Tom Rutledge, Pine Shores Artists Resurrect ‘The Shack’ in Mural to Adorn Stafford Municipal Offices

By VICTORIA FORD | Jun 19, 2019
Photo by: Lexi Schnell

Stafford Township — A team of artists from Pine Shores Art Association took up residence in a meeting room at Stafford town hall last week for the purpose of painting a 57-square-foot mural on canvas to hang in the mayor’s office.

Leading the project was award-winning West Creek-based artist Tom Rutledge, whose excellence was recognized this spring by the Ocean County Cultural and Heritage Commission in the form of a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Township officials had approached Rutledge about creating a work of art to beautify the municipal office – specifically the drab broad side of a large filing cabinet located just outside the mayor’s and administrator’s offices.

It’s an area of high visibility and quite a bit of foot traffic, Stafford Mayor Greg Myhre said.

The design of the artwork was left up to Rutledge. He chose the old Causeway Shack, that beloved pile of sticks that stood in the marsh to the south of Route 72 for decades, abandoned, left to deteriorate, until finally it washed away in Superstorm Sandy of 2012.

He felt “The Shack” (formerly a hunting shack belonging to the Happy Days Gunning Club) was the ideal choice because of its historic significance to the town as a cherished landmark and subject of countless stories, photographs and paintings.

“I wanted to come up with something people can look at every day and not get bored,” he added.

For Myhre and his administration, the project is a source of pride and “summarizes what great art is really all about,” he said, combining art, community and municipal government and celebrating local history and the natural environment. It also highlights Pine Shores as an important organization within the community, Myhre said – “a real credit to us, to have them among us,” he said.

The finished work will be the largest piece of art to come to town hall since it was built in 1998, he added.

During a visit to the makeshift studio to view the work in progress, the personality of the shack was beginning to show, in the finer details – planks akimbo, holes in the roof where sky comes through; clouds stretching out from behind the building, pushing the shack forward; the path through the grass inviting the viewer to walk right up to the windows and peek into the darkness within.

To Rutledge, Myhre said, “I feel like you’re bringing it back to life.” Myhre noted the Shack’s original footprint and support pilings remain, hinting at the possibility of rebuilding something in its place.

Once the artistic undertaking became known, Rutledge said he had “a lot of different people feeding me information to put it together.” Someone gave Rutledge a printout from the website that showed an architectural rendering by Joseph Tarella, who had collected actual measurements and specifications to create a conceptual drawing that included a floor plan and views from every direction. As of 2010, some local Shack lovers were determined to raise funds to restore and preserve the structure while landowner Chet Atkins was working on clearing the title, but Sandy got the final word.

The mural depicts the Shack of the late ’80s or early ’90s –“at the peak of its glory,” Myhre said, “before the roof caved in” – surrounded by marsh and bay in the vibrant colors of late spring. Rutledge had long ago done a Shack painting, from which he had worked up a new sketch, and paired it with reference photos he took recently of the natural scenery.

Composition and perspective were extremely important, Rutledge explained, with the goal to draw the viewer in. The height and width are fixed, but the artists’ job is to create the illusion of depth and distance, he said.

The artists Rutledge assembled were Peggy Mahan of Barnegat, Sue Porter of Ship Bottom, Dee Turba of Tuckerton and Nancy Sterr Lang of Tuckerton.

Why those particular ladies?

“We’re his favorite students,” Mahan kidded.

“I still don’t know how I got talked into it,” Turba joked.

Rutledge said he selected people he knew would be enthusiastic and able to take direction “and understand the way I work,” he said. Four was the perfect number; too many and the job becomes harder to manage, he explained.

As dedicated mentees, the women all said being involved in the project was a big honor and an invaluable opportunity to learn from a master.

They had never worked on anything quite like the large-scale piece, and acrylic paint as a medium was new to the mainly watercolor artists, too. Mahan, for one, had some prior experience with the subject matter, as she had once made a watercolor painting of the Shack in its American flag phase.

“For me, it’s the first time I’ve done something like this,” Lang said. She called it a privilege to work with Rutledge and her talented co-painters.

The group got started the afternoon of Tuesday, June 4, and finished up the following Thursday, working full days, divided into shifts.

Carpenter Ed Rennar built the 6-by-9½-foot frame, and Rutledge and his crew stretched the canvas. “There was a lot of physics involved,” Rutledge said.

They worked on the canvas upright, propped against an open wall in the conference room with a tarp spread out below. On the conference table was a smaller canvas with a miniature version of the mural sketched on it, for Rutledge to demonstrate technique and test out colors. Rutledge said his job was to direct the vision, to keep the project under control and to help the group achieve cohesion and harmony.

The fast-drying acrylics mean work could progress quickly and will last indefinitely, Rutledge said.

“The consistency of it is very impressive, too,” Myhre added, referring to how the different artists’ work all blends together. Their system was to work in shifts, two at a time, side by side, with Rutledge adding finishing touches to pull it together.

The artists agreed the hardest part is knowing when to stop.

“We could work on it forever,” they said.

“That’s why I’m here,” Rutledge said, “to say, ‘That’s enough, there.’”

The true mark of completion, in keeping with Rutledge’s tradition, would be when all five artists had placed their fingerprint somewhere in the paint. Rutledge said he does that with his index finger somewhere in all of his paintings, “so the DNA is there.”

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