arrivals. Cost: Full festival, including camping, $100; one-day $50; 11 and under free. For more info and tickets, click here.

Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival

August 30–September 1
Salem County Fairgrounds, Woodstown

Performers: Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Travelin’ McCourys, Balsam Range, Becky Buller Band, Appalachian Road Show and others. Special entertainment: children’s stage on Saturday; informal jamming in the campground. Cost: Gate price for weekend, including camping, $125; discounts for early purchases. For more info and tickets, click here.

Electric Halloween Festival

October 18–19
Southwind Vineyard, 385 Lebanon Road, Millville

Performers: Lineup of 40+ bands to be announced in June. Special entertainment: magic show, fire performances, wrestling, awards for costumes, decorations and Hallowgames. Cost: weekend pass, including camping, $90; day pass $50. For more info and tickets, click here.

Additionally, these two festivals, each with a very different vibe, will take place in northern New Jersey:

Michael Arnone’s 30th Annual Crawfish Fest

May 31–June 2
Sussex County Fairgrounds, Augusta

Performers: Aaron Neville, the Marcus King Band and Neville Jacobs headline this annual celebration of the music and cuisine of New Orleans. For more info and tickets, click here.

Rock, Ribs and Ridges

June 29–30
Sussex County Fairgrounds, Augusta

Performers: 38 Special and Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes are the featured performers at this music-and-barbecue extravaganza. For more info and tickets, click here.

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How Christopher Gattelli Makes Broadway Move

Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli surveys the stage at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre, where his latest project, The Cher Show, premiered in December. Photo by Axel Dupeux

It’s a Thursday night performance of The Cher Show on Broadway, and dancer Ashley Blair Fitzgerald is upside down in a split, her legs whipping through the air like helicopter blades.

“I call it pliable partnering,” says Fitzgerald, who is spun around in her whirlybird sequence by another member of the ensemble. “You just have to be like putty.”

In fact, Fitzgerald and her fellow Cher Show dancers are all putty in the hands of their choreographer, Christopher Gattelli, a Broadway veteran and resident of Hope Township, in Warren County. 

Over the past decade, Gattelli has been the man behind the moves for shows like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, South Pacific and The King and I. Career highs include his exhilarating, Tony-winning sequences for Newsies and his 2018, Tony-nominated work on SpongeBob SquarePants and My Fair Lady. He’s collaborated with Julie Andrews—twice­—and most recently choreographed scenes in the comedy film Isn’t It Romantic starring Pitch Perfect actress Rebel Wilson.

Gattelli is something of a choreographic chameleon, able to adapt to his theatrical surroundings and different media. 

“I wouldn’t say that I have a style per se, like a Fosse,” says Gattelli, 46. “I try to find projects that are varied and that give me challenges.”

The Cher Show is no small challenge. The jukebox musical—which opened in December at Manhattan’s Neil Simon Theatre and is expected to run through October 13—spans the six-decade career of the glamorous music, television and film star. Theatergoers marvel at the jaw-dropping Bob Mackie costumes, clap along to Cher’s hits sung by three different actresses, and sway to Gattelli’s dance interpretations. 

Choreographer Christopher Gattelli, center, embraces The Cher Show dancers Christopher Vo and Ashley Blair Fitzgerald on opening night. Photo courtesy of Jenny Anderson/Getty Images for The Cher Show

“Dance-wise, I get to go from the ’60s all the way up to her current tours and hip-hop and funk,” says Gattelli. There’s even a tango in the second act, set to Dark Lady, a chart-topping single from 1974 about a fortune teller, adultery and murder. In the musical, the piece represents Cher’s breakaway from the men in her life—Sonny Bono and Gregg Allman.

For Dark Lady, seven male dancers join Fitzgerald onstage. Gattelli’s choreography punctuates the traditional tango footwork with lifts and flips. At one point, the male dancers take hold of Fitzgerald’s extremities and heave her through the air, landing her on one of their shoulders. 

“The crowd usually responds really well to it,” says Gattelli about the tango, “but it was the last [number] I figured out.” Gattelli kept asking himself, What’s the metaphor? Who does the Dark Lady represent? The dances that are challenging to develop are usually his favorites. “They have that little extra care,” says Gattelli, “so it ends up being that much more rewarding.”

Before becoming a go-to movement maker for Broadway, Gattelli was a dancer himself. Turning back time, we find Gattelli growing up in Bristol, Pennsylvania, just across the Delaware River from Burlington City. Gattelli started learning dance basics like tap and ballet when he was about eight. As a young teen, he won the TV talent competition Star Search. At 15, he began intensive training at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater school in New York. 

On a whim, Gattelli auditioned for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. “They weren’t supposed to hire anyone under 5-foot-10 and I’m about 5-foot-7,” he says. He got the job anyway. “The director and choreographer liked what I did and gave me a couple small features in the show.”

