Art can often seem elusive, somewhat unfamiliar, maybe even seem out-of-place in everyday life. That being said, it also can start conversations about important topics that are often overlooked, which is one of its reasons for existing.
The paintings in Sarah Concannon’s gallery, “The People in Your Neighborhood,” do just that. Neither elusive nor unfamiliar, her artwork introduces viewers to people they likely do not know and may not look like, but surely can relate to.
The exhibition, which will be open in the William Blizzard Art Gallery on the second floor of Blake Hall through Feb. 20, features portraits of 17 Springfield residents, each representing one of the city’s neighborhoods. The subjects of the paintings range in age, race, and ethnicity, as well as their reasons for living in the city.
Concannon, a native of southeastern Mass. who moved to the area nine years ago, first began her project of capturing these faces in 2013.
“The initial step was always to set out on foot with my camera in the neighborhood to see who I might run into,” Concannon said.
She described the process of finding subjects by taking to the streets and talking to people she found interesting. Though she said some declined to be a part of her project, she worked with the help of others until each neighborhood was represented.
Some of the gallery’s most notable pieces include “Carlos,” a portrait of a young boy with a smile missing two front teeth, who is described as being unable to walk or talk; “Gloria,” a woman considered a matriarch of the Memorial Square neighborhood, whose wizened face shows that she has many stories to tell; and “Dwayne,” a teenager who strikes a noble pose and advocates for peace.
“I think the concept of painting people from 17 areas of the city was very interesting, also, that she selected a very diverse group of individuals,” said Ron Maggio, Associate Professor of Art and Gallery Director. “To top it off, their comments were quite interesting and revealing as to their feelings about the city, and their hopes for an even better city.”
The gallery is reminiscent of the popular photography blog “Humans of New York,” which features photographs followed by brief statements made by their subjects. While those photos are sometimes taken at a distance or refrain from showing a subject’s face, Concannon’s work is up close and personal. The subtlety of the paintings comes in the details they capture: a sequined sweater worn by “Florence,” who was born in 1919, the wisdom in “Gloria”’s wrinkles.
Maggio also noted the vibrancy of the colors and the contrast between the subjects and their backgrounds. “Jenna,” for example, shows a little girl in a pink shirt standing in front of bright blue playground slides, something her statement says her former neighborhood didn’t have.
Capturing this amount of detail is no easy feat, according to Maggio. While portraits are typically done using oil paints, Concannon used acrylics, which Maggio said are harder to blend.
“My technique is tailored to the fast-drying nature of acrylic paint,” said Concannon, who originally studied Illustration in college.
“Although I knew there would be some definite advantages in switching to oils, acrylic is the medium in which I’m most confident.”
In addition to working in a more difficult medium, Concannon also overcame another obstacle: completing her project in only one year.
“Completing 17 portraits in one year was…intense,” Concannon said, “especially because I didn’t start off with all 17 of my subjects lined up and ready to go. There were days where I was ready to start on a new painting, but didn’t have another subject yet. That was stressful. But the whole experience was incredibly rewarding. I love painting people, whether it’s figures or portraiture, it doesn’t matter.”
Maggio said that he was impressed not only by the quality of the artwork, but its content as well. He hopes that the pieces will give students a different perspective of the city.
“Springfield College plays a major role in the city of Springfield,” Maggio said, “and often times I am not sure we here at SC have a real understanding of the city we live in and the responsibility we all have of embracing diversity and doing all we can to make this city a better place for all of us.”
“The People in Your Neighborhood” is not just a collection of portraits. It is a visual representation of Springfield’s diversity, a topic that President Mary-Beth Cooper named as one of the school’s top five priorities last semester. It is the focal point for a conversation that needs to be had.
To all those in the Springfield College community: Springfield’s neighborhoods are your neighborhoods, and its people are your neighbors. Come and get to know them.