SOMERVILLE, NJ - Jerome Luiz Gonzalez, a devoted father, artist, author and the heart and soul of the burgeoning downtown arts community, died early Saturday morning, Feb. 17 pursuing another one of his passions, competing in an endurance race in North Carolina.
A 1992 graduate of Somerville High School and a resident of Bridgewater, he was 44.
The obituary provided by Cusick Funeral Home, 80 Mountain Ave., Somerville, follows:
“Today our hearts are very heavy. Our family lost a beautiful soul in our son Jerome Gonzalez. He was a wonderful son, brother, father, and friend and I know I speak for many when I say that he will be greatly missed.
“During this time we mourn the unexpected loss of his life but we also remember all the the beautiful moments that we have been blessed to share in. He had a huge, selfless heart and amazing talents which he never failed to share with those around him and there was never any doubt that he loved his family and friends.
“Surviving are his children Julian Luiz and Bella Maria, his parents Hector and Sonia (Torres) Gonzalez, the mother of his children Bethania Maria Gonzalez and his siblings Markanthony, Steve, Isadora and Vincent. His sister Amanda Rose predeceased him.”
Visiting hours will begin at 4 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 23, and conclude with a Funeral Service at 8 p.m. at the Cusick Funeral Home, Somerville. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Jerome's children in Trust, C/O Hector Gonzalez, 20 Van Doren Ave., Somerville, NJ 08876.
There will also be a reception hosted by the family at Verve Restaurant, Bar & Bistro, 18 E. Main St., from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 24.
News of his sudden death spread quickly throughout the Somerville community and beyond, with friends eager to share their memories of someone they characterized as a modern-day Renaissance man - gifted with artistic talent, an ebullient personality, a passion for life, a generous spirit and a thirst for challenges. Hundreds of posts have been shared on social media.
Gonzalez was a high-profile, enthusiastic supporter of the arts in Somerville, eager and willing to pitch in wherever help was needed, from cleaning out a vacant store to host a pop-up gallery show to contributing his considerable artistic flair to art shows. He played a key role in attracting fellow artists to produce graffiti murals for display during the annual Arts on Division outdoor shows.
Trenton-based Leon Rainbow, one of New Jersey’s pre-eminent graffiti artists, worked with Gonzalez over the years to promote the art form in the state’s urban centers and suburban towns, first as a student and later, as a teacher.
“He was a great guy; I liked the fact that if he wanted to do something, he would do it, he would figure out a way,” Rainbow said. “He progressed nicely, he was doing really good, had his own unique style, I really liked where he was going with it.
“One of the things I really remember about Jerome is that he had slowed down on practicing the graffiti; there was a young kid in the class. Jerome came one day, painted a little bit and gave the kid the rest of his spray cans.
“‘I’m not using it right now, I’m just going to give it to this kid.’ That was the type of person he was,” Rainbow said. “He was the type of person that would give you the shirt off his back,” he added.
That thought was echoed by Shaun Daley, another close friend in Somerville and co-owner of Gallery on Main, 30 West Main St., with partner Michele Mundt.
“I’m not just speaking for myself, but you couldn’t help but have smile on your face when he was around, he was just a giant bright star, extremely humble and he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it,” Daley said. “He would do that without blinking an eye.”
A fellow artist, Daley experienced firsthand that selfless generosity. Last summer, Daley was stuck alongside an interstate when his car broke down. Gonzalez happened to call. Daley related his plight.
“‘I have a spare car I’m not using; come over and get it for however long you need it’ “ Daley recalls Gonzalez telling him.
“We have had several of his pieces in the gallery,” Daley explained. “He was always so excited that we put them in the window because his work was always eye catching; anything we displayed in the window, we sold,” he added.
Daley first met Gonzalez at an art show on Division Street. Daley was displaying his art work and noticed a young girl staring at one of his paintings.
“Jerome was with Bella. She told him, ‘this is my new favorite artist,’’’ Daley recalls. The two artists started talking, and Daley told Gonzalez that one of his images had been selected by a utility company to be reproduced on a traffic control box in Somerset.
They exchanged phone numbers.
The next day, Daley received a text message from Gonzalez with an attachment – a picture of Bella standing alongside the traffic control box with his painting on its side.
Rick St. Pierre, owner of Verve Restaurant, Bar & Bistro, 18 E. Main St. and president of the Arts on Division non-profit that sponsors art events in Somerville, admired Gonzalez for being larger than life.
“Jerome was this guy that would always be knocking on your door and asking ‘how can I help.’ He was constantly open to new ideas, his creativity pushed the envelope.
“When I first started Arts on Division on an underperforming street, he was the first guy through the door – ‘I’m an artist and I’m here to help,’ ’’ St. Pierre said. “As he became more established, he morphed from this cultural rebel into supporting at every stage the development of the arts in this town; he became the greatest energy behind it,” St. Pierre said.