Gattelli danced professionally for several years, performing in the Guys and Dolls tour, Fosse on Broadway and Cats on tour and Broadway. During the latter show he met his future husband, Montville native Stephen Bienskie. Gattelli played Mistoffelees and Pouncival; Bienskie was Rum Tum Tugger. They married in December 2013, two months after New Jersey legalized same-sex marriage. Since 2010, they’ve lived in rural Hope. “It’s the antithesis of New York, basically. There’s one crossing in town with a light,” says Gattelli. He loves to keep busy, but appreciates the relief home offers. “When I’m driving home, there’s a certain point where I start seeing the trees and the mountains, and my shoulders just drop.”

Gattelli began to uncover his true passion when he was asked to put a number together with the Cats cast for a benefit. “I was loving the creation part more than the performance part,” he says. 

In 2001, he moved behind the scenes as resident choreographer for The Rosie O’Donnell Show. “She [did] giveaways, and it was like, dun, dunda, dah, and six dancers would come out and she would do a number with them,” says Gattelli. He also worked on a couple of opening numbers for the show on location in Walt Disney World. 

Gattelli’s theatrical debut as a choreographer was the off-Broadway show Bat Boy. A string of choreography and musical-staging gigs followed on Broadway: High Fidelity (2006), The Ritz (2007, revival), Sunday in the Park With George (2008, revival), South Pacific (2008, revival), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2010), Godspell (2011, revival) and his favorite production, the musical Newsies in 2011. 

Newsies, adapted from the 1992 Disney film, tells the story of Jack Kelly and his ragtag group of New York City newsboys who go on strike. Disney Theatrical Productions chose Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn for the premiere—and Gattelli as the choreographer.

Paper Mill producing artistic director Mark S. Hoebee was already familiar with Gattelli’s work. “His choreography is incredibly athletic and challenging,” says Hoebee. In Newsies, this athleticism is seen in “King of New York,” a number that had the performers tap dancing on tables and cartwheeling on chairs. 

Gattelli saw a former version of himself in the Newsies cast. “We all were kind of cut from the same cloth,” he says. “When you’re growing up as a male dancer, you’re usually one of the only men in class. So to work hard and get recognized and…to make it on Broadway…and then to also get as far as Newsies got, they had to be even that much more on top of their game.”

Hoebee attests to Gattelli’s special connection with his performers.

“Chris has beautifully held onto a piece of his experience [as a dancer],” says Hoebee, “which is understanding what it means to ask so much of your body eight times a week.”

Most of the Paper Mill cast went to Broadway, where Newsies ran for more than 1,000 performances. Gattelli won the Tony Award for Best Choreography in 2012.

Gattelli hasn’t won a Tony since­—he was nominated in 2015 for The King and I—but says working with Julie Andrews was its own reward.

In 2012, Gattelli and Andrews teamed to bring a children’s book to the stage at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. Andrews wrote The Great American Mousical with her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton. 

To honor the 60th anniversary of My Fair Lady, Andrews, the original Eliza Doolittle, directed a revival of the Lerner and Loewe classic at the Sydney Opera House in 2016. Andrews called on Gattelli to recreate Hanya Holm’s choreography. The only issue? “A lot of the dancing wasn’t notated or captured on film, so I had to take what I had seen and build outwards from there,” says Gattelli. 

Watching Andrews relive something she did 60 years earlier was incredible for Gattelli. “It was like muscle memory coming back to her,” he says. 

More recently, Gattelli worked on Bartlett Sher’s 2018 Broadway revival of My Fair Lady. When working on a revival, Gattelli says, “it’s [about] trying to honor what has been done.” At the same time, “it’s a really interesting task to create this new version and make it feel fresh and vital now.” Choreographing “Get Me to the Church on Time” for the revival was a particular challenge. Gattelli had recreated that number a year earlier for the Sydney Opera House production. The stages, casts and scripts were different. “I had to do two versions of the same number and try to stop the show with each,” says Gattelli. 

What show will Gattelli lend his talents to next? “There’s one coming up that I’m particularly excited about with Disney,” he says, but remains mum on the details.

Gattelli doesn’t necessarily have a dream project. “A lot of the shows that I love, I love because the work—like Michael Bennett’s work in A Chorus Line or Dreamgirls—is genius, and I wouldn’t want to have to do another version of those. My favorites are things that I’m just a big admirer of. It’s usually the new works like a SpongeBob or a Cher, where I would never know they’re coming down the pike,” he says. “I’m just hoping for more of that. More fun challenges and me continuing to learn, because that’s to me the most fun part.”

