February 29, 2012

Preserving Memories, Marking Celebrations; PAC Artist-in-Residence Works With Community

UNSUNG HERO: During his residency at the Arts Council of Princeton, studio artist and educator Thaddeus Erdahl created this bust of Archibald Campbell Seruby, a.k.a. Spader, the Peanut Man.

“I just showed up at Communiversity and said I wanted to help out with something,” said Thaddeus Erdahl recounting his introduction to the Princeton Arts Council (PAC) over a year ago. “So they put me to work making cotton candy, a truly enlightening moment in my life.”

Although Mr. Erdahl, who describes himself as an “independent studio artist and educator,” was “covered from head to toe with sugary webs of pink and blue” by the end of the day, he had also gotten to know Arts Council Executive Director Jeff Nathanson and staffers Mark Germond and Maria Evans, among others. A job as a ceramics instructor at PAC soon followed and, encouraged by ceramics manager Kathleen Preziosi, Mr. Erdahl put together a residency application; he then was approved.

The Iowa-born artist’s stint at the Arts Council has been based largely on his interest in using ceramic sculpture and portraiture “for documenting what I see in human nature.” Another important element in his approach to art, he says, is humor; “one of the most attractive qualities of human behavior.

“Some things in life are so serious, you have to laugh at them,” Mr. Erdahl added. “Working with concepts that are personal and sometimes with narcissistic perceptions of the gloomy side of life, humor is my buffer.”

Mr. Erdahl incorporated Princeton into his work at the Arts Council by creating a sculpture of Archibald Campbell Seruby, a.k.a. “Spader, the Peanut Man,” whom he described as “unsung, but noteworthy.” A June 15, 1929 article in the Daily Princetonian reported that “Spader, the old Negro peanut man” who has “taken on the aspect of a landmark,” would be on hand at the game against Yale that afternoon, “for his peddling license has been renewed.”

“My intention was to express, teach, and preserve the memory of Archibald Seruby,” said. Mr. Erdahl. “Every community, perhaps most especially Princeton, has been influenced by the lives of colorful characters who have yet to be formally recognized. I portrayed not only the outward appearance, but also a more intimate or hidden aspect of his persona. Instead of the traditional, stoic, portrait bust, this sculpture is a humanized, personalized representation of Mr. Seruby, the peanut man.”

In addition to producing art, Mr. Erdahl’s residency included the chance to work with members of the community, and, he reported, “like all good plans,” some “unexpected opportunities” came along.

Several weeks into his residency Ms. Evans, who is the Arts Council of Princeton’s Community Programs Manager, asked Mr. Erdahl to participate in their annual Day of the Dead Exhibition. “I was honored to be asked, so I changed gears for a few weeks to work on several sculptures for the exhibition,” Mr. Erdahl reported. One result was a group ceramic project titled Mariposa. “Together with a mixed age group of teens, tweens, and children we created a wall sculpture consisting of over 100 press-moulded ceramic skulls that, when assembled in a specific grid configuration, created an image of a monarch butterfly,” reported Mr. Erdahl. “I was really proud of the dedication and support that I received from such a young demographic. The children were so excited to know that they were responsible for part of the sculpture.”

Indeed, the whole Arts Council of Princeton experience has been a positive one for Mr. Erdahl. “They are a wonderful group who gave me a sense of place in a new community,” he observed.

At the moment, Mr. Erdahl is at the University of Northern Iowa, filling in for his undergraduate professor, Jo Ann Schnable, who is on sabbatical this semester. After that, he said, he’ll “be heading back to Princeton, picking up where things left off.”

To learn more about the Princeton Arts Council visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.