“He wouldn’t let me or anyone else just give him a handshake; he demanded a hug, because he said ‘If you want to be a part of me you have to hug me.’ That’s what he demanded, a full commitment of himself and everything he did, everyone he knew, that’s the beauty he brought to everybody,” St. Pierre added.
“As a father, this man always talked about his children; they were the biggest influence in his life, and he hoped to be half the hero that they were to him,” St. Pierre said.
Gonzalez had evolved as an artist, at one point trading in his canvases, brushes and spray paint for a laptop, driven by a desire to move on from a dark period in his life, to write, to tell a story and ultimately, become a published author.
After years of doubt, reflection, false starts and renewed determination, that dream came true in 2016, when Gonzalez published his first book, “Pothole,” the story of a transplanted New Jersey graffiti artist.
His friend, RanD Pitts, owner of the Evolve men’s clothing store at 80 West Main St., hosted a book signing at the store for Gonzalez on Feb. 13, 2016.
Pitts, recently appointed a member of the Borough Council, had opened the men’s clothing and street wear store in downtown Somerville 26 years ago at about the same time he and Gonzalez met.
“Jerome and I have been friends ever since I came to town,” Pitts explained at the time. The artist designed a T-shirt sold when the store specialized in music. Since then, Evolve – reflective of its name – has gone through several transformations, from the music store to a clothing boutique for men and women to a men’s only store.
Pitts had asked Gonzalez to “do something” with a leftover female plastic mannequin that somehow didn’t get tossed.
In between writing chapters of the book, Gonzalez transformed the plastic body form to an edgy piece of urban funk art.
“He made it look like it is chiseled out of stone, it’s an amazing piece,” Pitts said. “It will be a fixture in this store forever. I’m going to put a sign on it “In Remembrance of,” he added.
“Jerome was one of the most inspirational people I have ever known. He was honest, sincere, very endearing. He had done so many things for me. Whatever he dreamed of, I wanted to get behind him and support him, any chance I had I just wanted to show what he was capable of doing, he was so talented,” Pitts said. “He will be missed.”
In a 2016 interview with Tapinto Somerville, Gonzalez had admitted that he never embraced his artwork as do most artists. Self taught, each piece of art was another challenge, another lesson learned but after years of trying to define himself as an artist, he had returned to writing.
“That started for me in Somerville High School,” he had explained. “They put me in the college preparatory English class, and I was so proud of that; it inspired me to want to do well, and I began to write rhymes, poetry, short stories.
“When I was younger, I was in these little rap groups, so that rhyming and writing and telling the story all sticks with me and that will never, ever leave,” he said at the time.
During that transition, he had also jettisoned most of the art work he had accumulated, in part because of a painful divorce. He explained he was looking for a fresh start.
The seed for “Pothole” was planted several years ago when Gonzalez hit a pothole on Route 28 near the United Parcel Service distribution hub while driving home from a karate lesson with his son and daughter.
Concerned there might be some serious damage – “it was a loud bang,” he had recalled – he didn’t want to let on to his children, Julian and Bella, that there might be a serious problem.
“By the time we reached Somerville, I had this idea for a story, about how life can change in an instant,” he had explained. “It was dark, and I was thinking about the kids, what if they got hurt, what if we broke down, a lot of things were running through my mind.”
Though Gonzalez had said “Pothole” was not autobiographical, there are vague references to places he described recognizable to those who knew him.
There are also striking resemblances between Gonzalez and the main character in the book, graffiti artist Jerry Cohen, AKA Jers, whose ambition is to become a street artist legend.
An unabashed admirer of Gonzalez is acclaimed artist and longtime borough resident Les Floyd, who first came to know Gonzalez when he was very young.
Floyd’s art had little in common with Gonzalez. Floyd prefers to work with watercolor, pen and ink and acrylics, and describes his style as “traditional realism with slight impressionistic influence.”
No matter. The two artists, years apart in age, had a mutual respect, had done art shows together over the years, and were planning to do more this year, according to Floyd.
“When he was young, my daughter and Jerome always hung out together, he was a little guy that would come by my house,” Floyd explained. “Years later, all the sudden a young man knocks on my front door and says to me ‘I hear you’re the master.’
“I started laughing, been an artist long time, so we got involved did some shows together,” Floyd added. "I liked his energy; he was more of a Renaissance-type man.
“What hurts is that we talked about this mural he was doing and he asked me whether I could get involved with him,” Floyd said. “We agreed, as soon as the weather broke we were going to work together on that and a lot of other things. We planned on that.
“When a younger person dies, it hurts. He was so talented,” Floyd added.
Longtime borough resident Art Adair knew Gonzalez all of his life and is a good friend of Hector Gonzalez, the artist’s father.
The elder Gonzalez called Adair early Saturday morning to tell him that his son had died.
“When Hector called on Saturday, he told me that Jerome had just finished one of those obstacle courses and had collapsed,” Adair said.
“I have one of Jerome’s paintings hanging in my living room,” Adair said. “I came down the steps and went over to the wall and touched it, I almost lost it,” he added.
“He had such vision, he was so creative, he had such a joy for life,” Adair said.