If you’ve never had your portrait painted, you should. It is one of life’s enduring pleasures. I sat for a student at the old Portland School of Art back in the 1970s and, looking at the portrait today, I can still recall – and feel – how relaxing and soothing it was to have the artist’s gaze upon me for hours at a time. That kind of attention is rare and reassuring.
In Felix de la Concha: Private Portraits/Public Conversations, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire (through September 27) has added a public art dimension to what is ordinarily a very intimate experience.
In conjunction with the Dartmouth Centers Forum, the Hood commissioned Felix de la Concha, a Spanish painter married to poet and Dartmouth assistant professor Ana Merino, to paint a series of 51 portraits of people from the Dartmouth community and the Upper Valley region along the New Hampshire-Vermont border, in each case videotaping a conversation with the sitter about conflict in his/her life and how that conflict was resolved and reconciled. Each session took two hours and excerpts from the conversations, as well as fast-forward video clips of entire sessions, are available on the Hood Museum of Art website.
Felix de la Concha is no stranger to sustained, thematic series. While he is primarily a painter of realist landscapes and cityscapes, de la Concha previously spent an entire year painting 365 pictures of Pittsburgh and another year painting views of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater. He is currently engaged with a series of portraits of Holocaust survivors.
For his Private Portraits/Public Conversations series, de la Concha painted portraits of a broad cross-section of the Dartmouth community from President James Wright to Dining Service staff member Autumn Evans. He painted students, faculty, staff, alumni, and local community members, in each case producing a head-and-shoulders likeness of the sitter in oil on linen. Thirty-one of the portraits hang at the Hood and another 20 at Dartmouth’s Baker Library.
Each of de la Concha’s subjects was suggested to him because of some form of conflict in his or her life, ranging from the personal to political, ethnic to emotional.One of the most compelling is the portrait of a Dartmouth alum explaining what it was like to attend Dartmouth as a Native American when the college still called its athletic teams the Indians.
In the excerpt from the portrait session with James Wright, the college president, a rather sleepy-looking white-haired gentleman, talks about the gulf between the educated and uneducated.
“We have to start by expanding and enlarging the dreams and ambitions of people,” Pres. Wright says. “I think that nationally, economics is a crucial factor in many individuals and families thinking that college is not accessible to them, but I think the economics may be the lesser problem, the smaller problem. I think the greater problem is just encouraging people that they can go to school and I don’t think that families and teachers and community members encourage young people enough to think about that, particularly in families and communities and schools where it’s not traditional for people to go to college, and that’s the sort of community I grew up in.”
Dining Service employee Autumn Evans is more succinct. Though the excerpt gives no clue what sort of conflict Evans has faced, her comment speaks volumes to the issue of empowerment.
“A lot of people say that life is what you make it, but it’s not,” Autumn Evans says. “Life is what is thrown at you and how you deal with it which makes you a better and a wiser person.”
Felix de la Concha: Private Portraits/Public Conversations is a fascinating conceptual project using very traditional means to a potentially radical end.
[Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover NH, 603-646-2808.]