“Mike approached us and said, ‘I have a wall. Do anything you want on that wall.’”
Doug DePice, art teacher at the High School and Middle School, is talking about how he got started on a project painting a mural at the entrance to Secaucus, where Route 3 feeds into Paterson Plank Road. “Mike” is Mayor Michael Gonnelli.
“So we got together and we were planning what we want to do on the wall and we came up with faces. We wanted to do world-famous faces. We laid out on her table about 40, 50, 60 faces of significant people in the world: Charles Lindbergh, Rachel Carson, Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Afghan girl.”
“We were first thinking face, face, face, face, face,” said his collaborator on the project, elementary school art teacher Melissa Dargan Heintjes. “Big face, small face, almost like a collage, a montage.”
But the idea evolved since they realized the mural would be seen from a distance by people in moving cars. “We don’t want to flood it with images,” said DePice. “If we’ve got 12 or 15 images, they’re not going to see anything.”
With that in mind, they whittled the number down to six iconic portraits, including copies of art masterpieces from Van Gogh, Matisse, and Vermeer. Although they may add more on a moment’s notice.
“This is an open project,” said DePice. “And there are other surfaces in town that we’re going to hit.”
For anyone familiar with DePice’s work, it will come as no surprise to find powerful images like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” of a poor dust-bowl worker during the depression, and Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl,” a 12-year-old refugee in Pakistani, among his choice of faces in the mural. His last major project was an installation at the Secaucus Library depicting Anne Frank in metaphorical multimedia images.
“Where we’re going with this is to raise a little awareness,” DePice explained. “For people to think about the human condition. Somebody asked why we have more women than men. We want more women than men to signify the plight of women in the world today, particularly considering what happened in the last year. The shooting of Malala [Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani student], the abduction of the 300 girls in Nigeria. I hope to invite dialogue, to raise awareness.”
“We want to bring something else to the canvas,” added Dargan Heintjes. “It has to mean something. It’s not just about pretty flowers. It maybe sounds crazy but we want to change the way people think. That’s what Doug gave to me as a teacher.”
“Self-expression is self-improvement.” --Doug DePice
Dargan Heintjes went on to the Rhode Island School of Design and grad school, then taught art in North Bergen for eight years before landing a position in Secaucus two years ago, as the art teacher at Clarendon School.
“She goes from grades one to six,” said DePice. “I’m in the Middle School and High School.”
“It’s just so exciting because we’re building the art program from the bottom up,” said Dargan Heintjes. “We think it’s the most important subject. We say it connects everywhere: math, science.”
“Like Da Vinci had that idea that ‘painting is a science that makes poetry visible,’” said DePice. “That’s what we’re doing.”
“Neither of us is trying to get rich off of this,” said Dargan Heintjes about the mural project. “We’re both doing it for the same reasons: education, cultural, community awareness.”
And they work together instinctively. “We jigsaw each other,” she explained. “He’s my teacher. He still is my teacher.”
The people make the town
The current project initially came about as a byproduct of an earlier mural. Gonnelli had asked the pair to paint a fence by the town pool. They created a cloudscape and then at Gonnelli’s suggestion added balloons, some of which were filled with famous artworks.
Feeling inspired and eager to do more, they asked what was next. Gonnelli came up with the wall.
“It’s going to be a beautiful entrance into the town,” said DePice. “Mike wants to have an opening event here with tents and everything.”
Although the property is actually owned by the Turnpike Authority, the two artists would like to see the land acquired by Secaucus and turned into an art park.
“We want to have a sculpture garden here,” said Dargan Heintjes. “It was Doug’s idea. Imagine driving down Route 3 and you see this beautiful sculpture garden.”
“There’s something so special about Secaucus,” she continued. “Mike’s a great mayor because he lets the people kind of make the town. He just cultivates what’s special about it in my opinion.”
That includes giving the two artists carte blanche to put whatever they want on the wall. “Jersey City’s doing a great mural project but the red tape you’ve got to step through to do it,” said Dargan Heintjes. “Five sketches? I do ten paintings in the time it takes to do five sketches.”
“They totally kill it with their specifications and their regulations,” DePice agreed. “We’ve got an oasis here.”
“And we have the kids here who want to do it,” Dargan Heintjes said. “People are stopping by, popping their heads over the wall, and it’s starting to be contagious. Our schools are getting covered with art. My principal says to do as much as you want. Let the kids do it, let the kids paint on the wall. We have art all over the schools.”
Indeed, the hallways of the schools are covered in colorful murals painted by students. “The kids are loving it. They have their own ideas. And I think that kids, even if they’re not going to be an artist, a photographer, or a designer, having that part of themselves makes them a better person. It makes you more sensitive.”
“Self-expression is self-improvement,” DePice concluded.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.