A Perfect Soup: John Fathom & Rock Soup Studios Create a Jersey City Art Scene Fixture at 660 Grand
Head west on Grand Street from Downtown Jersey City and about a mile after the Brownstone Diner, past the dividing line of the highway, you’ll come to a great hulking building next to a towing service. Nondescript, minus its address, 660, written large in black paint, the building’s exterior gives no clues to what’s inside.
This is the geode known as 660 Grand, a rock that opens to reveal jewel-like color and beauty. Its enormous size and mix of reasonably priced artist studio space is reminiscent of old New York and rare these days in Jersey City, and makes John Fathom, an artist and the building’s manager, feel like one very lucky man.
Fathom, along with John Ruddy and Nyugen Smith, runs the artist collective Rock Soup Studios, which coordinates exhibitions and events. The line between the building and group has blurred over the years, to the extent that Fathom named his blog 660 Soup.
“Rock Soup is the force that kind of pushes the building,” he says. “It’s artistic expression via whatever vehicle. A lot of the time it’s about having fun and making art but generating buzz in the process.”
Fathom has had his studio at 660 for eight years. Or “eight winters,” as he describes it, maybe because that is the most memorable season for a guy who used to live in Miami. There is heat, but not enough. (“It’s WAYYYYYY TOO COLD to work in the studio,” he wrote on his blog in February. “It’s TOO COLD to NOT work in the studio.”)
Over time, he has expanded his influence over the building, finding tenants, collecting rent payments, and helping with repairs on more and more of it. He now manages three floors of studio and gallery space — 10 studios and a dozen renters.
But more than that, he has helped to create a fixture in the city’s arts scene, one that has stuck around despite its location — far from PATH trains and the arts hub Downtown — as well as encroaching development.
Fathom was sure late last year he would lose it. For one thing, the building is listed for sale (asking price $1.7 million). And an inspection last fall by city fire officials spooked him.
There had been inspections before, but this one felt different.
“He told me, there’s a chance that this is going to be the end,” says Fathom’s longtime friend Brian Brunette, who roasted him at his 35th birthday party at the space earlier this month.
But inspectors were satisfied the artists were in compliance with zoning rules, according to city spokesperson Jennifer Morrill. She says there are no plans to inspect again anytime soon.
Still, the name of the sprawling gallery on 660′s ground floor is the Ark, “because the flood waters are rising,” says Ruddy.
Another concern of theirs is Jersey City Medical Center, which moved to its new location on Grand Street at Jersey Avenue in 2004 and has been expanding, building a five-story addition on Jersey Avenue for medical offices, renting a building across from the diner, and recently adding the Siperstein’s Paint building near the highway as well.
“Because we need to grow, we’re always looking at spaces,” says hospital spokesman Mark Rabson. However, “we don’t have any plans right now to grow further.”
And the city has put pressure on other DIY venues such as 58 Gallery, which has been issued tickets by police for “maintaining a nuisance” and operating without an entertainment license.
It’s one of the reason there aren’t more shows and big parties at 660. “The more events you throw, the more problems you have,” Fathom says.
Installation artist Maggie Ens had a studio at 660 after leaving her space at 111 1st Street when that building was shuttered.
660 Grand “is similar in that it’s a raw, creative space where we could create our own venues and share great ideas,” Ens says. “It had this kind of energy, this feeling like you were making something happen that seemed very vital.”
Actors, filmmakers, musicians, painters and sculptors all have shared the space at one time or another, an eclectic bohemian crew.
Fathom still is not sure what happens next.
“Grand Street is under gentrification, and a lot of people say to me, aren’t you worried about gentrification?” he says. “I got here eight years ago when there were hookers outside this building and high school kids having street fights, and I am gentrification.
“In some ways, maybe I kind of am the cause of my own undoing, but I think artists are pioneers. Artists’ roles are to go into dilapidated buildings, dilapidated neighborhoods, get ‘em all worked up, and then the city comes in and kicks you out. That’s what happens. And then we move to another city and we build it up.”
He does not want to leave, but has been thinking about where he would move if it came to that.
Probably someplace warmer.
‘You Can’t Help but Want to Make Stuff’
As an artist, Fathom believes in reincarnating stuff — old wood, hinges, latches, knobs and doors, pretty much anything he can get his hands on. When he lived in Queens, he would pick up his canvas — damaged or graffiti-tagged plexiglass — from the guy who switched out the posters at the Middle Village train station.
His everything-is-beautiful aesthetic helps explain the look of 660′s interior, which feels like one giant mixed-media artwork. On the painted-white brick walls of the Ark are Ruddy’s paintings in their sparkly gem-covered frames, Fathom’s glowing lightbox sculptures, and work by many of the artists who have passed through over the years.
“If you’re there all the time, you can’t help but want to make stuff,” says Smith, a sculpture, multimedia and conceptual artist who teaches art at St. Peter’s Prep. The walls “are like a timeline of everyone who’s come through.”
It’s a lot bigger than the gallery Fathom, Ruddy and another friend ran for less than a year near the corner of Erie Street and 8th Street (the space is now occupied by Parkside Bistro), named 001 because it was Rock Soup’s first gallery project.
There is plenty of space for performance at 660, and Fathom put on a short play with another tenant, actress Kit Vogelsang, at his birthday party. A few bands played that night as well.
For fun, there are a swing, fire pole, punching bag and climbing rope, and on one of the 18-foot ceilings, a gray and red tent pitched upside-down.
Fathom’s own space in the building is massive and filled with his artwork and handcrafted furniture. Renter Robin Souma uses her space for her photography work. Ryan Iozzia, a singer-songwriter, plays his music. The band Thomas Francis Takes His Chances left a few months ago, making way for a new band now using the in-house recording studio.
And the building has yet another unusual draw, a private skateboarding club making use of two indoor half-pipes. Plus Jersey City Screen Printing, a T-shirt company.
Abstract painter and photographer Mark Finne describes his studio at 660 as cluttered but organized. Finne, who paints wearing ChromaDepth 3D glasses he got at a Pink Floyd laser light show in the ’90s, has had art studios all over the city. He likes this one for the camaraderie and the constant feedback he gets from his peers.
“If you’re out of art school, your chance for a critique is really only during exhibitions,” Finne says. “With a space like this, you have people say all the time, ‘What do you think of this?’ ‘I’m thinking of this color, this material.’ John [Fathom] and I have a very regular critique of each other’s work.”
Fathom likes that there’s still an air of mystery about the place, even after all this time. He still gets questions from local residents and passers-by about the building and its changing crew of artists. It reminds him of the Tom Waits song “What’s he Building?” — What’s he building in there? What the hell is he building in there?
At the same time, he wants to get the word out about the space — just in case.
He wants people to know this is not just some building sitting in squalor at the end of Grand Street. It’s a petri dish, a place for his friends and collaborators, who rank among his favorite artists in Jersey City, to make work and inspire each other.
“This has been a building idea,” he says. “The theme started small and it’s been growing and growing. We want this building to be iconic in the history of Jersey City’s art, the way 111 was, on a smaller scale.”
He wouldn’t mind creating some mythology about the space: the Ark, the studios, the entire building.
“If we stick around five more years and we don’t have mythology,” he says, “what the hell are we doing wrong?”
Jennifer Weiss -Jennifer Weiss is a contributing editor for the Jersey City Independent and NEW magazine. She works as a freelance documentary producer and has written for the Star-Ledger, New Jersey Monthly, New York Times and others and produced video stories for the Wall Street Journal online and NJ.com.