The unveiling and the reception that followed took place at the main Hunterdon County Library, where the mural will be on permanent display in a yet-to-be-determined location.
Jennis’ effort was praised in brief remarks by Marcia Karrow, chair of the Tricentennial Committee; county historian Stephanie Stevens; Freeholder John King; and former Gov. Christie Whitman, whose likeness is included on the 20th-century panel (technically 1900-2014).
Jennis was gratified that Whitman attended the unveiling and was impressed that she noticed some of the devices he’d employed to give continuity to the three-panel design. Those touches include the use of circular shapes in the background, such as a wagon wheel in the 1700s, a peach and a cog in the 1800s, and hot-air balloons in the 1900s. The pervading yellow-orange background color was inspired by the color of the Declaration of Independence parchment in the first pane, says Jennis.
Once he started thinking about the project, he knew two things right off — that in the lower left corner a portrait of George Washington and the crossing of the Delaware (in 1776 Mercer County had not yet been chopped out of Hunterdon) would anchor the left side, and that Charles Lindbergh would anchor the right side.
He said Lindbergh’s portrait is his favorite element of the mural. Tragic as the Lindbergh case was, it looms large in history. “I’m from Westfield,” he said, “and when you mention the Lindbergh trial to people who aren’t from here, they say, ‘Oh! Yeah!’” because they have heard about it. Jennis also likes his portrait of Civil War Gen. George Taylor. “I like to paint the faces,” he says.
The mural is based on possible subjects suggested to Jennis by local historians and he picked the ones — about a hundred of them — that would work well on canvas.
He said the Lindbergh picture got a lot of good reviews at the reception, as did the 19th-century locomotive and the George Washington portrait.
What was the most challenging? Anything at the bottom of the canvases, he says. He paints with the canvas in a vertical position, and the ceiling height in his home only gave him enough clearance to lift the panels a foot off the floor, so he worked in an awkward position.
He also noted that he had to work hard to subdue the bright colors of the Interstate 78 sign on the third panel, so it wouldn’t unbalance the picture. Stevens perhaps wished the sign and the highway itself would disappear entirely. In a lecture that followed the reception, Stevens said, “Route 78 ruined us! It opened up this county like nothing before.”
In Jennis’ studio, a few of the historians had been given a chance to pick up a paintbrush and “put a couple of strokes in here and there,” he said. But he also accorded that privilege to Bob Wise, CEO of Hunterdon Healthcare, who has been very supportive of Jennis’ work. “He really knew what he was doing,” says Jennis, and Wise spent about 15 minutes applying the second layer of paint on the side of Hunterdon Medical Center. Wise was at the reception, happy to see his hospital in the center of the third panel.
The work was funded with private donations, money from the Hunterdon County Cultural and Heritage Commission and with money raised by the Tricentennial Committee.
Jennis, who is somewhat depleted by the two-year project, was a little dismayed that the question most people asked him was: What are you going to do next? In fact, he is working on a few commissioned portraits, and soon he’ll be ready for the next big thing.