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Film and Music Align in Asbury Park

Wyclef Jean, a longtime Jersey resident who was raised in Newark, performs at last year’s festival. Photo courtesy of the Asbury Park Music and Film Festival

Long before $400-a-night hotel rooms and $8 mocktails, rock ‘n’ roll was the only thing keeping Asbury Park from falling into the Atlantic Ocean. The musicians, venues and legendary shows buoyed the waterfront until gentrification swooped to the economic rescue.

Asbury Park has changed, but music remains a key attraction. The Asbury Park Music & Film Festival spotlights the role of music in film, and how both mediums intersect. From April 25–28, the City by the Sea will host dozens of films, musical performances and Q&As all tethered to the powerful influence of sound.

“When I was growing up around Asbury Park, it was the epicenter of film in the state of New Jersey,” says Tom Bernard, co-chair of the festival and co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “There were several iconic venues in Asbury, including the Paramount Theatre, where people flocked to see their favorite motion pictures.”

On the music side, Bernard reminds us that Asbury Park is “the home of the Jersey Shore sound” popularized by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and Southside Johnny, all of whom, Bernard says, have appeared at the festival in the past.

In addition to good sounds, the festival is committed to good works. Proceeds are directed to programs for underserved children in Asbury Park. The programs provide the children with music education, instruments and networking opportunities.

“This is the only festival I know of that is purely committed to a charitable cause,” says Bernard. “That’s what attracted me to it five years ago and continues to inspire me today.

Purchase individual event tickets—or the VIP Boardwalk Pass ($1,000)—through

Here are a few highlights:

Screening: “Echo in the Canyon”; live performances by Jakob Dylan, Cat Power, Jade and special guests.

April 25, 7 p.m.
Paramount Theatre

The festival opens with the New Jersey premiere of “Echo In The Canyon,” a star-filled documentary about the historic Laurel Canyon music scene in Los Angeles. After the screening, Jakob Dylan (son of Bob) and other artists will perform songs by the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds and the Beach Boys.

Concert: Gary US Bonds’ Unusually Big Birthday Bash

April 26, 6:30 p.m.
Paramount Theatre

The R&B/rock legend, who has collaborated with many notable Asbury musicians, celebrates his upcoming 80th, backed by the veteran Pittsburgh band Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers.

Screening: “Creem: Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine”

April 27, noon
House of Independents

An insightful documentary on Creem magazine and the bold staff who would become the rock stars of music journalism, followed by a Q&A with director Scott Crawford and deejay Rich Russo.

Clarence Clemons Courtesy of the Asbury Park Music and Film Festival

Screening: “Clarence Clemons: Who Do You Think I Am?”

April 27, noon
Paramount Theatre

The New Jersey premiere of a new documentary on the life of E Street Band sax legend and songwriter, Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons. The film features interviews with Bill Clinton, Joe Walsh, former bandmates, friends and family. Followed by a Q&A with director Nick Mead, producer Joe Amodei and special guest Jake Clemons, nephew of Clarence.

Screening: “The Bruce Springsteen Archives”

April 27, 3:30 p.m.
Paramount Theatre

Exclusive screening of never-before-seen clips from the Thrill Hill Vault, presented by Thom Zimny, Bruce Springsteen’s longtime film director and archivist.

Screening: Bob Dylan Center Presents: “Dylan Archives IV”

April 28, 11:30 a.m.
House of Independents

The Bob Dylan Center, a cultural heritage group dedicated to the study and appreciation of all things Dylan, presents never-before-seen archival footage of the American folk icon.

Screening: “Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock n’ Roll”

April 28, 3 p.m.
Paramount Theatre

This new documentary traces the decline and comeback of Asbury Park, and features Springsteen reuniting with original band members to play a now legendary concert at a sold-out Paramount Theatre. Springsteen trades guitar licks with a group of 11-year-old rockers who suggest that the town’s best days might lie ahead. The film hits theaters on May 22.

Additional highlights include a Friday-night concert by Yo La Tengo; screenings of films about David Crosby, Miles Davis and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio; and a live interview with the Farrelly Brothers (“Dumb and Dumber”; “There’s Something About Mary”).

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Retiree Enjoys Career ‘Encore’ as Beatles Scholar

Sixties music aficionado Vinnie Bruno amid his collection of Beatles paraphernalia and books. Photo by Matt Furman

Vinnie Bruno remembers the first record he ever bought: “She Loves You” by the Beatles, released in the United States in September 1963. He purchased the single for 57 cents at Woolworth’s in Jersey City. “I still have it,” says Bruno, but that’s just the start of what the Woodbridge resident has in the way of Beatles anecdotes and ephemera. 

The 65-year-old former college-level business and math teacher has become something of a post-retirement rock star, lecturing on the Beatles and other 1960s acts on both coasts. His audiences, he says, are primarily “adults over 50 reliving their past,” but also teens and young adults who have turned their own parents on to the Beatles.

