Exhibition shows New Haven history, crocodiles

New Haven artist and collector Robert Greenberg will display his artwork and local artifacts in a Westville show.
New Haven artist and collector Robert Greenberg will display his artwork and local artifacts in a Westville show. Photo by Zoe Gorman.

New Haven collector and artist Robert Greenberg is combining his two great loves — historical artifacts and drawings of crocodiles.

Now, for the first time, the sketch artist will be debuting his collection of New Haven artifacts alongside his art.

For his first solo show in his native New Haven, Greenberg is displaying a fraction of his lifetime collection of local objects — such as Native American arrowheads and broken ornamentation from historic buildings — at an exhibition that opened Friday at the DaSilva Gallery in Westville. Greenberg pairs the artifacts with the stories they tell, which are narratives told through the use of his signature, caricature crocodiles.

Although his collection at his family’s furniture store includes thousands of items, Greenberg said the gallery case only includes about 100 pieces. These objects and their stories, Greenberg said, aim to preserve New Haven history.

“I feel like history is being lost in New Haven,” Greenberg said. “I’m letting the artifacts lead me to the story.”

Greenberg said he was distressed when he noticed the plaque marking where Abraham Lincoln gave a speech comparing pre-union working conditions to slavery had been stolen for its metal. He said he had telephoned the New Haven Police Department asking what happened to the plaque, only to be asked “What plaque?” Greenberg said he thinks the city is losing its identity and illustrious history either through urban renewal or theft.

“It’s a travesty what’s happened to [New Haven],” said New Haven resident and gallery visitor Suzy Eastgate, who described the city as “soulless.” “[Greenberg] has a passion for this town, and I’m grateful to him for keeping the history alive.”

The artifacts he uncovers are the clues that lead him to this history and historical myths, Greenberg said.

Among the items on display at the gallery is a Bradley Smith hard candy tin, one of particular interest and motivation to Greenberg. Smith, a New Haven-based candy company, patented the word “lollipop,” which originally belonged to a popular race horse, Greenberg explained. When the company went bankrupt and lost its patent in the late 1930s, he said, and the word was soon used in the “Wizard of Oz” film franchise’s Lollipop Guild.

The moment when the guild hands Dorothy a lollipop, the film bursts into color. Greenberg said that New Haven was instrumental in putting the world in technicolor, so to go with the tin, he recreated the “Wizard of Oz” scene — with crocodiles.

In 1985, Greenberg made his first crocodile drawing, of Elton John, on a five-inch napkin in New York City’s Hard Rock Café with a black pilot razor-point pen, a type that he has been using exclusively since. Crocodiles, he said, eradicate preconceived cultural, racial and ethnic notions, giving his art universal appeal.

“We’re all one,” he said. “One creature.”

Hanging on the wall next to his artifact display case is another such crocodile drawing, of Benedict Arnold, the infamous American revolutionary traitor. Greenberg pairs this sketch with a photograph of Arnold’s house, which is located in New Haven, covered in graffiti. The pieces, Greenberg added, aim to shed new light on the popularly known history of Arnold.

“Everyone knows the story of what Benedict Arnold did,” Greenberg said. “But do they know that he was a merchant in New Haven?”

The exhibit also documents the history of the local business, Louis Lunch, the alleged birthplace of the hamburger, with a photo of Louis in its original location on Temple and George, and with a fragment from the wall the restaurant shared with the adjacent building before its relocation. When the building moved to its current spot on Crown Street, it acquired bricks from all over the world for the new wall, Greenberg said, including ones from famous sites such as the Green Wall of China and the tower of London. Greenberg depicts Ken and Louis Lassen, the owners and members of an international brick club, as crocodiles.

Greenberg’s exhibit also has strong family ties. The gallery opening celebrates the centennial anniversary of Greenberg’s family furniture store, which is featured in yet another croc drawing, as well as the tercentennial of New Haven. Greenberg said his maternal grandfather, Simon Evans, an artist, antique and tire dealer, inspired him to start collecting.

His great uncle also is featured in the collection as one of several crocodile paper boys selling copies of the New Haven Evening Register the day after the Titanic went down — which is based on a true story, Greenberg said. He also recreated an original copy of the newspaper with crocodile figures. He said his great uncle remembers being handed a silver dollar that day for a two cent paper and carried the dollar in his pocket his entire life, until it was worn down to a silver disk.

Greenberg also recreated an

1871 newspaper announcing the arrival of a crocodile P.T. Barnum, who came to New Haven with his “museum full of wonders,” Greenberg said. He added that he hopes to take his own show on the road and plans to model his portable museum after AC Gilbert chemistry sets, which he could customize and lease to museums or bring to schools.

“Plug in the lights, instant museum,” he said.

Greenberg has collected a fragment from the rock in West Rock under which three judges — Goffe, Whalley and Dixwell — are rumoured to have taken refuge from a death warrant issued by King Charles I. Greenberg depicted the myth of the governors, for which avenues and neighborhoods in New Haven are named, as hiding crocodiles receiving food from other, sympathetic crocodiles before being sniffed out by a growling panther.

Greenberg also uses his artist’s imagination to create elaborate fictional tales, though they always have a grounding in truth. For example, his collection includes a photograph of a prop fence in front of which all the Yale sports teams were photographed before their games. The fence mysteriously went missing during a Yale-Princeton football game decades ago and Greenberg created a piece that shows the game, with crocodile Princeton players

Gallery owner Gabriel DaSilva said when he first heard about all the artifacts in Greenberg’s collection, he came left with his head spinning from all the history Greenberg had collected.

The exhibit is open until March 10.

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