Rusty Zimmerman, the artist behind the "Free Portrait Project," likes to joke that more people will jump from an airplane for fun than will sit for an oil-painted portrait.
It's funny because it's true. And it's especially true in a place like Crown Heights, Brooklyn, N.Y. Once known for its predominantly Black Caribbean and Hasidic Jewish population, Zimmerman now calls Crown Heights "one of the most rapidly changiest, rent risiest, celebrated for its diversity but people don't actually say hello to each other across cultural boundaries as well as they could" neighborhoods in New York.
He also calls it home. Having lived there for more than six years, he's watched the demographics shift as gentrification — and the tensions that come with it — have increased.
In the midst of so much change, the "Free Portrait Project" starts to resemble a 200-piece time capsule.
"What we're doing is seeking to get a snapshot by way of 200 physical, oil-painted portraits and recorded oral histories of who we are right now," Zimmerman told A Plus. "Invariably, in chronicling who we are now, that's going to upset some folks who would rather see the neighborhood as it was some years ago."
Zimmerman remembered one young rabbi who, at the project's outset, encouraged Zimmerman to only paint predominantly Black Caribbean folks and Orthodox Jews who'd lived in Crown Heights for at least 10 years. "Other people don't belong," the rabbi told him. But that was precisely the point — to show despite whatever sundry differences — whether it was age, religion, cultural background or socioeconomic status — existed among residents, everyone who had chosen to live in Crown Heights, no matter how old or new they were to the neighborhood, belonged there.
In his effort to both chronicle and equalize the community, Zimmerman chose oil-painted portraiture with the intent to make it "breathtakingly accessible to a mass audience."
"It's historically been a fancy thing reserved just for fancy people," he said. "And I wanted to see what would happen if you ... could take this symbol of dignity and memorial status and give it to everyone."
Because the experience is for most people, regardless of origin, a novel one, Zimmerman stopped halfway through each portrait session, left the room, and let the person being painted sit in his chair and see the work in progress. "I ... just let them sit and talk to their portrait about what it's like to receive this thing that's been historically reserved for other people and what it's like to see yourself through the eyes of another person," he said. "The reason I [do] this is to create a record of people from all walks of life talking about what it's like to possess this thing that most people will never ever have."
Besides creating 200 original portraits, Zimmerman also interviewed every person for four and a half hours — and recorded it all.
Zimmerman first set up a microphone because he knew there was a 94-year-old woman in the neighborhood named Yolanda Clarke who wound up standing right behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his "I Have a Dream" speech. He knew he wanted to listen to that story, but he didn't want to go home only to tell his family and friends, "You shoulda heard what this woman had to say. It was amazing."
Her story certainly wasn't the only one worth hearing. "I knew that I'd want to share these particular narratives from notable individuals in the neighborhood, but it turned out that just leaving the microphone on … everybody's got something to say," he added. "Everybody's got hopes and dreams, and lost loves and wishes for the neighborhood that we can now mobilize by pairing people up based on the commonalities they shared. It's been wonderful."
During each interview, Zimmerman gave everyone the opportunity to talk about what they liked and disliked about the neighborhood. "I'm really really proud of the way this work has not just served to paint pretty pictures, but the community service assignments I've given to each person to step across cultural boundaries," he said. "I invited everyone to be that agent of the change they wish to see by putting in two hours' time volunteering."
If someone complained about the trash and how they didn't know a single Orthodox Jew, Zimmerman paired them up with an Orthodox Jew who had also complained about the trash. Together, the two portrait subjects would take a one-mile walk for half an hour, picking up trash and getting to know each other.
If another mentioned their dislike of the crime rates, he encouraged them to go to the 77th precinct and seek out Deputy Inspector Eddie Lott or Community Affairs Officer Pierre-Louis.
If a person lamented the rising rent prices, he directed them to the Crown Heights Tenant Union.
Ironically, the more portraits Zimmerman painted, the less his work could be referred to as an art project. By incorporating audio recordings and pairing up portrait subjects, it became a half-intentional, half-incidental grassroots community initiative.
"We've gotten Hasidic Jews and Haitians and hipsters all under one roof to talk shit about the neighborhood, to have that dialogue that we sought with drinks and snacks — in a hipster synagogue of all places," Zimmerman recalled. At that event, old Hasidic Jews came up to Zimmerman and said, "The fact that you got all these people under one roof last night. We have been trying to do that for 10 years, and we just haven't been able to get it done, but you just did it."
He's hoping to do that again on August 6, when the portrait collection makes its debut at the Brooklyn Museum. To accommodate the famous Orthodox Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch community in Crown Heights, who'll be just finishing Shabbat at 8:45 p.m., Zimmerman and his associates will begin a second show at 9:30 p.m. Saturday after an earlier showing at 6 p.m. The event will feature all 200 portraits, as well as a showing of a 31-minute documentary about the project by local filmmaker Beckie Bintrim. Afterward, Zimmerman will lead a brief talk before packing it in at exactly 10 p.m.
Though Zimmerman has already completed the "Free Portrait Project," that doesn’t mean he’s going to stop bringing people together.
On the contrary, tonight is just the beginning. Next month, on Sunday, September 25, all 200 portrait subjects, along with their friends, family, community members, and representatives from local offices, will walk a one-mile parade together. Beginning at 4 p.m., the community march will feature four marching bands, as well as rented rickshaws so that everyone, regardless of age or other mobility needs, can participate. "One gentleman in the whole crowd is 94 years old, and he doesn't move that fast," Zimmerman explained.
The parade will conclude at the Brooklyn Children's Museum, where all 200 portraits will hang on display, accompanied by a 90-second audio clip from each interview session attached via QR code. "Using the technology that everybody carries in their pocket," Zimmerman said, "you can listen to [the subject's] voice while staring them in the face on the wall and, in this one case [on Sunday], be able to look around the room and say, 'I wouldn't have thought to ask this 82-year-old woman about how she came to New York, but I just heard a story from her portrait about how she came when she was 9 years old — all by herself — in 1941.' " To keep the "free" in the Free Portrait Project, the Brooklyn Children's Museum will waive admission fee from 5 to 7 p.m. on September 25. The museum also offers free admission every Thursday from 2 to 6 p.m.
Those who can't make it out to either museum can still hear each portrait's accompanying audio on the We Are Crown Heights SoundCloud page.
Created for the people by the people, that remains the Free Portrait Project's greatest strength.
After crowdfunding an original $50,000 to accomplish his project, Zimmerman is now raising an additional $25,000 over the next few months to edit more than 900 hours of audio compiled from the 200 interview sessions.
Like every other aspect of his project, the audio editing is currently being done by volunteers ranging from a journalism student to a voiceover artist. "Everybody's chiseling away at this slowly, but we're looking to raise the funds to hire audio editors to go through these recordings ... and reduce them to down to a 30-60 minute, 'podcastable' length," he said. Zimmerman then plans to broadcast them online, offer free downloads through iTunes, and send them to NPR for consideration in There Goes the Neighborhood and StoryCorps programs.
Closer to home, and the hearts of those involved, the recordings will become a part of a joint, ongoing oral history of Crown Heights with the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Weeksville Heritage Center.
Zimmerman still remembers the day, in the middle of his project, when the Brooklyn Historical Society called him up and asked if he knew they, too, were doing an oral history of Crown Heights. He didn't.
"How many interviews are you doing?" he asked. They told him between 12 and 20. Zimmerman recalls, "And I said, 'Well, I'm doing 200.' "
He offered to share. It was the neighborly thing to do.