ATLANTIC CITY - Tyrone L. Hart paints what he knows. Much of his work depicts churches, children and the lives of black men and women.
Plexus Publishing Inc., of Medford Township, Burlington County, wanted to make use of both his skill as an artist and his knowledge as a man who spent most of his life living on the city's north side.
Hart's illustrations adorn the cover of "The Northside," the second book about Atlantic City's past from Nelson Johnson, whose first book, the New York Times bestseller "Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City," has been adapted into an HBO series airing Sundays.
The new book, subtitled "African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City," is scheduled for release Nov. 29.
"This project has been one of the longest projects I ever worked on, but the most fulfilling," said Hart, 53, who started creating artwork he hoped would be included in "The Northside" book in 2007. "Any artist - a writer, a singer or a visual artist like myself - will tell you, when you find yourself, that's the most beautiful thing. ... History has been my niche. Now, I have something I can really dig my teeth into because now, there's something I believe in."
A resident of Atlantic City's South Inlet section, Hart started drawing at age 13. After a while, he stopped and returned to it two decades later in 2000 following a car crash that left him unable to continue his job as an in-house painter at Resorts Atlantic City.
Hart's work has been shown in galleries in Atlantic County, Millville, Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del.
Kaleem Shabazz, former executive director of the Atlantic City Art Center, knows Johnson and Hart. The center once hosted an exhibit of Hart's work, and Hart taught city school children about art at the center. Shabazz initiated the meeting between artist and writer, and Hart and Johnson met in 2007 at the former Lefty's Italian restaurant at North Carolina and Atlantic avenues.
"He (Johnson) was looking for me. He knew about my art and me for about 3½ months. I had a show at the art center," said Hart, who added that Johnson saw the one-man show, met him and wanted him to do the artwork for "The Northside."
"What he wanted initially, he wanted me to fill up the pages with artistry. He didn't want photos. The cover wasn't even talked about. That was the idea we wanted. We worked together for a year before I met the publisher."
Hart was happy that Johnson picked him to do the artwork for his book.
"I'm very proud to be associated with a local artist who has a lot of talent, and I'm honored that he agreed to use his talent to help with the cover of the book," said Johnson, who gave Hart a very rough draft of the book so he could work on art.
From 2007 to 2008, Hart came up with at least 36 images he thought could be used throughout the book, including black male lifeguards and black women in bathing suits at Chicken Bone Beach. But he was told it would be too costly to print artwork throughout the book when he met with John B. Bryans, editor-in-chief and publisher for Plexus.
Hart said he walked out of the meeting impressed with Bryans' intelligence. He realized he would be doing the cover if he could deliver what Bryans wanted. Bryans also left the meeting with an appreciation of Hart's talent.
"When Nelson Johnson introduced me and (Plexus vice president of graphics and production) Heide Dengler to Tyrone Hart, it was as if someone had just turned on the light switch," said Bryans, the editor behind "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Northside." "He's a remarkable artist, and as a third-generation Northsider, we knew he could create something unique and authentic for this cover. He nailed it."
Hart created six images for the cover. The Chicken Bone Beach scene was the only image used that Hart made before March 2008.
A railroad worker is on the right side of the cover by himself. He looks toward all of the other figures. The subsequent people and development were not possible without the building of the rail lines.
The book cover's left side features a maid, a bellman, a pianist to represent the now-defunct Club Harlem music venue, millionaire black businesswoman Madame Sara Spencer Washington, and St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church at New York and Arctic avenues, which was originally named Bethel AME Church and was the first traditional black church in the city.
Johnson wanted representations of the bellman and the housekeeper on the cover, as they were jobs held predominantly by blacks in the resort's early days, Hart said. Johnson and Hart decided what figures to put on the cover.
The artwork was done in a week, but the cover was tweaked for more than a year, Hart said.
"I would sit here and study this for two or three days and tell them something is wrong," said Hart, pointing out that the railroad worker's boots could not be seen in an earlier version. "I had never done a book cover. ... Trying to perfect it in the way you see it in your mind's eye is not easy. It has taught me that everything fast is not always good. Sometimes, you have to do things over and over."
Last year, Hart was elated when he signed the contract to do the cover. He attended the premiere of "Boardwalk Empire" with Johnson and Bryans in September at Caesars Atlantic City. Hart has been given the rights to use the term "The Northside" on T-shirts and will be involved in promotion of the book, possibly participating in book tours, he said.
"I know right now, if I asked John for his right hand, he would give it to me. ... I would do the same in return," said Hart, who added he does not think they liked each other when they first met. "If it wasn't for John Bryans, this would not be happening."
Staff Writer Martin DeAngelis contributed to this report.
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Looking for the book?
"The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City," is scheduled to be released Nov. 29 by Plexus Publishing Inc. The 384-page hardcover edition will sell for $24.95.
See more art by Hart
Tyrone L. Hart's paintings can be viewed at