The following is an interview with Nicole Bourgea, a Washington, D.C. based artist about her AS IS painting project.
TWI: For those who might not be familiar with you, tell me a little about yourself, where you are from, what drew you to painting, your faith background, etc. Share to the extent you feel comfortable.
Nicole: I think that like most artists, discovering that I could make art was akin to discovering that I could speak. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t understand the world through the creative process. I enjoy working in different mediums, but painting seems to be the best match for my visual rhythm at this point.
When I was working toward my undergraduate degree in painting, I was impressed by a certain small piece of advice of given by a professional artist lecturing at my university. He encouraged us find and set up a studio immediately after graduation. “Ignore all the reasons why it doesn’t make sense, and just do it. If you do not have a place to make art, you will not make art.”
I am a Catholic and one of the most concrete ways in which I have experienced God’s grace in my life has been in finding the little studio space in Washington, DC I have called my own for the past ten years. As much as painting is like breathing for me, there have been times when life has felt too full or difficult to make art. Knowing there is a room waiting for me to fill with work, forces me to show up and give each day what I have.
TWI: For the AS IS project you gave away 10 life-sized portraits to strangers: what led you to consider this somewhat unconventional artistic undertaking? What were you most nervous about? What were you most excited about?
Nicole: Well, I make my living painting commissioned portraits. Over the years, I have had a lot of people thank me for really seeing them during that process. Everyone deserves to be seen, and it struck me that it is such a simple thing to do, to tell people they matter. I wanted to give an experience of being noticed to more people through my art. So I decided to paint ten people in the city at random. I made very large portraits of these people and installed them where I met each person. Next to each portrait, I hung a sign saying, “If this is you, this portrait is yours to take.”
What excited me the most about working on AS IS was the mental image of someone hurrying around a corner and coming face to face with his/her own image. I hoped it would make a few people smile and feel their presence in this world as significant. Truthfully, I was pretty terrified at the prospect of all those portraits, a years worth of work, sitting in the rain for a few weeks and then being tossed or returned to me. That said, at the heart of this project was a desire to let go of art as this precious commodity, and instead to give it as the gift it is.
TWI: Can you talk a little about the process of finding your subjects? I’m tempted to draw an analogy between you and the magi, both on a journey, both looking and searching. You said that you would paint ten people at “random,” but did you have a set of criteria or a vision for who you might paint? Or did you just start walking and searching? Maybe there is a story about “noticing” one of the painted individuals that you want to share?
Nicole: I did choose my subjects a bit randomly. That said, during the year that I was working on AS IS, I really tried to slow down and really focus on the people around me, be it a store clerk or a homeless man. When I found myself rushing past someone for any number of reasons, I would force myself to stop, look that person and the eye and acknowledge his or her presence.
I will let you draw the analogies you want, but it was a journey in a sense. I was and am still searching to see the flame of life at the center of every person. I spent a month at a community center in Anacostia this summer with a public art project. Keith Cook is one of the maintenance workers there whom I ended up being one of my subjects for AS IS. Meeting Mr. Keith filled my lungs with new spring air. There is a sincere joy that clearly shines through him no matter what is going on in his life. I feel privileged to have met him, and am grateful that I was able to give him something in return through this project.
TWI: In faith an art discussions I’ve often heard the human face discussed as an icon—in the face of others we can encounter the face of God. God’s beauty often manifests itself among us, through us. What sort of relationship might you articulate between traditional religious iconography and your work?
Nicole: I love this line from Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists: “Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude…Art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery.” This line speaks to me because I have had the privilege to look into so many faces during my short career as a portrait artist and am constantly awed by what I see. There is a bigness, a realness to the dignity of each unique life that speaks to something beyond that one person, and it is frankly humbling. So I suppose that you could say that in the sense that an icon is an image that represents something else of greater significance, my portrait work is iconographic in its attempt to reflect that power and mystery.
TWI: Epiphany is the time of light, of revelation, when questions of vision—how one sees the world—are communicated by the liturgical season. I think you have talked before about “seeing like an artist.” What might art and, more specifically your project have to say about this? What or how does art (esp. painting) help us see better?
Nicole: I think that artists are trying to get at the unknown. They are trying to touch the void, to see and to know and to share the mystery. AS IS was born out of this incredible light bulb moment of realizing that there is no greater embodiment of that mystery than the people that I pass everyday on the streets. Each of us was fearfully and wonderfully made, as Scripture says, but we are all in such a rush that we sometimes fail to acknowledge the incredible reality of the living people selling us our cup of coffee or surveying our streets. This project was my attempt to see and to know and to share a small glimpse into the astounding beauty at the heart of every living person.
TWI: Another question in relation to Epiphany. Counter-intuitive to the rhythms of the larger culture, Epiphany is still Christmas. When the church remembers the gift-giving activities of the magi. Would you articulate the works of this project as gifts? If so, what sort of gift? Was it more than just a gift to others, and maybe a gift to you as well? Such as, did you learn anything about your vocation as an artist through the project?
Nicole: Definitely! This project was about giving the gift of notice. I set out with the intention not just to give the portraits to their subjects, but hopefully to brighten a few days by showing people that they are seen and that they matter. It costs very little to give that to the people around us, but we don’t often give the gift of notice freely. Without trying to be malicious or selfish, we are constantly neglecting each other as we rush through our days. The year that I spent painting these portraits encouraged me to open my eyes to the gift of life in all the people that I casually interact with everyday, and that has been the unexpected gift this project has given me. AS IS confirmed my vocation as an artist to open my eyes to the beauty of God’s creation and to use the seemly inadequate tools of my existence to share that real, unflinching wonder with my neighbors.
TWI: After the project was done did you establish a relationship with anyone you painted? Or have you heard any feedback from them (or others) regarding your work?
Nicole: As much as this project gifted me with those kind of experiences, I really did not want AS IS to be about me. I intentionally left these paintings on the street for their subjects to find, so they could be sincere gifts with no strings attached. In other words, I did not want people to be put into the situation of having to thank somebody for making something for them that they did not ask for. I simply wanted people to know that they were seen, and that they matter. That is all. I know now that nine out of ten of the installed portraits eventually found their way to their subjects, and many were cared for by community members along the route, friends taking a painting to the subject, shop owners bringing the portraits inside during storms. I have been absolutely humbled by the response that this project has received—e-mails, posts on my blog and even a Christmas card! I wanted to use this project to tell people they have a significant beauty, a real value, but I am completely blown away by the blessing of such unexpected acknowledgment in return.
Nicole Bourgea is a Washington, D.C. based portrait artist. She and her work have been featured in the Huffington Post and other news outlets. You can view more of her work here.