Marketing himself as a “Beatles scholar and ’60s rock historian” (, the married father of two has a repertoire of 44 programs, including 25 on the Fab Four. Based on thousands of books and articles he’s read, his 2 1/2-hour PowerPoint-guided presentations on the music and mystique of the Beatles are punctuated with anecdotes of his own encounters with each member of the band. “I have tons of information on them rolling in my head,” he says. He also gives talks on Bob Dylan, the Who, the Beach Boys and the British Invasion.

Bruno’s memorabilia collection includes two original lithographs by John Lennon and two by Paul McCartney; a signed-leather-bound book of George Harrison songs; and a CD signed by Ringo Starr. His memories include at least two dozen shows by the individual Beatles. Alas, he never got to see the band itself.

In March, Bruno starts a 10-week course on the Beatles at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Rutgers (OLLI-RU) in Freehold; a seven-week Beatles course at the Princeton Adult School; and a five-week Beatles course for the Union County College continuing-education program. He’ll also teach a 10-week course on American pop, and a five-week course on Bob Dylan (starting in April) at OLLI-RU in Highland Park. Also coming up: a Rolling Stones talk April 12 in Tenafly and September 27 in Monroe Township.

“It requires a lot of work, but it’s fun,” says Bruno. “It’s become my encore.”

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Kinetic Art Exhibit “Simply Steampunk” Opens at Morris Museum

The Buddha by Will Rockwell

Remember the awe you felt as a child after receiving a new toy? The Morris Museum’s new exhibit “A Cache of Kinetic Art: Simply Steampunk,” let’s you relive the wonderment of childhood.

All 18 works in the showcase, the second installation in a four-year series, are interactive and have elements of steampunk, a subgenre of science fiction that blends 19th-century and futuristic aesthetics.

“It’s this sort of never-never world,” executive director Cleveland Johnson said at the member and press preview. The exhibit is open to the public from March 15- August 11.

Twelve artists, three from New Jersey, created the diverse movement marvels seen in “Simply Steampunk.” Some are “quintessential steampunk and others are a broader interpretation,”  Johnson explained.

David Bowman’s three pieces Time Machine, Pterence: The Pteranodon and Tink: The Northern Pike, land on the traditional end of the steampunk art spectrum. Gears exposed, the wood and metal sculptures by the Pennsylvania-based artist enliven with a push of a button.

Time Machine by David Bowman 

Matthew Steinke’s Deliriums A inhabits an entire wall in the back of the gallery. The piece, which looks like a football strategy play because of its various lines and shapes, also makes noise. On the Internet, Steinke found interviews and monologues from people with personality disorders. He used that audio to score music. The soundtrack plays electronically through the percussion instruments he built from objects including a school bell and mini drums.

Mike Richison, who teaches as Monmouth University and lives near Asbury Park used sound equipment, lampshade-like pieces, light projectors, and turntables to build Spin Stack. “A turntable is a pretty useful piece of equipment, but in my art I like to make things bigger, sculptural and visual as well,” says Richison.

Lumia Series by Will Rockwell

When viewing Lumia Series’ three crystal balls, it feels like you’ve entered outer space. The frosted globes containing LED lights are the work of West Orange artist Will Rockwell.

The three jurors for this exhibition were Brett King, who exhibited in last year’s “Curious Characters” and is the founder of AutomataCon; Ann Aptaker, professor at the New York Institute of Technology; and Rein Triefeldt, a Trenton-based artist and co-founder of Kinetic Art Organization.

“They did a marvelous job at creating environments,” says Triefeldt about the artists. “That’s, what, a 20-foot wall?” he says, pointing to Delirium A. “And that one needed darkness,” he says motioning to Lumia Series.

For more interaction, visitors can take photos at the selfie station decked out in moving gears. Related programs include a screening of Scorcese’s Hugo, a film about a mysterious automaton, on April 7. Children can build their own automatons on June 16. And just before the exhibit closes, museum goers can take a behind-the-scenes tour on August 8 with artist David Bowman.

Hours: Tues-Sat, 11 am-5 pm; Sun, noon-5 pm

Admission: $7-$10

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Drag Queen Story Hour Promotes Diversity to Preschoolers

Her fluorescent wig aglow, Harmonica Sunbeam entertains preschoolers at a recent Drag Queen Story Hour at Montclair Public Library. From left: Charlotte Boose, 5; Ella Tucker, 6; and Arianna Tucker, 4.
Photo by Erik Rank

Three dozen preschoolers clustered around the stage in Montclair Public Library’s auditorium recently, patiently awaiting storytime. Their faces lit up when a figure swooped in wearing a fluorescent wig and a floor-length gown dripping with sequins. 

“Hello!” gushed Harmonica Sunbeam. “Did you all come straight from Zumba?”

With preschoolers and parents still chuckling, Sunbeam led everyone in the ABCs  before getting down to the business at hand: reading children’s stories that expose youngsters to themes of diversity and acceptance. 

