By Armond Marke, Class of 2016
On Newark Avenue, between Fourth and Fifth Street, you may notice two neighboring buildings, one of them under construction and the other, a blue and grey stoned facade. The owners are hoping that these two buildings will soon merge to become the center of the thriving New Jersey arts scene.
Above the Monaco Lock company lies Merseles Studios, located on 339 Newark Avenue and owned by real estate developer, Ben LoPiccolo and his wife, theatre and dance professional Olga Levina.
Merseles studio is Jersey City’s newest performing and visual arts space that is only part of a much bigger plan, the revamp of White Eagle Hall located just next door, in the hopes to solidify the newly proclaimed Jersey City Theatre Center.
Live music and theatre has been lacking in Jersey City, known for its emerging bar and restaurant scene, but that will soon change with the opening of the multipurpose arts venue, which promises much more than the Lowe’s Jersey Theatre in Journal Square, which will usually just show movies and host events like weddings.
According to the JCTCenter.org website, the not-for-profit workshop environment, promises “fully equipped” and “affordable” artistic spaces for those who are interested in showcasing their talents and developing themselves as artists in the Jersey City community.
“Art draws in all kinds of people,” LoPiccolo said, and himself included. “I am a real estate developer and I never thought I would have so much fun doing it and I am having a great time participating in the arts.”
LoPiccolo refers to Merseles Studios as a “laboratory,” a “small but wonderful place where artists can collaborate with each other and the audience.”
While art may not be Ben LoPiccolo’s strong field, it is most certainly his wife’s. “I worked in performing arts all my life and of course I have friends in visual arts, but I never worked so closely with them,” Levina said. “You guys on the rooftops, in the basements, everywhere and anywhere, on the streets doing an incredible job, you are our inspirations truly.”
Ben and Olga are not the only faces behind the project, partnering with a real asset to the development of the Jersey City Theatre Center. Thomas Carlson, 32, is the director of the Jersey City Arts School and also the curator and visual arts director for the JCTC.
“Initially Ben LoPiccolo and Olga got in touch with us about basically taking a look at this space and seeing if there was a way we can work with it in regards to creating some sort of link to the artist community,” Carlson said. “I think that Merseles Studios is one of the first steps in regard to linking dance and performance along with the immediate needs of visual artists, and I see this as the first step towards JCTC doing that with this location and also with White Eagle Hall next door.”
Chris La Putt, 32, is a music photographer and contributor to JCTC, who was happy to find out that Merseles Studios is connected with the White Eagle Hall. “I am extremely fortunate to have my work shown at Merseles Studios since it is the first time I ever showed my work in Jersey City as a resident for over 20 years. My work has appeared in a number of publications worldwide and a few shows in New York City, so finally having a piece in Jersey City is a bit of a defining moment for me personally,” La Putt said.
“I think JCTC can benefit the community by letting Jersey City residents enjoy the performing and visual arts in their own city as opposed to traveling across the river to New York like I have been doing.” Travel and expense to New York can be a real inconvenience for artists living in New Jersey.
“ I know a number of artists who have been forced out of New York by rising prices and I feel that Jersey City has been accommodating a number of those people such as myself for a number of years,” La Putt added.
Boasting a 5,000-square-foot facility that features a flexible performance space, art gallery and 10 private artists work spaces, Merseles Studios is surely to be a hit within the artistic community in Jersey City.
“Well, I have to tell you that I asked Ben about 10 years ago to go sky diving, and he said this is it,” Levina joked.
“Here in Merseles Studios, we would like to create a dialogue between artists and the community, because only by coming together and sometimes maybe experimenting, we can change things, and really change things.”
Opening night, titled Personal & Universal, for Merseles Studios was on April 26, where artists like Ladell Mclin and his partner Myssi Robinson were able to showcase their artistic abilities in front of a Jersey City community crowd.
“It felt like I was home,” Ladell said. “When artists step into a place of being home, than he can express the full expression of his art there.” Ladell and Robinson met on a train and next thing they know they were doing a play together. “I don’t know how that happened,” Ladell said jokingly.
According to the JCTCenter.org website, its mission “is to present innovative and progressive performing and visual arts as well as educational art programs which embrace the diverse identity and preserve the rich history of Jersey City.” Merseles Studios will feature a number of programs from partners like Puppet Works, where Chief Puppeteer Michael Leach and his team will “produce traditional marionette shows.”
“Jersey City is so diverse, I think it is a central point, these stories have been around for hundreds of years and have worked and have many versions from many cultures,” Leach said. “It is a traditional art form that everyone can appreciate.”
All proceeds go to the Jersey City Theatre Center, where Ben, Olga, and the rest of the team and partners will continue to work until restoration is complete. White Eagle Hall, according to LoPiccolo, “Is slowly shaping up and we are hopefully getting it open this year.”