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Art Exhibit Marks New Focus for County Historical Society

Feb. 12, 2001

By Hoag Levins

CAMDEN, N.J. -- Reaching out to embrace a community it had long overlooked, the Camden County Historical Society yesterday drew a capacity crowd to its first annual "African American Experience" art show and reception. The event was part of a celebration of Black History Month.

Staged in a section of the Society's sprawling
Art item 1
'Hair,' by Marcus Gould of Vineland, became the unofficial icon of the show.
Pomona Hall library and museum complex on the city's eastern edge, the exhibit showcased works of 14 regional artists executed in a variety of mediums including oils, arcylics, air brush, lithography, photography and fabric.

Also featured as part of the afternoon's activity, was a presentation on the history of the county's civil rights movement by West Deptford Public Library director Marie M. Downes.

Turnout 'amazing'
"It's amazing how many showed up," said acting Society director John Seitter, who was one of a standing-room-only crowd in the rear of the area where Downes spoke.
Art item 2
'Midday Tea,' by Victor Keto of Voorhees, left, and 'Afroessence' by Joe Speight, right.

Seitter's surprise was a typical reaction. In the second-floor gallery room, where visitors jostled each other shoulder-to-shoulder at times, artist Joe L. Speight of Marlton also shook his head. "Until a few weeks ago, I had never even heard of the Camden County Historical Society. But suddenly, here I am with all these people shaking my hand and wanting to talk about my work. The organizers have done a great job. It makes me ask myself, 'How could I have lived around here so long and never known about this place?'"

The African American Experience exhibit, which is open to the public all month, is the centerpiece of the Society's Black History Month celebration as well as an indication of the organization's new focus, according to Seitter.

Art item 3
'Transformation,' by Joe Speight of Marlton.
Isolated and out of contact
"The sad fact is that the Camden County Historical Society has long been isolated and out of contact with the people it should be serving," said Seitter, who took over as acting director of the 101-year-old institution in October.

"This was not deliberate. It was just the way things were done in the past," he explained. "Local historical societies traditionally tend to function as closed social clubs for the small circle of people who created them."

"The bottom line is this facility is a treasure that has been hidden away for decades -- now we intend to share it," he said. "We want people here. We want them to tell us how we can make the place more relevant to their daily lives and interests. That's what our new programs -- like this art show reception today -- are all about. The Camden County Historical Society is for everyone."
Art item 4
'Reading,' by Joel Zickler of Lenola.

The month-long exhibit of African American art was the idea of teacher, artist and Camden resident James E. Brooks, Jr., who served as guest curator of the show with Society staff member Denise Fox.

"I used to pass Pomona Hall all the time when I was growing up," said Brooks, who recently retired from the school system in Greenwich, Conn., and now works as a subsitute teacher in the Camden school system. "When I came back home to Camden I wanted to do something for the community and I also wanted to pursue my art. So an art show for Black History Month just seemed natural, but I didn't know where to do it. Meanwhile, my mother brought me to visit the Historical Society museum here. I got talking to the director and mentioned my idea and it all came together into what we're doing here today."

Art item 5
'A Day in the Park,' by Jacklyn Chambers, historian of the Gloucester County Art League.
Mansion and museum
"I am amazed by how beautiful this building is -- I had no idea there was a furnished mansion and so many museum galleries here," said Joel Zickler, a graduate student at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and an exhibitor who lives in Lenola.

"I like the atmosphere," said Zickler, who is white. "You have black and white artists coming together to examine the overall African American experience. I think that's
Art item 6
'Child of God,' by Holly Ann Forrest.
important because art is not about race, but rather the essence of being human. The images collected here say something about how African American culture has influenced the identify of the country and everyone who lives in it. You feel a real sense of inclusion and common ground in this room today and that makes this a great show for me."

Bigger room next year
Nearby, black artist and Cherry Hill resident Eden Mansuy predicted that the Historical Society is going to need a bigger room for the show next year.

"I've been talking to the other artists and they seem really excited about how well it went today -- the selection, the way it was hung, the food and flowers and response of all the visitors," he said. "It was personally very gratifying and it's going to generate a lot of word of mouth. More artists are going to want to get in on this next time around. As a matter of fact, I'm already thinking about what I'll submit next year."

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