Renowned Newark native, Jerry Gant, is a visual artist, poet, performance artist and educator. He had his start as a 1980's street "graf" (graffiti) artist in New York City. His powerful street murals can be seen in major urban centers nation and worldwide: New York City, Boston, London but, most of all, in his city, Newark — "artists are friendlier here than in New York," Gant said. His mural at 450 Washington St. is the result of Gant's winning a 2010 "Gospel Fest" nationwide contest sponsored by Verizon. "When they came to Newark for the concert, I was in front with BeBe Winans," Gant said.
Simply put, if you are talking about Newark art scene during the last 20 or so years, Gant, 49, is the man.
If you don't take my word, talk with the film crew who have been shadowing Gant. They recorded my recent, far-ranging conversation with Grant for their forthcoming biographical documentary on the artist.
We were talking in front of the entrance of the Oualie Gallery, nearby in the Orange/West Orange Valley Arts District where Gant's powerful installation "Windows Dressing IV, Re' Tracked" is on view 24/7 through this month.
Here's a quick look at Gant's background: Gant was born in Newark, grew up in a succession of Newark apartments — "my mother Shirley was a gypsy;" lost his Dad young to alcohol and cirrhosis, graduated West Side High School and went to Essex County College to study graphic design — just as desktop publishing was coming in and decimating the print industry. He also took courses at the Newark School of Fine Arts.
It was the 1980s: "I ventured into New York City when the street artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat were making names for themselves; I was the only Newark kid."
Andy Warhol was there, too, making his millions, but Gant did not know how to document, write about or capitalize on his street art. He went home and painted. "I kept things in the closet or behind the couch," Gant said. He next studied at NJIT, but most importantly he had a realization that it wasn't liquor that killed his father — "It was poverty beating him into submission," Gant said."It was like a cloud opened up. He didn't die; he was killed. That's when the shift came."
By then, it was the early 1990s, and Gant was seeing African American men like filmmaker Spike Lee making a difference. Gant joined the New York City spoken word-open mic circuit, as well as performing often at Newark's old Café Genesis on Halsey Street. Gant found his voice as a poet, performer, artist, educator and activist.
Since that time, he has been part of Planet Hip-Hop at the New Jersey Performing Art Center, has had residencies in Newark and Princeton schools and at New York University and, currently is working on projects with Newark Councilman Ras Baraka on an installation for the Newark Housing Authority and with Jared Ash for the Newark Public Library.
Gant's current work is at Oualie Gallery, under the direction of artist Terry Boddie. Boddie invites leading area artist to create site specific art installations for the two front windows of a repurposed Brass Works building in the old industrial center of Orange. The fourth of these installations is Gant's extraordinary "Re' Tracked."
"Terry asked me to do something that had to do with the Orange Valley and African American history," Gant said. "I looked up the street and saw the tracks for what is now the NJ Transit line and they were my entry point: chain gangs, the blues, slavery, hobo culture — our peoples' history, it was all there."
Gant's initial concept was to take denim work clothes — some of the worst conditions for slaves was on the plantations producing cotton for denim — and drag the clothes through the dirt on the tracks.
"But, when I got up there, there wasn't dirt; there were rocks," Gant said. "I collected old spikes, old bottles of Mad Dog, Wild Irish Rose — the liquor brands that killed my father."
Gant uses these bottles to create a shrine to his father and his father's generation. He gathered rusted railroad spikes to create a sculptural interpretation of the 19th century diagrams illustrating how to tightly pack West African captives as human cargo on the notorious Middle Passage slave ships. The workmen's glove in the ship's bow and the shoeshine brush in the aft look to the fate of American slaves in post Civil War titular freedom.
"That work became my mother ship taking flight — from slave ship to mother ship," Gant said, "my ode to the rich history created here."
Other elements in the installation include pieces Gant had created for earlier, Newark-based shows, including a one man show at the WBGO Jazz 88.3 gallery. There are strong portraits and a pair of painted snare drums beating out Gant's message about minstrelsy and "blacking up."
Gant's graf canvases speak loudly, like this riff on the appropriation and commercialization of the blues by musicians, who, well don't have the right to sing the blues: "I'm Taking The Blues Back Home Before Robert Johnson Returns"
The "Window Dressing IV, Re' Tracked" installation is on view 24 hours a day all month. It is just west of the NJTransit Highland Avenue Station in Orange at 344A Freeman St., Orange, New Jersey.