Artist Faith Ringgold gets a welcome — long overdue — in Bergen

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You don't get a second chance to make a first impression. But in the case of the world-renowned artist Faith Ringgold, Bergen County is — at least — trying.

Thirty years after she met with "resistance" (her word) by neighbors when she arrived in Englewood to set up her own studio, North Jersey is giving her the royal welcome she didn't get in 1992.

Not, for Ringgold, an unfamiliar story arc.

"I have spent my entire life facing challenging situations and turning them into positive outcomes," Ringgold said.

Faith Ringgold
Faith Ringgold

"Faith Ringgold: Coming to Jones Road" in Paramus, and "The Art of Faith Ringgold" in Teaneck are concurrent local art exhibitions, both up this month and running through April.

They're part of a package that also includes a newly-commissioned jazz suite in her honor, a children's craft program and an oral history project. Three grants are helping fund the whole thing, including $10,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts.

"This is an homage to someone who is long overdue for recognition in her own community," said Tim Blunk, director of Gallery Bergen at Bergen Community College in Paramus.

All the honors

Put together, these events are the biggest tribute ever given to Ringgold in her own county. And "Coming to Jones Road," running through April 27, is a first for this area. "This work has never been shown in Bergen County before," Blunk said.

From left, Tim Blunk, director or Gallery Bergen at BCC and Gwenette Reese, a friend of Faith Ringgold, look at Coming to Jones Road #1 at BCC. An exhibit of Faith Ringgold is on display at the Gallery Bergen at Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ on Thursday Feb. 2, 2023.
From left, Tim Blunk, director or Gallery Bergen at BCC and Gwenette Reese, a friend of Faith Ringgold, look at Coming to Jones Road #1 at BCC. An exhibit of Faith Ringgold is on display at the Gallery Bergen at Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ on Thursday Feb. 2, 2023.

Perhaps it doesn't really add luster to an already illustrious Q.V. — one that includes being in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney, The Guggenheim, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Perhaps it isn't as impressive as being a staple of art textbooks, a subject of dissertations, the namesake of a public school in Northern California. Perhaps it doesn't even rate the bragging rights of being a Trivial Pursuit answer: "Which famous artist painted Campbell's soup cans?" (hint — not Faith Ringgold).

But it's a nice thought.

"New Jersey has been my home for almost 30 years," said Ringgold, 92. "Support for local institutions is very important for the cultural life of a community."

That community, she might argue, has not always been so supportive of her.

Rocky start

Exhibit A is the "Coming to Jones Road" pieces, 21 from an ongoing series that Ringgold has been doing, over the years, in multiple media. They are, among other things, an attempt to exorcise old demons.

"Coming to Jones Road #1" by Faith Ringgold
"Coming to Jones Road #1" by Faith Ringgold

Some of them are "narrative quilts" — the acrylic-on-fabric form she pioneered and made famous. Paragraphs of text are built into the picture. Squares of fabric pay homage to the African American quilting of her ancestors.

"The story quilts were a natural progression from my series of oil paintings in the 1960s," she said. "The last three oil paintings were monumental in size, which posed several problems. As a feminist, I wanted the ability to paint large without having to rely on my husband or anyone else to help me move them around."

Paintings — as anyone who has ever tried to move one can tell you — can weigh a ton.

A big part of that is the frame. And that was the germ of Ringgold's big breakthrough.

"I discovered Tibetan tankas [Tibetan Buddhist paintings on fabric] in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and realized a solution — to quilt the borders in place of wooden frames," Ringgold said. "This made the work easy to handle and lightweight without compromising size. I wrote my words on the quilts when I couldn't get my autobiography published, not realizing I created a unique medium all my own."

One of her most famous works in this vein is "Tar Beach" — her tribute to the wonderful evenings on city rooftops where kids, from time immemorial, have partied, picnicked and slept.

"Tar Beach #2" by Faith Ringgold
"Tar Beach #2" by Faith Ringgold

The piece, part of her "Woman on a Bridge" series, was the basis for the first of her 21 children's books, the award-winning "Tar Beach." It's part of the Bergen exhibit.

Others pieces in the "Coming to Jones Road" exhibit are silk screens and etchings.

That's Jones Road, as in Englewood. A pretty upscale part of it — not far from Flat Rock Brook Nature Center.

Ringgold, originally from Harlem, moved there with her husband, Burdette "Birdie" Ringgold, in 1992 — after she had already established herself internationally as a painter, sculptor, performance artist, innovator in fabric-based art, author, political activist, and voice for the disenfranchised, especially African Americans and women.

It did not go well.

Best laid plans

"When my husband and I moved to Englewood from Harlem the zoning board opposed my plans," Ringgold said. "The neighbors rallied to stop the addition of a studio."

It was a heated conflict. How heated can be seen in an exchange of letters, years later, in the summer of 2004 in the Northern Valley Suburbanite.

The hostility was "largely" on Ringgold's side, claimed one neighbor in a June 30 letter. She had personally gone to welcome the artist to the street, she said. "I was happy that the neighborhood was becoming racially mixed and said as much that day," she wrote.

