Though taking up less than 3 square miles in the heart of central New Jersey, the borough of Metuchen boasts a robust public art program. Among painted storefronts, sculptures both historic and contemporary, hanging banners, and artfully painted pianos and Adirondack chairs, a new mural is about to be unveiled.
On June 24, from 1-4 p.m., a Community Celebration for Peace will take place at Earthsongs Ceramic Studio, 242 Amboy Avenue, Metuchen. The peace mural unveiling will be part of a special benefit for Ukraine.
Glazed tiles for the peace mural. (Photo by Ilene Dube)
The mural was begun last year during Clay Days in Metuchen, under the leadership of ceramic artist and Earthsongs proprietor Linda Vonderschmidt-LaStella. “Clay artists came from New York and New Jersey for a full weekend,” she says. “Everyone was welcome, and it was free to attend.” Adults, children, and families created a total of 50 tiles.
While participating, the tile makers were asked to think about peace. V.-LaStella fired and glazed the tiles, created a center section with doves and sunflowers, and pieced it all together on a cement backboard. The mural will be installed as a pediment on the artist’s kiln shed, viewable from Amboy Avenue and open to the public. It is 25 inches high and 96 inches wide.
V.-La Stella and her husband, Nino Pasqual LaStella, open their charming gardens, replete with flowering plants, ceramic sculpture and a koi pond, to the public. “We located here for this reason,” says V.-LaStella. “The house and outbuilding, both nearly 100 years old, along with the gardens were designed to attract and provide a sanctuary for visitors.”
Community members work on tiles for the peace mural.
Water circulates through a fountain in the garden, another community project made by 50 people in 2016. “It was just after the elections, and there was such a sense of dread,” she recollects. She needed to do something. She was able to convince an area church to let her group work there. V.-LaStella gave each a 6-by-6-inch slab of clay and the participants created images on their tiles thinking about hope. The results include peas in a pod, the Statue of Liberty’s torch, a smiley face, hands together, a dove and text such as “the light in each.” LaStella did the engineering to turn it into a fountain through which water courses when Alexa is given the command. That project included a festive opening celebration as well, with food, music, a speaker, and an explosion of colored water (using food coloring). The fountain, too, is viewable from the street.
A community-built fountain focusing on the theme of hope following the 2016 elections. (Photo by Ilene Dube)
A previous mural V.-LaStella created for the downtown mural project, “Four Seasons,” involved 300 community members and took four years. The 10-square-foot mural is located on the Metuchen tennis courts storage facility on Oakland and Grove streets.
In addition to the public art projects, V.-LaStella and LaStella do custom tile work for residential and commercial spaces. In 2002, V.-LaStella had a solo show at Educational Testing Service, for which she created a series of veiled women on 12-inch square tiles.
V.-LaStella and her husband have been cultivating the gardens on this property for 30 years. A retired Montclair science teacher and podcast host who, says V.-LaStella, “loves to cook” the cuisine from his Italian heritage, LaStella works closely with V.-LaStella on the tile and garden projects. “Everything we do is a collaboration,” they say collaboratively.
Born in Baltimore, V.-LaStella studied English at Newman College and was a high school English teacher for 15 years before going back to school for art, earning a second bachelor’s degree from Towson University and a master’s from Catholic University.
“Then, I touched clay and responded,” she says. “I was okay on the wheel but my background in two-dimensional work enabled me to develop imagery on tiles.” Her tilework murals built on her painting and drawing skills.
Clay tiles worked on by community members.
Standing at 5-foot-2-inches, V.-LaStella wielded 2,000 pounds of clay into a 19-by-8-foot mural for a hospital as one of her first public projects. “You learn to do it in increments,” she says. (The hospital is now part of Newman College.)
V.-LaStella met her husband when they were both living in Wilmington, Delaware. At the time, he was doing community organizing, developing health care facilities for groups who had inequitable access. He moved to Newark to teach science to inmates earning G.E.D. degrees, and the couple moved to their present home at Earthsongs.
“Clay is a healing and inviting material,” says V.-LaStella, who has taught workshops to seniors and in her basement studio, where she works off a repurposed Ping-Pong table. “My work, whatever the imagery, is really about connecting with the earth. I believe the medium of clay by its very nature does that.”
Ceramic artist Linda Vonderschmidt-LaStella (Photo by Ilene Dube)
Anyone who has ever attempted to create a fundraiser through the arts knows how challenging it can be. Events can cost more than they bring in, and depend on contributions from teams of volunteers and unending committee meetings. But V.-LaStella has done it largely on her own, getting food donated by Hailey’s Harp and Pub; the printing of the postcards was donated; and Bambu, an environmentally sustainable company, is donating compostable bamboo tableware. Community members will provide tablecloths that V.-LaStella will launder and return. “It’s a real sustainable event,” she says.
The first 50 people who donate $100 “will have a seat at the table,” she says. A Ukrainian musician will play the accordion, and Bissette Place will be closed to traffic for the festivities. Nonpaying guests are invited to visit the gardens and pond and enjoy appetizers and munchies. Following the unveiling of the mural, there will be desserts prepared by Ukrainian community members. Additional donations are welcome to Earthsongs via Venmo. Funds raised will go toward UCCA.