Running with the Baton

Stephen McDonnell and Jill Kearney in the Hatch building.

Despite the Pandemic, ArtYard is Thriving and Expanding in Frenchtown

By Wendy Greenberg | Photos by Jeffrey E. Tryon

“Art is not an end but a beginning.”
– Artist Ai Weiwei; quote seen at ArtYard’s Hatch celebration, 2019

For many years, Jill Kearney’s spouse, Stephen McDonnell, ran Applegate Farms, a leading organic meat production company. After a debilitating stroke, he decided to sell the New Jersey-based company in 2015.

Then, as Kearney said, she took the entrepreneurial baton. The next year she opened ArtYard — a nonprofit community art, performance, and education center — in Frenchtown in 2016.

Despite the challenges of the past year that necessitated outdoor exhibits and art in store windows, ArtYard will soon open a 20,000-square-foot performance and exhibition space, and exhibitions are lined up for the spring. Creative juices are flowing, and the local community is excited and engaged.

If “past is prologue,” as Kearney titled an art exhibition (“The Past Is Prologue: Vernacular Photography, Pop Photographica, and the Road to Selfie Culture”), ArtYard’s prologue lies in Kearney’s childhood, which set the scene for something like ArtYard. Her parents ran an alternative arts center in a former dairy processing facility in Chicago that held galleries, a bronze foundry, and studios. Her father was a sculptor, and her mother was the administrator.

“The other artists had to walk through my mom’s office and my dad’s studio to get to their studios,” she said. “My dad pretty much built all the spaces. I’m sure it wouldn’t pass any building code anywhere now, but it was a few blocks from the school I went to, so I would go to school, and then walk there after school and wait for them to be finished. I was just doing my homework and watching potters, artists, painters, dancers, and photographers come and go. Or watching my dad do the casting. They had classes there, or maybe he was teaching classes, it was a wonderful place to grow up.”

“The Past Is Prologue: Vernacular Photography, Pop Photographica, and the Road to Selfie Culture,” a 2019 ArtYard exhibition featuring vernacular photography from the collections of Daile Kaplan, W.M. Hunt, Nigel Poor, Pete Brook, and Cynthia Elyce Rubin, with original works by Marcia Lippman and Cassandra Zampini. (Image courtesy the artists and ArtYard, Frenchtown. Photograph by Paul Warchol)

The Kearneys spent the summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which, she said, “was then, and still is, an art community going back to Eugene O’Neill, an early Bohemian outpost that attracted a very interesting array of artists and philosophers and shrinks and a whole bunch of different kinds of people, living cheek by jowl in this tiny little town.

“And there were a couple of arts institutions — one was the Fine Arts Work Center — that functioned essentially as the town square, where we would all gather and go to openings and performances. Experiencing that from a very young age formed my idea of what community and place should be. When I moved to Bucks County and there wasn’t such a thing here, I kept looking for it. I have wanted to build something like this my whole life.”

Kearney, who holds a degree in English literature from Harvard, spent time in Hollywood as a studio executive for Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, and also in New York. She met her husband Stephen through her best friend in Los Angeles, who was one of his eight siblings. They encountered each another at a series of family weddings, and eventually got married themselves.

A Different World

Stephen McDonnell was immersed in a totally different world — food — natural and organic meats (think nitrate-free bacon), as the founder and CEO of Applegate Farms in Flemington, later in Bridgewater.

A proponent of sustainable agricultural and the humane treatment of livestock, McDonnell had spoken on the misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture in the media and at congressional briefings. He also funded a documentary film to raise public awareness about important issues around food.

A 2012 Inc. article, “How I Did It,” called Applegate “one of the largest natural and organic food brands in the U.S.” Known for working from home long before it was common, the Hampshire College graduate, with a master’s degree in organizational behavior from Harvard, had purchased Jugtown Mountain Smokehouse in Flemington in 1987 for $250,000, according to the article. In the next decade, with a name change, Applegate Farms developed antibiotic-free meat, and a few years later, organic meat.

The food business was “very intense,” said Kearney. “It was Stephen’s business, but I helped in a variety of ways. I did a lot of marketing and package copy. I helped develop the logo and helped develop the art department, and some of the look of the packaging and material, and I served on the board. So, I was sort of in the background cheering him on and adding my two cents.”

“What’s been fun for me,” said McDonnell, “is that Applegate and ArtYard are two mission-based organizations. Applegate wanted to ‘change the meat you eat’; ArtYard wants to show the transformative power of art. Each has a clear purpose, and it’s enormously fun and rewarding for me. I’m enjoying her run.”

During this time, Kearney thought about ArtYard, or something like it. “When I passed big old industrial buildings that looked like my parents’ workshop I would stop my car and look, and think, ‘Could I do something like that?’ In the beginning it was more of a Walter Mitty daydream because I had three kids in four years, and I was working in the film business at other times. And then circumstances conspired.”

 

Stephen McDonnell and Jill Kearney at the Bridge Street property.

