The Wheel Deal

Montclair resident Tom Nussbaum created the whimsical gate for the town's all-access playground.

Photo by Michael S. Barr.

Standing on his back porch in Montclair, Tom Nussbaum can see—and hear—the new All Children’s Playground in Edgemont Park.

“It’s a part of our life,” Nussbaum says.

Every day, Nussbaum walks his dog past the playground. Growing up, his children, now 22 and 26, played on the old rusty swing set that All Children’s replaced. And now, Nussbaum’s artwork decorates the entranceway to the new playground.

Last spring, when the Montclair Arts Council put out a request for someone to design the entrance to the playground, nineteen artists responded. Three were selected to submit proposals; after reviewing the plans, the selection committee unanimously chose Nussbaum’s design.

“He lives right next to the park, so he spent time looking at how the playground was used,” says Montclair resident Jane Susswein, head of the art-selection panel. “His design reflected the sensitivities of the area.”
A Montclair resident since 1993, Nussbaum, 56, is a draftsman, printmaker, sculptor, children’s-book author, creator of design objects—and, perhaps most importantly, a member of the Friends of Edgemont Park.

For this project, Nussbaum worked with husband-and-wife team Eric and Diana von Hoffmann of Montclair-based von Hoffmann Landscape Architecture, who live down the street. The von Hoffmans also are supporters of Edgemont Park.

“We weren’t really interested in doing it for money,” Nussbaum says. “We just wanted to give back to the park.”

Developed through a collaborative effort by the town, as well as private donors who raised more than $150,000, the All Children’s Playground was designed to be highly accessible to children and adults with disabilities.

Nussbaum’s design, the Wheel World, acknowledges the donors and celebrates the community’s joint effort in constructing the playground. Along the 30 feet of gate extending from either side of the entranceway, Nussbaum created a fantasy world of animals and characters pushing, driving, flying, and floating wheels of all sizes to the top of the 12-foot archway.

“Their activity is symbolic of a diverse community coming together, and the wheels are symbols of the mobility that wheelchairs offer,” Nussbaum says.

Nussbaum is currently at work on a handful of other site-specific projects, including an installation for the entry plaza of the Wildwoods Convention Center and two NJ Transit Rail Station projects in Bayonne and Somerville. But no project has been as gratifying—or nerve-racking—as the one that took place in his own backyard.

“Basically, I said to my wife, ‘I’m applying to this project, and if I don’t get it, we’re going to have to move.’”

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