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Artist Experiments With Portraits Of Random Strangers

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Artist Nicole Bourgea poses in front of some of the life size portraits she painted of random people in the city.
Emily Friedman
Artist Nicole Bourgea poses in front of some of the life size portraits she painted of random people in the city.

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.

Bourgea has created 10 life-size oil paintings of random people she has met this year, and has documented the process on her blog. On Oct. 1 she will place each portrait back at the location where she first met the subject with a note: "If this is you, this painting is yours to take."

Bourgea makes her living as portrait artist, working out of a third floor studio in Chevy Chase. These paintings are roughly 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide. If a commissioned painting were that size, she would charge more than $4,000, but in this case, the paintings are free.

From her studio, she points down the block, to the loading dock of a grocery store. That's where she walked past a construction worker, and realized, she hadn't acknowledged him. It had probably happened hundreds of times before, Bourgea says, but this time it bothered her.

"I thought, why am I hurrying past this person? Why is it so difficult to just look people in the eye and say 'hey I see you!'" She introduced herself, and asked if she could take his picture, and make a portrait. He agreed, and kept on eating his lunch. Bourgea's portrait is of him, eating a croissant.

That was the first painting in what would become a series. She's painted a cook from Ben's Chili Bowl, a street surveyor, a woman from her local coffee shop, and a clerk from the art supply store, among others.

Bourgea admits that this is not a foolproof plan. What if the painting is stolen? What if the subject doesn't happen to walk by on Oct. 1? What if it starts to rain and the painting is ruined? She's considered it all, and says, all she can do is hope the experiment works and the right person will eventually get the portrait. And when they do, she hopes "it will be something that brightens their day. Something that makes them feel like they matter, and that they deserve to be seen." Although it's not possible to create life-size oil paintings of every person she passes on the street, Bourgea says she feels herself noticing people in a new way. And though each painting is a gift to the subject, that, she says, has been a gift to her.


[Music: "Strangers in the Night" by Cake from Stubbs the Zombie]


Emily's story was informed by WAMU's Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to reach out for input on upcoming stories.
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