Ox Power Finds Its Way to Hopewell, Via Metuchen and St. Luke

Ox Power Finds Its Way to Hopewell, Via Metuchen and St. Luke
by Dan Aubrey
Reprinted from the August 27, 2014, issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper

Linda Vonderschmidt-LaStella’s finished ox.

The Hopewell Valley Arts Council (HVAC) has just put its inaugural project out to pasture. And since the activity involves a herd of 68 life-sized painted fiberglass oxen that will be seen grazing around the region throughout the autumn, that is a good thing.

Dubbed the Hopewell Valley Stampede, the effort is a public art event modeled after a project initially used in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1988. That was when more than 800 decorated cows were placed throughout the countryside to draw attention and visitors. HVAC organizers hope a similar phenomenon occurs in the region.

The HVAC is a recently formed organization “dedicated to celebrating art in the everyday” and to “engage the community throughout the boroughs of Hopewell and Pennington, Hopewell Township, and Titusville.”

Organizers — including arts committee chairs Linda Bradshaw and Carol Lipson — say they plan to use a variety of art forms to celebrate and promote art in the everyday and nurture a vibrant, creative, and involved community.

The Stampede follows that mission and has activities that include viewing the painted oxen, participating in special events, purchasing art oxen through silent and live auctions, and attending a gala at Grounds For Sculpture — with all proceeds supporting the HVAC.

Organizers say that the ox was selected because the animal was emblematic of the area’s agricultural heritage, teamwork, and sense of community. The animal also served as an historic reminder of Hopewell Valley’s farming tradition.

While the project began last year when founding sponsor Betty Wold Johnson donated $25,000 to help launch the effort, it took off several months ago when organizers began outreach to artists — including E-mail invitations — and attracted more than 60 artists to work individually or in groups. The first phase included original designs that were exhibited through May and June at the Capital Health hospital in Hopewell.

One participating artist and team leader is Linda Vonderschmidt-LaStella — a professional artist who embraced the project and headed a team of ox painters.

And while she lives in the town of Metuchen in Middlesex County, a series of interesting connections suggest that it was all part of a larger plan.

“My church parish, Saint Luke’s Episcopal, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year and wanted a sculpture of Saint Luke that would travel among parishioners from week to week,” says Vonderschmidt-LaStella, who took on the project. The artist operates Earthsongs Ceramic Studio in Metuchen and designs a wide range of art — including public and liturgical art — and counts hospitals, schools, and private residences as clients.

“All four Evangelists from medieval times had been visualized by an animal. Luke’s animal is the ox. So when I got involved doing Luke I would do an ox too,” she says.

The animal connects to the artist’s down-to-earth approach, as explained on her website: “My work, whatever the imagery, is really about connecting with the earth. I believe the medium of clay of its very nature does that. The very studio name is organic to the work and my own heritage. Both my father’s mother and my mother’s father were amateur musicians and writers of songs. It seems only natural that my art would create ‘songs in clay.’”

It was while designing the Saint Luke ox the artist received an E-mail inviting her to join the Stampede. She followed up and says that she made a proposal, provided samples, and soon found that “I was too deep to get out.”

Already busy with several professional projects, Vonderschmidt-LaStella says that she had to “think of what I could do that was simple and thoughtful. So I developed this plan for (the theme) ox power and what it meant through cultures.” That included doing what she called “mad drawing” — strong and accomplished drawing — and inviting several women artists whom she knew, respected, and could depend on to join her, which they did.

In addition to Vonderschmidt-LaStella, the team — using a $750 budget provided by HVAC — includes artists Janice Fried of Metuchen, who would focus on the uses of the ox in Asian countries; Lauren Rabinowicz, Edison, ox in service by hauling huge loads down through the centuries; Kim Adlerman, Metuchen, uses of the ox in ancient Egypt; Sandy Rosen, Princeton, ox during the European Middle Ages; Joy Kreves, Ewing, oxen plowing; Allison Doatch, Edison, oxen transporting people and small loads; Thelma Fried, Monroe Township, mythic and universal concept of the ox; and Inbar Fried, a student in Israel, oxen festively decorated.

“They’re all friends and women artists who are really great draftsman. One is an illustrator, the others are painters. They have a sense of drawing. I wanted people with really strong drawing skills,” says Vonderschmidt-LaStella.

To enter the project, the artist says, “I did research and listed ways that the ox had been used through time, and how oxen had been sacrificed, slaughtered. I said (to the others), ‘Pick one method of ox use,’ and everyone did.”

The plan had each team member select and create a scene or “vignette” on the ox. Meanwhile Vonderschmidt-LaStella provided a “wild pattern” as a unifying background. “Because each artist was going to individually create one aspect of the history, I wanted to do a very bright and cheerful surface. I did a base that included warm and cool colors. Nothing was exact, I could be free. I started with a pencil drawing and then moved the paint over the surface. Then each woman would come over and add her piece — something that she would just paint on or add something that she created at home and could collage on,” she says.

