People flowed in and out of The Gallery at Berkshire Hathaway on Bloomfield Avenue as art and history seamlessly blended together on the canvas at an event to support the Friends of the Howe House organization last week. 

Since October, Friends of the Howe House has worked to raise awareness and money to purchase the home, which was owned by the first freed slave in Montclair, and to support future work. Through a rally and a benefit at the Montclair Brewery, along with other efforts, the organization bought the property in January for about $400,000.

On Thursday evening, March 9, artists and supporters of the home came together to help, through an art auction. More than 20 artists had answered a call that the organization put out to provide art that represents the theme “Freedom as a Journey.” 

Curtis Grayson III provided two pieces for the show, one titled “Homeboy Swag” and the other called “Golden Girl.” For Grayson, his pieces are representative of the freedom he has to create art and have it showcased. 

“It represents, as far as freedom goes, the times of not having opportunities to show as Black artists,” he said. “Being kept out of museums and galleries and everything. It’s an expression to be able to show that there's always been Black artists. We've always been here.”

Participants mingled throughout the space, viewing a variety of works that show multiple representations of people’s perception of James Howe and his home. One acrylic painting by Mark Mangogna showed a portrait of what Mangogna believes James Howe looked like. Though there are no known images of him, artists imagined a full life for Howe. 

A portrait of what Mark Mangogna believes James Howe may have looked like. (Talia Adderley/Staff)
A portrait of what Mark Mangogna believes James Howe may have looked like. (Talia Adderley/Staff)

In another portrait, Frank Gerard Godlewski, a member of the Friends of the Howe House, portrays his idea of the Howe family. Godlewski drew a family of six, two women, two men and two children. In the drawing the family is facing straight ahead, as if they are posing for a picture. 

Lynne Oliver, director of the gallery, said she was thrilled to be able to partner with the Howe House organization for the event. 

“It fits perfectly with our mission,” Oliver said. “Our goal is to showcase local artists, and we don't charge anything for commission.” 

Instead of charging artists, the gallery requires them to donate a portion of their proceeds to a local charity. For Oliver and others at the gallery, partnering art with the Howe House is “the best of both worlds,” she said. 

So far the auction has raised $3,000 and has the potential to raise more, as not all the works have been sold. Works are on display at the gallery until Friday, March 17. Potential buyers can contact to purchase art. 

New Montclair resident Noelle Dean ended up buying a piece later in the night to support the efforts of the organization. Dean said she had come to the event because she felt it was important to think about how to best use resources by putting her money into a good cause. 

“I think that we have to consciously make sure that we're taking care of what is American history, which is African American history,” she said.

Built by town founder and merchant Israel Crane around 1780, the residence is known as the James Howe House because it was owned by Montclair’s first freed slave. In addition to being the founder of what was then known as Cranetown, Crane was a slave owner. 

According to a press release from Friends of the Howe House, he bought Howe in 1813 for $50. When Crane died in 1858 at the age of 84, he granted Howe his freedom, $600 and the house situated at what is now 369 Claremont Ave. The residence, which has come to be known as the “Freed Slave House,” officially became a local historic landmark in 2007.

On March 18, Friends of the Howe House will be holding a community conversation at 1 p.m. at the Montclair Firehouse, 1 Pine St. Participants will have the opportunity to learn about the background of the organization and to get involved.