Artist Experiments With Portraits Of Random Strangers (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Artist Experiments With Portraits Of Random Strangers

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We turn now from the camaraderie of the dinner table to the relative anonymity of the street. I mean, think about it. When strangers pass on the street what usually happens? Nothing, right. Either we just ignore one another or we're engrossed in our digital lives, sending emails, yakking on the phone, surfing for a place to have dinner or any of the million of things we're able to do while on the move. In the face of this new social norm, as Emily Friedman tells us, one D.C. based artist has decided to go full steam ahead in the other direction.

MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN

00:00:35
Keith Cook was at work when he received his painting. He's the maintenance guy at the Arch, a community center in Southeast D.C. He walked outside to tend to the landscaping and there before him was a five foot by four foot canvas.

MR. KEITH COOK

00:00:51
A big, pretty picture of me with my big smile.

FRIEDMAN

00:00:56
It's a life-size portrait of Cook in his Redskins hat, his work shirt and badge, weeding in the garden. It's what he was doing the day he first met Nicole Bourgea.

MS. NICOLE BOURGEA

00:01:05
Hi, my name is Nicole Bourgea and I'm from D.C. and I am a portrait artist.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:10
We're in her studio in Chevy Chase, D.C. and she pulls me over to a window right next to her easel. She points down the block toward the loading dock of a grocery store. Down there she says, is where this project began.

BOURGEA

00:01:22
I was outside of my studio when I noticed this man.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:26
He was a construction worker, leaning against the building as he enjoyed a flaky croissant.

BOURGEA

00:01:30
And I thought, you know, why am I hurrying past this person? Why is it so difficult for me to just stop and notice this person?

FRIEDMAN

00:01:35
So she introduced herself and asked if she could take his picture.

BOURGEA

00:01:39
He said, sure, I'd love to. He just went about doing what he was doing and he on was his lunch break so you can see he's in mid bite there.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:47
That was the first painting. Bourgea's studio is lined with the others.

BOURGEA

00:01:52
So this is one of the cooks at Ben's Chili Bowl. I was down on U Street one morning and I ran into him out taking a smoke break.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:59
There's a woman from her local coffee shop and a clerk from her art supply store.

BOURGEA

00:02:04
This woman I passed in Georgetown and she was dressed all in white and she had this dramatic black hairdo.

FRIEDMAN

00:02:13
Bourgea stands in front of the easel in a denim sundress. She doesn't paint directly from the photographs but looks over them every so often just to check details.

BOURGEA

00:02:22
So this portrait is my ninth and I'm about a third of the way through. This is Margo, she's another artist and she does not know that I'm doing this painting.

FRIEDMAN

00:02:32
She typically charges about $4,200 for paintings this size but these portraits will be given away for free. On October 1st, Nicole will place the portraits back where she met each subject.

BOURGEA

00:02:46
I'm going to be writing little signs that I post next to each one of the paintings. And the sign reads, "If this is you, this painting is yours to take."

FRIEDMAN

00:02:53
Keith Cook, the maintenance man in Southeast got his early. Bourgea was so excited to see his reaction she just couldn't keep it any longer.

BOURGEA

00:03:01
He is just somebody who really gives back to his community and I want to be able to make sure that he gets his painting sooner rather later just because I want him to have it and I don't want anything to happen in between now and then.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:18
And though Keith Cook got his portrait without a glitch, this is not what you'd call a foolproof plan. There are a lot of worse case scenarios. While most people go for a simple head nod, there are a lot of ways to acknowledge a passing stranger on the street. Nicole Bourgea has a technique all her own. What if the painting's stolen? What if the subject doesn't happen to walk by that day? What if it starts to rain and the painting is ruined?

FRIEDMAN

00:03:33
Those things could definitely happen Bourgea says. But all she can do is hope the experiment works and the right person will eventually get the portrait.

BOURGEA

00:03:42
It might be a little shocking, you know, to walk down the street and see this big painting of yourself on the wall and you didn't realize it was going to be done. I hope that it will be something that brightens their day. You know, I hope that it'll be something that makes them feel like they matter and that they deserve to be seen.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:57
Bourgea admits it's not realistic to paint life-size oil paintings of every person she passes on the street, but already she says, she feels herself slowing down and really noticing people throughout her day. And though each painting is a gift to the subject, that, she says, has been a gift to herself. I'm Emily Friedman.

SHEIR

00:04:20
If you want a sneak peek of Nicole Bourgea's paintings before you run into one on the street next week, of course, you can find a link to her blog on our website, metroconnection.org.
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