Art Seen

This Artist Painted 200 Portraits Of Residents In One Brooklyn Neighborhood To Show That They All Belong

"If this work does nothing else, I want it to reveal ... everyone wants to say hello. Everyone is yearning to connect."

"There are two types of Americans," Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said in a speech Sunday night. "Those who live in Brooklyn, and those who wish they could."


His statement was met with peals of laughter and roaring applause from the crowd, all of whom had been brought together at the Brooklyn Children's Museum to celebrate the unveiling of the Free Portrait Project. Each of the exhibit's four walls was filled top to bottom with 200 individual portraits of Crown Heights residents, a visual time capsule commemorating the current diversity of the neighborhood. 

The neighborhood's diversity was further reflected in its audience  — locals and visitors, young and old, artists and the portrait subjects themselves. Dozens of people were not only awed at the magnitude of the project itself, but the sense of community it had fueled throughout its development, culminating in an afternoon parade to the museum and this, the main event.

After Adams spoke, he introduced the project's artist and Crown Heights resident, Rusty Zimmerman. "The burden of a crowd-funded endeavor is that you have a lot of people to thank," he joked. "It wouldn't be possible at all without each and every person lending support ... I have far too many people to thank." 

Toward the end of his speech, he encouraged everyone in the room looking at him to instead look around at each other. He urged the crowd to reach out to the strangers standing next to them with a smile, introduce themselves, and strike up a conversation. "That's a great place to start," he concluded. 

Though Zimmerman was the only one to voice this desire, he could tell many in the room felt similarly. 

Rusty Zimmerman

How did he know? Well, he'd asked them.

In every single portrait interview, he posed the question: If you had the opportunity to speak to the entire neighborhood, what have you got to say? 

"Ninety-five percent of all folks painted said the same thing ... they said, 'I think we should say hello to one another. I think we should take care of each other and support each other because, at the end of the day, we're all one people," he told A Plus in a previous interview. "It was touching. It was remarkable to see that sentiment echoed by everyone and to know that even though folks don't interact as well as they could as of yet, this is an invitation to do just that." 

At Sunday's debut, he echoed those sentiments to the crowd, "This is our opportunity to get to know one another. I think that's what this is all about." And it's only just the beginning. 

For one month, every single museum visitor can "get to know" every single portrait subject by listening to a 90-second snippet of these interviews (also available on SoundCloud). On a small plaque next to each painting reads the person's name and a QR code. Visitors can scan the QR codes and then listen to a Crown Heights resident talk about their life in the neighborhood, all while staring straight at their portrait. 

"I've always wanted to hang on the wall of a museum," one portrait subject, Ehimen Akhidenor, told A Plus. He'll also take his portrait home with him after the exhibit ends, as will all the other subjects. Akhidenor plans to display it in his living room. "Any living space I live, that's where it's going," he said.

"If this work does nothing else, I want it to reveal to everyone that everyone else also feels the same way," Zimmerman said. "Everyone wants to say hello. Everyone is yearning to connect."

Visitors to the Brooklyn Children's Museum can satisfy that yearning until October 23. The museum even offers free Wi-Fi, making it equally accessible and affordable for anyone with a smartphone to hear the 200 individual stories that now make up a single community. 

Learn more about this single art project that brought a whole neighborhood together in our video:


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