“It Was All A Dream”: How One Biggie Piece Brought Two Strangers Together

There are a number of stories that can come out of any given Art All Night - Trenton. Going into its 11th year, there have to be hundreds of untold stories about the experiences an event of this magnitude manifests. That said, we promise you that you’ve not heard a tale quite like the story of Lenore Robison and Chris Ernst, who formed an intriguing bond during our 2014 Art All Night - Trenton over a picture of The Notorious B.I.G..

Lenore Robison is not only a yearly volunteer at Art All Night - Trenton, but has been an active member of the Mill Hill community. While a number of Art All Night - Trenton volunteers are a part of the art scene within the city of Trenton, Lenore says she’s no artist; she recalled taking ballet as a kid, but says that when her parents saw her dance, they “immediately signed me up for swimming lessons.” She doesn’t consider herself an art collector, either, but makes it a point to purchase one piece of art every year at Art All Night - Trenton. During the 2014 edition of Art All Night - Trenton, Lenore says that on her first loop through the gallery while she was working her volunteering shift as an art monitor, she spotted the piece she wanted to purchase: a pixelated portrait of The Notorious B.I.G. with the words “It Was All A Dream” (which is the opening lines from Biggie’s break out single “Juicy”), a rapper who is seen by many hip-hop fans as one of the greatest rappers of all time. Something about the piece, which was created by New Brunswick-based artist Chris Ernst, struck a chord with her.

Ernst, a lifelong hip-hop fan who grew up in Indiana, said he had an idea for a series that would “take famous emcees and a quote from one of their songs underneath it” in the style of the scenes between each round of 1987 Nintendo game Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!. He says he may have been a bit ambitious when it comes to his plans for the series and what’s actually been produced, as he only created the Biggie piece and one for late Beastie Boys member MCA, which hangs in the family room in his home. While he’d been an artist for a bit, it wasn’t until around 2010 or 2011 that he started getting serious about being an artist, and 2014 was the first year that he actually submitted a piece, which was ultimately bought by Lenore Robison.

While The Notorious B.I.G. only spent a short time in the public eye as a major star in the rap industry, there are a number of memorable images of the rapper (who was gunned down on March 9, 1997 in Los Angeles, California). Chris figures the photo of Biggie wearing a crown (which was recently utilized in Netflix’s series Marvel’s Luke Cage) is the most iconic, he was more drawn to the “world-weariness” and “resoluteness” of the particular image he used. Lenore, who wasn’t a fan of The Notorious B.I.G. or hip-hop in general (she says she was always “bothered” by the misogyny and racial slurs in the music), did say that “rap music was something my children would listen to,” and what immediately drew her to the piece is that the image reminded her of her adopted son, Dan Robison. Dan, who was a Marine, was gunned down execution style while sitting in a U-Haul truck 18 months prior in Philadelphia. Lenore explained that the last image she remembers of her son was similar to the picture Chris painted, with his head tilted to the side while putting on his hat. Lenore says that Dan “bore a strong resemblance to Biggie,” and was a fan of Biggie’s material, but she was so struck by how much the image reminded her of her son, Dan, that she actually began to cry during her volunteer shift.

For anyone who isn’t aware, while Art All Night - Trenton is technically “done” at 3PM on the third Sunday in June, the festivities are far from over. That following Saturday, Artworks Trenton always holds its Artworks Selects exhibit, which highlights the pieces that were sold at Art All Night - Trenton, as well as pieces that didn’t sell but stood out to Artworks Board, staff, and special guests that choose their favorite pieces. One of the keys to this exhibit is that the artists and the patrons who purchased the pieces are able to meet face-to-face, giving each person a special connection. Initially, there was some confusion about the piece in general towards the end of Art All Night - Trenton that year. From what Chris gathered, he hadn’t received an e-mail about the Biggie piece being sold, yet when he got to the Roebling Wire Works post-Art All Night - Trenton to pick it up, it wasn’t there (Artworks removes all of the sold pieces and selected works from the gallery walls and stores them for the Selects exhibit). Luckily, heeding his wife’s suggestion, Chris left one of his business cards with the Biggie piece, and when he got back home that night, he had an e-mail from Lenore sitting in his inbox.

In her e-mail to Chris, Lenore said that she missed her son Dan, and “wished this was all a dream.” She told Chris about how, while she wasn’t necessarily planning on buying anything during the festival, there was something about Chris’ Biggie piece that made her keep “going back to it all day.” Lenore explained that she “had to have it because for me it's my son Dan and I know that having it in my home will help keep him close to me.”

As he reflected on the e-mail, Chris said he was getting goosebumps just thinking about it. “The best thing you can have as an artist,” Chris says, “is a response in someone, but for it to be such a cool response and something that means so much to someone.” Chris says he was “emotionally floored” by her e-mail, and decided to respond, expressing that “[t]he fact that the painting can help keep him close to you in some way is something I can't even process.” Chris went on, saying he was “truly, truly humbled and honored,” and that “[h]aving the opportunity to touch someone with my art is a gift I cherish and I have received no greater gift in my time as an artist than your note.”

But then, Chris took it a step further. After donating a portion of the proceeds to Artworks Trenton, Chris asked if there was a charity he could donate a portion of the proceeds to, in Dan’s honor. At Lenore’s suggestion, Chris made a donation to Hero Dogs, a non-profit that trains and provides service dogs for wounded veterans with the following memorial notice: “In memory of Dan Robison and his service to our country. Semper Fi.”

Following their e-mail correspondence, Lenore and Chris made plans to meet up at the Artworks Selects exhibit that Saturday. Chris admits to being “so nervous” about meeting Lenore, but on that Saturday evening, as peak Selects exhibit time, Chris and Lenore got to spend some time together around the piece of art that brought them together.

One surprising thing we learned was that their meeting felt like karma; for some time, Chris was going back and forth with a cousin about buying the piece. After going back and forth with his cousin, the Biggie piece was actually sitting in the family room, occupying the space his MCA piece sits in now. Chris feels that, in hindsight, the piece “found its perfect home. It was almost like it was never supposed to be my piece of artwork; it’s her artwork.” Lenore simply called the situation “serendipitous,” and told us that the Biggie piece sits in her study, next to a peace plant and the flag from Dan’s funeral.

There are bound to be numerous stories of hope, karma, and enlightenment that roam the walls of the historic Roebling Wire Works building during the 24-hour arts extravaganza known as Art All Night - Trenton. This particular tale, which captures the emotional connectivity that we as humans have when taking in a piece of art that truly speaks to us, is something we hope many of you can relate to. Hopefully a piece of art can speak to you, for any number of reasons, the way Chris Ernst’s portrait of The Notorious B.I.G. did for Lenore Robison.

Rest in peace, Dan Robison. And thank you to Lenore and Chris for sharing their story. For more details on Art All Night - Trenton, please visit our website.