Shining young faces float at the end of a long hallway at the Weisman Art Museum. At first glance, these paintings look like selfies.
The 11 racially diverse faces are part of Croatian-American artist Vesna Kittelson's project "Young Americans," rendering people ages 20-30. Arranged across a single wall, the portraits capture only a person's head and shoulders, like a Roman bust, but with a celebrity feel to it, as if they're standing in a spotlight.
"What is democratic about America is right here," said Kittelson. "One day I came into the studio where I was going to give a class at MCAD [Minneapolis College of Art and Design], and there were three heads together looking at some paints or some material. They were three races together and I thought, 'This is applied democracy. Here we are all together, regardless of our backgrounds.' "
Teaching and making art overlapped in this project. Her students guided Kittelson.
"I think that the American youth are really very intelligent and I found myself always learning from them," she said.
Kittelson, 73, who grew up in Communist Yugoslavia, approaches the project as a curious immigrant. She has lived in Minnesota since 1970, and is an original member of the feminist collective WARM and a founder of Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art.
"Young Americans" was supposed to open in April, but the pandemic delayed it until the Weisman's reopening Oct. 1. Ironically, the show's focus on young people feels more timely with the upcoming elections. In Minnesota, voter registration of ages 18-24 is up 12% since the last presidential election. Young people will determine the future.
An American quilt
Some of the faces on the wall were students of Kittelson. Others she met at restaurants, on the street or in stores. Each feels like a familiar stranger.
"William," a Black man, stares softly at the viewer, a white shirt collar creeping up around his neck. "Christine," a white woman, floats above him. She smiles playfully, her tongue sticking out between her teeth, the ends of her bleached blond hair dyed pink. "Giovanni," an immigrant from Guatemala, shyly looks on, jet black hair and light yellow hoodie framing his face.
Kittelson imagined the arrangement of young American faces as a patchwork quilt — something that doesn't exist in Europe. She wanted each portrait to reveal a person's interior.
Working from a photo of the subject, Kittelson paid close attention to every detail. But she doesn't get too close to the people she portrays.
"I don't continue to be deeply friends with them. I let them go."
The portraits were made between 2005 and 2013. She painted more than 40, but only 11 are in the exhibit. Subjects must approve of the work.
"Areca I" depicts a Black MCAD student who wears a blue hoodie and doesn't smile, giving the portrait a melancholic cast. Areca worked as a model, so she was often forced to smile; she agreed to the portrait as long as she didn't have to do so.
The experience was life-changing for Kittelson, who was struck by Areca's helpfulness and intelligence.
A Californian who lived in small-town Minnesota while waiting for her fiancé, Areca was curious about Kittelson's life under communism.
"I said: 'I'll tell you if you tell me what it's like being a Black woman in America,' " said Kittelson.
The artist explained that her parents lived in constant fear. Areca told her that she regularly baked cakes for people in her small town, going door-to-door with her offering. Some people invited her in. Others said they didn't take food from strangers, or shut the door in her face.
The story woke Kittelson to the deep pain left by 400 years of racism.
"With communism, it was 80 years and then crash, boom, gone," she said. "Rejections and feelings about another race as an inferior thing are much more insidious and difficult," the artist said. Understanding Areca's perspective was "much deeper than anything I had ever known."