New Portraiture Exhibits At The Springfield Museums Show Us Who We Are

Dec 3, 2020

The Springfield Museums has curated a regional portrait exhibit to coincide with the arrival of a prestigious Smithsonian show of American portraiture.

The Smithsonian's Outwin, on display until April 2021 at the D'Amour Fine Arts Museum, is a big deal.  The competitive triennial exhibit helped bring attention to artist Amy Sherald. Her oil painting "Miss Everything" won first prize in the Outwin’s 2016 show. Sherald was then commissioned by the Smithsonian to paint the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama.

The 2019 Outwin is filled with large paintings and multimedia installations, including the prize-winning stop-motion drawing animation by Hugo Crosswaite. His images tell the story of a woman's journey from Mexico to the U.S.

The most recent Outwin came direct to the Springfield Fine Art Museum’s second floor after leaving Washington. 

Just down the stairs on the museum’s first floor is another new exhibit, “This is Us: Regional Portraiture Today.” It's also a competitive show, though — unlike the Outwin — there are no cash prizes. It’s made up of two dozen pieces by artists who live up and down the Connecticut River Valley.

“I love that there's a range here of artists who are simply painting a beautiful portrait of two sisters that conveys not only a likeness but something about their individual character,” said Springfield Museums curator Maggie North. "And there are artists who are responding to COVID-19, or are depicting the faces of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor.”

Among the portraits is an acrylic painting of a woman running. At first glance, "Rosalie in Red" by artist Nayana LaFond who lives in Athol, Massachusetts, has a sort of shock value.

“The work depicts a runner and activist named Rosalie Fish, who competed in her running competitions with this red hand over her mouth,” North said. “The painting is one of a series [of 23 paintings to date] which raises awareness of missing and murdered indigenous women.”

On the opposite wall, North described a series of small stoneware clay sculptures.

“This one I just love because I was so surprised by it,” she said.

“Self” is by Chicopee, Massachusetts, artist Maryanne Benns. The four mounds that make up the sculpture are lined up on a shelf surrounded by plexiglass. 

“Each [mound] represents a different facial feature,” North described. “Together they create a non-traditional self-portrait of the artist, which she did while she was working alone in her studio.”

Alone because of the pandemic, as were other artists like Dominique Thiebaut, who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. He describes himself as mostly a landscape photographer and someone who “rarely ventured into portrait photography.”

When Thiebaut first heard about the Springfield Museums’ call for artists, he thought he might paint a self-portrait with a mask. But that felt too obvious, he said.

“Then I decided, why not use Zoom? Because that's something that everybody is doing,” Thiebaut said. “We are looking at others but also ourselves in little boxes.”

Thiebaut's "Self-Portrait in the Time of Zoom" is about the size of a regular computer screen. Like a Zoom gallery view, the black-and-white photo has quadrants — four, in this case. Three images are of Thiebaut. In each one, he’s in different clothing and a different location. The fourth image is of a camera.

“The camera is there kind of as an accomplice, because it's not taking the photo. The actual photo of me, the computer is [taking]. So I was playing with that as well,” Thiebaut said.

Easy enough for Thiebaut, who in addition to being an artist, recently retired as a computer science professor.

"This is Us" features work from established artists, and from some who might never have called themselves artists before landing in the Fine Arts museum. 

“If you were to go back in time and show me in middle school the painting that is hung in the museum right now, I would not believe that I was able to make something like that,” said Wynne Dromey, a senior at Longmeadow High School in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

Dromey said she was quite surprised when she heard her painting was selected for the exhibit. Her aptly named piece, “Sandra,” is an acrylic painting on canvas.

“The painting I did of my friend Sandra is a portrait [of] her and she has a bunch of different types of flowers coming out of her hair,” Dromey described.

The flowers flow up and out like a bouquet, filling more than half the canvas. Sandra is beaming at the viewer. 

Maybe viewers could take some of that joy for themselves, Dromey said. But she chose to paint Sandra for other reasons too.

“After I painted the [portrait], that's when quarantine happened, and there was the whole movement for Black Lives Matter and [Sandra] actually started her own peaceful protest,” Dromey said.

Artists are inspired by all types of source material. 

Another portrait in the exhibit is “April 9, 2020” by Lynn Peterfreund. It’s a drawing of Dr. Frank Gabrin, who lived in New York City. He inspired Peterfreund, she said, though they never met.

“[Gabrin] was one of the first doctors to pass away from COVID-19,” Peterfreund said.

Peterfreund, an established painter and printmaker in Amherst, Massachusetts, draws daily in a journal. Her portrait of Gabrin in colored pencil is done in a classical style, she said, and it’s based on his obituary photo.

“There's beautiful lighting on one side [of his] face," Peterfreund said. "He's wearing glasses. He has a neatly trimmed goatee. He is a solid man with a receding hairline. His stethoscope is around his neck and he has a very calm look about him. He’s a healthy-looking human being.”

Peterfreund included some of Gabrin's obituary in her piece.

"I wrote on the left side of the drawing his name, where he works,“ Peterfreund said, and that he died at 60 years old. “On the right side it says, ‘HE LEAVES HIS HUSBAND, ARNOLD VARGAS AND COUNTLESS COLLEAGUES AND PEOPLE WHO APPRECIATED HIM.’ In parentheses, ‘HE DID NOT HAVE SUFFICIENT PROTECTION.’”

This portrait and 23 others are on display at the Springfield Museums until early January. Then a second round of art from area artists will be hung. Submissions are still welcome, curator Maggie North said, and if you can't get your hands on a canvas, the museum has some to give away.