Pimen Sofronov, tradition and innovation, with Dr. Roy Robson

We began with lunch service, typically tasty! 

Joe Teti was absent dealing with an illness, so he asked Shan Holt to Emcee the occasion on behalf of her invited guest, Dr. Roy Robson.  She called the meeting to order at 12:20.

Pimen Sofronov’s signature, as it changed through his career.

Our Treasurer, George, reported $1397.41 in hand before today’s lunch.  His report was approved by voice vote.  He reminded Symposium members to pay up with next year’s dues.

We were also happy to welcome Dan Aubrey and Mike Smoliga new members of the group.  Dan has spoken to us twice recently, and it is nice to have him as a member.

As we were finishing lunch, Shan introduced Roy, with thanks to Rob again for setting up the audio and video service.  Roy is Shan’s colleague at Penn State Abington and a specialist in Russian history and especially interested in Russian orthodoxy.  He came to speak about iconographer Pimen Sofronov, whose work is to be seen decorating St. Vladimir’s on South Broad Street.

The talk was titled:  Pimen Sofronov:  Eastern Christian Art and Identity in Trenton.  Robson is interested in hybrid identity development for Sofronov both as an ancient and a modern artist and as an immigrant in Trenton.

Sofronov was trained at the absolute pinnacle of ancient iconographic tradition as an apprentice to Gavriil Frolov.  Born in 1898 to an Old Believer family, Sofronov was schooled the ancient Orthodox traditions, including a love of icons.  His teacher showed him the technique of using prorisi – paper patterns with pinholes through which the artist could apply colors, reproducing ancient images precisely each time.  The point of the art form was to freeze the image as it had earlier been rendered; the artist was not to add or change anything and indeed iconographers avoided drawing attention to themselves by signing their work, as indeed there was nothing individual about it.

Sofronov’s early work, Madonna and child

Caught up in the Russian Revolution and forced to flee, Sofronov traveled Europe between the 1910s and the 1940s, becoming the quintessential practitioner of the art of “great old Russia” while simultaneously soaking in the diversity of religious art across Europe. Exiled White Russian aristocrats patronized him generously while he executed works for church and political leaders in Paris, Prague, Belgrade, and Rome.  He was still using the ancient technique for his paintings, but in the 1930s in Belgium, he showed some impact of Western European religious art by decorating a shawl around the Virgin Mary with a prayer rendered in ancient Church Slavonic.  Elements of his paintings also soften in these year, especially showing more humanized figures, an influence perahps from his time among Serbian artists.

In 1939, Sofronov went to Rome at the urging of Pope Pius XI and his successor, Pope Pius XII.  His commission was to paint icons for an exhibit about “real Russians.” Again revealing Western influences, Sofronov combined Western and Eastern imagery in this Roman work, specifically by including Roman Catholic prayers rendered in Eastern Orthodox lettering.  Though Pius XII is notorious for turning a blind eye to Nazi atrocities against European Jews, he did choose to shelter Sofronov from Mussolini through the Second World War.  While under papal protection, Sofronov reached the pinnacle of his stature as the representative of ancient Orthodoxy.  Thus securely positioned, he began to experiment artistically, even making a sharply Europeanized self-portrait. 

In 1945, he left Europe to settle for a time at the Holy Trinity monastery in Jordanville, NY.  He was invited, and eager, to introduce Eastern iconography to Orthodox communities in the United States, where religious art had long been only Roman.  His greatest commission in this period was to decorate Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox church in Syracuse, NY.  Here he executed a striking image by including St. Veronica with her veil imprinted with the sweating face of Jesus as he carried his cross.  St. Veronica and her veil do not exist in Orthodox tradition, only in Roman Christianity, but Sofronov from this painting forward adds her to every Orthodox church he painted.  Robson surmises that he might have been purposefully bringing some ecumenical spirit to the churches, or he might have been making a visual joke…challenging priests and the faithful to actually see what was before them.

