So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it
– Jack Kerouac / On the Road
Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, an old mill town very similar to Paterson, New Jersey, where his great friend and fellow writer Allen Ginsberg grew up. These were once thriving, industrial capitals that were shining examples of American power. By the time the two writers lived there, these cities were already in decline. However, Kerouac and Ginsberg saw something that inspired them to write.
Jonathan Collins, an artist who was born and raised in Lake Parsippany and now lives in Chester, is inspired by the energy, spirit and road trips of Kerouac and Ginsberg. The towns may not be what they once were but there is beauty there if you look. Red brick buildings in the sunset, the mighty Passaic River flowing with the city behind it, a two story home with an American flag proudly displayed. His collection called ‘Beat Traveler: New Landscapes by Jonathan Collins’ is on display at the Paterson Museum until October 6th. We visited Paterson this weekend and took in his show.
Jonathan visited Paterson, Lowell and San Francisco absorbing the places Kerouac and Ginsberg lived in and wrote throughout their lives. Those cities were the mecca for the Beat Generation and Jonathan’s inspiration for this series. He injects beautiful light into places that you wouldn’t necessarily see beauty. Kerouac, Ginsberg and Collins all try to take what might appear to some to be mundane, or even ugly, and show its vitality through their artistic eyes.
Paterson’s Great Falls of the Passaic River are what made it such an important town for the mills and it’s also what connects it with Lowell. Lowell’s Merrimack River also runs through the middle of the city and provided opportunities for lots of mills and other factories to be built around it.
We met Jonathan briefly during our visit to the Paterson Museum and got a chance to send him some questions.
Your father painted when he returned from the Navy and US Merchant Marine. Was he a big inspiration to you?
My father was a huge inspiration to me. I grew up watching him paint oils of cathedrals, sitting at his feet on the porch, watching him mix colors on the palette. As I matured, we would always discuss (and argue!) about painting Art and artists.
At what age did you become interested in the Beat Generation? How did this interest come about?
I was first interested in the Beats at age 12 when I was listening to Van Morrison and Bob Dylan referencing them in their music. I didn’t read “On The Road” until I was about 18, but I knew about them since 1981.
Kerouac and Ginsberg both believed in the “first thought, best thought” writing style. Do you apply this to your method of painting in any way?
The first thought/best thought approach does influence my painting in the way that it leads me to follow the original string of interest in a drawing that captured my interest. I start out doing graphic india ink or graphite sketches, very basic, to develop composition, then proceed to more detailed sketches of particulars. If the original seed of excitement that sparked the idea isn’t in the final sketch before painting, I lose interest.
Both Paterson and Lowell are older, industrial urban towns that historically are a bit down on their luck. They are, however, great inspiration for artists in many fields. What did you find inspiring about these towns?
Paterson and Lowell demonstrate to me the enduring factor of history, but a living history. People toiled in the mills for sometimes 14 hours a day, yet still managed to live full lives and also appreciate each other, congregating at little corner shops, or the Falls, back in the days when there were porches and conversations, a world without people hiding in their corner connected to umbilical cord i-phones, separate and isolated. Also, the idea of beauty to be found in the middle of decaying building, nature revealing itself in unexpected ways, i.e. the Great Falls in Paterson, the Merrimack River in Lowell.
How does walking in the same footsteps as Kerouac and Ginsberg help you understand them more than just reading their books?
Walking in the footsteps of Kerouac and Ginsberg enabled me to experience the places on their level, to see what is actually there, or left, and I was curious whether there were inherent , native mystical qualities that both artists honed in on, or just self-realized. I came to the point where it was inspiration flooding from the places themselves but filtered always through our own consciousness, and that allowed me to be a vehicle through which the image bloomed.
Besides Paterson, do you find that New Jersey overall is a good place to spark your creativity?
I think anywhere an artist can be, if they are open enough, to their surroundings, are a vessel waiting to be filled, can find inspiration surrounding, enveloping them. New Jersey has many beautiful areas and interesting varieties of towns that one of my ex’s from California found amazing. She had only thought of NJ as big boring highways and vast corporate multi-plexes. But we all know there is a secret place in the wood.
Do you have other showings in the future?
I am open to continuing this show at other venues, other museums, if there are opportunities to do so. I am also yearning to get back to portraiture, which is my main thrust in Art.
Do yourself a favor and visit the Paterson Museum before October 6th so you can see Paterson and Lowell made beautiful. Check out the rest of the museum, too, and get a glimpse of all the industry in Paterson’s rich history.
The Paterson Museum is located in the Thomas Rogers Building at 2 Market Street in Paterson.
Hours of Operation: Tuesday-Friday 10:00AM-4:00PM, Saturday and Sunday 12:30PM-4:30PM. Closed on Mondays and Holidays.
Admission: Adults $2.00 Children are free.
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