After all initial designs where submitted and exhibited at the Capital Health Hospital in Hopewell earlier this year, the real work began at the end of May when the Theme Factory, a Philadelphia-based company specializing in designing and creating events and objects used in arts and entertainment projects, delivered a gleaming white ox (costing $1,250) to Vonderschmidt-LaStella’s studio.

While there was an impulse to give the ox a pet name and treat the project with whimsy, Vonderschmidt-LaStella says, “The only name we gave it was ‘Ox Power.’ Nothing evolved besides that. I was very sad that we couldn’t come up with something more creative. But we had a serious piece that looked at the history of the ox.” However, she adds, all the oxen in the project share the generic name “Olly.”

While it seems that the ox was the artist’s path to Hopewell Valley, Capital Health’s venue is what made the original connection.

Vonderschmidt-LaStella was one of the artists commissioned by the hospital for its 2011 opening. Vonderschmidt-LaStella was asked to create a ceramic wall that reflected the hospital’s history with the communities of Hopewell and Trenton.

There was a problem to solve. “I knew little about the communities, so I was calling people (to learn more),” she says, smiling and adding that someone told her the area community members were very religious. “So I thought, ‘How could I incorporate that?’”

The answer was St. Michael’s Orphanage and Industrial School, a Hopewell-based institution run by the Catholic Diocese of Trenton from 1896 to 1973. “I’ll incorporate the children of Saint Michael’s. So I thought how did the children who grew up there feel? When it came to the doing the mural I found the former members of St. Michael’s had a Facebook site.”

The result was “Community,” two six-foot-diameter mandala murals, the largest permanent installations created by her studio. The works feature lyrical earth-toned images of the St. Michael’s building with children dancing in a circle before it as well as a map of Hopewell noting the location of the hospital. The Trenton mural has images of the capitol building and another map indicating the site of the original hospital that closed its final division in December, 2013.

“To connect (the site and work) to the ox,” Vonderschmidt-LaStella says, “when it all was done, and we were getting sponsorship — and I thought we were not going to be sponsored — Carol Lipson says, ‘You’ve got a sponsor. The sponsor is Betty Wold Johnson — one of the sisters in the Johnson & Johnson family, the sister of (sculptor) Seward. Your ox is going to be on the old St. Michael’s property.” And I thought ‘way has led onto way’ with me.” (As it turns out, while some oxen are at St. Michael’s, Ox Power is currently at the corner of Harbourton-Woodsville and Bear Tavern roads.)

Her thought about “way” has a connection to poetry — Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” — and to the life of the artist born in Baltimore in a home supported by her automobile mechanic and service manager father and stay-at-home mother: she taught English — mainly in New Brunswick — for 25 years. She also began to pursue art, received an MFA from Catholic University of America, and launched a professional arts career. Fittingly, she is combining art and poetry in her upcoming October exhibition, “Taking Time Apart,” at the Rotunda Gallery in Metuchen.

Vonderschmidt-LaStella says that her involvement with this project was “a whole different thing for me to do. I haven’t had the opportunity to work (for a while) with paint, which was a lot different than working with clay. I wanted it to be genuinely collaborative and wanted the women that I worked with to bring their own approach to art and be part of it as much as I was. I want to highlight the value that each individual artist put into this particular piece. It is really their work. Each of them signed it because we wanted to convey the sense that there were eight professional artists working on this. It was really cool to work on it. The feedback that I got from one other woman said this is the most fun that I had all summer. There was genuine ownership of the project.”

As is usual with an arts project, one “way” will lead to the unexpected. First, she says, despite the “fine job” that the HVAC did in planning, there was a timing factor, and instead of arriving in March, the ox arrived in late May. “That set things back really far. I was going away in July, so it became crunching in time. It left me two weeks to do my work on the ox, which happen to be the hottest weeks in July. I couldn’t move it and the sun beat in. The heat was unbelievable. It was in that atmosphere that the ox was created. When I finished the women were able to come and finish up.”

The other surprise was “how big (the fiberglass ox) was. It was huge. I have done large pieces of work before, but to cover that surface and do a good job, whoo! I have paint that I used on the house — oil base that has interesting qualities: thickens up fast and is tricky to use. It took a tremendous amount of time to fill that space. And then to clean up the mess? Clay is easy to use; you can clean it up with just water. This was all toxic stuff. So it took time to get a rhythm.”

She said that another surprise was the lack of comments made by her husband — with whom she started the studio — on his inability to move in and out of the storage shed and work area. “The oxen filled the whole space; it was pretty interesting to have it there.”

Now that this particular team’s ox is grazing in Hopewell, Vonderschmidt-LaStella looks back and says that in addition to valuing the collaboration with the other women, “I relearned the value of being flexible. I can keep with a timeline, but when it comes to working with groups the need for flexibility is really great. This just bore that out again.”

The Hopewell Valley Arts Council Oxen Stampede is ready for viewing around the Hopewell Valley and oxen-location maps are available at community businesses and on the website. An online silent auction runs from Friday, September 19, through Sunday, October 19, when a closing community event in Hopewell is scheduled, The gala with live auction at Grounds for Sculpture is set for Saturday, January 24, 2015. 

For more information, visit www.hvartscouncil.org.