After being out-of-date for more than a decade, Secaucus Town Hall’s portrait gallery now has the three most recent mayors’ faces gazing down from the halls of the council chambers: Dennis Elwell, Richard Steffens, and current Mayor Michael Gonnelli.
Local artist Richard Moglia was commissioned by the town for the three portraits, and created detailed, lifelike renderings. Steffens and Elwell were painted based on existing photographs. For Gonnelli, Moglia shot the reference photo himself.
“The artist who’s doing the painting should take the photograph,” said Moglia. “It has to be dramatic, with the light shining off of his face, and the shadows. That’s what gives a living feeling to the painting.”
The photo was taken in council chambers, where Gonnelli regularly presides. What makes it especially notable is that Gonnelli is dressed as a fire chief, a role he held in the volunteer department beginning in 2004.
“Everybody else is in a suit and tie. I’m in my fire uniform.” –Mayor Michael Gonnelli
Ultimately the case went to court and to the state legislature. Gonnelli prevailed, and served out the end of his six-year term as chief. “As a firefighter it’s everybody’s goal to become chief,” he said.
The portrait is exact to the smallest detail. For example, Moglia did additional research on the decorations adorning Gonnelli’s uniform, including a 9/11 pin given to him by NYC firefighters. “I understand the importance of these things,” said Moglia. “It had to be accurate.”
Bringing history up to date
The chronology of mayoral portraits had trailed off after Anthony Just, who served as mayor until 1999. His successor, Dennis Elwell, resigned in 2009 from the position amidst charges filed against him as part of Operation Bid Rig, a joint operation of the FBI, IRS, and the U.S. Attorney’s office investigating political corruption and money laundering.
Despite maintaining his innocence, Elwell was sentenced to two and a half years in federal prison. He was released in October 2014.
Elwell was replaced in office by Richard Steffens, who served as interim mayor for four months until the next elected mayor, Gonnelli, was sworn in at the start of 2010.
The episode resulted in a break in the chain of mayors depicted in portraits in Town Hall. But Gonnelli felt it was important to give every mayor his due. “You have to keep that continuity,” he said. “It’s a progression.”
Embracing heritage and culture
Gonnelli first became aware of the artist when Moglia’s wife posted one of his charcoal sketches of the mayor on Facebook. “We got together and his work speaks for itself,” said Gonnelli. “His stuff is phenomenal.”
When the proposal for the mayoral portraits came up, Moglia jumped at the chance. “It’s my town,” he said. “And I like the mayor. It’s a pleasure to paint someone you like.”
A highly-skilled and in-demand artist whose resume includes work for Marvel and DC Comics as well as numerous wildlife conservation causes, the Secaucus resident still remembers the first portrait he painted.
“Sitting Bull,” said Moglia, who is of Native American descent. “Because he was a big thing in my family. My father grew up on a reservation in Arizona, a Chiricahua Apache.”
Originally named Albert Brownwolf, Moglia’s father lived a rough life as an orphan on the reservation before making his way to New York, where he worked as an iron skywalker and then as a hairdresser, counting Lucille Ball among his clients.
“He was obsessed with Frank Sinatra,” Moglia laughs. “He changed his name twice. First to Espinoza, some aunt’s name. Then he changed it again to Moglia, a fictitious name. He just wanted to be Italian.”
Moglia is currently in the process of legally adopting Brownwolf as his middle name, embracing his heritage. “I want to perpetuate it,” he said. “Even the language. I speak Navajo and I want to keep it all going.”
Many of his recent artworks focus on Native American and western themes, as displayed on his Facebook page under the name Rich Mog. Some of his paintings are also available through Cherokee Trading Post.
Having already held a well-received one-man exhibition at the Secaucus Public Library, Moglia is tentatively scheduled for another next year. Expect to see more Native American subject matter this time.
But in the meantime, check out his mayoral portraits the next time you’re in Town Hall. Steffens and Elwell are already up on the rear wall. Gonnelli’s recently-completed painting is currently out for framing and will be added shortly.
“It’s all archival,” said Moglia proudly about his new additions to the municipal portrait gallery. “They’ll be here hundreds of years from now.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at email@example.com.