Two years ago, Sunbeam began reading to New York City preschoolers through Drag Queen Story Hour, a national network formed in San Francisco in 2015. DQSH now has 23 chapters. Sunbeam, who lives in Jersey City, started the North New Jersey chapter.

“I thought that there must be people in New Jersey that are open-minded and ready for something like this,” she tells New Jersey Monthly. So far, she has three other potential members.

During storytime, Sunbeam read several crowd-pleasers, including Neither by New Jersey author Airlie Anderson, about a half-bird, half-bunny who wasn’t accepted by either birds or bunnies.

“Has there ever been a time when someone wouldn’t allow you to play with them?” Sunbeam asked her audience. “Yeah,” came the enthusiastic reply.

“How did it make you feel?” she asked. The answer: “Sad.”

By the book’s end, the bird-bunny found acceptance. Sunbeam explained, “They’re saying that you can fit in—because everyone is different.”

Sunbeam enjoys engaging preschoolers this way. “I get very emotional at each event,” she says. “It’s a great feeling to see all the smiling faces.”

Parents appreciate Sunbeam’s message. “I want to expose them to everything,” says Montclair resident Kara Mohren, 43, of her 3-year-old twins. “I just want them to see love.”

Next up for Sunbeam: DQSH readings at Word Bookstore in Jersey City, March 23 and April 20.

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Painter Philemona Williamson Colorfully Depicts Adolescents

Philemona Williamson in her sun-filled East Orange studio.
Photo by Marla Cohen

The obsession with ungainly adolescents at the heart of Montclair painter Philemona Williamson’s work doesn’t seem peculiar until you meet her. Then it challenges your faith in first impressions. Is it possible this supremely poised artist, whose work is regularly shown alongside art-world darlings like Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall, knows what it’s like to be as mixed up as the restless characters who populate her color-drenched canvases? 

The facts of her young life, as she tells them, bend toward no. “As a young girl, I was always hearing how wonderful I was, which gave me a lot of confidence,” says Williamson. But she’ll allow that the paintings that have earned her dozens of exhibitions and awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and that are on display through May 1 at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton, are the product of a sometimes turbulent passage into adulthood. 

“My background is just so weird. I never talked about it because nobody wants to be weird,” says Williamson as we chat in her sun-filled East Orange studio. 

On balance, it sounds like Williamson’s childhood was a good weird. She was born in Manhattan to James and Mamie Williamson, an African-American couple who lived in a glamorous Art Deco building on Sutton Place with their employers, a family of impassioned, occasionally combative Greek-Americans. James, from North Carolina, was chauffeur and cook to the Ladas family; Mamie, from South Carolina, was their housekeeper and nanny. Williamson and her mother spent most days in the company of Christine Ladas, wife of the Harvard-educated attorney Stephen Ladas, and the Ladas’s high-spirited daughters, Natalie and Cornelia.

Both mothers and the Ladas sisters doted on Williamson. Though the Ladas girls were teenagers while Williamson was much younger, “they would ask my opinion about everything from their love lives to what they should wear,” Williamson says. “It was always, ‘What does Philemona think? Ask Philemona.’” At dinner parties, they would coax her to come out of her room to chat with guests. 

Photo by Marla Cohen

All of which left little room for the typical rites of childhood, like playing make-believe and dressing up dolls. By the time Williamson was in fifth grade, she had the temperament of an adult. Her memories of a months-long move with Mamie to South Carolina in 1958 or 1959 to take care of her gravely ill maternal grandmother might have traumatized a less self-assured girl. But Williamson remembers enrolling in the segregated school there as kind of a lark. “I remember thinking, Whoa, everyone here looks like me,” she says. “That was a shock.” 

By the end of middle school, Williamson, back in New York, knew she wanted to be an artist. She enrolled in the arts program at Junior High School 104, on East 20th Street. “It was a pivotal point,” she says. “It was something that brought direction and meaning to me.”

An unfinished painting of Native American youths “stymied by” an overstuffed ballot box frames the artist as she swivels on a stool. Williamson’s work isn’t normally political, and she bristles at the suggestion her paintings are informed by race. But a 2018 dustup in North Dakota over voter suppression upset her enough to follow her into the studio, where a number of her oversized oil-on-linen paintings await their final touches. “The news filters through sometimes, even though I try to avoid it. My work is more concerned with the emotional toll of social justice issues of gender, race and class on the adolescent mind,” she says. “This painting ended up being about how certain districts were trying to take away Native American votes.” 

Williamson turns back to the story of her formative years—when her father took ill. “He had cancer, and my mother decided no one should know about it,” says Williamson. “No one could even say the word cancer then. It was stigmatized. So my mother treated it as a secret.” 

