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Exploring the Art of the Portrait at the Duluth Art Institute

U.S. Army photo, 19451 / 3
Photo by Dr. Joseph Dixon, 19212 / 3
Photo by Luis Marden, 19523 / 3

The rapid rise of Facebook should be proof enough - people love viewing

images of each other. The love affair begins early on in life. I've watched

toddlers looking through a picture book featuring big, bright photos of

babies. They can't get enough - squealing with delight at the wide open smiles or laughing faces. Portraits have a simple, yet profound, universal appeal. Powerful portraits can reflect the continuity of human experience over time or emphasize the physical and cultural differences that distinguish human beings from one another.

This spring, the Duluth Art Institute begins a six-month project exploring the art of portraiture, including two traveling exhibits, a homegrown show connected to the DAI's education program and a public art project where everyone in the community can become involved.

The centerpiece of the events is a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian

Institution in Washington, D.C., "In Focus: National Geographic Greatest

Portraits." It opens on May 20 in the DAI galleries in the Depot. There will be an array of related events, including a mini-film festival, presentations by university anthropology and art history professors and a special expedition train ride and party on the North Shore Scenic Railroad.

The exhibition consists of 56 striking color and black-and-white photographs, highlighting the work of some of National Geographic's most celebrated photographers who have taken more pictures of people than of any other subject. Such remarkable images reveal our deep-rooted connections to national identities, gender roles, cultural preferences and our surroundings. But most importantly, an unforgettable portrait echoes the spirit of the person portrayed. Created by National Geographic and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, the exhibit reveals that it is possible to portray the essence of people and places in two dimensions.

For more than 100 years, the name National Geographic has been synonymous

with compelling photography. This collection of outstanding images, shot from the early 20th century to the late 1990s, not only parallels the Society's interest in the ethnographic study of exotic lands, but also reveals the magazine's idealized view of domestic life in the United States during the Great Depression and World War II.

"In Focus" brings together a rare collection of expressive portraits and scenes from around the world and here at home. Our homegrown pieces of the portrait project include an exhibit that's developed out of the DAI's education program.

In 2005, artist-educator Sarah Brokke began teaching figure drawing and portrait painting for adults at an introductory level. Her classes started

selling out - filling up with devoted students drawn to Sarah's dynamic

teaching style. At this point, we have started referring to "the Brokke School," as a group of artists who have refined their skills - with the distinct influence of their teacher shining through. On March 18 the DAI will open an exhibit of portraits by Sarah Brokke and her students at the Depot.

The DAI brings art to life - for everyone. As a community-based arts

organization we're all about the process of doing and learning about the visual arts. Although we hold exhibitions, the emphasis is the dynamic interchange between artist and viewer. The DAI does not own a permanent collection and we are not a museum. It's about practicing and participating in art -- whether you are an artist introducing a new body of

work in the gallery or a child making a bowl for the first time on a pottery wheel during Free Family Day at the Art Institute.

Beginning this June everyone gets a chance to participate in the creation of portraits with a public art project based on the work of nationally known artist Wing Young Huie, a Chinese-American who grew up in Duluth. Wing's work focuses on diversity and identity through photographic portraits.

He is launching a new public art event in Minneapolis in May called

"University Avenue Project." This summer Wing will lead a special

workshop for teens in our summer art camp and several public workshops at

the DAI. The workshops are designed to motivate people to take photos of each other and discover more about our fellow Northlanders in the process. The results will be displayed on the DAI's Facebook page and on an expandable exhibit that will start in the Great Hall of the Depot and extend to other venues around Duluth and Superior as more people become involved.

The last piece of the portrait project will be a retrospective exhibit of Wing Young Huie's work, opening at the end of July and extending through

September in the DAI's Depot galleries. The DAI's portrait project is made

possible with a grant from the Depot Foundation, with sponsorship support

by Cartier Agency.

Samantha Gibb Roff is the Executive Director, Duluth Art Institute

Photographs courtesy of National Geographic