A recent sodden summer day had my guy and I looking for excuses to get out of the dreary deluge and under cover. After a stop by the Bellingham Public Library, and before making our way first to the Grand Avenue Ale House for a happy-hour cocktail and then to Casa Que Pasa for nachos, we sandwiched in a visit to the Whatcom Museum’s new exhibit, “Population.”
Before getting into the specifics of the art display, it should be noted that at each iconic Bellingham institution we visited that afternoon and early evening, we ran into people we knew. At three of the establishments—the library, the bar and the restaurant—we interacted with living, breathing humans. At the Lightcatcher, those we recognized were on the wall, encased in thick swirls of oil paint, and weren’t talking back.
While I normally wouldn’t expect to see fellow Whatcom County citizens in an exhibit by an artist whose home base is in California, I was expecting it where this particular portrait show was concerned.
You see, part of the lure of “Population”—a multi-city traveling exhibition that began in 2009 and is part of an ongoing series by the artist—is that, in addition to painting people who are part of the communities in which he exhibits, Turner has actually met them before.
Around this same time last summer, Turner arrived at the Lightcatcher lobby with his digital camera, a tripod and a mission to transform 50 citizens of Bellingham who’d been selected from all walks of life into works of art. He photographed them, then took their images back to Pasadena, where their digital likenesses were eventually reborn as oil portraits that were each painted on a square-foot of half-inch-thick glass.
The result is a captivating exhibit that brings home the fact that people’s faces are intrinsically interesting, has viewers questioning who they’re going to recognize next (Pete Kremen, I know that was you), and makes it clear that Turner takes his job seriously.
“Part of Turner’s vision for ‘Population’ hinges on the direct interaction fostered by this collaboration between artist and community, enriching the evolving exhibit as new faces are added from town to town, engaging the personal involvement of individuals hailing from diverse locales,” reads the press release for the exhibit. “In the process, many people will have an opportunity to both witness the provocative exhibit and participate in building it, with the ultimate benefit of lifting up local communities by engaging their constituents on a one-to-one basis and making art appreciation less intimidating.”
And, as time goes on and the exhibit leaves town, Bellingham’s “Population” will be intermixed with more additions from other communities, making it harder to tell where each town’s cultural makeup begins and the others end.
But the community mash-up isn’t coming to a standstill now that the exhibit is on the wall. A “We Are Whatcom County” offshoot outside the doors of the upstairs exhibit space invites patrons to contribute to the broader picture of our population, and images taken by a volunteer photographer showcase answers to questions about the past, present and future of our area.
In fact, at the next downtown Art Walk July 6, there’ll be a portrait photographer and sketch artists on hand to further capture the images of citizens who are visiting the exhibit. Even if it’s not raining, you’ll want to drop by to see who you know—and who else lives in the city you call home.
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