In the art room at school, that burden slid into a burgeoning self-expression. “It was all about the world you imagined,” she says. “And that world had an order to it. I liked the decisions that came with making art, in terms of color and all the formal aspects you think about when making a painting. That was exciting to me. I liked the structure.”

James’s health deteriorated while Williamson’s devotion to painting deepened. Her father succumbed to his disease, bone-marrow cancer, when she was a freshman at Bennington College in Vermont. 

Williamson attended Bennington on a scholarship, graduating in 1973. She later earned a master of arts degree from New York University. With the exception of detours as a New York City Parks Department employee and designer for a publisher and TV station, she has been a working artist ever since, teaching and painting.

Young girls populate much of Philemona Williamson’s work, their limbs bare, the world tumbling around them. Four recent oil-on-canvas examples in her studio, clockwise from top left: Blues Suite, Sunset, Satin Doll and Invisible Run. Photo by Marla Cohen

Dolls are a running theme in Williamson’s work. The abstract folk-art dolls she crafts are the realization of her thwarted desire to play as a little girl. “I didn’t get toys as a child; hence my fascination with dolls,” she explains. That also helps explain her collection of African-American and folk dolls; on a shelf in her studio, she keeps a few vintage Topsy Turvy dolls,  whose skirts can be flipped to reveal either a white face or a black face.

Williamson met her husband, Marc Rosenberg, in 1980, when both were working in the design department at New York’s channel 13 that year. (Rosenberg, whose specialty was photo-animation, later became vice president of brand image, intersitial programing and on-air promotion at HBO.)

By the time they were married in 1989, the fumbling adolescents that have become Williamson’s trademark were gaining traction. They had started to takeshape a few years earlier, when she won a residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz, New York. 

“I went there and worked for a while on portraits of people that I made up, and I kept asking myself, What makes me different?’” she says. “What do I really want to say? What’s the scariest thing I could reveal? I decided that the scariest thing I could reveal was my background.” 

Williamson started painting what she remembered of childhood, and the resulting series of dreamy, anxiety-ridden paintings earned her a debut solo show at the Queens Museum in 1988 and a review in The New York Times by critic Douglas C. McGill. She credits that review with winning the attention of galleries in New York and California. Since 1989, the June Kelly Gallery has represented Williamson’s work in New York.

“My work is more concerned with the emotional toll of social justice issues of gender, race and class on the adolescent mind”—Philemona

Decades of solo and group exhibitions amplified Williamson’s reputation among collectors. Fans are drawn to brightly colored, dreamlike works such as Unexpected Blues, a mammoth 4-foot-by-5-foot oil-on-linen work from 2017 that lingers on a dark-skinned girl uncomfortably aroused by the jungle of flowers and vines around her. Young girls populate much of Williamson’s work, their limbs bare, their eyes gazing out from the canvas as if trying to make sense of the world around them.

Among Williamson’s fans is first lady Tammy Murphy, who chose Williamson’s work for the ongoing series of shows highlighting living New Jersey artists at Drumthwacket started by her predecessor, Mary Pat Christie. Robyn Brenner, executive director at Drumthwacket, recommended Williamson to Murphy after learning about her through the chief curator at the Montclair Art Museum; 18 of Williamson’s works were exhibited there in a fall 2017 show.

“When I look at art and I walk away and I’m still thinking about it, for me, that’s the mark of an incredible artist,” Brenner says. “That’s how it is with Philemona. She catches those undercurrents of adolescence we all relate to. No matter who’s standing in front of her paintings, they can relate. Mrs. Murphy agreed that, since Drumthwacket is the people of New Jersey’s house, she’s a perfect fit.” 

A perfect fit has never been Williamson’s calling card. But being chosen for Drumthwacket feels important. 

“I love that it’s going to be in that setting, of a house that’s furnished so beautifully,” she says. Six of Williamson’s signature paintings will be displayed at Drumthwacket among the historic home’s artifacts and antiques. The exhibition also includes a dozen paintings from a recent residency at the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New Orleans. Those paintings detour from Williamson’s awkward youths to focus on architecture. 

There was nothing abstract about Williamson and Rosenberg’s decision to move to Montclair in 1997. The town, where the couple raised their son, Noah, 26, and daughter, Piper, 23, was among the few places they felt they could settle outside the city, says the artist. 

“It was one of the only places we could find where there were other interracial couples and trees and backyards and an art and cultural community,” says Williamson. She and Rosenberg are empty nesters now—Noah moved to California to work in film, and Piper is in Philadelphia figuring out her career—but Williamson wouldn’t consider moving back to New York. Still, she makes frequent  trips to the city, where she teaches art at Hunter College in Manhattan and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. 

But New Jersey is where she plans to stay.  “I have wonderful friends here and a wonderful house, and I love my studio,” Williamson says. “If I’m looking for turmoil, I can always find that in my work.”  

