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Road Signs
Painting the White Horse Pike, memory by memory
By Jayne Jacova Feld

Painter Mark Natale has long been drawn to scenery and structures along the White Horse Pike. He likes how they look so out of step with modern times. And he loves how they connect him right back to his childhood.

Natale’s painting of the Ideal Fashions sign.

To him, sunbaked farm stands, faded signs for long-gone stores and a massive bowling pin lit up in neon are the visual equivalent of comfort food.

“I’ve been passing these places all my life,” says Natale, 43, whose art is on display this month at Gallery 50 in Bridgeton. “The idea of painting them has been stewing in my head for years.”

Some 5 years ago, the Barrington resident finally put the subject matter that has long intrigued him onto canvas. The first of what he now calls his “White Horse Pike series” was a realistic rendering of the sign in front of the shuttered Acme Markets in Egg Harbor City, where his family shopped until it closed in 2002. Natale’s version of the worn-off letters have a dream-like quality of a flashback memory.

Mark Natale’s painting of 30 Strikes Bowling Alley

“I can still remember the smell as you entered the foyer through the automatic doors,” says Natale, a married father of 2. “The automatic doors were weight-activated, and my sister and I used to love stepping on the big rubber mat that made the doors open up.”

Since then he’s turned his attention to other markers of bygone times along Route 30 (the official designation of the Pike), including the giant pin in front of the still-operating 30 Strikes bowling alley in Stratford, as well as several in-use and abandoned produce stands. In addition, he’s captured the logo of Ideal Fashions, a discount women’s store in Hammonton that was well known both for its impressive inventory of prom and other special-occasion dresses and a catchy jingle (“If you’ve got a passion for fashion…”)

That one, says Natale, is of personal sentimental value.

“My grandmother had seven children – 5 boys and 2 girls – and she shopped at Ideal a lot,” he says of the destination store that operated from the 1930s until 2008. “Also, right next door was a men’s store where they would buy suits for the boys.”

Although the Ideal sign still stands, the building that housed the fashion market is unoccupied and run down. The last time Natale passed by, there was a for-sale sign out front. That’s the thing about his subject matter: much of it has already been torn down or may not be around for much longer.

Family photo of the service station Natale’s great grandfather built

“I captured some of these images just before the wrecking ball came,” says Natale, who is known to pull his car off the road to snap pictures when struck by inspiration. He works off those photos to create his paintings. “I always have my phone with me for a photo if the light is really good or I think some place is going to disappear soon.”

His connection to Route 30 is deeply rooted in family history. Around the same time Ideal opened for business, his great grandfather moved his family here from New York to build and operate a service station/café/boarding house in Mullica Township. This was back when the East-West roadway was how most of South Jersey and Philly traveled to the shore, and people actually stopped for the night in their cabins en route. The small one-room cabins cost $1 a night and the double-wides went for $3.

Family photos of the cafe/boarding house Natale’s great grandfather built

“My grandmother and her four brothers would make the food, pump gas and make up the beds in the cabins for people who stopped for the night before driving on,” says Natale.

The family business survived a White Horse Pike road-widening project in the ’50s, but eventually lost steam after the Atlantic City Expressway, built in 1964, stole Route 30’s thunder.

Although his grandmother’s family moved to Somers Point, some of the brothers stayed put, living in a house behind the service station. Natale has happy memories of visiting his uncles there as a kid.

“They were real handy guys who were always building stuff,” he says, recalling a time when they used a clunky old vacuum cleaner to melt metal (why is anyone’s guess.) “A lot of my inspiration comes from their generation and that handmade quality from a time when things were made to last. I want to capture them before they’re gone.”

One sign he photographed just in time was for The Farmer’s Daughter, a market that was in business for decades in Hammonton. It’s a cartoonish depiction of a young woman in a straw hat and cut-off shorts.

“The whole building was bulldozed a year or two ago,” Natale says, noting that he’s eager to start his painting of the lost treasure soon.

 

 

The subjects of his paintings all have that hand-made quality. You can tell someone’s hands created them, he says.

Perhaps ironically, his paintings of these endangered homages to yesteryear – which range in price from several hundred dollars to thousands, depending on size – are going fast.

“It’s been a struggle to get together a big enough body of work for a solo exhibition because they’re selling. It’s a great problem to have,” he says. “The paintings are bringing joy to people and tapping into nostalgic memories.”

 


This issue went to print just before states began stay-at-home recommendations to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Since then, Gallery 50 has closed its doors, but will do a video gallery tour at 6pm on the original opening reception date, Friday, April 3rd, and the exhibition is being extended to 2 months – so Natale’s art will hang in the gallery until May 29th.

April 2020
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