All That Jazz
Confronting the rising tide of plastic waste, Susan Hockaday and her family fill the world with music, art, design, adventure, and good chemistry
By Ilene Dube | Photography by Andrew Wilkinson
Several years ago, artist Susan Hockaday was invited by First Lady Tammy Murphy to exhibit her fine art photographs of plastic detritus at Drumthwacket, the official residence of the governor of New Jersey. Hockaday has photographed the non-biodegradable remains of our civilization from all vantage points: flying overhead with a pilot friend; weaving in and out of old ship skeletons in a boat graveyard in Arthur Kill, the tidal strait between Staten Island and New Jersey (“I never had more fun, it was like being 16 years old,” she said); under water at Cape Breton Island; and on tabletop tableaus in her studio.
“Soft petaled flowers, weathered branches, polished stones, and shells blend with man-made objects,” Murphy wrote in the accompanying exhibition catalog. “Yet, upon closer inspection, a menacing struggle disrupts the ostensibly harmonious scene. Plastic containers, twisted bits of rope, and nets slowly entwine and strangle their organic counterparts.”
Why is the artist obsessed with plastic waste?
“Plastic has now bonded with biology,” Hockaday writes on her website, referring to the Great Garbage Patches of plastics in our oceans. “Plastic has become my symbol of climate change, of a planet being overwhelmed by millions of destructive changes in the rhythms of nature.” Whether working in drawing, etching, photograms, papermaking, or photography, she has, over the decades, focused on the unruliness in nature.
While putting together the show for the Princeton-based Drumthwacket Foundation, Hockaday welcomed the curator on a studio visit to her Hopewell home, a refurbished barn that — in contrast to unruly nature — is elegantly appointed with a George Nakashima dining table, Hans Wegner chairs, Eero Saarinen chaise, Charles Webb sofa, and George Nelson lamps. As the two were chatting, Hockaday observed a snake clinging to the stone fireplace surround.
Ever resourceful, she donned a pair of rubber gloves, seized the reptile, heaved it outside into the woods, and shut the door. “Barns are notoriously permeable,” Hockaday calmly stated during a recent interview. “Animals are continuously trying to get back inside and sometimes succeed. I took off the gloves, and we never talked about it. She was a really nice person. We felt a teeny bit embarrassed.”
The story illustrates both the artist’s embrace of the natural world, its unruliness, and her fortitude in dealing with its intrusions.
A Jazzy Ritual
Every few months, Hockaday and her husband, organic chemistry professor Maitland Jones, set up 65 chairs in their living room. Around the Steinway grand piano — left to them by Jones’ professor and mentor when he was a doctoral candidate at Yale — music lovers gather to hear acts curated by Jones, whose interest in jazz began before high school. “My father had some records and even took me to 52nd Street a few times,” Jones says. Later, he learned more from a roommate.
After a long career in the Department of Chemistry at Princeton University, Jones moved on to New York University 15 years ago, largely so that he could be in New York to listen to jazz. Sadly, the pandemic closed many clubs he frequented.
“Gone are the Jazz Standard, Kitano, the Bar Next Door, Smoke,” he says. Survivors include the Village Vanguard, the 55 Bar, Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center. The scene will come back, but probably not on my time scale. There are already some new ones — the edgy stuff is now all over Brooklyn.”
Jones keeps little black notebooks into which he records his reactions to the music. Hockaday archives these, along with her husband’s extensive CD collection, on custom-built shelves. “They are very hard to read by anyone but me,” he says. “It’s just what I think about what’s going on in the music at the moment. Part of it is just that chemists always take notes.”
Hockaday and Jones host about five concerts a year, and have been doing so for 20 years, although not all are in their house. They are approaching 100 concerts.
By hosting these, “I get to hear the best jazz musicians in the world, many of them my friends, play under what is probably the best circumstances,” says Jones. “The barn was designed for this kind of thing. And I get to introduce the music to lots of people and to transfer some dollars from Princeton to musicians. We never, ever break even, by the way, but it is worth it.”
Fifteen years ago, Hockaday and Jones, who had formerly lived in a Victorian on Fitzrandolph Road in Princeton, found this former dairy barn, already converted to a residence in 1965 by developer Bryce Thompson with architect Jeremiah Ford. Surrounded by 900 wooded acres — in addition to the aforementioned snakes, there are turkeys, foxes, and other wildlife — the barn has been improved upon by Hockaday and Jones with help from their architect son, Maitland Jones Jr., working with architecture firm Deborah Berke Partners. Architect Kevin Wilkes served as contractor.