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Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day 2019 at Parades Around New Jersey

We found 28 St. Patrick's Day parades happening in counties around New Jersey this year. Celebrate Irish culture with any of these local festivities.

Photo courtesy of The Sussex County St. Patrick’s Day Committee

Looking for ways to celebrate the luck of the Irish? Here are 28 St. Patrick’s Day festivities happening throughout the state in March.

Bergen County

Bergen County St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 10; 2 pm.
Route: Along Washington Avenue in Bergenfield.

Essex County

Nutley St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 2; 1 pm.
Route: Along Franklin Avenue in Nutley.

West Orange St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 10; 12:15 pm.
Route: The parade begins at the intersection of Main Street & Mt. Pleasant Avenue, in front of West Orange Town Hall.

Newark St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 15; 1 pm.
Route: The parade begins at the Prudential Center on Mulberry Street.

Hudson County

Jersey City St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 10; 12:30 pm.
Route: The parade starts at Kennedy Boulevard and Lincoln Park, in front of the Lincoln statue.

Bayonne St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 17; 1 pm.
Route: The parade begins on 5th Broadway & 5th Street.

Morris County

Morris County St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 9; Noon.
Route: Along South Street and Washington Street in Morristown.

Passiac County

Ringwood St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 23, 1 pm.
Route: Along Skyline Drive.

Sussex County 

Sussex County St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 16; 11:30 am.
Route: Along Spring Street in Newton.

Union County

Union County St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 16; 1 pm.
Route: The parade begins on Morris Avenue in Union Township.

Warren County

Hackettstown St. Patrick’s Day Parade 
March 10; 3:30 pm.
Route: The parade begins at 120 Grand Avenue in Hackettstown.

Hunterdon County

6th Annual Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Parade in Clinton 
March 10; 3 pm.
Route: The parade begins at the Community Center, 63 Halstead Street.

Mercer County

The Original St. Patrick’s Day Parade at Hamilton
March 9; 1 pm.
Route: The parade starts at the Nottingham Fire House, 200 Mercer Street.

10th Annual Robbinsville Saint Patrick’s Day Parade
March 16; 12:00 pm.
Route: The parade starts at Foxmoor Shopping Center.

Middlesex County

Woodbridge St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 10; 1:30 pm.
Route: The parade starts at Woodbridge High School.

South Amboy St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 16; 2 pm.
Route: The parade starts on S. Pine Street & Portia Street.

Monmouth County

Belmar/Lake Como St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 3; 12:30 pm.
Route: The parade starts at North Boulevard and F Street.

6th Annual Asbury Park St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 10; 1 pm.
Route: The parade begins at 5th Avenue & Ocean Avenue.

7th Annual Rumson St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 10; 1 pm.
Route: The parade begins on Allen Street and River Road.

Freehold Borough Arts Council’s 8th Annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 17; noon.
Route: The parade begins on Main Street.

Annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Highlands
March 23; 2 pm.
Route: The parade will begin on Waterwitch Avenue.

14th Annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Keyport 
March 23; 1 pm.
Route: The parade will begin at Our Lady of Fatima Church (formerly St. Joseph’s Church), 376 Maple Place.

Somerset County

Somerville St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 10; 1:30 pm.
Route: The parade starts on Main Street near the Somerset Hotel.

Atlantic County

Atlantic City St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 9; Noon.
Route: The parade starts at the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue and the Boardwalk.

Burlington County

Burlington County St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 2; 1 pm. 
Route: The parade begins at the Fairgrounds Plaza. 

Camden County

Gloucester City Parade
March 3; 1 pm.
Route: The parade starts on Baynes Avenue and Johnson Boulevard.

Cape May County

Wildwood St. Patrick’s Day Celebration and Parade
March 16; 11:30 am.
Ceremony kicks off on the steps of North Wildwood City hall (10th & Atlantic Avenues) at 11:30 am Parade begins at noon and proceeds north on Atlantic Avenue to Olde New Jersey Avenue.

Ocean County

Ocean County St. Patrick’s Day Parade
March 9; noon.
Route: The parade starts on the Boulevard in Seaside Heights.

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Ember Ensemble Makes Choral Music Come Alive

Courtesy of Ember Ensemble/Peter Chollick

This past Veteran’s Day, the Ember Ensemble filed into Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, the choir’s new Montclair home, with something different up their sleeves. Cloaked in black, accented by red-poppy pins, the 25 singers didn’t form rows on the altar. Instead, they stood in the outer aisles, inches away from patrons, to perform their opening songs. 

“If we didn’t have individual voices that could stand up on their own, it would not work,” says Deborah Simpkin King, conductor and artistic director for Ember, a collective of paid and amateur performers. The intimate experience created a surround-sound effect for listeners, especially during a piece by composer-in-residence Cheryl Engelhardt, for which soloists chanted individual words in sequence.

