Boro’s History Captured in Newly Unveiled Mural
By Sandi Carpello
Staff Writer

PHOTOS BY JERRY WOLKOWITZ “Little” Bobby Duncan discusses part of the mural he painted after being commissioned by the Jamesburg Borough Council. The mural, which traces aspects of the borough’s history in chronological order, now adorns a wall at the municipal building.

With a thoughtful breath, local artist "Little" Bobby Duncan steps back from the mural that covers one wall in Jamesburg’s municipal courtroom.

"I love it," he said. "If I can impress myself, I know I did a good job."

The 8-by-16-foot mural, which has vivid colors and defined illustrations, was commissioned by the Borough Council in 2001. Unveiled at the Jan. 22 council meeting, the painting depicts the history of Jamesburg from the late 1500s to the present.

Duncan narrates the borough’s story using pale yellows, deep reds and multifarious shades of green. From left to right, the mural portrays the lives of the original Dutch settlers in the early 1600s and gives illustrations of local men who fought in wars over the years. It shows the borough as an early railroad stop, its former industrial operations and its shops and more notable residences. Duncan concludes the historical journey with the borough’s most recent landmark, Mendoker’s Quality Bakery.


Congeries of famous borough faces are depicted, including professional baseball player Frank Hayes, who played with the Philadelphia Athletics during the 1930s, former Mayor Joseph Tonkery, and World War II veteran Pvt. Michael Busco.

"There was a lot more history [in Jamesburg] than I thought," said Duncan, who was born in New Brunswick and grew up in Milltown.

Standing at 6 feet 4 inches, with a wide-eyed grin and an exuberant disposition, there is nothing "little" about Duncan, though his nickname suggests otherwise. The 55-year-old, now a resident of Monroe’s Rossmoor community, has created murals across the country as well as in nearby municipalities such as Milltown and Woodbridge.

Despite his 30 years of experience, crafting the Jamesburg mural was no easy task.

"It took me about a year," he said. "I had to build [four] 8-foot panels from plywood on the bed in my back bedroom." Duncan said. "The panels were too high for my ceiling."

But that wasn’t the only problem.

"Then, my girlfriend’s Yorkshire terrier knocked over a can of green paint and got little green footprints all over the carpet," he said.
With the help of local historian Marcia Kirkpatrick, Duncan spent weeks studying historical photographs, videotapes and old architectural renderings. Using the photographs as a guide, Duncan etched his favorites onto the panels. With a paintbrush and a "steady hand," Duncan then used his imagination to determine what colors were behind the black and white photographs.

"Once I start, I do what I have to do to get [the work] done," Duncan said of the laborious process. "I’m doing what I love."

Duncan, who earned a master’s degree in fine arts and sculpture from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., in 1974, possesses artistic skills that lie far beyond drawing and painting. Painting high-top sneakers, crafting leather goods and making jewelry — including the multihued sphere-shaped earring dangling from his right ear one recent afternoon — are just some of the lucrative skills that allow the artist to make his living as an artist.

"You’ve got to get all the skills you can to survive as an artist," he said.

Borough officials were delighted with Duncan’s final product.

"It is absolutely beautiful," said borough zoning official Bernie Long.

While visiting the Statehouse in Trenton more than two years ago, Mayor Anthony LaMantia was inspired by its mural, which depicted the history of New Jersey. LaMantia then contacted Jamesburg resident Anna Ashkenes, an employee with the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission, who suggested that the borough hire Duncan as the mural artist.

Duncan was then commissioned at a cost of $3,500.

The artist said the borough got a pretty good deal.

"If I was selling it myself, I would have charged around $20,000," said Duncan. He had no qualms, however, about the rate.

"If they give me the job, I’ll take it. I’m a New Jersey boy, and I’ll do any job in New Jersey," he said.

Additional works by Duncan can be seen at www.valweb. org/littlebobbyduncan.htm