His next great work in the United States was St. Vladimir’s in Trenton.  There was a concentration of Orthodox immigrant communities in the neighborhood of S. Broad Street, sufficient to support a number of separate churches within blocks of each other.  Decorating St. Vladimir’s took Sofronov 4 years of painting night and day.  He adopted a special diet designed to sustain him through this rigorous practice.  He solved some architectural problems with wit and insight in his mural on the dome, locating the electrical anchor for the necessary chandelier on a book held by Christ at the top center of the painting, so that the chandelier actually represented the Light of Christ emerging from the Word. 

As further evidence of Sofronov’s own cosmopolitanism, he provided figures of St. Olga and St. Vladimir, though partisans of each saint competed for the honor of having founded Russian Orthodoxy.  His painting seemed to elide these conflicts, inviting immigrant worshipers from Ukraine and Russia to bury their differences.  As another gesture toward shared cultural traditions, he featured St. Cyril and St. Methodius, jointly credited with originating Cyrillic writing.  Finally, he mixes English and Church Slavonic in legible prayers, including the Roman form of the Lord’s Prayer.  Robson argued that by this point in his life, Sofronov was mixing his identity from elements of Orthodox, European, and American experiences, as did many of his immigrant contemporaries in the 1950s.

Sofronov’s last big commission was the tomb of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, but the detail that marked his earlier work blurs noticeably, suggesting both his waning strength and his failing eyesight.  While formally retired in Millville, NJ, Sofronov continued to paint, including one striking icon executed (like a painting of Elvis) on red velvet. He died in Feb 1973, and was buried in Millville.

Robson finished the talk by showing us a triptych of Sofronov’s signatures, tracking his evolution from fidelity to ancient Orthodox icon principles to the hybrid artist he revealed in his New Jersey works.

He also noted the fate of the work Sofronov left at his death.  It was stored rather carelessly in Millville for decades and then nearly discarded when it was rediscovered and in very poor condition.  Ultimately, many of his books were auctioned by Sotheby’s and most of the art went to Ohio State University to be preserved and exhibited.  Ohio State offers a webpage devoted to their first exhibit of Sofronov’s oeuvre, called From Pattern to Painting at https://library.osu.edu/exhibits/from-pattern-to-painting-the-religious-iconography-of-pimen-sofronov.

Questions included whether Sofronov continued to use the prorisi methods he had learned as an apprentice.  Robson indicated that he might have into the 1940s, because his library included a few hundred examples of prorisi, including ones he marked as from his own master.

Carol pointed out that the other churches around St. Vladimirs are also stunning inside.

Mike suggested possible layers to why Sofronov might have chosen St. Veronica as his “signet.” First, her absence from Orthodox tradition absolutely required that he invent something of his own.  Secondly, the Biblical story of St. Veronica concerns her making an image, and indeed the name “Veronica” means “true image” in Greek.

In answer to Stephen’s question, Robson indicated that Sofronov’s reputation had been eclipsed in the Soviet Union, but since the revival of the Russian church, interest in him in his native Estonia has begun to filter back into Russian circles.  Some guardians of Orthodox tradition feel that Sofronov strayed too far and sold out the tradition, and others scorn him for the entrepreneurial tone of his artistic life.  He remains beloved in Italian circles, though.

Dan mentioned that Princeton Theological Seminary invites iconographers to visit, and brings them to St. Vladimirs in Trenton to show them Sofronov’s work.  They are a generation removed from the ancient traditions, and the first working in America who were not trained either by Sofronov himself or by one of his students.  St. Vladimirs is, apparently, very welcoming of these visits and proud of the paintings on their walls.

Currently, Robson is exploring an exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum, since the Wyeths, like Sofronov, worked frequently in egg tempera.  The sulfur-smelling and complex egg tempera method did not remain popular once longer-lasting and clean-able acrylics became available, but Robson personally finds the acrylics less luminous than the old methods.

The symposium adjourned at 1:20, with thanks all around.

