Tension and time Secaucus artist captures New Jersey’s contradictions

Tension lurks everywhere in Secaucus artist Charlie Churchill’s studio. On one easel sits a peaceful painting of the Hackensack River. The image is calm, depicting cool blue water beneath a hazy gray/blue sky. But off in the distance is the Newark skyline, with its skyscrapers and power lines.

In another corner is a painting of two egrets nestled in the reeds of the marshy Meadowlands. There is a muskrat swimming towards them.

“You can sense that someone is about to have dinner,” Churchill commented about the paining last week.

In the middle of the studio sits the second installment of Churchill’s “shark attack” series. The large painting depicts six women wading up to their knees in a body of water with a boardwalk scene painted behind them. A viewer could look at the painting for a long time before noticing that there’s a shark fin in the water.

“I’m really interested in tension,” Churchill said. “I’m not so interested in the actual moment that something happens. I’m more interested in the moment right before the moment something happens.”

He equates the mood in many of his paintings to being on a roller coaster.

“The moment when you feel the biggest rush of adrenaline isn’t when you’re going down the big drop,” he noted, “it’s those moments before the big drop. And those are the moments I’m trying to create.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Churchill said that he, in some ways, approaches his art the way filmmakers approach their craft.

“All the scenes, for me, are really just backdrops on top of which I can create a narrative structure that tells a story,” he said.

Meadowlands and beyond

Chrurchill, who will have a local exhibit at the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission headquarters in April, began his career as an illustrator working at an ad agency in New York City. His early works reflect the carefree whimsy one might find in the ad industry. Those paintings include lots of bright, saturated colors and occasionally a hint of caricature.

“I always felt there were image makers and great painters,” he said. “And I always considered myself to be an image-maker. And yet there was this need for me to become a better painter.”

Having already earned an undergraduate degree in political science from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, Churchill returned to school, this time the prestigious Parsons School of Design for a BFA, which he received in 1988. He eventually returned to school again, for an MFA from the New York Academy of Art.

“In the art world, there’s real desire to pin you down as a painter,” he said. “If you do landscapes, then you are a landscape painter. If you do a couple of still-lifes, then you do still-life.”

But Churchill, whose work runs the gamut among landscapes, still-lifes, and figurative pieces, added, “I get too bored doing one thing all the time. I don’t want to be labeled, because I’m constantly doing all sorts of stuff.”

Indeed, the same studio that includes several Meadowlands scenes also has a number of portraits and a painting from Churchill’s “shark attack” series.

One of his current fascinations is famous men who are named Charles or Charlie. Thus far, he has painted such figures as Charles Atlas, Charlie Chaplin, and Charles Lindbergh, among others.

Shark attack series

Churchill is currently working on a series of paining based on the famous 1916 shark attacks along the Jersey Shore. The attacks served as the basis of Peter Benchley’s 1974 book “Jaws” and the subsequent movie.

That year, hundreds of people had flocked to coastal areas in New Jersey and New York seeking relief during a summer heat wave and an outbreak of polio in many cities. The shore turned out not to be the relief they were seeking, when five people were attacked by a shark during the first two weeks of July. Four of the attack victims died.

Churchill is fascinated by this incident and this period in New Jersey history.

“That incident represented a sort of loss of innocence,” he stated. “Before these attacks, sharks were actually seen as bunny rabbits of the sea. People really did not see them as dangerous. And then, all of a sudden, something that had been considered gentle was viewed as vicious.”

He sees the incident as a major turning point in the 20th Century, and it’s one of the reasons why the egrets and muskrat and facing each other in the painting in the corner of his studio.

It’s the same reason why he includes the Newark skyline in his Meadowlands works: the notion of innocence lost, or new knowledge encroaching from the distance are timeless themes.

“I think you could reasonably argue,” Churchill notes, “that some of these same themes play out right here and now in Secaucus.”

Churchill’s will have several recent works exhibited at the New Jersey Meadowlands Flyway Gallery beginning April 5. Gallery hours: 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, One DeKorte Park Plaza, Lyndhurst, NJ. Some of Churchill’s work can also be viewed on his web site, www.churchillgallery.com


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