There were objections — she noted — to Ringgold building a two story studio in her backyard. "Yes, the neighbors did not care for this idea," this woman wrote. But they were "more than happy" for her to add a second-floor studio to the existing house.

Ringgold responded, Aug. 25, by citing a 1993 Board of Adjustment meeting. A "full house" of hostile neighbors, as she remembered it.

"One after another they testified that my artists' studio was really a ploy to build a 'two family dwelling' which would create a 'parking lot' in front of my house and 'diminish the quality of life,' " she wrote.

In other words: There Goes the Neighborhood. "Blatant racism," she called it.

"They brought me to court and ultimately lost after several years," Ringgold told The Record.

In the end, she got her studio. Or at least, a studio. "I have a wonderful spacious bright studio on the second floor which has been a blessing," she said. You might also say that she got the last word.

Thanks to her "Coming to Jones Road" series, which she began in 1999 while the story was still unfolding, it's Ringgold's take on events that people know. That's one advantage of being a famous artist.

But in the bigger scheme of things, who really gets the last word? Not the Faith Ringgolds of the world.

A bigger story

African Americans, in this country, are still seen as interlopers in white folks' neighborhoods. They are there at the sufferance of the majority. And that may be what Ringgold is getting at in her "Jones Road" pieces — which are not, Blunk points out, an angry screed or a victory lap. In fact, they're not literally about the events of 1992 at all.

"Anyone would have understood if she had done a very angry series, very in-your-face protest art," Blunk said. "She's known for that, from her work in the '60s. Instead, she took a very different path."

What Ringgold has chosen to tell is a fictionalized version of her own family history, going back to the days of slavery.

"She said, I'm going to honor the ancestors who brought me to this studio that I'm building in Englewood," Blunk said. "It was really a sublime reaction to it all."

"Coming to Jones Road -- Under a Blood Red Sky #6" by Faith Ringgold
"Coming to Jones Road -- Under a Blood Red Sky #6" by Faith Ringgold

There is a narrative, in wraparound writing, on the pieces: the story of Barn Door, Precious, and Baby Freedom, making their way North to the white house of their Aunt Emmy (based on her great-grandmother, Betsy Bingham), on Jones Road. Shadowy figures in black paint — some with auras or haloes — can be seen trooping through in the forest, under a blood-red sky, toward the welcoming white house in Englewood. Sanctuary? Maybe.

"It's important to find the bright light in a bad situation," Ringgold said.

It's a powerful narrative. So much so that it inspired BCC to create an ancillary program.

"The Ancestors Journey Oral History Project" invites North Jersey residents to record the stories of their own forebears.

Quotes from some of them will be used as part of a theater presentation at the College's Ciccone Theater on April 27. A newly-commissioned jazz suite, by famed Teaneck bassist and composer Rufus Reid, will accompany images of the "Jones Road" art, and snippets of narrative, in what Blunk calls a "verbatim theater event."

"We're trying to encourage people from the African American community to tell their own ancestor stories, to share their own ancestor journeys," Blunk said.

Children's Hour

And there's yet another side to Ringgold: her work with, and for, children. That's what inspired another adjunct feature of the BCC show: the "Children's Makerspace."

"She's all about children," Blunk said. "She has such a way of tapping into that child's unsullied, unpolluted, joyful view of the world."

At BCC, kids will be encouraged to make their own art, tell their own stories, with the aid of on-site child development experts. The Black Child Development Initiative (Paramus affiliate), the BCC Child Development Center, and the Bergen County Office for Children have partnered to create the program, adjacent to the museum space, which is by appointment only (Visit

All of it is very much in the Ringgold spirit.

"When you see Faith Ringgold's work, particularly works like 'Dancing on the George Washington Bridge' or 'Tar Beach,' it takes you back to that place as a child where play is the first thing in your mind, and invention is a natural part of your daily experience," Blunk said.

Meanwhile, six miles away in Teaneck, there is a second Ringgold show, running simultaneously with the Paramus exhibit. "The Art of Faith Ringgold" will also consist of some 20 pieces, mostly smaller prints. It runs Feb. 26 to April 28.

"The other exhibit focuses more on her experience when she moved to Englewood," said Andrew Lee, director of Puffin Cultural Forum. "The Puffin exhibit displays a more varied selection of prints and images. There are works regarding Faith's love of music, and portraits of Black historical figures."

So the "Coming to Jones Road" story has a happy ending — to this extent. The Englewood studio that Ringgold fought for, 30 years ago, has been very, very busy since.

"I have felt at home since I moved in despite my neighbors' resistance," Ringgold said. "I focused on my work and my career moved forward."

If you go

"Faith Ringgold: Coming to Jones Road." At Gallery Bergen, West Hall, Bergen Community College, 400 Paramus Road, Paramus, through April 27. (201) 447-7100 or

"The Art of Faith Ringgold." At the Puffin Cultural Forum, 20 Puffin Way, Teaneck. (201) 836-3499 or

This article originally appeared on Artist Faith Ringgold exhibits her works in Bergen