We will meet again on Monday, Nov 25.

Respectfully submitted,

Shan Holt, Secretary

Orchid House, Hanover Street, with founder Elijah Dixon

Oct 23, 2017

Guest:  Elijah Dixon, The Orchid House and the Orchid Group

Joe Teti called the meeting to order at 12:10.

Joe asked for a treasurer’s report, and George reported that we had $1190.49 in the bank.  Joe reminded everyone that annual dues are payable now.  The report was accepted by voice vote.

After lunch, Joe called upon Shan Holt to introduce our speaker Elijah Dixon.  Elijah and Shan are acquainted through their mutual presence at the Trenton Monthly Meeting of Friends.

Elijah ran through the story of how the Orchid House project came to be.  The Orchid Group, named for the Ghost Orchid, is a group of Trenton artists fabricators and craftspeople who all want to use their skills within efforts to improve life and the future for Trenton.

  They are doing what they can to bring back the E. Hanover St. neighborhood, which used to house a stable professional population in now-empty apartments and homes.  Their headquarters is the new Orchid House, which opened this fall at 134 East Hanover St.

Elijah himself was born and raised in Trenton, in a family of educators and entrepreneurs.  His parents now live in Georgia but he came back to Trenton after college to work for Isles.  Over his 2.5 years with Isles, he moved from part-time to full-time employment and worked as a liaison connecting community organizers with organizations and with city government.  He learned in that practice that Trenton needed more commerce and commercial activity to sustain a revival.  He remembered the neighborhood as a place to find small businesses, like a tuxedo shop and a camera shop, and exploring the empty buildings, he found many old architectural plans from the 1940s that testified to the willingness of local residents to invest in their historic properties.

At the same time, Elijah and his colleagues began to feel that some bottom-up commercial development was important, rather than waiting for top-down development that frequently came in at the expense of the neighborhoods historic fabric.  Top-down developers frequently saw the city’s historic architecture as a liability rather than as an asset.  The Orchid Group, a very diverse group of people of different ages, multiple racial identities, who share a social mission, intends to keep skill-development and bottom-up rebuilding as its focus, so that local residents in the neighborhood they represent will maintain ownership of their place and its future in the city.

Saving and rebuilding Orchid House itself is a saga of time, money, skill and raw courage.  Concerned that the neighborhood was so tightly packed with people facing poverty and despair, the group talked about living out a new path for several years before deciding just to plunge in and act.  Just before they closed on the purchase of the building, which was in rough shape but with assets intact, the site was vandalized.  Pipes, radiators, and appliances were stolen, walls broken through and defaced, and about $50,000 of the buildings already depressed value taken out in one night.  The sellers, a private investment bank, refused the group’s request to lower the price, and so in the end, rather than lose their deposit, they bought the building on a Federally-insured rehabilitation mortgage, but for its pre-vandalized price.

The upside of this ordeal is that group members learned many new skills bringing the building back.  The worst moment was the murder of Mr. James Wells in 2015, after he had spent a day working inside the building.  Wells was known around the neighborhood as a fierce opponent of drugs and an equally fierce advocate for local young people and the city, and also attended the Trenton Monthly Meeting of Friends.  His murder by thugs right on Hanover St. was a setback emotionally and practically, for the whole area.   But the group rallied to its mission. 

In the years since, they redid the floors, salvaged a conference table from the YWCA next door that was closing, salvaged wood and metal and used it to create a uniquely rustic, cozy, and creative interior space.  Out back and in areas nearby, they maintain community gardens from which members and local residents can get fresh produce. 

They work hard to be visible, to discourage the drug dealers who otherwise control the tightly-packed neighborhood, and to inspire other people to see the value of getting an education and gaining a skill.  They offer advice and guidance to others who come by, wanting to do similar projects themselves.  The Orchid Group wants  to inspire people in the neighborhood to take up their own gifts and develop a vision for themselves and the city.

