Students sound off on de la Concha's 'Private Portraits'

by Joseph Debonis | 4/27/09 3:16am

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Felix de la Concha's portrait of Andrew Zabel '09 hangs in the main hall of Baker Library.
by Jamie McCoy and Jamie McCoy / The Dartmouth

While the new exhibit may have less shock value than Gu's follicular creation, it strives for many of the same goals -- to inspire and interconnect the Dartmouth community, albeit with portraits and videotaped conversations rather than ropes of students' hair.

De la Concha spent much of Fall 2008 in Hanover painting and interviewing 51 members of the Dartmouth community. Students, faculty, staff and Upper Valley residents sat for private sessions lasting two hours each, during which de la Concha simultaneously painted and asked his subjects about conflict in their lives and how that conflict was reconciled.

The result of each session is a painting with a corresponding two hours of audio and video.

These media together provide a multidimensional perspective on "Conflict and Reconciliation," the theme selected for the Dartmouth Centers Forum programming for the current school year.

Three of the painted students, Andrew Zabel '09, Micaela Klein '10 and Molly Bode '09, said the oddest part of their experience has been to see their faces and hear the sound of their voices in both Baker Library and the Hood Museum since the project was unveiled on April 4.

The road to immortalization began last summer, when the organizers of the exhibit asked administrators and staff from a variety of campus organizations to suggest participants.

Andrew Zabel '09 said that he believes he was chosen because he is heavily involved in environmental organizations on campus, having spent his freshman summer on the Big Green Bus before going on to direct the program last year.

Zabel said he immediately thought the project would be an interesting, but curious experience. Both Klein and Bode, on the other hand, were more uncertain about their participation.

Klein said she was slightly confused when the Office of Pluralism and Leadership first approached her about sitting for a portrait. As an Inter-Community Council intern, she thought that the directors of the project were merely asking her to provide the names of students who she knew had experienced conflict in their lives.

When Klein realized the directors were indeed asking for her own participation, she warned them that she did not consider herself an ideal subject.

"I thought that [the subjects] would be people with amazing stories, refugees or people who had experienced one of the 'isms' -- racism, sexism, etc," Klein said. "I didn't think that I fit into one of those categories. I had not personally experienced much conflict in my life."

Like Klein, Bode said she was hesitant about the invitation to be featured in a portrait, as she was she was not entirely clear about de la Concha's purpose.

Bode, however, ultimately decided that she would do "anything that could highlight Dartmouth as an incredible place with incredible people who have the most diverse and interesting stories."

The two-hour portrait session turned out to be an individual experience, according to the students. Zabel, a self-professed extrovert, found himself "exploring his own thoughts" for two hours.

He said that de la Concha asked general questions to keep conversation flowing in an otherwise unfocused interview, which helped Zabel feel comfortable talking about subjects that are familiar to him, like the environment and conflict resolution.

Bode said that found the process slightly awkward, explaining that it was more of an interview than a "conversation," as the exhibit's title indicates.

De la Concha's preoccupation with painting his subject meant that he largely refrained from participating in the conversation, according to Klein.

"[De la Concha] is a great guy,

though, and very easy to talk to," she said.

"I found myself thinking out loud and talking about issues that I had never really verbalized before."All three students said the final portrait was the biggest surprise of the entire process.

The oil-on-linen portraits incorporate visible brush strokes as well as an emphasis on movement and light characteristic of Impressionist paintings.

De la Concha completed the portraits in a mere two hours and never had the luxury of a still, unmoving subject on which to base his pieces.

His process was recorded on video and may be viewed in the exhibit or online on the Hood's web site. The students' mouths were constantly moving as de la Concha painted.

Zabel observed that his portrait "looks sort of like [me]," despite the "pear-shaped head" and large lower jaw.

He added that his friends "give [him] crap" for his prominently displayed likeness, which they consider less than flattering.

Bode, too, said she was slightly "off-put" by the final portrait. She said she did not think it was identical her true image, though she "could see some resemblance."

Klein, when asked how she would describe her portrait in one word, called it "jarring." She said she thought it was strange that de la Concha painted while she was speaking -- and, even stranger that her likeness hangs prominently on the wall of Baker Library.

"I walked straight out, I didn't even want to see it," she said, laughing about the first time she saw the exhibit.

While Zabel said he enjoys the way the project spotlights a variety individuals, said he wonders how the collection of 51 portraits ties together thematically or conceptually.

"Maybe they're not supposed to be [connected]," he said.

Klein suggested that it might have been helpful to include more than just a single quotation from each subject beneath the portraits.

Ultimately, though, all three students said they were pleased with their participation in "Private Portraits/Public Conversations."

"I really enjoyed being painted and being able to sit down and reflect on my experiences, and I'm very happy that I was chosen to be a part of [the project]," Klein agreed.

"It was just odd," she said.

And yet not as odd as Wenda Gu and his hair.