Partners in Art: Beth DiCara and John Tichenor
There’s nothing fishy about the lasting accomplishments of married artists Beth DiCara and John Tichenor.
Walk around the Greenville home that ceramics artist Beth DiCara shares with her husband, John Tichenor, and everything tells a tale.
They built their bed and couch from massive wooden slabs that they found on the street when workers were gutting some neighborhood rowhouses. That diner-style booth where they eat meals? Salvaged from the side of the road near The Junction, where Communipaw, Summit, Garfield Avenues, and Grand Street meet.
It’s the same story at their ceramics studio about a mile away. The Brazilian bluestone neatly stacked in a wall: Tichenor got it from a friend he knew from the seaport where he used to work. And that door was part of the chicken coop at DiCara’s grandmother’s home.
Many people make a life for themselves in Jersey City, but for DiCara and Tichenor, who have lived here and created art for three decades, that word “make” has become the most active of verbs.
“We’re both pretty handy,” says DiCara, 54.
Tichenor, 68, has a twinkle in his eye and a ready retort: “We can make anything but money.”
Both grew up in the suburbs, he in West Caldwell and she in northwestern Connecticut. They met in 1979 at the Maryland Institute College of Art when she was a student and he a photography professor.
“We became friends and eventually he moved up to Jersey City in 1981 and changed jobs,” she recalls. “When I graduated, I came up, and we got married in 1986.”
For a while, DiCara worked at Manhattan’s legendary Modernage Photo Lab. Starting in college and for many years afterward, she and Tichenor worked on a project of his they called a “Photoparipaterigraph.” It was a wagon with a camera that they would take to festivals and fairs from Maine to Maryland. Patrons could have their picture taken with any number of backdrops that the couple had painted.
Once he relocated to Jersey City, Tichenor became a marine surveyor for insurance companies, at ports both in the region and worldwide.
“If there were damages, the insurer wants to pay, but I always told people, ‘I may have a beard, but I’m not Santa Claus,’” Tichenor jokes. (His impressive beard, now white, was once red.)
That maritime theme runs through their lives. Tucked into a nondescript brick building on a combined residential/industrial block, their three-story apartment is packed floor to ceiling with mementoes and treasures, many of an aquatic nature. A spiral staircase leads into a basement with a built-in hot tub, which satisfied a lifelong dream of Tichenor’s. The walls surrounding the tub are tiled with fish and dolphins.
“This was my first big ceramic project,” DiCara says of the tub tiles. One tile was made by their daughter, Emma, who was 8 years old at the time. Another depicts the 14-foot boat Tichenor built in 1992 that he used to navigate around Manhattan and Staten Island.
Throughout the apartment, transom windows peek like portholes into other rooms. Tichenor carved the ceiling of his office to look like the hull of a ship. At the top of the staircase leading to the roof is a wood-and-brass ship’s wheel. The rooftop provides a sweeping view of the Manhattan skyline and the harbor.
“When the leaves fall from the trees, you can see the Statue of Liberty right there,” DiCara says.
Evening Star Shines
The theme continues in the couple’s studio, called Evening Star — yet another nautical nod. Their home is on Garfield Avenue, named for the 20th president, James Garfield, who as a boy worked on a canal boat called the Evening Star.
Entering the studio, an actual porthole along one wall serves as a mailbox.
Much of DiCara’s work here also reflects an aquatic motif: Fish are a perennial favorite, especially for her work in the Japanese style of Raku. Like traditional ceramics, the Raku process includes time in a kiln. But then after a set period, the work is removed, and placed on a wagon with sand and shredded paper.
“You put it on the sandbox, and then it catches on fire and you smother it,” DiCara says. “The fire burns up all the oxygen and it brings out the colors and metallics. You really have no idea what it’s going to do.”
The result is an opalescent sheen that shimmers like the scales of a fish or the feathers of a bird. (See more photos of the Raku process in our photo gallery below the article.)
DiCara says that she only tried her hand at ceramics “recently,” although for a lifelong artist, that means 20 years ago.
“I’ve tried every kind of art you can do,” she says. “But once I tried ceramics, it was bliss. It’s immediate and you can make anything. It’s just the best; it’s so much fun.”