Today, 134 E. Hanover is an art and craft gallery and a social hub for the neighborhood.  They showcase hand-made furniture, hand-crafted soaps, and other items for sale, which helps to support the organization’s work and its members.  They also partner with the high school across the street, one of the five temporary locations for Trenton Central kids during the building of the new high school.  They do workshops with the STEM and hospitality program, and offer the teens network access inside the Orchid House.  They recently hired a new gardener, which offers the kids and adults in the area more chances to get involved.

In response to questions about city permits, Elijah admitted ruefully that city inspectors gave them close going over several times, and they more or less learned by trial and error what the regulations are.  They also struggled to stay within the historic preservation codes with their small budget and innovative ideas.  He expressed very great gratitude to Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson for her help and support.

Elijah and his brother both live in apartments above the store, and they try to spend time on the street, creating a friendly and safe presence there.  Police have increased their presence in the neighborhood as other big development projects have begun nearby, but the Orchid Group group is happier with local residents taking charge of their streets, and they mean Orchid House to help with that work.

The meeting adjourned at 1:20, with the announcement that we will meet again on Monday, November 27.

Respectfully submitted,

Shan Holt, Secretary

Trenton Downtown Association, with new director, Tom Gilmour

Trenton Symposium, Nov 27, 2017

Freddie’s Tavern, Railroad Ave., Ewing

Guest:  Tom Gilmour, Director, Trenton Downtown Association

Joe Teti called the meeting to order at 12:45, after the usual fine lunch.  We had 22 people in attendance, including new member Stephen Fitzpatrick.  Stephen noted that he was glad to be among us, had lived 37 years in New Jersey, and loved the Scottish connection to be Trent and Mercer.  He works at UIH Family Partners, an organization that helps fathers rebuilt their lives so that they can be positive presences in their children’s lives and communities.

We also welcomed Liz Ewell, Director of the Salvation Army.  She has lived 40 years in Trenton, after a stint in the service.  She is particularly interested in Trenton’s historical resources.

Joe asked for a treasurer’s report, and George reported that we had $1415 in the bank.  Joe reminded everyone that annual dues are payable now.  The report was accepted by voice vote.  One member suggested that the Symposium consider donating some of its funds to the Rescue Mission, or Orchid House, or to a Trenton historical nonprofit.  That will need to be discussed at a later meeting, but there was a general murmur of approval for the idea.

Joe called upon Shan Holt to introduce speaker Tom Gilmour.  He applauded the Symposium’s focus on Trenton’s needs and the people who are meeting them, and indicated that he was well acquainted, even in a short time, with some of our speakers, including Elijah Dixon at Orchid House.

Gilmour came to Trenton Downtown Association (TDA) from Asbury Park.  He had a great run there, helping to put that community back on its feet culturally and economically.  He sees parallels, the most important being that he hit Asbury Park at what was “its time,” and he thinks that Trenton’s time is also now.  TDA wants to help re-position Trenton for sizable growth and is happy that there is momentum to build on.  The Roebling Lofts development, now 60% leased, is encouraging people to move back to Trenton, using the new transportation resource of the RiverLine and expects to continue developing additional Roebling properties once the Lofts are fully leased this spring.

TDA’s mission as a special services district is business recruitment and retention.  One key piece of that puzzle in settling people in Trenton to patronize local businesses, which is why he is so pleased with the Roebling Lofts project.  Safety is a big part of attracting people back, and Tom is confident that, with basic urban smarts, people can be safe in this city.  Eight new businesses have opened up downtown this year, including Maestro technologies in the old Wells Fargo building.  They currently have 140 people on staff and expect to hire another 70 in 2018.  They only use 30% of the building, so there is room for more comparable companies to come in.

He’s excited about the new Starbucks on Warren Str, not just because of its retail operation but because it is a regional training center for the company.  It also offers community meeting space, so it looks to be a multi-dimensional positive for downtown.  All Starbucks regional staff will begin by experiencing Trenton, and then fan out to outlets around the region.   They are also willing to create internships in entrepreneurship for local residents, continuing to build the small business base for the city.