A Serious Setback

McDonell suffered a serious stroke in 2015 when the family was in Florence at midnight Christmas Eve, seven years ago. “He was very, very lucky,” said Kearney. “He got cutting edge thrombectomy surgery that is now available in the states but wasn’t available at the time. He was paralyzed but surgeons were able to retrieve some of the clots and free up some pathways, and he’s been recovering ever since. It’s a life-changing experience, but he’s a very resilient, positive person and he is working on it every day.”

In the aftermath, during his recuperation, McDonnell decided to sell Applegate to Hormel. He is “relieved to not be in the hot seat running a large, intense business with perishable products,” said Kearney. “So, he’s doing things like planting trees, making gardens, spending time with our children, and looking over my shoulder at ArtYard, enjoying that somebody else has taken the entrepreneurial baton.”

The sale of Applegate brought ArtYard closer to fruition. “It occasioned a moment when I actually could do something like that, and I started looking for a place that could work,” Kearney said.

About this time, Elsa Mora, an old friend of Kearney’s, called to say, “Why don’t we start something together?” Mora is the wife of Jill’s old high school friend, Bill Horberg (a producer of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix), and someone who shares her aesthetic and philosophical outlook.

“I loved that idea but didn’t think it was possible because she wasn’t able to move here,” said Kearney. She started the process and then realized that it would be possible for Mora to work remotely and visit often. Horberg set up ArtYard’s FilmYard program; Mora is ArtYard’s current artistic director and curator.

Construction of the Hatch building. 

Frenchtown Setting

After looking at some far-flung locales, it turned out that Frenchtown was an ideal spot. It reminded Kearney of Provincetown, “a place that quietly attracted a lot of curious, creative, interesting, diverse people,” she said. “I didn’t even really know that, when I first started looking in Frenchtown, but as I developed ArtYard in the early stages I began meeting the people who live there and realized it was the perfect place.”

The Hunterdon County borough along the banks of the Delaware River, midway between New York and Philadelphia and not far from Princeton and Newark (which Kearney cited as a burgeoning arts community), offered a rich mine of artists to draw from, as well as the potential to “create collaborations between disparate communities.” The name, Kearney said, is because she likes the idea of a third space, not home, not work, but a yard.

ArtYard is not quite a family business but McDonnell now cheers on his wife, as she did for him at Applegate. He sits on the board, and is very excited about the new building, visiting almost daily to check out the work in progress.

McDonnell said he spends much of his time in various therapies — such as acupuncture and neurological rehab — to reactivate the nerves on his left side, since the stroke left him partially paralyzed. “I’ll be in rehab the rest of my life,” he added. “It’s my new job.” He said he can find some humor in the situation because he “feels so lucky” that he is able “to get the right help when many can’t, or don’t, get the help they need.”

The couple lives in Erwinna, just across the river from Frenchtown, in the house that writer S.J. Perelman lived in and owned with his brother-in-law, Nathaniel West. The home was the subject of Perelman’s 1947 book, Acres and Pains.

“This property was place where a lot of literary lights came during that time, which is nice to know,” said Kearney. The couple turned Perelman’s house into a guest house and studio. They turned the stone barn into their main residence with the assistance of New Jersey architect William Welch, who is working on the new ArtYard building. “There are good vibes here,” added McDonnell.

McDonnell said that ArtYard’s success shows their daughters that while their father ran a successful business for some 25 years, their mother “is equally talented. It’s not that common that both people (in a couple) are so good at what they do.”

The oldest of three McDonnell daughters (now all in their 20s) aims to be a public defender, and another is in graduate school for social work. Two are artists, and have lent their artistic talents to the Hatch, an annual celebratory parade that conjures creativity with a nod to the new building’s former tenant, an egg hatchery. The Hatch has a bird theme and features a 14-foot egg and wild and quirky bird costumes for the march that ends in Sunset Lenape Park.

Their youngest child, Flannery McDonnell, a painter and activist, designed the bird costumes for the last Hatch, which “were strangely made out of Hazmat suits before COVID happened,” Kearney said. “Then COVID happened, and we couldn’t do the Hatch.”

“Shelter Is,” an exhibition that brought together the work of nine artists whose practices consider the physical and psychological function of shelter, its construction, and its improvisational nature. The works on view also explored questions of who seeks shelter, and for what reasons — political, socioeconomic, or environmental. (Image courtesy the artists and ArtYard, Frenchtown. Photograph by Paul Warchol)

The 2020 Pivot

In addition to the 2020 Hatch in Place, ArtYard has navigated the pandemic with customary creativity. “At times, it’s been kind of a joyful improvisation and at times really exasperating and frightening,” said Kearney. “Typically, we have an opening and 300 people come and it’s a crowded, interesting, and joyful experience.”

Closed totally during the spring, ArtYard pivoted to virtual and outdoor programming.

Again, Kearney reached back to her childhood for inspiration, inviting audiences to make medals based on ones her father made for her mother when they were first married. “My father was a World War II veteran who came back with a lot of medals from his service in the Navy and he supported our family as a jeweler, in part,” she explained. “And he began making medals that were quasi-military for my mom, all kind of an inside joke about things she did that he loved…. And so, when COVID hit, we launched a project called The Order of Everyday Humans, and we invited people to make medals for people who were doing something helpful or appreciated, in COVID, and to send them to us.”

