Around Every Corner, a Glimpse of Artists at Work

By Christopher Hann
Published: September 30, 2007

In the Region
Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut and New Jersey

LAST fall, when Colette Sexton was pondering the next move in her painting career, she sought the advice of a fellow Lambertville artist, Gordon Haas. Mr. Haas had opened his own gallery on Bridge Street in 1993, and he encouraged Ms. Sexton to follow suit. But the idea gave her pause.

“Do you really want me across the street from you?” she asked Mr. Haas.

“Absolutely,” he replied. “The more, the merrier.”

Their exchange helps explain how Lambertville, population 3,808, on the bank of the Delaware River in Hunterdon County, has evolved from a shot-and-a-beer town to a place so infused with art that it now competes for collectors who have long flocked across the river to New Hope, Pa. Over the past 25 years, the once-sleepy outpost — with its narrow streets, brick row houses and laid-back vibe — has blossomed into a trendy destination with fine restaurants and Victorian bed-and-breakfasts. On fall weekends, it’s crowded with visitors from New York, Philadelphia and every place in between.

“There’s money here now,” Ms. Sexton said. “It’s become more of a shopping destination.”

There may be no other town in New Jersey that offers as much art in so dense a setting. The bulk of the galleries can be found on four contiguous streets: Lambert Lane, Bridge Street (the main thoroughfare), North Union Street and Church Street. A handful of galleries have been around for decades, like the venerable Pedersen Gallery on North Union Street, specializing in New Jersey artists, but there’s plenty of new blood in town as well.

On Lambert Lane, at the foot of the 103-year-old truss bridge that leads to New Hope and Bucks County, in Pennsylvania, stands Jim’s of Lambertville. Jim Alterman runs one of the more ambitious galleries in town, dedicated to honoring the legacy of the early 20th-century landscape impressionists who secured New Hope’s place in American art history. The main wing of the 7,000-square-foot gallery contains dozens of paintings of scenes from both sides of the Delaware — snow-covered lanes, fieldstone barns, the Delaware and Raritan Canal — painted by members of the New Hope Art Colony.

Two years ago Mr. Alterman published “New Hope for American Art,” a 612-page, 11-pound paean to those artists. Two of the art colony’s most eminent members were Daniel Garber and Edward Redfield, whose works command six-figure prices in Mr. Alterman’s gallery.

Just around the corner, more art abounds on Bridge Street. Next month Robert Beck, 56, will present an exhibition of his new paintings in his second-floor studio-gallery inside the Victorian-era Masonic building. “Inside Lambertville,” which opens on Oct. 20, will include more than 40 paintings of local out-of-the-way places.

Across the street, Ms. Sexton displays her work in a light-filled space inside the Lambertville House, a hotel built in 1812 whose renovation a decade ago served as a milestone in the town’s rebirth. Although Ms. Sexton’s paintings of local scenes evoke the work of the New Hope Impressionists, she shuns that label.

“I just paint what I see,” Ms. Sexton, 36, said one recent Sunday afternoon in her gallery. “I focus on light and color and a location that’s interesting to me.” Often that place is right outside her window; some of Ms. Sexton’s works depict sidewalk scenes along Bridge Street.

Along North Union Street, a two-block stretch may contain more art per square foot than any other spot in town. Among the offerings is the 700-square-foot Pedersen Gallery, tucked inside a narrow brick building that dates to 1865.

When Roy Pedersen first opened his business in 1980, the gallery scene in town barely registered a pulse. Today, the 61-year-old dealer reigns as a champion of New Jersey art history. Engage Mr. Pedersen in a discussion about Garden State artists, and you better make time for a lengthy and enlightening history lesson.

At least four artists have opened their own studio-galleries in Lambertville in the past year, three of them on a single block of Church Street, where the painters Tom Birkner and Myles Cavanaugh and the sculptor Greg Marra set up shop. A year ago

Mr. Marra, 33, was running a local coffee shop with his father and making sculpture in the storefront window when time allowed. So many customers encouraged his work that he decided to open a 400-square-foot space where he also teaches sculpture.
Mr. Marra has a special passion for American history, having recently completed a bronze bust of William Lee, a slave known as Billy who served as George Washington’s valet and was freed by him in his will.

Mr. Cavanaugh, also 33, grew up in Lambertville well versed in the New Hope Impressionists, whose work influences his own.

“It’s a real scene now,” Mr. Cavanaugh said of his hometown.

Mr. Birkner, 41, who grew up in Rahway, has lived in Lambertville on and off for 20 years. He moved to town most recently following a divorce, opening a high-ceilinged 500-square-foot space that he calls White Flag. On a recent day, paintings of industrial landscapes dominated, while in a smaller space in the rear, Mr. Birkner worked on a large painting of an amusement park water slide.

For many Lambertville artists, the appeal of working and exhibiting in the same space lies in the opportunity to interact with the public — to put themselves, as well as their artwork, on display. Mr. Haas, 45, described his Bridge Street gallery, the size of a generous closet, as “a one-person show, 365 days a year.”