A thing of beauty?

Local artist turns concrete factory into work of art

Largely unadvertised, the abandoned concrete plant in Secaucus has become a work of art.
Largely unadvertised, the abandoned concrete plant in Secaucus has become a work of art.

Dan O’Connor was walking along the Hackensack River in Secaucus one day when he noticed bits of litter. Although he’s an artist, originally he hadn’t thought he could use the litter to create a work of art. He just wanted to clean up the walkway.

“I was staying at Riverview Gardens and went out to walk,” he said. “I saw the litter and started to pick it up.”

O’Connor, 46, had only recently moved to Secaucus after living in places throughout New Jersey. Born in Rahway, O’Connor said he’d lived all over the state, including Paterson, Clifton, and Fairlawn. But this was his first time living in Hudson County.

He said he liked the views along the river and was particularly fascinated with the old abandoned concrete plant at the end of Paterson Plank Road.

Gradually, after many walks along that stretch of river, the idea of “fixing up” the area came to him.

A new creative phase

O’Connor’s career as an artist had been put on hold after an internet hacking wiped out several of his websites.

As a kid, O’Connor had started drawing the funnies in the newspaper with his mother. She then gave him a set of oils and let him have at it, creating nothing but “mud,” he said, during his first 100 tries.

He later became inspired watching a PBS broadcast about landscapes.

Some of the litter – plastic and metal wire – gave him ideas. He began to shape the junk into various forms, like pinwheels and very elaborate figures of birds. Most of those he posted along the wall that bordered the concrete factory from the walkway. But eventually, unable to resist the urge to decorate the abandoned factory itself, he hopped over the wall.

He gathered the junk he found there, and began more elaborate works.

“The wire figurines take the most time,” he said.

Art for the masses

As a professional artist, O’Connor went under the name Nad Ronnoco, and operated under a philosophy that “art is to be seen, enjoyed, shared, and like music, it should be affordable, and enjoyed without breaking the bank.”

O’Connor said he was initially drawn to strong abstract work when visiting shows or museums.

“As a painter, abstraction becomes pure pleasure,” he said during an interview earlier in his career. “It is like looking at the world with all the superfluity stripped away and all that’s left is the moving construction of things. That is always going to hold my attention. Even the best of subjects can become tiresome, but good abstraction is always going to be fresh.”

In some ways, the concrete factory fit his philosophy. Using portions of the wall, he began to shape a large display of artwork that anyone walking along the river could appreciate.

Some of the wire sculptures took a long time to create. “It took me eight weeks to make the two largest,” he said.

He limited his materials to those he found on site and could recycle into art.

“When I had a studio, I did paintings and sculpture,” he said. “Here, I was creating something from nothing, and it became a way for my creativity to come out.”

At one point, he asked permission to paint on the property. “I wanted to paint sayings and other things,” he said. “But when I saw the cost of paint, I decided to stick to recycling.”

Early on, local police did question what he was doing. “The police got a call about a stranger being in the area,” he said. “But over time, people got used to me, and I eventually got the green light from the property owner.”

The factory is a redevelopment site but has not yet moved into the next phase for demolition. So, it has become O’Connor’s art canvas.

A thing of love

“I use all the scrap I find inside or outside the factory,” he said.

Hauling the materials has given him his share of bumps and bruises. “But this is a thing of love,” he said.

The artwork changes with the wind and other environmental factors.

“When the wind blows, everything comes alive,” he said. “The pinwheels spin, and the chimes sound. There is a lot of movement. I’m trying to make this a backdrop that people will notice.”

Climbing up the towers to locate some of the materials has scared him from time to time.

“I thought they were solid, but when I climb on them, they start to sway,” he said. “But there’s a kind of rush climbing up there. And I get some great ideas – like making a smiley face.”

“As the whole thing shakes, I’m thinking, ‘I’m doing this all for a smiley face?’”

Some of the work includes arranging old tires among the rusted ruins.

He’s gotten positive comments from the community, including Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli.

“People seem to like what I’m doing there,” O’Connor said. “The place used to be dark and dank, now it isn’t.”

For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com