He sees other powerful resources already in place.

Art is first (he built a lot of the Asbury Park work on its great music traditions).  Artworks, Art All Night, Art All Day all bring visitors to Trenton and support artists and studios in city neighborhoods.  AAD has grown from 22 to 38 sites this year.

                  Trenton is so cheap to live in that hundreds of artists can settle here.  TDA has the bank building and is looking to convert it to studio space and a Trenton-centric art gallery.

TDA also does façade improvements, and with a grant from TDA, Orchid House hired signage from a local artist, a three-level win.  He also sees impact from the Levitt-Amp concerts in Mill Hill Park, which mobilize Trentonians to vote for their city in the competition each winter, and then brings people in to experience the city again during the summer.  (ED update:  Trenton won the concert series again for 2018, so that will continue to build)

Historic heritage resources are another aspect of Trenton’s strength. 

Gilmour is impressed by how hard Boston works its resources … why can’t Trenton do as much with its own?  He thinks that Trenton actually has better Revolutionary History than Boston and cited Patriots Week and its many facets as the sound foundation.  He wants to create a marketing plan to follow up the PW events and strengthen year-round promotion of Trenton’s history.  He sees possibilities of partnership with, for instance, the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

Parking revenue is an untapped resource for cultural development in Trenton.  In Asbury Park, he was able to secure a bond issue to install a new system that boosted revenue by $4.9 million.  Not through ticketing, but just by metering parking effectively.

Gilmour sees the safety issue as a media problem, and again was familiar with the same problem in Asbury Park.  He recounted how his mother called him every day after he began working there, to make sure that he was safe.  Media have a taste for the negative.  His plan is just to keep making positive things happen, knowing the media will eventually pay attention.

He has also won a special projects grant from the Princeton Area Community Foundation to create an unarmed foot patrol force for the downtown area.  The goal is to beef up official presence, and keep steady eyes on what needs maintenance, investment or law enforcement involvement.

Gilmour is also excited about the group Greater Trenton, which is offering tech help to developers and to City Hall to attract large businesses to the city.  George Sowa (a recent Symposium speaker), has made a bid to Amazon noting 5 areas within the city that the city owns and could be turned over for their HQ.  Trenton has powerful location and transportation advantages, and the Greater Trenton proposal showcases what could be done here.  The proposal can also be shared with other large concerns that might be attracted here.

Gilmour has made efforts to increase TDA’s political clout at the state level.  By conferring with both gubernatorial candidates, TDA won the ear of Gov-elect Phil Murphy.  Gilmour’s plan is to engage the state in reanimating the War Memorial.  It used to have almost constant bookings, which supported the hotel and downtown eateries.  That stopped under Christie, but can be re-started.  Gilmour is also imagining a production company with its base at the War Memorial, so that film work could be brought to and coordinated within Trenton.

Gilmour is very optimistic.  He likes Trenton people and finds it easy to get connected here.  That open, welcoming attitude, he says, is the best thing a city can have going for it in undertaking revitalization.

Several folks had questions and suggestions, including Lolly O’Brien who asked about encouraging our restaurant scene through somethink like Top Chef or Restaurant Week.  Gilmour mentioned Tastes of Trenton, which has been successful in the Burg and is now reaching downtown. 

There was also a question about the future of the hotel.  Gilmour indicated that the situation was complicated by family ownership and an estate wrangle within the family.  He thinks that city and state incentives can make a resale attractive, and that revitalizing the calendar at the War Memorial will make the hotel a paying proposition once again.  Jane affirmed that, back in the day, the War Memorial attracted big name acts that brought thousands of people downtown.  She likened it to the Count Basie theatre in Red Bank, NJ.

George brought up the problem of voter apathy in Trenton, noting only 25% turnout in recent election.  Gilmour responded that they are trying to make voter registration one of the things offered at the Levitt-Amp concerts in the summer.

