The public is personal

Artist addresses local stereotypes, assumptions

Skateboarders – you don’t see them in Buchmuller Park much these days. But you will in a few weeks, once the snow has melted and spring has returned.
Regarded by some as troublemakers for their youthful rowdy energy, the kids are actually quite ordinary and – in past interviews – seem no different than their peers who spend time at the local public library.
It is both their “outlaw” reputation and their ordinariness that attracted Secaucus artist Melissa Dargan, who has created a series of paintings based on photos she took of skateboarders in Buchmuller Park.
Surrounded by art and an appreciation for the creative process most of her life, Dargan said she’s “been drawing since I can remember, but it was [Secaucus High School art teacher and professional painter] Doug DePice who opened me up to the idea of being a working artist. I didn’t know that I could be a working artist until I met him.”


Using her art to push people to see beyond stereotypes is a major goal for Dargan.

Following in her role model’s footsteps, Dargan is now herself a professional artist who also teaches art at an elementary school in North Bergen, where her students are among her biggest inspirations.
“I find that people make a lot of assumptions about each other – based on class, or race, or where you live,” Dargan said. “Sometimes when people hear where I work, they ask me if my school is like [the movie] ‘Dangerous Minds.’ And when I first came to work in North Bergen, a lot of kids heard I was from Secaucus and thought I was some rich white girl. But what does all of that really mean? What does that have to do with how we approach each other or relate to each other?”
Using her art to push people to see beyond stereotypes is a major priority for Dargan right now, a focus that began while she was studying for her undergraduate degree.

Top art school

A graduate of Secaucus High School, Dargan went on to attend Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), one of the top art schools in that country. The experience, she said, brought her in contact with “people from all over. Everyday I was in class with people from all of the world and other parts of the U.S. It opened me up to so much that I had never considered before. Growing up in Hudson County, I was already exposed to a lot of different cultures here at home. But it was in college that I think I began to appreciate how complex our diversity can be, and I really wanted to find ways to bring that into my art.”
She had the opportunity to do that, she said, while enrolled in a three-year summer art program at New York University. It was during this program that she created a series of paintings that focus on different people interacting in public spaces. Part of this series focuses on the skateboarders who hang out each summer in Buchmuller Park.
“Most people see them as sort of like ‘outlaws,’ and that’s what fascinated me about them, ’cause really, they’re just kids – and they’re our kids,” she said. “They’re part of this community. When you see them out in the park, it’s interesting to see the reaction they get, ’cause it’s usually a negative reaction. But I want people to see another side of these kids through my paintings.”

Remaking the ultimate public space: Town Hall

It is this desire to spark discussion in public spaces that gave Dargan the idea to transform one of the most used, and overlooked, public spaces locally: Secaucus Town Hall.
The artist is now working with local officials to give Town Hall a much needed facelift. The project has so far involved repainting the various public spaces in Town Hall and will eventually include the selection of new artwork for the space. Most if not all of the artwork is expected to come from local artists.
Already Dargan’s efforts have generated discussion. At a Town Council meeting last month, residents spontaneously weighed in on whether or not they liked the shades of mint green that had been selected for Town Hall’s open space.
“Most people who come [to Town Hall] come here because they’re in trouble,” Dargan pointed out. “They’re either going to court, or they’re going to the police station. So I wanted to bring a sense of calm to the space. I did a lot of research on colors. And the colors I selected are ones that work subconsciously to soothe your mind and emotions.”
Days later, standing in Town Hall, Dargan explained that the open space actually includes three shades of green that are subtly different from each other.
“You can’t see it now because the skylight is covered in snow,” she said. “But in the daytime when there’s no snow, light filtering in from the skylight will hit the walls and the slightly different colors will produce a really nice effect. But it’s not going to be bold or overpowering.”
Dargan is already planning the next stage of the Town Hall renovation project: a community-wide art show, which will open on Mon., March 7. The purpose of the curated show, she said, will be to “change the feeling of the space within Secaucus’ Municipal Government Center, to change the way people perceive government.”
She hopes the show will also “acknowledge the many different cultures and backgrounds that reside in our town and provide a venue for local artists.”
The artworks will likely hang in Town Hall for a short period of time, with a community reception held during the March 7 debut.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at


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