A new multimedia exhibit at the The Center for Contemporary Art featuring 30 American profiles of subjects from 10 states is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
In addition to the portraits by artist Emile Klein, the “You’re U.S. — At Home With America” exhibit, which opens Friday, Sept. 5 with a public reception from 6 to 8 p.m., features an audio visual space where visitors can watch and listen to stories of the subjects and share their own in weekly StoryCorps-style recording sessions.
Area schools will participate with Emile in a visiting artist program based on “You’re U.S.” and create American profiles of people in their own communities. And, finally, the artist will present a series of demonstrations and public lectures on diverse topics from portrait painting to piñata making.
The exhibit’s journey to our Bedminster Center began shortly after I was hired as the Executive Director in 2011, when I received a phone message from an enthusiastic man who said he was biking across the United States painting people’s portraits while he lived with them, and he was looking for an exhibit space to show the work.
The whole thing struck me as farfetched and even odd. Add to that the fact that, as the new director of an organization with a bold new name, I was constantly fielding calls and email inquiries from artists about exhibiting.
So it may not be surprising that, at first, I did not return his call. (If you are reading this, I’m sorry Emile!)
That weekend my husband and I got together with friends who own a bike shop in Hunterdon County. They love to entertain us with stories of colorful local characters and small town goings on. So they began to tell us about a young guy who had come into their shop for repairs that week and said that he was cycling across New Jersey painting portraits of people from all walks of life and recording their stories.
I nearly spit out my beer. I cried out, “Wait a minute. Was his name Emile?!” Yes it was, and they told me a little bit of his story. Needless to say that on that Monday morning I called Emile and we set up a lunch meeting. I arrived at restaurant in a bitter winter downpour, an orange bike on the porch catching my eye as I pulled in.
I learned that Emile is an incredibly smart, driven, creative and energetic young artist from California who was creating “American profiles” of people from all walks of life and every corner of the nation. His organization and the project are called, “You’re U.S.”
Once his subjects have been identified within a state, Emile cycles there and lives with them in their homes, receiving room and board in exchange for a portrait in oils, all part of an effort to create what he calls a democracy of art ownership. And this contemporary limner’s bicycle and touring gear, paints and raw materials are all American-made.
Emile’s painting style is surprisingly Old Masters for a 20-something artist, but it is when each American profile is completed that it becomes contemporary. Visual, literary and audio elements make up each profile. In addition to the painted portrait, Emile and his team record the subject’s story, often accompanied by an original music score inspired by it, and write a brief essay about the person.
As he described the project over lunch and I began to see the big picture and I knew that I wanted to bring the exhibit to The Center for Contemporary Art. I was new and we were essentially an old organization in the process of transformation. This was an exhibit that would appeal to a broad audience in a very inclusive way which was right in line with the goals for all of our programs.
And that bike on the restaurant porch? It turned out that Emile had biked from Annandale, where he was working on a portrait, to Bedminster in a torrential winter rain storm.
“You’re U.S. — At Home With America” is on view through Oct. 25.
Elie Porter Trubert is the Executive Director of The Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster, N.J. Check out The Center’s website at www.ccabedminster.org. Founded in 1970, The Center for Contemporary Art is a vital regional art center with a comprehensive studio art school, professional exhibition program and important community outreach component.
Photos at top courtesy of Emile Klein: At left “Kong” 2013, oil; At right: “Sadie” 2012, oil.