Some neighbors connect over sidewalk chit-chat, or having kids the same age. In the 5100 block of Upton Avenue S. in Minneapolis, they’ve bonded over Light Yellow Ochre.
That’s one of the daubs of oil paint arrayed on the palette resting on Joe Burns’ lap. Swizzling his brush in its various hues and shades, he’s painted portraits of more than 40 of his neighbors this summer.
It’s partly for practice, as in the path toward perfection. But he’s also had a less artistic, more altruistic purpose. “The neatest thing for me is that I get to spend 2½ hours with everyone on the block,” Burns said. “You never know where a portrait, or a conversation, is going to lead you.”
While joking that he should have installed a psychiatrist’s couch, Burns tells no tales of revelations shared by his subjects. Rather, you get the impression that he’s traded his skills for some fascinating conversations.
That’s because his neighbors include an astrophysicist, a cancer nurse, a marriage counselor, a financial adviser, a Le Cordon Bleu (the one in Paris) chef and a Pilates instructor.
That’s the funny/risky thing about moving onto a block: You never really know who else is there until you’ve committed.
Burns, 50, has been a fixture on the block since his family moved there about 15 years ago. As a self-employed commercial artist, he worked at home, and so was the parent at the bus stop, or at the park. He’d gotten to know his neighbors in the way that many of us do: gradually, haphazardly.
As neighbor Pam Gleason put it: “You start out standing and talking on the sidewalk. Then you get invited onto the front yard. Then you graduate to the back yard, and pretty soon it’s an every-Friday-night thing.”
If you’re lucky.
Capturing emotion in paint
Six years ago, Burns decided to shift gears from commercial art to portraiture. He attended the Atelier Studio Program of Fine Art in Minneapolis for four years. “It’s not so much how to paint or how to draw, but how to see things,” he said of the rigorous instruction. “It really is a discipline.”
While there, he’d run across a story about Rose Frantzen, an artist in Maquoketa, Iowa, who’d come up with the idea of painting a portrait of anyone in the town who wanted one. She ended up painting 180 residents, with her work eventually exhibited at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
With Frantzen in mind, Burns was struck by a 2008 survey about social behavior that found that people are growing more distant from their neighbors. In 1974, more than four in 10 neighbors said they spent a social evening with neighbors more than once a month. Today, that figure has declined to fewer than three in 10.
He got to thinking.
The result is the “51st and Upton Portrait Project,” in which Burns has cajoled almost everyone on the block to sit for about three hours while he paints their portrait on a 12- by 12-inch canvas mounted on board. (After a show, everyone gets to keep their portrait.)
In most cases, he said, the time has flown, although he makes accommodations for the youngest kids, popping in a video of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” whose running time of 144 minutes is long enough for him to paint a likeness.
Everyone else gets to look into a large mirror that reflects Burns’ canvas, so they can watch themselves emerge in Light Yellow Ochre and other paints.
“We all know what doctors and lawyers do, but not that many of us know what an artist does,” he said.
A portrait of art
As part of the project, Burns painted his own portrait, which proved revelatory.
“I try to paint everyone as real as I can,” he said. “So I had to tell myself that I have wrinkles and no hair. It’s not exactly a flattering picture of me, but it’s a picture of me.”
The idea of how we preserve our images came up on a recent afternoon as Gleason sat for her portrait. She was getting a little antsy; as a Pilates instructor and dancer, stillness is not her forte.
“But I want to support Joe,” she said. “And really, how many of us ever think to get our portraits painted?”
Then she mentioned how she’d found a bag of disposable cameras that her kids had once used, although who knew when?
“Does anyone even develop film anymore?” she asked, which led to a discussion about the progression from paint to cameras to cellphone “selfies.”
Burns’ portraits, done relatively quickly compared with the 40 to 50 hours he’d spend on a museum-quality painting, are more about planes and shapes of color. Watching him work is sort of like watching a stop-action film. With a small brushstroke, Gleason’s eyes suddenly brightened. Another stroke, and a cheekbone appeared. From paint, there emerged a person.
And more, Burns added, trying to explain how the very act of conversing while painting, much less painting his neighbors, invests each portrait with more than just a simple likeness.
“Hopefully,” he said, “you’re getting some of their emotion into it.”
A public artist’s reception of the “51st and Upton Portrait Project” will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Vinaigrette, 5006 Xerxes Av. S., Minneapolis. There will also be a drawing for a free three-hour portrait sitting, to be painted live at Vinaigrette at a later date. For more info, go to www.joetburns.com.