March 27, 2024

Arts Council Honors Paul Robeson’s Legacy

By Donald Gilpin

In honor of Paul Robeson’s 126th birthday, an eclectic, multi-media celebration will take place at the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP) on April 9 at 5:30 p.m.

The event will feature historical-personal commentary by neighborhood historian and Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society President Shirley Satterfield; a presentation of the Robeson Clay Project, a multi-disciplinary initiative bringing together ACP artists, Princeton High School (PHS) science students, and Paul Robeson House of Princeton curators; and a flamenco performance presented by dancer/choreographer Lisa Botalico and inspired by Robeson’s speech in support of resistance against fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

The clay project, directed by Ryan Stark Lilienthal, the Anne Reeves Artist-in-Residence at the ACP, “combined the study of history, science, and sustainability, while commemorating Paul Robeson’s legacy by connecting with the earth at his birthplace and creative expression,”  noted Lilienthal.

Using clay from the construction site at the Robeson House at 110 Witherspoon Street, which is currently undergoing renovations, Lilienthal and ACP Executive Director Adam Welch worked with PHS science students to create artifacts and tiles bearing Robeson quotations.

“The ceramic tiles are imprinted with Robeson’s powerful words and these young artists now have claim to being part of it all,” said Welch. The tiles were fired in the ACP ceramic studio and will be on display at the ACP April 9 birthday celebration.

Joy Barnes-Johnson, Princeton Public Schools science supervisor and also a board member of the Robeson House of Princeton, expressed admiration for the accomplishments of the project.

“As the Paul Robeson House of Princeton strives to ‘make Robeson a household name,’ it is perfectly fitting that the ACP and Ryan Lilienthal would want to reclaim soil from the construction site to echo the important history of the Robeson family legacy of social justice work,”

said Barnes-Johnson. “We are delighted to partner with ACP, students, and families from the community in cementing Robesonian thoughts and artistry in our community.”

Robeson was born and spent his early childhood in Princeton. The son of a former slave who became a preacher, Robeson gained fame for his singing, acting, and athletic accomplishments, as well as for his activist political stance.

Welch, in a recent phone interview, described how the Robeson clay project had come together.  He and Lilienthal share a common interest in clay and ceramics. One day last December Liliental was walking past the Robeson House renovation site, and he noticed what looked like clay of unusually high quality.

“A lot of people don’t realize that clay is just beneath our feet, a large part of the world,” Welch noted. “We brought it back to the Arts Council and tested and fired it. It fired beautifully. It’s this gorgeous, deep, red maroon brownish color — an amazing clay.”

They contacted the Paul Robeson House of Princeton, told them their plan for a  project using the clay, and asked if they could dig out a couple of five-gallon buckets of clay before the construction project was completed.

“We love this idea of memory, and I really like the idea of the earth and this particular part of the earth in representing history and representing Robeson’s birth house, and we wanted to present our project at the Paul Robeson birthday celebration in April,” said Welch.

Welch and Lilienthal then decided to partner with PHS science teacher James Smirk and his students, who came to the ACP in early March, dug clay at the Robeson House, then returned to the ACP to make small artifacts for themselves and to stamp quotations from Robeson that Welch and Lilienthal had prepared onto clay tiles.

“It’s basically sacred clay, from the home of Princeton’s native son,” said Welch. “It’s beautiful clay and it’s fired, and it’s got a quote by him on it. There will be a set on display at the Robeson House and another set at the Arts Council. Ryan  will keep a set, and the Robeson House is going to get the extras.”

Welch pointed out that the ACP is also named the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts. “We talked with the students about who Paul Robeson was and why this is significant. We’ve created a display on Robeson,” he said.

He continued, “I also talked about the clay and Paul Robeson and the significance of the project, and James talked about material culture, objects, and the making of objects and their value. Then Ryan talked about remembrance and memory and why he’s interested in doing this project, and Ben Colbert of the Paul Robeson House of Princeton talked to them about Robeson again before they left.”

Welch added, “It was a great project. Essentially what we wanted to do was to use this opportunity to teach people about naturally occurring clay, about wild clay, and most importantly we wanted to spread the word about Paul Robeson.”

Smirk, who teaches environmental science at PHS, discussed the value of the project for his mixed-age group of 23 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. “It was a great field experience for us,” he said. “We did some nice work that links the work we did in class on soil systems to a real-world application. Some students may look at science as people in lab coats with a bunch of chemistry materials lying around. This brings more direct applications for them. The approach here and the immediacy and location of it really drove home that these things are not just abstract concepts but things you make day to day.”

He added, “We really appreciate any opportunity to approach the community, as well as having an interdisciplinary approach to learning for our students. As a teacher I really appreciate the role that the Arts Council has taken here, including us in a really valuable learning experience, and I hope that this can be an example for future opportunities for our students and our community to work together.”

Barnes-Johnson emphasized the importance of the project from the perspectives of both the legacy of Robeson and the goals of sustainability. “We’re trying to look at sustainability and sustainable development as key goals for students to learn about, so that when they’re adults they make better choices,” she said. “This was the perfect project for us to have kids start to think that in Princeton the soil is clay, so you turn that clay into material to make other things rather than just discard it or watch it erode into our rivers, lakes and oceans, as often happens.”

She went on to note Lilienthal’s focus on memorializing history. “Everyone deserves to remember our history, and these tiles are a way to do it,” she said.

Visit for more information on the tile project and the April 9 Paul Robeson celebration.