By Maddie Orton
Ever wonder about the person behind the portrait? The Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster kicks off the national tour of You’re U.S. — or “You Are Us” — a multimedia look at the American identity through visual, oral and written accounts of everyday people.
“What is this character, this American character that we have?” asks artist Emile Klein. “I thought I should really go use this skill that I have, painting, and investigate that. And then I heard about this group of early Americans called limners.”
Colonial limners traveled by horseback, trading portrait commissions for room and board on the trail. Though the artists often lacked formal training, subjects would gladly open their homes for the chance to acquire their own piece of personal history. Klein hoped the same principle would still apply. And though he subbed in his bike for a horse, staying with the paintings’ subjects for a week or so remained key. “There are a lot of ways in which people open up after the second or the third time,” Klein explains.
Clinton Township resident Ken Nerger was apprehensive to share his story at first. The former New York art dealer was recovering from battling throat cancer and out of work on disability. “The cancer was something I was trying to put behind me, and I had never really dealt with it to begin with,” Nerger says.
Nerger supported Klein’s mission though, and knew the value of his art. “He’s trying to put artwork into the hands of people who otherwise couldn’t afford it,” Nerger explains. “When I was in New York City on Madison Avenue, we were $20,000 and up for a portrait painting, and none of them rivaled this quality.”
Klein peddled his wares — literally — across 11 states, and he plans to cover them all. The model may be an old one, but his method of sharing the work is new. QR codes allow viewers to hear the subjects’ stories while they see their portrait and read their response to the final product.
“I go around and paint these people, and I work with radio producers who then produce radio stories based on these portraits and interviews I conduct,” says Klein. The result is a very different experience for visitors.
“Once I pulled out my phone, and doing the scan code, there’s no comparison,” says exhibition attendee Melissa Kenzari of Lebanon Township. “It’s so much more fun to experience the pictures by hearing the voice of the subject and hearing the story behind it in their own words.”
And as the project continues, there will be many more stories to come. “This is the life of an individual that might otherwise be passed right on by on the sidewalk,” says Nerger. “We all have a story to tell.”
Klein and the Center for Contemporary Art know their visitors are no exception. They’ll be recording personal stories Saturdays through the run of the show — one copy for the storyteller and one for Klein.