Middleton Patch: Puzzled About Art, Life and Passion at Middletown Arts Center Arts Center hosts collaborative puzzle project; people invited to craft, observe

Artist Tim Kelly believes that art is what makes life good for him and for others — so good that it even makes his heart palpitate.

“In fact, all things related to art do; old art, new art, the appreciation of art, questions about art, answers about art, events related to art, clouds that form art and just about anything else with any connection to art,” he said. “Art is good. That is something I know.”

And through July at the Middletown Arts Center, next to the train station on Church Street, you can get glimpse of that very large-scale, unifying artsy feeling that has been transformed into a giant puzzle.

It’s Kelly’s way of spreading the “art is good” word across the land through the collaborative effort between Puzzle Installation and Collaborative Project and his Art is Good workshops.

The traveling, participatory project materializes through the crafting and interlocking of thousands of 24 by 24-foot dry mount foam pieces. At its stop in Middletown, Kelly hopes the puzzle will slowly expand to cover most, if not all, of the walls of the center, conveying his universal message.

That message was borne out of his lifetime love of art and what he sees as its transformative, healing powers.

Kelly has taught his Art is Good workshops in New York and New Jersey. According to him, there have been over 100 of those workshops since the sister to the Puzzle Project was founded in 2008.

His particular passion for it is derived from his belief that art is essential to life. “The impact of the installation is testament to the fact that art is a powerful form of expression that cannot be denied,” he said.

The idea for the collaborative project was simple yet far-reaching and unifying – to create thousands of the large blank foam-core puzzle pieces from people all over the nation (even world) supporting varying causes or just plain expressing themselves or paying homage to a particular type of art or artist.

The individual identities of pieces that end up interlocked symbolize putting the pieces of life, reason, challenges and passion together. The pieces are individually decorated and limited only by the artistic skill of each puzzle piece creator. Some are painted. Some are drawn. Others are collaged. Each has its own story.

The one thing that is repetitive is the shape, simple and precise so that they all fit together, but the goal of the project is for each piece to say something personally meaningful, Kelly said.

Giant puzzle pieces have already been made in over 15 states, four countries, and on three continents. They have been created by several schools, community arts groups, organizations like the YMCA, Americorp, hospitals and support groups like the Ocean County Brain Tumor Support Group.

Kelly’s project cohort, Marie Maber, associate professor in the Art Department at Brookdale Community College, said the genesis of the Puzzle Project came from a brainstorming session between Sandy Taylor, director of Arts Education at the Monmouth County Arts Council, Kelly and herself. Maber was coordinator of Brookdale’s Center for the Visual Arts (CVA) Gallery in the fall of 2008, when the three art advocates met and came up with their plan.

They discussed what could be done to install works of art made by teens from 18 area high schools so that they would all come together as a unified piece.

“They were both looking at me and gesturing with their hands to illustrate all of those works coming together in the Gallery, so I suggested that the students each make their artworks on supports that were shaped like standard puzzle pieces, only larger.

“Lightbulbs went off … It was one of those classic ‘aha’ moments. The Puzzle Project was born,” she said, adding that “it was the result of a true, three-way collaboration between Tim, Sandy, and myself.”

Maber explained that idea worked so well that the three-way collaboration led to a successful Teen Arts Festival in the spring of 2009.

“The fact that the project continues above and beyond the 2009 Teen Arts Festival is a testament to the energy and drive of Tim Kelly and the support of all of the agencies like the county Arts Council and businesses like Surf Taco (in Belmar) that have supported his efforts to date,” she said.

According to Kelly, who is a resident artist at SurfTaco, it didn’t take long for Rob Nagel, SurfTaco’s founder, to see the value in the project.

“Rob offered to pay for the materials and generously offered SurfTaco’s space for any preparation or project needs,” Kelly said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Several artists and volunteers from the Belmar Arts Council showed up at SurfTaco one sunny weekend to help prep the puzzle materials. “They turned each eight-by-four-foot sheet of foam core (paid for by SurfTaco) into eight individual puzzle pieces then created approximately 800 copies for the Arts Festival installation.

After Brookdale, it was installed at SurfTaco on Main Street in Belmar.
Several sub-installations are currently being developed across the country and around the world.

“The School of Creative and Performing Arts in San Diego found us and made the project bi-coastal,” Kelly said. “In addition, the YMCA in Brooklyn started making puzzle pieces at several locations. Then Monmouth County Library System hosted Art is Good puzzle making workshops at all of their branches. Soon we were making puzzle pieces with organizations, supports groups and with random artists.”

Puzzle sub-installations are even being developed internationally at The Secondary School of Applied Arts in Kosice in Slovakia, The Shanghai Community International School in China and the Escola Xin Hua at Macau in Hong Kong. “They will all be reunited in NYC for an awesome group exhibition,” Kelly said. “We will then go then intergalactic.”

Kelly coordinates the puzzle installation and has accepted the responsibility for growing, maintaining, sustaining and promoting the project in the future.

“Puzzle project participants immediately become contributing artists in a traveling group exhibition. So if you make your own piece, you would have that going for you on your artistic resume,” Kelly said, adding, “We hope to show the Puzzle installation in NYC in 2011-2012 and to exhibit the installation internationally by 2012-2013.

“”The best is yet to come,” he said. “Oprah is going to love this project.”


Have you made your puzzle piece? If not, make the time to get over to the Middletown Arts Center through April. The collaboration will continue to grow every time someone makes a puzzle piece. Puzzle making workshops will be held on Feb. 26, March 19 and April 19 at the Arts Center.

The cost to craft a puzzle piece on your own is $10 and attendance at a workshop to craft pieces costs $20 and includes materials and Kelly’s instruction and support. The donations go to support art initiatives at Middletown Arts Center and will also provide funding for Camp Jinka, which is a free camp at MAC provided to kids and teens from the brain tumor support community.