One enters the residence through a long hallway that is a gallery for Hockaday’s work, as well as the work of artist friends such as the late Princeton sculptor Jane Teller. The vaulted space where the piano holds center stage offers more exhibition opportunity, both for Hockaday’s work as well as her and Jones’ collection, including a painting by the late John Goodyear (a founder of the MOVIS Art Collective, with which Hockaday is still active) and family members. This family includes architects (Buckminster Fuller on Hockaday’s maternal side), artists, advertising executives, and founder of the Old Lyme Art Colony of American Impressionists Clark Greenwood Voorhees.
“Young Mait,” as Hockaday and Jones call their son, admits his choice of career was influenced by all the architects in the family. He’s even married to an architect, Perla Jeanne Delson. The couple and their children live in a refurbished church in Brooklyn. Young Mait, who received his undergraduate degree from Princeton in 1987, is presently working with Deborah Berke Partners on new residential colleges at Princeton University, scheduled to open in August. The project is led by partners Deborah Berke, who is also dean of the Yale School of Architecture; Arthi Krishnamoorthy, who has led the design team since 2018; and Jones. The two colleges, each housing approximately 500 students, will provide dining, social, and teaching spaces, forming a new
11-acre “neighborhood” on campus.
“Most of the work I do now, professionally, is on college campuses,” says Jones. “I would say growing up on and immediately adjacent to Princeton’s campus has given me a good sense of how campuses work and what makes successful spaces for students.”
Perhaps one of the more intriguing spaces in the barn is the attic, a former hay loft that is open to the rafters. “It’s like walking into Jadwin Gym,” says Hockaday.
There’s not a speck of musty-dusty in this space, it’s as neat and organized as museum storage — everything is stacked, everything is labeled. It reveals the inner workings of the artist and her family, both those who came before and after. There are music stands and paper cutting boards, trunks with labels indicating various ancestral belongings, antique chairs, and boxes labeled “seaweed,” “botanical material,” “dried lilies,” “printing tools,” and “painted rocks.” There are also shelves of ropes, nets, sea wire, and boxes of plastic detritus. Hockaday says she considers it a “village” with pathways, and credits the eight years she worked in laboratories for her learning of categories and labels (she majored in human physiology and art, and worked as a medical artist for college and hospital laboratories).
Hockaday met Jones when she was at Vassar and he was at Yale. In addition to Young Mait there are two daughters, in their 50s, and eight grandchildren ages 16 to 26. The family remains close, spending summers together on Cape Breton Island.
In 1970, Hockaday recounts, the family, along with a group of neighbors, made an exploratory trip to the island in Nova Scotia with the idea of buying property. “We drove 22 hours from Princeton and camped out, and a real estate agent took us to a 450-acre apple farm on the internal waterway,” she says. “It was a huge and beautiful old farmhouse for $30,000. We were a group of assistant professors and didn’t have any money.”
They joined together with five families — the adults were in their late 20s and early 30s, with 12 children under the age of 9 — to purchase the property.
The house, built around 1860, in the early morning.
“Built in the 1800s, it was structurally sound, well-built, and very dirty,” says Hockaday. They slept on foam pads on the floor, and with two boats they sailed the inner waterway and camped. Meanwhile they had to strip wallpaper, paint, and build a shower and a deck. Among them were workers and the shirkers – the cooperative arrangement wasn’t working out.
“With our long hair and communal living, we were perceived as hippies,” Hockaday says. “And it turns out we’d overpaid for the property and they thought of us as fools.” (“They” being the islanders.)
After six years the pioneering families put the property on the market and with the profits Hockaday and Jones bought a house at the northeast end. “We found we liked that area best.”
The house the family still gathers in today (except for the first two years of the pandemic when the border with Canada was closed) was built in 1860. The 100-acre property includes a two-family barn and a three-family compound, as well as a studio designed by Hockaday and Young Mait. Hockaday hosted the MOVIS group there about 10 years ago. At press time she and Jones were making up lists to load up their Toyota Prius for the long drive.
Cape Breton Island continues to be fertile grounds for Hockaday’s artmaking, as well as a place where she has exhibits and gives talks. In that remote corner of the world, she has observed how farmers are responding to climate crisis.
“It’s a mix of conscious and unconscious people,” she says. “Some farmers use mules instead of tractors. Fishing is the backbone of their existence, and changing water temperature and erratic weather patterns are having an effect.”
Young Mait credits his parents’ sense of adventure as a major influence on his life. “As a family, the five of us traveled frequently, made things together, including buildings in Cape Breton, and generally carried on without much inhibition,” he says. “I would call theirs an attitude of sufficient preparation with openness to surprise. Perhaps this, too, is a product of the artistic inquiry and scientific method. It’s also what jazz is.”