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Art review: ‘Kea’s Ark of Newark: A Life in Works’

November 4, 2016

Consider the famed Watts Towers of Los Angeles. This work of “outsider art,” a fairyland of spiraling, mosaic-encrusted structures built by an Italian immigrant in his backyard, narrowly escaped government demolition in the 1960s. As Calvin Trillin wrote in a 1965 New Yorker piece, “If a man who has not labeled himself an artist happens to produce a work of art, he is likely to cause a lot of confusion and inconvenience.”

That probably goes doubly if the artist is a woman and triply if the artwork in question stands in the way of redevelopment. So it happened that some 30 years ago, an eccentric Japanese-American woman named Kea Tawana clashed with Newark Mayor Sharpe James, and North Jersey lost what might have been its own Watts Towers, a 100-ton wooden boat that rose up out of the devastation of the city’s Central Ward.

It was known back then as “Kea’s Ark,” and though its creator had no religious motivations, the hulking ship bore comparisons with Noah’s creation in appearance and its timeless construction methods. Its massive skeletal hull, temporarily covered in places by scrap plywood until tongue-and-groove planks could be installed, may have given it a ramshackle appearance. But that belied its precise craftsmanship. At least one architecture professor taught a class on its decks.

Tawana was, and remains, something of a cipher. She claimed to have been born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American engineer father, but other stories tell of origins on a Hopi reservation in Arizona. The real story is unlikely to ever come out. Tawana died in August in Port Jervis, N.Y., the city where she had been living in near-anonymity since being driven from Newark in the late 1980s.

Now, Gallery Aferro in Newark has mounted an exhibit recalling the saga of the ark. It also celebrates Tawana’s subsequent creative work in Port Jervis. Visitors to the Market Street gallery are greeted by sparkling stained glass windows in original geometric and representational designs, all made from the colored glass Tawana salvaged from abandoned churches and synagogues.

Elsewhere are cabinets precisely designed to hold her notebooks, drawings, mineral samples and folders of documentary material. Drawings include plans for converting train cars into residences, designs for a utopian city and a relief map of a mountainous landscape with notes from her own hikes. She also made copper jewelry, including a handsome necklace with charms in the shape of hand tools.

Among the arguments mounted in the ark’s defense was that it embodied the history of a once-proud industrial and culturally enlightened city. Working as a demolition contractor, Tawana salvaged massive hemlock beams and other valuable wood from hundred-year-old schools, factories and residences. She used bank-teller glass for porthole windows, a clothesline pole as a bowsprit and various pieces of machinery and plumbing for the ship’s mechanical systems.

That a solitary middle-aged woman, working from plans found in old, salvaged books and without access to mechanized cranes and the like, could move and assemble incredibly heavy materials so skillfully drew admiration from all quarters. After an article appeared in The Record in March 1987, hundreds of readers phoned its switchboard and Newark city agencies to voice support for the ark, though because of a wrong digit on one of Kea’s signs, some 250 of them reached a Whippany clothing manufacturer.

More than one writer described it as a phoenix rising from the ashes of Newark’s ruins. If good publicity could have saved the ark, it would still be there today. The story soon went national, culminating with Kea being named one of Newsweek magazine’s 51 unsung heroes. Still, no amount of publicity, nor dollar donations, nor testimonials could reconcile the city to the ark’s continued presence in a redevelopment neighborhood – or anywhere in the city.

Newspaper blowups trace a downward spiral through a series of standoffs and skirmishes with city officials. Tawana’s intentions for the vessel went from launching it in the water and sailing away, to moving it to some park where, like the Watts Towers, it could be appreciated as art and social history. But efforts to find a relocation site for the ark were fruitless, the expense of moving it prohibitive, and by the fall of 1988 she had exhausted her legal options. Served with a court order, she chose to destroy the ark herself, cutting it up with a chain saw in about a month’s time.

The exhibit does a fine job of capturing the outpouring of interest and support from the community. A TV news feature includes neighborhood boys rapping about the ark and a fireman defending its structural solidity. Visitors who pick up a payphone on the gallery wall can hear oral histories, recordings from City Council meetings and personal reminiscences, including some by those who came in visiting school groups.

The more one sees of Tawana’s creative outpourings, the more one realizes how much Newark lost when it destroyed this unique structure. The exhibit, co-sponsored by the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience at Rutgers-Newark, includes a two-month program of lectures, readings and performances.