Promising More Intriguing Exhibits to Come
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS, NJ - You might be surprised to find an avant-garde art gallery in a town called home by barely over 4,000 people, but Robert O'Connor has been pushing the envelope in his Second Story Art Gallery here for more than three years and promises many more interesting things to come.
O'Connor has operated the gallery at 78 First Ave. since September of 2013 above a storefront that he opened as a picture-framing business six months earlier. But he recently closed the retail space and moved the framing business, The Painted Frame, to his art studio so that he can devote more time and energy to his gallery and his own artwork to continue to surprise art lovers from surrounding areas and beyond, with the intriguing exhibits he presents.
"It will be more active,'' O'Connor said of the gallery, an intimate, 12-foot-by-10-foot space with huge, arched windows overlooking the borough’s main strip.
"I'm very excited about the change and focusing back on my work,'' he said. “Now, I will have more time to work on attracting artists to the gallery and showing my own work. It's going to be better than ever. I've lined up good shows, and I'm very excited about that.''
Bungalow Road, a gift shop from Center Avenue is moving downstairs from the gallery, into the space that had been occupied by The Painted Frame, and the gift shop in its new location will continue to provide access to the art gallery upstairs.
O'Connor said that without having to tend to the retail store full-time, he will have more time to entice intriguing artists to the premises, and he hopes to have a new show in the gallery every four to six weeks.
Those who come to Second Story can always expect something different at these free exhibitions.
Recent exhibitions at the gallery include that of Matt Rummler, a localartist who creates Gyotaku prints, using traditional Japanese techniques of applying pigments to actual fish and rubbing them with paper to capture images of their sizes, shapes, textures and delicate patterns of veins or scales.
Rummler is not only an artist, but also a fisherman, and he used species he caught in local waters for the images presented at his show. But that wasn't all - he even cooked up one of the catches he used to create his artwork and served it up as a delicacy at his exhibition.
"We have a lot of fishing boats and fishermen here,'' O'Connor said. “That show was very popular. Crazy stuff like that goes on here, and people don't even know about it.''
An upcoming show over the summer that O'Connor is thrilled about is that of Nils Karsten, a German native who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York and lives in Brooklyn. Karsten specializes in massive woodblock cuts of vintage album covers. He recently did the artwork for the cover of a CD being released in June by a progressive Southern rock band, Dream the Electric Sleep. The art exhibit will feature not only the artwork, but also the music, O'Connor said.
photo: Robert O'Connor
O'Connor's route to the art world wasn't exactly traditional. The Bergnefield, N.J. native, a musician in high school, also excelled at math and science and was encouraged by his parents to go into engineering. He received a full scholarship to Cooper Union, the renowned college of engineering, architecture and art in New York City's East Village, where he earned an engineering degree. But he also took art courses there, including his first course in calligraphy, which would entice him into art.
Upon graduating from Cooper Union, O'Connor worked for six years as a civil and environmental engineer for a small firm in Rockland County, N.Y., doing water-quality studies for New York City and other clients. The whole time, the words of one of his art professors at Cooper Union nagged at him: "If you don't become an artist by the time you're 30, you'll never do it.''
So, at age 29, O'Connor quit his engineering job and went to art school.
"It was the best thing I ever did,'' says O'Connor, now 51.
He studied at the Art Students League and the National Academy in New York City before eventually enrolling in the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2004 and earning a master of fine arts degree.
Meanwhile, O'Connor, whose media includes oil painting, silk screens and video art, worked out of rented studios in Asbury Park and the Shore Institute of Contemporary Art in Long Branch before discovering Atlantic Highlands almost 10 years ago.
O'Connor said he’d never heard of Atlantic Highlands when he and his partner were house-hunting in 2006, looking to get out of their Edison condominium because they couldn't stand the restrictive rules. They looked everywhere from Sayreville, where his partner has a business, to Asbury Park, and were checking out property in Middletown when their realtor steered them to Atlantic Highlands.
"I didn't know anything about Atlantic Highlands,'' O'Connor said. “We pinched ourselves that we landed here.''
The couple bought an arts-and-crafts house in the borough with which they simply fell in love, and they built an art studio on the property.
O'Connor in 2011 opened The Painted Frame, off the beaten path, behind Zoe's Vintage Kitchen on Center Avenue in Atlantic Highlands, and latermoved to a First Avenue space on the borough's main strip in 2013. The Second Story Gallery opened six months later with an exhibition of O'Connor's paintings and prints inspired by the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
The gallery allows O'Connor to showcase his own work and that which is relevant to the historic town of Atlantic Highlands. He says he views it as a blank canvas on which to project his own artistic vision and that of artists from surrounding areas and far beyond.
In the actual shadow of the New York City skyline, Atlantic Highlands, is not populated with galleries like the Big Apple. O'Connor sees that as an opportunity.
"People don't expect to see an art gallery in a little town like this, and I like that,'' O'Connor said. “There’s this blank canvas here, and we can do what we want. It's not like New York, where there are a million galleries.''
The gallery allows people from Monmouth County and surrounding areas to enjoy art, followed by a meal at one of Atlantic Highlands' fine restaurants, O'Connor says. And New Yorkers can avail themselves of a quick ride on the Seastreak ferry for an art show and all the other attractions Atlantic Highlands has to offer.
"I do like that we are showcasing artists who are right under our noses , and people don't even realize it,'' O'Connor said. "We're not this outpost of New York and Philadelphia. There's a lot of great stuff going on here, and it's important that people know about it. I like the idea that we're keeping the arts visible here, and people realize that art is really important in life.''
In addition to being an artist and engineer, O'Connor also is an accomplished pianist and composer who is taking composition courses at the Julliard School in New York. He is the founder and creative director of Atlantic Highlands' FilmOneFest that for the past seven years has celebrated film and videos less than two minutes in length at an open-air venue at the Atlantic Highlands marina.
Second Story Art Gallery willreopen February 21. Its hours will beMonday-Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 12pm-4pm. The Painted Frame will continue to run by appointment-only through the art gallery.