Trenton’s artist community disillusioned with politics, but committed to social change

By Cristina Kim | Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting

An art gallery may not seem like the most likely place to find a conversation about local politics on a Friday night. But on October 13th, more than a dozen people gathered at  Artworks, a visual arts center in downtown Trenton, New Jersey, to share a meal and discuss the state’s gubernatorial race.   

Lauren Otis, director of Artwork’s, gathered the multigenerational group as part Voting Block, a statewide reporting collaboration aimed at sparking civic dialogue around the November election. Neighbors across the state have contributed their insights to Voting Block’s coverage by hosting Political Potlucks in their communities.

Artworks’ event added a special element to the Political Potluck model, commissioning three artists – Marthalicia Matarrita, Jon “Lank” Conner, and Phillip McConnell – to document the conversation by creating three original art works based on the themes and issues raised by the potluck participants.  

The evening started with a roundtable of introductions. Although most of those in attendance were Artworks volunteers and artists that already knew one another, there were also some new faces, such as Passage Theatre’s new Artistic Director, C. Ryanne Domingues, who came to learn more about Trenton.

Most of the participants were not following the gubernatorial candidates.Tamara Torres, an artist and activist, said she felt apathetic because politicians never seem to address the needs of the youth. “This generation of 8th and 9th graders feel forgotten,” said Torres.

Others at the table echoed Torres’ sentiments of being forgotten. Despite being the state capital, most of the potluck participants felt that Trenton is ignored by politicians regardless of their political affiliation.

The participants felt this lack of political attention left some of the city’s major issues, such as gun violence, the opioid crisis and Trenton’s need for smart development, unaddressed.  

Sam Kanig, a local musician, expressed frustration over what he sees as the vilification of Trenton as the source of all drugs when neighboring towns also play a role. Kanig  noted that the opioid drug trade was not just a Trenton issue, and that it should be treated as a regional problem.The need to improve Trenton’s schools was one of the most heated issues of the night.

“What we want for our best students, we should do for all our students,” said Raymond Broach, Trenton’s former interim-superintendent.

Broach was quick to add that politicians can’t be expected to resolve all issues. “Don’t come with the problems, come with the solutions so that they come from you and your community,” he said.  

While most of the potluck guests nodded in approval at Broach’s remarks,Torres questioned putting the burden of improving education on the community. “We are all going to burn out,” Torres said.

Zarinah Shakir, a TV producer who had only recently moved back to Trenton, warned against framing educational reform as a panacea for all social ills. She argued that real change can only happen if residents put equal focus on what she termed the “three Es”: engagement, economics, and education.

“I’m tired of hearing about education … people have taken it into a different realm, which is not really beneficial for the students,” Shakir said.

As the evening wound down, the conversation concluded with participants sharing their hopes for Trenton and the need to celebrate the good work being done by local community members. The documenting artists also revealed their interpretive art pieces to the potluck attendees.

Marthalicia Matarrita’s canvas depicted two politicians dividing the state of New Jersey amongst themselves while Phillip McConnell, a glitch artist, produced a digital piece using distorted images of different spaces of power, such as the court house, church and university. Jon “Lank” Conner’s piece, an image of Chris Christie floating away on his lawn chair, captured the evening’s most celebrated and assured result of the November 7th election: the end of Chris Christie’s governorship.  

Marthalicia Matarrita poses with the painting she created during Artworks’ Political Potluck.

Marthalicia Matarrita poses with the painting she created during Artworks’ Political Potluck.

The final version of Phillip McConnell’s digital art created in response to the conversation at Artworks.

The final version of Phillip McConnell’s digital art created in response to the conversation at Artworks.

Jon “Lank” Conner painted a creative interpretation of Chris Christie in the infamous beach photo by NJ Advance media.

Jon “Lank” Conner painted a creative interpretation of Chris Christie in the infamous beach photo by NJ Advance media.

At the end of night, despite admissions of disillusionment with the political system, most members of the group were resolved to vote and immerse themselves more fully into the community.

“I am not inspired to vote, but I am determined,” said artist Khalilah Sabree.

 

Cristina Kim is the engagement and collaborations manager at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

 

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This story is part of the Voting Block series and was produced in collaboration with The Record, NJ Spotlight, WHYY, WNYC, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Cooperative Media and New America Media. To read all the stories in this series, visit VotingBlockNJ.com.