By REBECCA JONES
For Montclair Local
Walk into Tommy’s Laundromat on Maple Avenue just south of Glenfield Park and you’ll see more than just washers, dryers and change machines. Montclair artist Armando “OUTthere” Diaz has transformed the space, with the support of the business’s new owner, Tommy Tavello, into a portrait gallery where faces of Fourth Ward residents adorn the clean, white walls.
A longtime resident of Montclair, Diaz’s documentary photography and videography has been shown at Gallery L, Clerestory Fine Art and the Newark Arts Festival, among other venues. His candid, street-photography style was described in his Clerestory gallery show as “bearing witness to the changing landscape of northern New Jersey, whose rapid development threatens to disrupt existing communities.”
For this show, “Women of the Fourth Ward,” Diaz decided to take his “photos of the people to the people.”
“I know this is an unorthodox exhibit area,” he said of the laundromat, “but that’s sort of the point. It’s about making the community visible to the community in their backyard, not somewhere else.”
Last month Diaz hung portraits of long-time Fourth Ward residents Renee Smith, Gabbi Diaz, Julia Rotman, James Woods, Carol Wineglass, Miff Turner and Richard Pierson above washing machines and folding tables.
This month, in honor of Women’s History Month, Diaz is showcasing six portraits of current or former Fourth Ward women.
“I wanted to emphasize women of the Fourth Ward because it’s where I grew up,” he said. “For these women, community involvement is as important as it is to me.”
The six women are Zina Floyd, co-owner of Cafe Moso in the South End; Adrienne Reeves, a front-line worker at Mountainside hospital; Markell McCormick, a designer and seamstress; Dr. Renee Baskerville, a former Montclair councilwoman, mayoral candidate and physician; Cynthia Walker, founder and executive of S.O.F.I.A., the nonprofit advocacy group for victims of domestic violence; and Shawn Hunter, a finance expert, community activist and mayoral candidate in Orange last year.
Diaz said he wanted to choose women who are well known in the community, but also those who contribute in ways that are less visible.
Reeves, who works as a patient transporter at Mountainside, said she was overwhelmed to be included. “I appreciated that I was chosen to be a part at this time in my life when I’m working at the hospital fighting COVID-19,” she said.
Diaz has known Reeves since their school days together and calls her a “fixture in the community.”
“I provide information and support,” Reeves said. “They call me the mini-mayor.”
Walker was equally honored. Her contribution to the community has been most felt in the work she has done for victims of domestic violence. Over a decade ago, she founded Start Out Fresh Intervention Advocates (S.O.F.I.A.) to provide advocacy, supportive services and referrals for temporary housing to at-risk women and children.
McCormick said she met Diaz when they volunteered together at S.O.F.I.A., and she has great respect for his photography. “He captures the heart of people, and he doesn’t even know he’s doing it,” she said.
Along with her work for the Montclair Board of Education and the YMCA, and raising her children, McCormick spends her time creating art out of fabric. “I’m a designer; fashion is my specialty, but I do other kinds of design, too — furniture upholstery and curtains,” she said.
McCormick’s dress designs gained international attention when, in 2015, Naturi Naughton, of the R&B girls group 3LW, walked the red carpet at the BET Awards in one of McCormick’s custom-made dresses.
Hunter said she was overjoyed at having been selected as an honoree for Diaz’s Women’s History Month exhibit. She was born in Montclair, then moved to Orange in 2008, but she believes that “it’s time to shine the spotlight on the vibrancy of the Fourth Ward” and thinks Diaz’s project has done just that.
As co-owner of Cafe Moso on Orange Road, Floyd has brought renewed energy and leadership to the South End business district. Her eclectic, comfort food-inspired bistro opened in July 2019 and earned high praise among locals and foodies alike. Diaz’s photograph of musician Richard Pierson playing drums was shot in front of the restaurant this summer.
Baskerville called it “a high honor to have one of Montclair’s celebrated photographers and videographers capture my essence and spirit as did Armando.” Prior to her 2020 run for mayor, Baskerville served as Fourth Ward councilor and Montclair school board member and vice president, as well as on many other municipal boards and commissions.
“There’s no way you can live in this town and not know Renee,” Diaz said.
“That the exhibit is in Montclair’s Fourth Ward is a gift not only to the residents of the Fourth Ward,” Baskerville said, “but being centrally located in a shopping district as it is, it will make it easy for residents of every ward and guests to our township to see the exhibit and engage in conversation.”
Diaz has always thought of the laundromat, and Jefferson’s Café next door, as a neighborhood gathering place. “It’s a historically Black-owned business, and so when somebody who isn’t of color is taking over the place there is an assumption of a gentrification sort of thing,” Diaz said.
Tavello bought what was then called Jefferson’s Laundromat at 84 Maple Ave. last fall.
“Tommy actually very much cares about this community, and by proposing this idea I said here’s a way that I can make it easier for you to show that. And he was super for it,” Diaz said.
“I want this to be a community-oriented business,” Tavello said. “People come in, sit, hang out and talk even if they’re not doing laundry. The portraits are great conversation-starters. People have come to the laundromat just to see them. It’s a cool vibe. A kid came in and said, ‘Dude, that’s my dad on the wall.’”
Those kinds of moments are why Diaz said he started taking and exhibiting photographs in the first place. “It’s all about the conversations that emerge when people see a portrait of someone they know,” he said. “That’s what actually matters to me.”
McCormick described a moment of just that kind. “I went to a show he [Diaz] did in a gallery, and unbeknownst to me there was a picture of my son, his father and his uncle at the Montclair Train Station on their way to the Million Man March. It was a moment to relish because they had just begun to repair their relationship.”
“That, I live for,” Diaz said. “It means something to me to have that kind of connectivity.” He hopes to inspire more moments like that by continuing to show his work in places like Tommy’s Laundromat and other local businesses.
- “Women of the Fourth Ward,” portraits by Armando “OUTthere” Diaz
- Tommy’s Laundromat (formerly Jefferson’s Laundromat), 84 Maple Ave., Montclair
- Now through the end of the month