Making Portraits in Galesburg

An Interview with John Bakker

CIVA: How long have you been at Trinity Christian College?

JOHN: I came to Trinity on the southern edge of Chicago when there were still pterodactyls nesting in the creek that runs through campus. It made for interesting drawings, but the students kept getting carried off, and I had to get the biologists to hunt for the nests in order to continue class. We drew with charcoal or sticks in the dirt. It was, after all, 1982.

CIVA: What prompted the Galesburg Portrait Project?

JOHN: A sabbatical allowed me to accept an invitation from the Art Department at Knox College to be the Fall 2015 Artist-in-Residence, a project funded by Blick Art Materials, based in Galesburg. They knew of the community-based projects that I had done for institutions as well as a Percent for Art Project at the 6th District Police Station in a Southside neighborhood for the Chicago’s Office of Fine Arts. The Knox Art Department, in this instance, wanted a project that bridged the “town and gown” divide in Galesburg. It’s the fifth or sixth time I’ve taken on totally impossible projects: this time, painting portraits of one percent of Galesburg, Illinois, a town of about 31,000 people. So (calculating aloud…) carry the six to the tens column…uhhh…310 panels.

Galesburg Portrait Project
Galesburg Portrait Project

CIVA: Who participated in the project?

Moms sent me pictures with their kids, or boyfriends, or husbands, or the kids with the dog. Men, not so much. Men don’t take selfies, don’t send pictures. In the end, I painted portraits of 399 people, three dogs, a cat and a half, a pet lizard, a butterfly, and Bob the bartender on his Harley.

CIVA: How did you recruit participants?

JOHN: I advertised in businesses, stopped people on the street, interrupted breakfasts, lunches, and dinners asking for people to send me photos. It had a lot in common with the buttonhole evangelism my father often practiced. I channeled him. It was really the only way, and it worked for both of us. I recruited from across the social and economic spectrum in the hope that as the people of Galesburg looked at the Galesburg Portrait Project they would see the communities with which they identify in sufficient numbers to say, “This is the Galesburg I live in.”

CIVA: Why portraiture—as opposed to, say, landscapes—to represent Galesburg?

JOHN: Throughout history, portraits have been painted mostly for the wealthy and powerful; however, what interests me is the way a handmade portrait brings a unique meaning, attention, and dignity to us as individuals. The time and attention given to painting a portrait is a way of valuing people for who they are, not what they achieve or the money they make. In fact, the archaic process of painting becomes a performance of the subject’s value as well as equality with others: it takes the same amount of time to paint Jeremy, the lawyer on the city council, as it does to paint, Sparky, the SSI recipient from the biweekly community dinner who crashes with his sister’s family.

CIVA: So, this was a vehicle for honoring the dignity of each individual Galesburg citizen?

JOHN: Yes, and painting these portraits of individuals is also a stance against the anonymity and loss of agency inherent in Neoliberal consumer capitalism where decisions get made by bankers and global corporations who view the citizens of Galesburg as data points in the fly-over states rather than friends, neighbors, and fellow parishioners with whom they share a common destiny. Galesburg is the New York Times poster child for the aftermath of NAFTA. When Maytag moved to Mexico, the town lost 4,000 jobs. I wanted the project to remind the people of Galesburg that they still mattered.

The notion that individuals matter is rooted in the idea that we are made in the image of God. While I believe this theologically and aesthetically, it’s also at the foundation of the democratic turn in Western culture. For non Christians, the Judeo-Christian assertion that we are made “in the image of God” might seem completely devoid of meaning. However, secularists might consider a structuralist reading that would look like this: the idea—being made in the image of God—is the Jewish counter, following their return from exile, to the Babylonian belief that humans are slaves who emerge from the places where the Babylonian war god Marduk’s blood hit the ground.

From a Judeo-Christian point of view, at the very least, we can say that humans are not intended to be slaves. The image of God, by the medieval period, had acquired positive meaning. Humans reflected the divine in compassion, critical intelligence, and creativity. Even if you aren’t Christian, those values are ground on which to pursue common good, despite our differences. One can draw economic implications for contemporary workers (in Galesburg and elsewhere) here.

Further, as Marilynne Robinson notes in her essay on the Reformation, the writers of the Reformation—Wycliffe, Hus, Luther and Calvin—translated the Bible into the vernacular because they believed that even the archetypal poor man, the plowboy, was made in the image of God and consequently could handle the Bible for himself. While our history texts typically credit the flattening of the social structure to Greek thought in the Renaissance where “man is the measure of things,” that discourse occurred in Latin and affected a mere three percent of the populace. The Reformers, much more profoundly because they believed that all people carry the image of God, opened learning (and agency) to all of us by translating the Bible and the rest of learning into vernacular language. What resulted from the dissemination of this knowledge was democratic political structure, public education, the university system, and economic empowerment—including through unions—all based on the assertion that individuals made in the image of God matter. A set of political implications follows, based on the notion that “as much as you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).

CIVA: Any other insight—or agenda—for the choice of portraiture for this project?

JOHN: Images control our culture. Consequently, I’m interested in the way the act of painting a portrait challenges a culture of instant and disposable images, or, on the other hand, confronts highly manipulated advertising images that undermine us by destabilizing our sense of dignity in order to entice us to fill that lack with products purporting to confer status. In place of consumer goods which offer illusory networks (Think: “I’m a Pepper. You’re a Pepper….”), we get our identity from the networks we inhabit socially, geographically, professionally, etc. So the project needed to be big enough to give the viewer a sense of those webs of connections throughout the community. I wanted the people of Galesburg to be able to say, “I see my networks in this installation. To do that, I needed an adequate representation of familial, ecclesial, educational, economic, and social networks. Aesthetically, I wanted it to fill the viewers’ field of vision, to articulate a world—not unlike the Abstract Expressionists.

CIVA: How big is the exhibit, and where has it been shown?

JOHN: The panels are furniture grade plywood boxes,12 inches deep so they can stack freestanding from six to eight feet tall, about 30 feet wide. Stacking allows the project to travel easily to various institutions around Galesburg without having to be hung. It’s currently at the public library atop the DVD offerings, hauled over by the fire department—a civil network. It will travel to several other institutions before it settles into a permanent home.

CIVA: Any additional thoughts?

JOHN: Well, this project has one foot planted firmly in art as object and the other in art as social practice. On the social practice side, I am including the conversations I’ve had with participants. These were first posted on my blog at johnbakker.info. I am now posting one portrait a day with that information on the project page, Galesburg Portrait Project. Please like it on Facebook. The post includes information about each person. This summer, that text will be applied to the side of each panel.

Finally, now that you’ve read about this project on the CIVA blog, you can also find much of the same information from this two minute newscast by WKQC.

John Bakker chaired the Department of Art and Design at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois for most of period from 1982–2014. He currently directs the Seerveld Gallery at the college. See more at johnbakker.info.

Learn more about the CIVA community and how to become a member here.

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