The intersection of art and people
People and their stories are at the center of Reeva Wortel's show "Look Me In the Eye."
The project, which will hang in the Spiral Gallery through the end of this month, features life-sized portraits of seven families, as well as quotes from Wortel's interviews with them.
"I wanted to paint life-sized portraits and have elements from the interviews, as well," Wortel said. "A lot of times, you look at portraits and wonder what that person is thinking. Portraits often have a very captivating look."
The opening reception for the show on Friday, July 7, also featured actors reading excerpts from the interviews, adding another layer to the multi-medium project.
Initially, Wortel planned to interview families in Portland about gentrification, but the project's topic quickly widened.
"When you start talking to people, they start telling you things, and once you open that door people have a lot of amazing stories," she said. "The project has these political, cultural and social aspects, but the heart of it is about people's families — the things they hope for, the things they fear and the longings they have."
Though the project takes a wider lens than Wortel expected, gentrification still plays a role in the lives of the Portland families she interviewed.
"One (family), a single father and his son, had to move further and further out of the city. Their story is about having to find different apartments and move away from friends and family to find affordable housing," Wortel said.
She recounted the story of another family, involved in the construction business, who benefited from the new housing developments because it gave them a lot of work.
"I interviewed a family that was homeless, and trying to find housing through social services," she continued. "There are a lot of different experiences based on housing and homelessness."
Though the families involved with the project have a variety of stories, Wortel noted several parallels between the groups.
"The common thread that really showed up was about the resilience of families, how they change and grow but often the things that keep them together are really simple, like just being together, having simple everyday experiences," she said. "The sameness of the families (stands out to me) — how they spend time together, and take care of one another."
Wortel believes the combination of portraiture and interviews is a valuable medium to tell these kind of stories.
"A lot of times, portraiture elevates people's stories to the level of art, so we pay attention to them in a way we might not ordinarily," she said. "There's one family (in the project) that had been homeless, they'd hopped trains, been into drugs. There were all kinds of reasons we could stereotype this couple and their daughter. When you talk to (the dad), he talks about his daughter and how much he loves his daughter. This guy is a dad and he cares about his kid the way a lot of dads care about their kids."
Wortel, who has a background in social work, hopes to use these mediums to tell stories that often go unheard.
"I'm really interested in trying to help tell those stories through something artistic," she said. "I think sometimes, when you can (tell) those stories with something like art that's beautiful, people open up to it more and have less judgement. (I think it can sometimes) open people's minds to stories of people they don't interact with and haven't met, and may even judge."
Wortel said the Spiral Gallery's exhibit room adds something to the show, which was previously exhibited at Portland City Hall and The Armory Theatre.
"It's like a room full of people talking. That's what it feels like," she said. "The portraits are big, and you look at them, and all these people have something to say."
In the future, Wortel hopes to work with Estacada High School students on a similar project.
"I'm working with Estacada Together on a grant to (teach) classes about portraiture, interview techniques and artistic installations," she said. "(Students could) interview people in Estacada. It would be a really cool thing to do in a small town. It sort of reflects the community back at themselves."
She believes the experience would be valuable for the high school students.
"When you ask somebody questions (in an interview), they have a lot to say," she said. "In ordinary life, we don't really listen to each other like that. When you sit down with someone who hasn't been asked these sort of questions, they have a lot to tell you. And stories come tumbling out. I think it's cool for students to learn how to listen to people."