When Stockton University inaugurates Harvey Kesselman as its fifth president 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23, it won’t be entirely all pomp and circumstance. A special, artistic element to this open-to-the-public ceremony will be unveiled during the reception — portraits of all four of Stockton’s past presidents: Richard Bjork (1969 to 1978), Peter Mitchell (1979 to 1983), Vera King Farris (1983 to 2003) and Herman Saatkamp (2003 to 2015).
Chosen for this prestigious art project was Stockton alumnus and Brigantine native James Raczkowski, a 2011 painting major who is now a New York-based artist.
Raczkowski, who went on to receive an MFA at the New York Academy of Art, also served in Iraq for about a year with the U.S. Army.
Much of his work is “rooted in that experience (Iraq).”
“I ... create something that tells my story, but others, too,” Raczkowski says. “It’s not a story that’s told much in visual art (that of war and personal experiences).”
On his website, Raczkowski categorizes his various paintings in subheads such as “Night Visions,” “Impact Craters” and “Wounds,” calling them his “vision of modern warfare rooted in memories, dreams, fears and desires … inspired by my experiences in Iraq.”
What’s not on his website is his portraiture work.
“My portraits don’t fit into the dialogue that I’m trying to have,” he says. “(Yet) I don’t want to say too much. I want people to come away with their own experience, so I don’t give away the whole story. Part of the viewing experience is coming up with your own inner dialogue, and I don’t want to push or force feed my experience.”
For the Stockton project, Raczkowski came across a few dilemmas along the way.
“It was a lot of fun, but it was challenging — you want to make them look good, but look like themselves,” Raczkowski says. “I looked at a bunch of different, old photos to get a better likeness of each, because it can change depending on the closeness or the lighting in each photograph.
“So I had to look at a bunch to capture their personality and get a better understanding of their facial structure.”
It was Kesselman who had devised the idea that the presidents’ portraits be painted in the planning stages of the inauguration ceremony.
“Each of Stockton’s four presidents was a mentor to me,” says Kesselman, who was in Stockton’s first class, has more than 35 years of experience in higher education and is a tenured professor in the School of Education. “Each of them played an enormous role during the 45-year journey that has brought Stockton from a brand-new, small college in the woods to a nationally recognized university. I am honored to continue their legacy of excellence in teaching, support for scholarship and dedication to service.”
Raczkowski had the opportunity to meet one of the past presidents (Saatkamp), but he never really knew any of them — at least not until he painted them
“I felt like I got to know them personally,” he laughs. “You’re staring at them for so long you feel like you know them, even when you don’t actually talk to them.”
WHEN: 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23
WHERE: Stockton University Campus Center, 101 Vera King Farris Drive, Galloway
HOW MUCH: Free