An artistic look at ‘us’: Springfield Museums exhibit features portraiture by regional artists

  •  “Rosalie in Red,” acrylic painting on canvas by Nayana Lafond of Athol. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  •  “Still No Justice,” spray paint on plywood by Amy Teffer of Easthampton. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “It’s a Boy! (I Can’t Breathe),” oil painting by Gabriela Sepulveda of Springfield; it’s a portrait of a friend of the artist. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Self-Portrait in the Time of Zoom,” photos by Dominique Thiebault of Northampton. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Pentimento,” charcoal and crayon self-portrait by Elizabeth Stone of Florence. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Faces in a Protest,” photo by Terry Gibon of Holyoke. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Kyle,” oil painting by Debra Dunphy of Northampton. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Now What?” charcoal drawing by Diane deGroat of Amherst (she’s the author/illustrator of the “Gilbert” series of children’s books). Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Sandra,” acrylic painting on canvas by Wynne Dromey, age 17, of Longmeadow. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 04, 2020

It’s been said many times before: The Valley is a hotbed of talented artists.

The Springfield Museums certainly think so. That’s why the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts has just opened “This is Us: Regional Portraiture Today,” an exhibit featuring 53 artworks from artists from the Connecticut River Valley, including Hartford County in Connecticut.

It’s a companion exhibit to “The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today,” a show that originated at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and which runs through April 4, 2021 at the D’Amour. That exhibit, based on a nationwide competition, offers about 50 artworks that were chosen from over 2,600 submissions.

“This is Us” has 23 portraits displayed in the D’Amour’s Community Gallery, and those works and some 30 others can also be seen on a digital screen in the gallery (the virtual show will also shortly be arranged to be viewed online). The exhibit, which also runs through April 4, follows a call from the museum in August in which regional artists were invited to submit new or recent portraits for a competition.

Maggie North, curator of art at Springfield Museums, said artists were asked — though not required — to consider contemporary social issues and current events such as racial violence and workers’ rights in their work. But more importantly, North said during a recent interview at the D’Amour, the museum wanted to encourage a wide-open approach to the concept of portraiture, just as The Outwin 2019 exhibit had taken.

“We really wanted to encourage [artists] to be as creative as they could be,” said North. “And to their credit, we received a great range of artwork that really reflects that kind of creativity and diversity…. I think it reminds us just how many talented artists we have in this region.”

Communities in this immediate area are particularly well represented among the 23 works physically on view at the D’Amour’s Community Gallery — 16 of them are from artists in Amherst, Belchertown, Easthampton, Hadley, Holyoke, Leverett, Northampton/Florence, and Sunderland.

The works include paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and sculpture, with many offering unique approaches to portraiture. Some also reflect the eerie pall the pandemic has cast over the country since March (submissions were limited to artworks made between 2018 and 2020).

“[Artists] can tell stories about the way life has changed or about the kind of significant events that have happened,” said North. “At a time when we’re all so separated from one another, this is a great opportunity for them to share something about their lives.”

For instance, Dominique Thiebaut, a photographer from Northampton (he’s also a Smith College professor emeritus of computer science) has fashioned “Self-Portrait in the Time of Zoom,” a square of four black-and white images: three of him and one of a video camera. Chicopee sculptor Maryanne Benns, meantime, has contributed four small stoneware cones, each topped with a separate part of a face: a mouth, a nose, an ear and an eye.

Florence artist Elizabeth Stone started a conventional self-portrait, a charcoal and crayon drawing, before COVID-19 arrived and then modified her work by showing her hand over her mouth. Given the fear and weirdness the pandemic generated, Stone writes in exhibit notes, “I felt the need to add my hand as a face covering and to intensify my expression.”

She’s retained some lines from her earlier version of the work and calls it “Pentimento,” a term that refers to visible traces of earlier painting beneath new layers of paint.

Amy Teffer of Easthampton tackles a subject that keeps generating headlines. “Still No Justice” is a portrait — spray-painted on plywood — of Breonna Taylor, the young Black EMT from Louisville, Kentucky who was shot to death by police in March when white officers burst into her apartment as part of a drug investigation.

That case continues to flare, as some members of a grand jury convened during the summer to hear evidence in the case are now saying they were never given an opportunity to consider more serious charges against the officers.

Perhaps a lesser-known topic is revealed in the acrylic painting “Rosalie in Red,” a portrait of Rosalie Fish, a member of the Muckleshoot and Cowlitz tribes of Washington state. Now a college runner, Fish earned media attention a few years ago as a high school runner for competing with a red hand painted around and over her mouth, a symbol of the violence Indigenous women are subjected to.

Exhibit notes for the painting, by Athol artist Nayana Lafond, include information about a movement know as MMIW, or “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.” Advocates such as Fish say as many as 85 percent of Native women experience violence during their lives, often from non-Natives.

“This is such a powerful image, on a subject many of us probably haven’t heard about,” said North.

Amid these more somber artworks, a painting by the youngest artist in the exhibit, 17-year-old Wynne Dromey of Longmeadow, bursts with color and a sense of joy. It’s an oil painting of Dromey’s friend Sandra who “always puts a smile on my face,” Dromey writes. The portrait shows Sandra’s smiling face topped with a huge mosaic of flowers and bright points of light, like a giant bonnet.

North says a second round of submissions for “This is Us” is now open for regional artists, with a deadline of Jan. 3, 2021. The museum plans to rotate the portraits on display, adding new ones for a second showing between Jan. 23-April 4.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.