Some of DiCara’s ceramic work is more traditional, such as glazed mugs in earth tones, and platters embossed with lacey plant leaves. Ruby-lipped fish poke their heads out of one wall, and dozens of small sculptures of nude women line the shelves. DiCara calls them her Jersey Girls, and while she says she’s “not good” at artistic statements, she thinks that subconsciously she has an idea about their inspiration.
“I think I started making them when my daughter was going through puberty,” DiCara says. “It was a way to reassure her about being a woman, and being proud of your body and not worried about what people think. The Jersey Girls are not sexy, they’re just sitting around. Some of them are fat, and some are skinny. They’re not posing, they’re just chilling out.”
Out in the World
DiCara sells her work from her studio, through her website, and via wholesalers. Locally, it’s also sold at Smith & Chang General Goods (230 Pavonia Avenue).
“Her work is so whimsical and functional at the same time,” says shop owner Alex Chang. “It’s decorative, but it has a purpose as well.”
Her bestsellers at the shop include mugs etched with the words “Jersey City” and small ceramic fortune cookies that buyers can fill with their own scraps of paper. In addition to DiCara’s fish heads, Smith & Chang sells a horseshoe crab piece.
“I think they’re popular because it reminds people of how they used to go to the Jersey Shore when they were young,” Chang says. “There’s a lot of nostalgia in her work, without being too precious.”
In her early professional life, DiCara also worked in stained glass. Many windows in their home and studio are covered in her stained-glass work, including a set of paneled doors to the bedroom covered in both colorful glass and glass-plate photographic negatives, depicting nudes from the 1800s.
Both Tichenor and DiCara have taken on projects outside of art. Tichenor was a founding member of the Friends of Liberty State Park along with park legend Morris Pesin.
“It’s all about keeping it free, open and green — that’s what’s important,” Tichenor states. “We wanted to keep out any developers, and they were dying to get in. They still are.”
Pesin’s son, Sam, praises Tichenor’s tireless efforts on the park’s behalf. “It’s in his character and values that he cares about the world and the quality of people’s lives,” Pesin says.
After Emma was born in 1990, DiCara took over as “handyman” for the four-family building they owned, renovating the apartments and maintaining them for tenants. Their own home started as just three rooms and eventually expanded to a triplex.
In JC To Stay
In 2002, they bought the house, yard, and former five-car garage that is home to their studio.
“We saw it at 3 pm and we were signing papers for it at 4:30,” DiCara remembers. “The proximity to Manhattan is a big plus — it’s got the best museums in the world.”
At the same time, living in Jersey City has been a boon as an artist, she says.
“In a city, anything goes,” DiCara states. “People are more tolerant and you have this big mix of cultures.”
Beyond that, DiCara says she’s well aware that her 1,000-square-foot studio would be almost impossible to obtain anywhere in the five boroughs.
“There’s no way you can get that space-wise anywhere else in the region,” she says. “We feel really lucky.”
Not surprisingly given her parents aquatic obsessions, Emma eventually became a marine biologist. Both DiCara and Tichenor say they weren’t disappointed when she failed to follow in their artistic footsteps.
“No, we actually dissuaded them,” DiCara says, referring to both Emma and James, an architect who is Tichenor’s son from a previous marriage. Beth and John were concerned about the difficulty to make a living in the arts. “We’re happy that they found jobs that they love. We always think that doing what you love is the most important thing.”
Publisher’s note: This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2014 issue of JCI Magazine. Since this article was written, Beth and John’s daughter — Emma Kate DiCara Tichenor — passed away in a tragic two-vehicle accident in Canada on December 1, 2014. Emma, age 24, was a well-regarded research biologist working in Nova Scotia at Acadia University and the provincial Natural Resources Department. In 2013, she earned a master’s degree in conservation biology from the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Her gusto for life and her passion for preserving the environment and wildlife (especially black bears) will always be remembered. We dedicate this article to her memory.
Evening Star Studio is located at 11 Monitor Street. For more information, visit eveningstarstudio.net
Photos: Steve Gold, Top Photo: Beth DiCara and John Tichenor outside their Jersey City art studio