Steve also mentioned Detroits’ Slow Roll, a bicycle tour effort that brought people back downtown and slowly gained momentum.

The meeting adjourned at 1:30, with the announcement that we will meet again on Monday, January 22.

Respectfully submitted,

Shan Holt, Secretary

Washington’s Crossing with Trenton Ferries, June 3, 2019, with David Price

We began with lunch, and Joe Teti called us to order at 12:30.  George, our Treasurer, reported a balance of $1604.91.  Acceptance of the treasurer’s report was moved, seconded, and voted affirmatively.

Carol Rogers kindly reported on the May meeting, as I was not able to attend.  Thanks,  Carol, for stepping in!

David Price joined us again to follow up his presentation in 2018 about unsung Continental heroes during the “Ten Crucial Days” of 1776-77.  His presentation today examined the “rest of the story,” the other resources that made the crossing and the successful engagement at Trenton possible for Washington and his army. 

He began with comments on The Crossing as rendered by artists, citing Paul Staiti’s 2016 book Of Arms and Artists.  Staiti argues that the paintings and prints of the Revolution, including the Crossing, were a key medium for educating a public of high but not universal literacy.  Of course, they also added mythic drama to national memory.  Major painters of scenes and portraits of the Revolutionary era include

Charles Wilson Peale’s portrait of George Washington
John Singleton Copley, portrait of Paul Revere
Benjamin West, Benjamin Franklin catching the lightning
Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Jefferson

Mythmakers especially sought to create George Washington as a national icon. Peale’s painting of Washington at the Battle of Princeton , showing the victorious Commander as cool, composed, and approachable, was used to recruit new troops and inspire civilians to resist British gold and sell their foodstuffs, horses, and cloth to the Continental Army.  Peale’s portrait was a composite evocation of Washington’s generalship at Princeton, showing events that did occur simultaneously, the aftermath with prisoners, and all of it framed by the rising sun behind him.

Price invited us to compare Peale’s Washington (right) with Allan Ramsey’s portrait of George III.(below)  Price suggested that Peale was in some degree “quoting” Ramsay, but to show the greater manliness of Washington along with his republican modesty.

John Trumbull, Signers of the Declaration of Independence

Similarly, but later, Price argued, the famous painting of the Crossing itself, done in 1851 by Emanuel Leutze, was designed to persuade liberal German reformers that they could win their own battles against entrenched power, that “untrained people” could prevail.

Lloyd Garrison’s version of the crossing, shown below, is actually a great deal more historically accurate, showing the artillery and horses crossing the river on a ferry moved by visible cables, and this version points to “the rest of the story.”  Building on Frank Dale’s book, “Delaware Diary: Episodes in the Life of a River,  Price let us know that the Delaware

hosted several ferries in 1776.  These were specially built to accommodate the rivers fast current.  They were moored to the opposite banks so that the ferry itself travelled across at an angle, mobilizing the force of the current to push the ferry barge across.

A 1777 sketch of the Bristol Ferry by Charles Willson Peale (below) illustrates the cable system more clearly than Garrison’s painting. 

Price emphasized that, without the ferries, Washington’s army would have had to make the march to and attack on Trenton without horses or artillery.  Lacking those resources, and the ability to carry all that to Princeton too, the “Ten Crucial Days” might have ended very differently.

Editor’s Note:  Symposium members’ attention is directed to the Riverwalk near the Riverview cemetery.  Signs posted along the walk offer additional history about Trenton’s ferries and the work they did to help the city to prosperity.  Renewing the scarred Plexiglas to make the excellent history more readable might be a worthwhile philanthropic target for the symposium.

Discussion with Mr. Price included the overall duration of the Crossing (12 hours) and an extended discussion of 18th century ferry mechanics, which I have not reproduced.  Perhaps interested parties could have a look at Frank Dale’s book noted above.

We adjourned at 1:22 pm. 

We will meet next on Sept 23, at Blooming Grove Inn.

Respectfully submitted,

Shan Holt, secretary