In one portrait, a man with glasses gazes from the frame, friendly but appraising. In another, Ruth Bader Ginsburg peers out from a background swirling with color, bringing all her intelligence and experience to bear to size up the viewer. In a third, a woman, nobody’s fool, gazes out from a scintillating wall of hues, a clock tower to her left.
It turns out that the woman is Marilyn Walton, a construction worker, hairdresser, and business owner who happened to be the grandmother of artist Jaida Stancil. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is, of course, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, rendered by Aliya Anna Hafiz. And the man with the glasses is artist Salvador Bacón, father of Patricio Salvador Bacón Guaray, who painted his father’s portrait.
“He is an artist and I really love how he combines his colors and presents his work to the public,” Guaray writes of his father. “I learned my family’s history since I was very young, and it made me value, improve and change the way I live my life.”
Walton, Ginsburg, and Bacón are part of a mosaic of portraits, of judges, activists, friends, artists, relatives, and athletes — each image three tiles across and four down — made by the 20 high-school students in Artspace’s Summer Apprenticeship Program, which began in July and concludes on Saturday with a day-long environmental justice summit involving the students, artists, and community leaders.
The idea behind the project was “to pay homage to an unsung hero who is local to New Haven,” said Artspace curator Sarah Fritchey. “Personal heroes who are family members or friends.” But the students in the program ran with that idea. Soon Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Freddie Mercury joined the ranks of people on the walls.
The portraits are just part of the gallery show. Pasted to the walls are portraits of the artists themselves, done by artist and project facilitator Roberto Lugo. Fritchey came across Lugo — who also teaches at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University — through his work, which she saw at the Wexler Gallery in Philadelphia, Pa. where the artist is based.
“It was so inspired and visually stunning,” she said. She also found out that Lugo was a performance artist and spoken word poetr. “I just thought he would be such a good mentor” for the SAP students.
Her intuition proved correct, as Lugo combined a focused project with spirited abandon in the gallery. “He told them he was going to paste them up on the walls and gave them free rein to draw on the walls” around the portraits and the art they were making. Many of those drawings were part of an exercise the students did on the program’s first day. They had to “talk about a challenge they had faced that made them stronger,” Fritchey said. Then Lugo had them take their stories a step further, weaving them together in illustration to “tell the story as one.”
The project also involved research. The students visited the local history archives at the New Haven Free Public Library as well as the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale to learn about New Haven’s past, and got visits from Stetson Branch librarian Diane Brown.
When it came time for the students to make their tile portraits, however, Lugo encouraged them to follow their intuitions and passions, and not to worry about making a mistake. “Let’s turn defect into effect,” Fritchey recalled him saying. If a student made a paint stroke he was unhappy with, rather than trying to erase it, Lugo directed them to use it. “This is a mark. Keep going. Put it down and see what happens.”
Lugo’s helped the students unlock what they were passionate about and translate it to their tile pieces. They worked diligently through the summer. Sometimes, Fritchey said, she would come to the office on a weekend to find students putting in extra hours working there.
Certain felicitous coincidences accompanied the project as well, such as the fact that two of the students (one of them Guaray) came from Riobamba, Ecuador, a town known for its own ceramic industry. It got the students thinking about where the materials they were using came from, which in turn fed into the themes of a parallel project at Artspace by Ruben Olguin, who used his ceramics to call attention to the politics of land use in New Mexico, where he is from. It got the students talking about the themes underlying their project, ranging from environmental justice to human rights to gun control.
“And love,” Fritchey added.
At the show’s opening in July, the students passed the microphone around to talk about the subjects of their portraits. Some read poetry. Some danced in homage to their subject. They will return on Sept. 8 to do it again. “It’ll be a moment for them to reach anyone they didn’t get to,” Fritchey said. Sept. 8 will also feature attorney and environmental activist Elizabeth Yeampierre as keynote speaker, opening up the day to a series of panels involving artists, activists, and community leaders from New Haven and beyond. Meanwhile, the students’ pieces will be assembled into a mural that will be installed at Common Ground High School to be timed for next year’s Rock to Rock ride.
“It will live outdoors and be a public artwork,” Fritchey said, an act of generosity from students who dug deep and came up with gold.
“Paying Homage: Soil and Site Environmental Justice Summit” happens Saturday, Sept. 8, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Yale University Art Gallery (1111 Chapel Street), Robert L. McNeil Jr. Lecture Hall. Click here for details and more information. The Summer Apprenticeship Program exhibit runs at Artspace, 50 Orange St., through Sept. 8. Admission is free.