At first, the medals were in a virtual museum, but Kearney yearned to create dimensional exhibits. She turned the medals into printed prayer flags, that were then hung in the center of town “so there was actually an exhibition that you could go see.”

Another pivot was the annual Pride exhibit in June, “Queer Icons: Pioneers.” Central Pennsylvania artist Silky Shoemaker’s plywood figures representing cultural pioneers of queer life were commissioned for the gallery but ended up in the windows of closed Frenchtown stores. “It turned out to be a lovely thing because people have to elect to come into an art exhibition space but if they walk down the street, they might encounter these figures and read about them,” said Kearney. “And we got a lot of letters and emails from people saying they were extremely moved and really appreciated it. And it was also so lovely that the shopkeepers in town all embraced the idea and that the town engaged in the process of constructing an art exhibition out in the world.”

When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Kearney asked Newark artist Jesse Wright to create something in response. The result was the exhibition “Three Mothers,” featuring monumental portraits of Mamie Till-Mobley (Emmett Till’s mother), Larcenia Floyd (George Floyd’s mother), and Eileen Wright (the artist’s mother).

“We blew them up into giant banners and put them on the side of the new building we are building,” said Kearney. “It was inspired by George Floyd calling for his mother, and we invited people to write letters to their mother and we hung them on the construction fence and in the gallery.”

ArtYard is full of surprises. After an outdoor screening of the John Lewis documentary film Good Trouble, Kearney said that they “plunked a grand piano in the middle of the park and Jon Batiste, musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, who was staying in the ArtYard residency, did a pop-up concert. It was really tricky because we couldn’t really advertise it, couldn’t risk having too many people, so we had to risk having too few people, but that was better in COVID than having a crowd. The tickets were free, so anyone who reserved a ticket to the John Lewis documentary also got a surprise concert.”

Kearney with a public installation in the front yard of 12 Bridge Street featuring poetry by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jericho Brown and Whiting Award-winner Aracelis Girmay. ArtYard recently acquired a second building on Bridge Street with space for an art and poetry library.

The Prologue Informs the Future

The artist residency is in development. ArtYard recently acquired a second building on Bridge Street with space for an art and poetry library. Because the ArtYard mission is to be an incubator for creative expression, and a catalyst for collaborations, the residencies can bring unlikely people together.

“I was very influenced by a book I read by Robert Putnam called Bowling Alone about the silo-ing of American culture and how the arts are one of the few places that can bridge these divides. I would like to bring not just disparate people together at ArtYard, but like-minded institutions together.”

The new $10 million building on Front Street was supposed to open in May, and then the fall. “It looks like March, but it’s pretty hard to know,” said Kearney, adding that it is difficult to plan a grand opening event with the uncertainty of pandemic guidelines. (Check artyard.org for an opening date.)

For the new building, Shoemaker will create 40 plywood “artist ancestors” — inspiring cultural figures who have died. They will sit in the new 162-seat theater to create social distancing. Also opening this spring is “Girl You Want,” curated by Bennington professor Vanessa Lyons. And artist Ledelle Moe, who creates monumental sculptures currently on view at Mass MOCA, will have her work at the two ArtYard locations.

Kearney’s feeling that Frenchtown was the right place turned out to be a good hunch. Frenchtown, she said, has “been extremely welcoming from the very first conversation. There were other towns that I looked at and I immediately got the feeling that there would be an uphill battle to get permission for an art center, and parking would be an issue. The minute I came into Frenchtown everyone I asked was extremely excited and welcoming, and it’s pretty much been like that the whole time.

“When I told the then-mayor about my idea, he almost burst into tears because he had had the same idea for the town but didn’t know how to make it happen.” The current mayor, Brad Mhyre, continues that support, she said.

“I like to make art engaging and welcoming to people who think that they can’t understand art. We offer very high-quality cultural offerings, but there is a playfulness and surprise element.”

Again, Kearney was inspired by her childhood. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, which she frequented, had “all these buttons you could push and press, and something would fall down and be like a Rube Goldberg contraption and I really loved as a kid, being able to participate in an exhibition rather than just be a passive receptacle.”

This was apparent in something like the poetry “confessionals” at ArtYard, designed so a person on one side could tell their story and get an immediate poem back through a slot in the wall.

“I like to subvert people’s expectations,” said Kearney. To attract and engage non-traditional audiences, she will, for example, hire a drumline from Camden to drum during a poetry reading.

“I have an expression I say to my kids sometimes, that is, ‘Just when you think you know me, I like to do something.’ I was a natural food person but every once in a while I would show up with pink cupcakes or something … something they would never expect their mother to do. And I try to apply some of that philosophy to ArtYard.

“I don’t want people to think that art is the province of wealthy people, or an object to be acquired. Somebody said this about literature, but I think it’s true for art — that art is necessary equipment for living. And I think when people begin to understand that art is a way of seeing what is hiding in plain sight in your life, they will see that it’s a beautiful and necessary thing.”