The 1 ½-hour concert included a multimedia presentation with lyrics on the screen, historic war photographs, and snippets of a 2013 interview with military veteran James Woolsey.

Not all Ember concerts have these bells and whistles. But King asserts all choral music can be exciting. “Whatever your expectation is, it’s probably inadequate,” she says. “People hear “choral music,” oftentimes they think, Oh yeah, that’s religious songs, and that’s such a small piece of it.”

King, who grew up in Texas and holds a doctorate in musicology from the University of North Texas, took a position at New Jersey City University in the 1990s. She started a choir at the school, but it was disbanded when she left after four years. When some of those singers reconnected with King, she founded Schola Cantorum on Hudson, a nonprofit that is the parent organization for the Ember Ensemble and Project: Encore, a free online catalog of contemporary choral music. 

Conductor and artistic director Deborah Simpkin King says the Ember Ensemble’s performances exceed expectations for choral groups. Courtesy of Ember Ensemble /Dan Howell

Ember’s 24th season, Coming of Age, is a celebration of the second half of life. “We build worlds, we build families, we build careers, we build homes, we build our public personas…to make our contribution to the world,” says King. Then, as we near retirement age, “we can increasingly shed the responsibilities of life…[and] remember what is foundational.” To put that theme into practice, Ember is collaborating with the New York City program of Encore Creativity for Older Adults Chorale, a choral organization for singers over 55. The group will perform in Ember’s March 3 concert at Caldwell University’s Alumni Theater. The final Ember concert of the season will be at Our Lady on May 19. Ember also holds performances at St. John’s in the Village Episcopal Church in New York City. Tickets for all concerts are $20 in advance at, $25 at the door, $15 for seniors and students; children 18 and under are free.

Ember currently has about 50 singers. To make a score come alive, King dissects and discusses the text with the vocalists. “There’s always a give-and-take when you’re really finely tuning an art,” she says. “And it has a lot to do with helping the singers connect what is in the score and what is within them.”

King sees Ember’s role as using music to move people.

“The message is always strong,” she says. “We almost always have some people leave in tears, some that are speechless, and we hope that there are plenty of chuckles along the way.”

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MAM Yarn Bomb & Fiber Art Exhibit Explore New Territory

Jan Huling’s The Gown: Affinity is a mixed-media dress that includes beading. Courtesy of Jan Huling / MAM

A virtual rainbow of knits, crochets and other wonders of weaving adorn the trees on the Montclair Art Museum (MAM) campus. The various styles and designs, from images of nature to experimentation with color, are all a celebration of fiber art.

The art that envelops these tree trunks serves to welcome visitors to the museum’s exhibit, New Directions in Fiber Art, which opened this month. As a part of the New Jersey Arts Annual, this exhibition not only highlights the versatility of fibrous material in art, but also showcases artists either living or working in New Jersey.

When one thinks of fiber art, the first images that may come to mind are those of yarn or cloth. However, as these 42 artists demonstrate, the landscape for this art form is vast. It Comes and It Goes, by Jeanne Brasile of Little Falls, incorporates Braille newspaper and watercolor paint along with thread. These elements create a geometric depiction of nature that, according to the artist, can evoke images of tornadoes or ocean currents, all the way down to cellular life.

Jan Huling’s The Gown: Affinity also speaks to the variety of materials under the umbrella of fiber art. The dress is a colorful mixed-media piece that includes beading.

“My goal is to transform mundane forms into spectacular, meaningful, hypnotic works of art,” Huling says in a statement about the piece.

Gail Stavitsky, chief curator at the museum, hopes that the range of works on display pleasantly surprises visitors. “Working in quilting, embroidery, weaving, knitting, and even with neon, these artists have truly pushed the boundaries of fiber arts,” she says.

In fact, the art on the museum’s trees has moved the boundary beyond gallery walls and expanded it into the community. All of those works, a part of the MAM Yarn Bomb Installation, were created in collaboration with local artists and businesses. They will remain on display as long as weather permits.

Local artists decorated trees on MAM’s campus for the Yarn Bomb Installation. Courtesy of MAM

Not contented by bringing fiber art to the outdoor space, exhibit organizers aim to expand minds and spur conversation as well. Throughout the exhibit, family-friendly gallery labels, with the title, “Family Threads” in multicolor print across the top, encourage visitors to take a closer look at the art. The labels pose questions, asking viewers, for example, how they think a particular piece was made.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Store at MAM is selling one-of-a-kind, small-scale works created by the New Jersey artists. Slightly more than half of the artists have exclusive items available at the store, ranging from $25-$100. All of the pieces are true to the fiber art motif; some have already sold out.

New Directions in Fiber Art runs through June 16. General admission is $10-$12 and free for children under 12.

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